Confessions of a Struggling Greek Student

I’ll admit it. I don’t know Greek incredibly well.

Now I can do the analysis. I can do the parsing.

I can do the syntax.

I know the clause structure.

I know the phrase structure.

I can smell errors and over-interpretations in commentaries from a mile away.

All that analytic stuff, all the analysis.

I can do that (with silly mistakes from time to time as many of you already know).

But I don’t know the language.

I don’t have the vocabulary.

Its been four years of Greek and I still don’t have the vocabulary.

Yeah, yeah, four years isn’t the long, not for language learning, but even still. I should be farther than I am.

I can can count on one hand the books of the New Testament that I can just sit down and read without having to turn to the lexicon or simply relying on a reader’s edition: John’s letters, Ephesians and Colossians. I’ve got their vocabulary pretty well down. Philippians is close too, but not quite.

But even with the vocabulary that I do have, I don’t know it. I’ve got an English gloss hiding in the background. The relationship between sign and signified isn’t quite there for the vast majority of words I know. Its: Greek sign-English sign-signified. And those don’t always connect very well. That’s not knowing the language. When you know the language, the words are just there, ready to be used. I can order coffee and cake in Russian without an English word crossing my mind. Greek? Well, I’d take ten minutes trying to figure out the correct verb form before I even began to even think about saying anything…

I’ve started something new. I want to know Koine Greek. I want to know it well. I want to know it internally.

I’ll tell you about it tomorrow…

25 thoughts on “Confessions of a Struggling Greek Student

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  1. That’s exactly the reason I stopped trying to learn Koine Greek. I wanted to actually learn it, not learn a bunch of glosses. Looking forward to finding out your new strategy.

    Bryan L

  2. Me too. I have to say though, fluency in Russian and fluency in Koine aren’t exactly comparable – unless you find someone with whom to speak in Koine with in everyday conversation.

  3. There are three keys to this: read, read and read. Don’t analyse, don’t use a lexicon (skip over what you don’t understand), don’t try to translate, just read as much Koine as you can get your hands on, biblical and other. At least that is what I have heard.

  4. That’s part of what I’ve been doing. But I’ve got a few additional ideas to add, which I’ll talk about tomorrow…

    (sorry about the comment order everyone, I finally got around to changing to daylight savings – right after Bryan L’s comment)

  5. I’m looking forward to the next post. My vocab is slipping… horribly. I thought about just taking next year to memorize stuff… but I’m the same way. I want to KNOW the language. Of course, I’ve only been doing it for a year and a half and I tend to expect more of myself than I should, but still.

  6. I wish more Greek students would make this confession. Better yet, I wish more Greek professors and teachers would make it to their students. Then maybe we’d see some changes…

  7. Well, I’ve never had the vocab to begin with. I got through the alphabet, and can use a lexicon finally, but I don’t think I ever knew more than 200-250 words at a glance. I’m looking forward to this summer when I plan on starting Mounce’s grammar.

    I’m also looking forward to your next post. 8)

  8. The most helpful tool I found in improving the fluency of my reading was Sakae Kubo’s Reader’s Lexicon. It has the most common vocabulary by frequency, up to about 50 times in the NT, and then all less frequent words are there verse by verse so that you do not need to look each one up separately in a lexicon. I have never encountered any one book that helped me make progress in a language (with the possible exception of Street French).

  9. I am looking forward to your thoughts on this. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to, but can’t really take anywhere at the moment. For myself, I can read the NT fairly well, without a huge amount of English-ing. I did a lot of brute memorisation, down to 6 or 7 frequency words, and a lot of reading. I do think things like the Reader’s NT are a huge step forward. Buth’s materials seem excellent, but I haven’t gotten through them all.

    I do have a single Greek pupil at my local church. I’m running him through a make-it-up-as-I-go kind of curriculum, trying to get him into picking up an active use of the language. I suspect the kinds of changes I want to see in Greek teaching will only come from opportunities for differently minded instructors to teach Greek with a free hand (which is what Daniel Streett seems to be able to do). For the rest of us, I think a lot of reading is one of our best options.

    Looking forward to more of your thoughts.

  10. I’m with Peter Kirk 99.44% on strategy. It worked for me, beginning in grad school. I would go beyond reading Koine, however, because Koine is really an artificial construct, having no clear lines of demarcation, chronologically or in terms of usage (Homer uses alpha 2nd aorists!). The other .56% (probably more than that) is to acquire Randall Buth’s books and CD’s and habituate yourself to a Koine pronunciation in order to vocalize the sound of Koine and in order to discern the sound of Koine when heard as spoken by another. The opportunity for conversation is probably just not there unless you go to Israel for Randall’s classes, but there’s much to be gained from working through Randall’s published materials.

  11. Mike,

    I have repented of simply analyzing as well, purchasing Buth’s Koine materials at SBL this week. I will let you know how it goes. Look forward to hearing your approach.

  12. Mike,

    I share your desire for internalization. However, I think it impractical to seek to know a second language like your first. We’ve been discussing this recently on our blog. I’m not sure second language users can do more than analysis. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Do you ever find that using lexical and syntactic resources is more fruitful in your understanding of a text your very familiar with? For example, Ephesians. Ever thought you had something down, then gone to a lexicon, and make a more nuanced/precise decision?

  13. Carl: I continue to read, as Peter said. I try to do about a half hour a day out loud – just reading. I also read more than Koine. I try to regularly read Patristics. I greatly enjoy Chrysostom and his homilies. Its a sort of two birds with one stone thing. I get to practice reading a different text and also potentially get to see the intuition of a native speaker on the Biblical text.

    Carl & Steve: I hope to get Buth’s materials myself at some point when I have some extra cash…

    Steve: I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of them. Do let me know.

    David: You know it!

    Seumas: I’m with you. Right now I do a bit of practicing with my wife and recognition.

    James: I appreciate Kubo, but it doesn’t fully do what I’m looking for – internalization. I don’t want to go from Greek to English, I want to know the Greek by itself.

    danielandtonya: well, I’ve already left a couple comments on your posts that summarized anything I’d say here. As you to your question though, I’d say yes, when I’m specifically translating. And I do see value to that.

  14. Just two more points to throw into the mix:

    1. If it’s any consolation, I’m a lot further down the track to acquisition in Latin, which I probably started around the same time as Greek. I can read fairly well, without english interference. I can compose latin composition with translating, and can speak some basic conversations. I even run facebook in Latin. So, it’s not an unattainable goal for Greek.

    2. As you, and Carl, are no doubt aware, the validity and worth of acquisition are hotly debated. I’ve listened to latin teachers have those same arguments over and over. I don’t think that’s going to go away any time soon.

    But one thing I have picked up, is to take a real interest in pedagogy. I’d recommend looking at TPRS approaches to language teaching. There’s a strategy genuinely committed to language acquisition without first-language interference.

  15. Seumas: Actually, I’ve already had training in TPR when I was at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics. I am a major advocate of the method. Its fantastic.

  16. Mike: Great to hear. TPR and TPRS are not quite the same. It seems to me TPR has some limits in terms of concrete things you can do with it, whereas TPRS basically extends it to storytelling.

  17. Not sure exactly what Streett is doing. But sounds like it.

    I haven’t had a great look at TPRS stuff, mainly because most of it is US based with outrageous postage costs. I’ve had a look at some materials from Blaine Ray which seem good, and heard some good stuff about Ben Slavic (a quick search will bring up their websites)

  18. That looks very interesting, though I can understand why Wycliffe & GIAL don’t teach it, since their focus is on self-motivated minority language learning where the majority of speakers aren’t necessarily educated.

  19. Right, I get that, but there’s only one way to do that: read a lot. You might also want to try audiobook versions (there’s even a sing-a-long Greek course now, I think).

    The only way to have the vocabulary and modes of expression become internalized is to read a lot and in other ways expose yourself as much as possible to Greek texts.

  20. James – You’re right. And I do that too. I continue to read a variety of texts – like Carl suggested – and I’ve down loaded the NT from too.

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