Speaking of Latin…

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.

13 thoughts on “Speaking of Latin…

Add yours

  1. Thanks for adding to the conversation Mike, with a substantial contribution; well worth the wait. I’ll try and find some time to give a considered comment (but like you I have about 5-6 posts I’d like to be writing, and a rather substantial amount of ‘real’ work and study to be doing).

  2. Mike,

    Thanks. As Seumas said, worth the wait.

    Your five points are each an assessment/summary of our thoughts and a response from you. We’ll here comment on both as best we can.

    #! – “Obviously a modern language and an ancient language must be learned differently”.
    The context of this statement is a response to Seumas making a claim about how his Spanish education soared while staying in Mexico and Guatemala. We pointed out that he had an obvious advantage in that situation: native speakers to talk to and learn from, which are obviously absent in biblical languages. Because of this distinction, we think it obvious that the two must be learned differently as there are not native biblical language speakers to speak to and learn from.

    We take your point about there being a difference of opinion, but you’ve put our statement in another context.

    #2 – The goal of biblical language students is to study ancient texts, biblical texts (and generally, no others).

    Methodology (and more importantly content) is not a factor for the student when thinking about goals. Quite right. That’s the teacher’s job. A teacher’s methodology ought not waste the student’s time by teaching skills that have no immediate relationship to the student’s goals.

    Another issue is sustainability. Communicative languages need to be regularly used by L2 users for them to hang onto them. If I don’t keep up the modern Hebrew that I know, I’ll lose it. How are seminarians supposed to keep up conversational Koine five or ten years after seminary with no speakers or at least classmates to practice with?

    #3 – We’ve not ignored the benefit of communicative methods as relates to internalization. Actually, we acknowledged it at the end of “Conversing with Seumas 3”. But it seems you have ignored our point after agreeing with it.

    If, as you agree, ministers don’t need conversational Koine in their ministry, then they also have no need to internalize it. I’ve never run across the pastor whose needed to be able to speak the Greek that Paul uses. They all need to be able to interpret it and, we would add, be able to translate it for their congregations. To accomplish this, one need not internalize any conversational Koine.

    Of course it’ll help if you do. But that’s not the point. The point is that its not necessary. And with the burden of time many students who are ministers face, time is better spent only on necessary things.

    #4 – Again, we have the problem of practicality. Yes, its good for all Greek students to read the Antiochene fathers and relevant for many preaching, but many simply don’t have the time. Also, that kind of material is for intermediate to advanced students. Unfortunately, most seminaries get students through a beginner level and then tell them they’re done.

    And where do you draw the line? If seminarians should be reading the Antiochene fathers, then why not any Greek text deemed relevant to their study of NT Greek? We agree that it would be a good thing. But for beginning language students (which most seminarians are) who need some professional competence on biblical literature first, its too much secondary stuff.

    #5 – “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.”

    Quite right. Rephrasing- The goal the teacher has for the student is…. The goal of the student who knows what’s good for himself is…

    Unfortunately, most are just trying to get it out of the way. Yes modern methods are fun. But are they practical and sustainable for biblical language students. We think not. It seems the communicative method that your wife was taught, though it sounds amazing, was not sustainable outside of that classroom.

    Thanks Mike. This is a topic of great interest for us and we appreciate getting to go back and forth with opposing views. Next, we’ll post some things you didn’t bring up to keep the conversation going.


    1. D&T, I’ll be looking forward to hearing your next comments on the subject. Thanks for the dialogue and the corrections. In my follow up post I’ll give some thoughts to your comments and correct my taking your words out of context. That was unintentional.

  3. Mike, you have written a really excellent post that makes quite a few important points. I don’t know that I disagree with any of them. I would add the following thoughts in no particular order:
    1) Since I started teaching communicatively, I have probably heard every single argument against modern pedagogy that exists! I have concluded that more often than not defenders of grammar-translation end up arguing against any real acquisition of the language–often under the guise that it’s just too hard, or impossible, or too much work, or there aren’t enough resources, etc. I have really begun to wonder whether most Greek profs actually want to learn the language, or if they are fairly content to perpetuate the system and to continue teaching linguistics under the guise of a Greek/Hebrew course.
    2) You are absolutely correct that this argument will be settled when we have enough people adopt a communicative method to be able to see the results of that method compared to the traditional pedagogy. I think over the next decade or so, we will reach a critical mass with regard to resources where we will actually have enough tools, textbooks, and supporting audio/video materials (especially with the advent of podcasting, YouTube and Skype) to see a great increase in teachers adopting a communicative method for Greek and Hebrew. In the decade following that, we will see the results for ourselves and I don’t think there will be any question as to which method is more effective.
    3) I think the grammar-translation method has gotten a free pass when it comes to accountability. From the G-T classes I have taken (about 8 years worth in 4-5 different institutions) the following hold true: a) Exams test rote memory of forms, vocab glosses, or entire paragraphs of “translations,” b) Students are told almost exactly what will be on the exams so that the content is utterly predictable and requires no real understanding or comprehension of the language, merely a surface mastery of the metalanguage. c) If the student fails, it is his/her fault, not the professor’s and surely not the method itself. d) Some professors have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception when it comes to how much their students are retaining. The assumption is often, “If I covered it in class, the students *got* it,” or “If the student did well on the exam, he learned the material.” But, at my institution we tested students 1-2 years after they had taken Greek, and their performance on even the most basic parsings and translations was abysmal. They retained virtually nothing.
    4) D&T are correct that most students’ goals coming into a GRK 101 class are not communicative. But, I think that the first major task of a Greek prof is to tell the students what their goals *should* be. We don’t let students write the curriculum, do we?
    5) As R Buth has pointed out tirelessly, even Greek profs and “scholars” do not know the language. (For me, teaching Greek communicatively is a case of “Physician, heal thyself!”). If you want proof, I can show you the results of a little quiz I gave my audience at ETS, which asked them to give the Greek equivalent for 10 English words/phrases such as “yes” “nine” “yellow” “ball” “how are you?” etc. All these are first-week words in an ESL course, but in my audience, largely made up of tenured Greek professors and even authors of Greek grammars, no one got more than two our of ten correct.

    Well, I’ve written too much already. I should probably start my own blog if I have that much to say!

  4. I am a seminary Greek professor. I agree with much of what you say. I would love to teach ‘communicatively.’
    I have, however, two problems:
    1) I was never taught Koine Greek communicatively. I’ve worked at acquiring some competence in this approach, but it is not my strength, and I do not know how I would teach it very well. I did use one grammar that does somewhat use this approach (“Let’s Study Greek” adapted by Jim Boyce), and I use other devices like songs and such, but what would one use to teach this way?
    2) We simply do not have time in the seminary curriculum. This is the big problem for me, at least. Our requirement is a 2 week intensive and then a semester to work through an entire Koine Greek grammar. We follow up with intro classes to the Gospels in the spring of the first year and Pauline writings in the second year that have one session each week devoted to reading texts. That’s it. One can only do so much in that limited time.
    My response has been to rely more and more on software to provide the grammar and to focus more on syntax and translation comparison as a way of allowing the Greek to speak.
    If someone has a more excellent way…

    1. Mark,

      You are in a difficult situation, where your seminary has already placed limits on teaching. And I think that this is the case for the vast majority of schools in the US.

      I think a more excellent way won’t come for a generation. Communicative resources have not yet reached critical mass and there hasn’t been enough evaluation done with them on Greek to show the institutions that they can work and potentially for better and faster than current methods. And that would require training of teachers in the methods. I have been taughted them as part of my training for Wycliffe specifically for learning minority langauges on my own without the availability of textbooks, such training might be beneficial for professors – at GIAL its a 2 month class.

      I guess my question for you right now would be whether it would be possible to expect students to come to the two week intensive course having already gone through perhaps part 1 of Buth’s Living Koine Greek on their own. If that might be possible, it could provide a better foundation.

    2. Your situation is difficult, and probably there are more than a few that find themselves in this situation. I have a few suggestions and thoughts.

      1. I think it was WHD Rouse who basically said that if you want to teach communicatively, but where never taught that way, you just need to make a basic start and stay ahead of the game a little. He was teaching Latin and Greek to schoolboys, and you can read a bunch of his pedagogy at http://www.arlt.co.uk

      2. My own experience confirms this in a small measure. I wasn’t taught a classical or biblical language communicatively, but even in a one week intensive with Latin beginners, I took some class time to write stories cooperatively with them through questions, and conduct the class entirely in Latin, with what they had learnt in 3 days.

      3. There are two big leaps you’d have to make.
      a) The requirements of your seminary sound like most, so you have to be convinced that not only would a communicative method be better overall, but that one could use it and get the same amount of grammar in.
      b) Your time constraints probably won’t go away. You might have to convince your students then: no doubt they spend hours memorising and learning Greek grammar. If you do decide to shift to a more communicative method, you need to convince them to spend more of that time in structured communicative activities.

      These aren’t all the answers, and I think I have some more thoughts, but I thought I’d jot them down now before they go away.

  5. Mike,

    Thanks for your comments. Very helpful dialog.

    You said “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.”

    I agree that some students (many?) see their seminary language requirements as a graduation hoop to jump through. I’m not so sure that it is always the case that it is because the class is not “fun.” I think it is more often the case that the course is not taught so that at the end of the instruction the student has something they can continue to use when they graduate. There is a mismatch between curriculum and post-seminary language skill usage. Because of this, many (most?) pastors do not use biblical languages in their work. This only continues the cycle! If students start a required language course knowing that all the pastors they know who also took that course never use the language in their work, then they expect they also will not need this and see it as wasted effort (and GPA buster). Let’s face it, time is precious in seminary and if you don’t see the benefit in the long-term, you are not motivated in the short term. We need to do a better job of providing students with instruction that they can use (and help them develop skill-sustaining habits while they are still in seminary). Can communicative methods be a part of that? Perhaps. But they are not the panacea many advocate.

    1. That’s a lot to digest.

      You’re right, of course. Seminary time is precious that impacts our methods.

      And your last question is the key.

      Can communicative methods be a part of that? Perhaps. But they are not the panacea many advocate.

      I continue to wonder upon what basis people continue to make claims against modern language learning methodology. For Biblical languages they are untested. None of us can say one way or the other that they’ll heal the wound or not. This isn’t from a lack of trying. Its not as if we’ve tried them and they’ve failed to work in the seminary setting. Its because the institution refuses to test them.

      To state it bluntly, if they’re not the panacea many advocate, prove it. And prove it with actions not words.

  6. True, communicative methods have not been fully tested in a seminary setting. But, my comment about a panacea still stands. The reason is not because the method is or is not successful, but because methodology will not solve all the issues. My point is that we cannot look solely to methodology (*any* methodology) to ‘fix’ the lack of long-term success from the seminary language classroom.

    I’ve given a little more thorough treatment of my take on this at my blog.

    1. My point is that we cannot look solely to methodology (*any* methodology) to ‘fix’ the lack of long-term success from the seminary language classroom.

      That’s a point that I never would have argued with in the first place.

      And now I’m going make a follow up comment on your new post to correct my rather large misunderstanding.

      Great. I feel like someone just said, “Have a nice flight!” and I replied, “You too!”

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