Here are my thoughts on Second Language Acquisition as it relates to learning “dead” languages. I’ve written much more than I intended and don’t know if I’ll have the energy or time to do any more – even in the comments. The title? Well, patience, it will at least make some sense. Its partially related to the previous posts about a New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin and partially related to language learning, see below.
The relevant posts to read for background are by Daniel & Tonya as well as Seumas in their logical reading order:
Now, that’s a lot to read. And I honestly don’t know how much more I can add.
D&T’s discussion and responses to Seumas clear a variety of initial confusions. As far as I can tell here are the main issues (these are pulled mainly from the “Conversing with Seumas” posts):
1) Modern langauges and ancient langauges “obviously … must be learned differently.”
2) D&T do not view the goals of modern methods as having enough in common with the typical goals of seminary students (or perhaps students in general?).
3) D&T do not consider the pay off modern methodology as being helpful for future pastors (i.e. “What’s the benefit of being able to talk in Koine when nobody is around to understand?”).
4) D&T do not view the Biblical corpus as large enough to make such methods worthwhile nor the addition of nonbiblical Greek texts practical for the student or pastor.
5) D&T do not view modern language learning methodology (e.g. TPR[S]) as practical in the seminary setting.
There were a number of other points of conflict between D&T and Seumas, but I think the majority of the others related to terminology conflicts and could be resolved easily. There may be others that I simply just missed. And I would appreciate it, D&T, if you would point out to me if I’ve miss understood you or summarized your inaccurately.
Now I have responses to each of these issues and I honestly believe all of them have the potential to be resolved in such a way that modern language method would prove to be highly beneficial for learning Biblical languages. I have not put these points in the order they appear in D&T’s posts. They’re instead ordered in what I view as a logical way of discussing them.
Let’s look at these:
This first point is from “Conversing with Seumas #2.” I take significant issue with the word “obviously.” If it were so very obvious, we wouldn’t be having such an incredibly large number of posts being written on the subject. In fact, I would argue that the biggest problem in high school Spanish classes across the United States (with the exception of schools near the Mexico border) is that the language is taught like a dead language. Likewise, I maintain that the biggest problem in universities teaching ancient Greek is that it is taught like a dead language. In the majority of schools ALL languages are treated as dead languages. Now this is not to say that there are not challenges in simulating the experience of learning an ancient language the way one would learn a modern language, but that those challenges are impossibilities has not been proven.
From “Conversing with Seumas #1,” we read these words:
“The purpose to which most students seek to learn a classical language is for the study of ancient texts.”
We could not agree more. In fact, lets be more specific as relates to biblical languages (not just classical in general). Why do most biblical languages students learn biblical languages? To study ancient texts, as you said, but a large number, specifically, are seminary students, some more interested than others, who have language requirements for their MDiv. With their goals in mind, our basic critique of conversational approaches is not that they’re not good, but rather, not necessary.
The initial quote is from Seumas and the response is D&T. This is the problem I see here. Seumas states the purpose of most students in learning a classical language is for the study of ancient texts. Yes, this is true. But I disagree with D&T that this is also the view of most students of the Biblical languages. My experience has been that the vast majority of students who took Greek in my Bible college had very little to do with their interest in studying ancient texts. Rather, they either thought it would be cool and had a language requirement to cover or they were required to take Greek or Hebrew specifically because of their degree. And my observation about seminary students at the seminary where I am right now is essentially the same. Greek and Hebrew are typically no more than hoops to jump through to graduate. Methodology has nothing to do with the majority of student’s goals when it comes to Biblical languages. And thus, by implication, the methodology used has nothing to do with the students goals and everything to do with their effectiveness in learning vocabulary and grammar.
Point #3 comes from “Conversing with Seumas #2.” D&T write, “Practice conversational Koine and you’ll be good at that. But I know of no minister who needs to do that or seeks to use that ability in their ministry.” At face value, I might agree with this argument. But at the same time, I think it ignores the major strength modern methodology: the internalization of both grammar and lexicon of the L2. Yes, its not the same as L1 internalization, but it exponentially better than grammar-translation methodology on both counts. But there is another issue as well here. Why can’t you do both? Why can’t you learn the langauge and about the langauge (i.e. how to describe the language) at the same time? My own experience says you can. And if we’re ever in Russia together I’ll take you out and order maˈdavɪk and ˈtʃai for us. While we’re waiting, I’ll read to you what I’ve written about Russian Quantifier Phrases and dative subjects. But even if you don’t learn about the grammar of the language, you’ll still be a significantly better reading of Hebrews than anyone who went the grammar/translation (G/T) route. They’ll be decoding it as they go. You’ll be breezing through it almost naturally. Why? Because SLA studies have show that you only need to learn how to read once. G/T students aren’t learning the langauge so they cannot learn to read. They’ll be decoding the text into English for the rest of their lives unless by some miracle their one of the 1in 30 students for whom the language actually latches on – but don’t count on it. At some point, D&T as about the “rest of them” (can’t find it presently) – the students who struggle to learn the language. Modern methods will drastically reduce the number of students like that.
This is probably the easiest point to respond to. Why? Well, before we answer that question, let’s look at the quote in particular (this is from Conversing with Seumas #3):
“Greek, surely, must be read against the background of Koine/Hellenistic literature, for which an even more expansive corpus exists.”
But your seminary students have no time and don’t care about this. Reading Philo, by and large, is not a goal of theirs. What will you do for them? If one makes a conversation out of just NT Greek, one will be severely limited. I’m not saying classroom conversational Koine (under that disclaimer) is a bad idea, its just goes beyond the goals of most biblical language students, at least those we’ve known. You are right- it is not valueless.
Again the first part is Seumas’ statement. So how do we respond to this issue? And it is an issue. In my view its the biggest question, but it has the easiest answer. Give them a larger corpus that is relevant to their studies of the New Testament. I have a pastor friend who depends heavily upon Chrysostom when he’s working on his sermons. Chrysostom seems to always have something rich to say about the text. And what’s more, the language change between his writings and those of the New Testament is very minimal. And I would say this is true of the majority of Antiochene fathers. Seminary students should be reading the Antiochene fathers. These texts should be the expanded corpus for learning the Greek language as a language. These writers provide 1) a larger and more helpful corpus for actually learning the language and 2) provide students with instant relevant work to their sermon preparation and study of the New Testament text that will prove to be permanently beneficial for their ministry and Bible study. I speak from experience.
From “Conversing with Seumas #1”:
The big point to belabour (How long does an American have to live in Africa before spelling labour with a /u/ feels right?) here is the audience. We have the time and interest to learn classical Greek, Koine, modern, and the changes in between. We feel that’s a more appropriate approach to languages that are old and exist in diachronic stages, like Hebrew. But we’re not in seminary. And most seminarians have no time or interest in such knowledge. Their goal is to have enough language ability or know how to use language tools so that they give good, sound sermons. The rest of their day is spent pastoring and ministering to people (ideally). Most don’t hit the library after work to brush up on Aristotle. Which they should.
As a potential audience for second language learning, seminarians typically have very specific goals for their second language education. Communication is rarely one of them.
I’ve intentionally place this point here. Why? Well, to be perfectly honest, this is D&T’s strongest point. I’ve admitted as much before in discussions on this very blog with Dr. Decker. What do I think? Can it be done. I thin its possible. I’ve seen incredible success it talking with one of Daniel Streett’s students a little over a year ago. But specifically responding to the quote itself, I again question whether seminary student’s goals are actually “to have enough language ability or know how to use language tools so that they give good, sound sermons.” I’ve seen more seminary students more interested in getting that big burden of Biblical languages out of the way as quickly as possible. Which leads me to ask, “Does it need to be a burden?” Could modern methods help relieve the burden. Language learning can be fun with modern methods. Fun and much easier. When language is fun, its more likely to make the students want to retain it. And thus try to retain it.
Another point on the possibility and benefit of modern methods in education – and this finally brings us to the reason for the title of this post. My wife’s first year of Latin was communication based. She loved it and excelled. She internalize a good chunk of vocabulary and more importantly she was able to comprehend the texts she read as Latin. The next year she transferred to a different school. She continued with Latin, but with G/T methods. She regressed. She lost her ability to read Latin. Yes, she “learned” more vocabulary, but she didn’t know any of it as Latin. She just knew English glosses. Now again you can say that understanding Greek as Greek just isn’t a goal of students. But again, are they even aware that could be a goal? No.
The biggest problem with modern methodology for language learning and ancient languages is not the students’ goals or the methodology’s supposed flaws. Its the institution itself. Modern methods are not necessary because the institution, the seminary, says they’re not necessary from the get go. They’ve been condemned immediately because the chance for them to show their value is already barred before it ever happens. Professors cannot teach a language as a real language when they do not know it as a language themselves. A few do. Most don’t. So much for innocent until proven guilty. Modern Methods cannot prove themselves (and nobody has disproven them yet) unless they’re tried and they haven’t been.
The great irony is that had modern methods been put to use sooner, then its very possible that the many seminaries that have dropped requirements for Biblical languages would likely still have them.
Finally, one comment on the last sentence. I feel as if when D&T say that seminarians have specific goals and “communication is rarely one of them,” that they miss the point of communicative methodology. I’m not sure that anyone has said that communicative methods are an end in and of themselves. Rather they are a means to an end, an end that I would view as better and, if done correctly, more successful than current G/T methodology. That end being the understanding and comprehension of the Biblical Text.
* No time devoted to work or translation was lost in the writing of this post – only my very little and highly valued personal reading time and more sleep than I would have preferred to give up had I know this post would become this long.