So What’s the Main Issue? Part I

Daniel & Tonya’s comment on my first post were very helpful in drawing the focus on the main issue. I think that I’m beginning to see where we’re missing each other. I also appreciate their pointing out a mistake of my own. I had not intended to, but I ended up accidentally taking one of their statements (from my Point #1) out of context. At some point, I’d also like to deal with the issue of the Antiochene Fathers, which D&T consider too advanced for seminary students. I would thoroughly contest that, but I’ll deal with that in a later post.

So what’s the main issue?

What is D&T’s essential protest against communicative methodology?

Well, for them, it is sustainability.

If I’m reading their comments correctly, D&T and I have very different views regarding what the goal of communicative methodology is. I hope I’m wrong about this (and I might be), but D&T seem to believe that for communicative methodology to be valid its practitioners and students must be able to continue to speak the language as a language later on down the road outside and beyond the class room. I think this comes from the fact that most modern methodology has been used with modern languages where the final goal is sustainability. Here are the relevant statements that come directly from their comment on my first post, for the context, I’d suggest reading the post and the full comment:

[Responding to My Point #2:]
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?

[Responding to My Point #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.

[Responding to My Point #5]
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.

Now, that’s a lot to deal with in one post, but I’m going to try because we’re talking about the same thing through it all. In three of their five responses to my first post, we come back to the issue of sustainability.

First of all, the good news is that I have not ignored the fact that D&T recognize the benefit of internalization. I did not discuss it or mention it because of exactly what we see in their comment: right after protesting my not mentioning it, they essentially discard it as irrelevant. Why should I even mention it when they don’t think its necessary anyway?

But back to sustainability.

The irony here is that sustainability is one of the largest reasons that I advocate such methodology. It is rather indisputable that the biggest problem for Greek and Hebrew programs is the very fact that the traditional methods do not work. Pastors are not using the languages. And the pastors whose analysis work is the best typically rely more and the commentaries of the scholars than they do their own working through the text. And I’d trust a pastor who knows how little he’s maintained his Greek and goes to the commentaries one time too often than the pastor who thinks that he’s kept it up better than he has and doesn’t go to the commentaries at all.

Many pastors are completely terrible at doing their own analysis of the text. In fact, many can’t.

But when we talk about communicative methodology, for some reason we cannot get past the idea that since there is communication in the class that communication is a necessary component for a pastor to continue using the language five years later. I don’t consider that to be a valid assumption. More on that in a moment.

But the current situation with traditional methodology is this:

1) We know for a fact that the current teaching methods have a very high attrition rate beyond the seminary.

2) We have no clue what kind of attrition rate communicative methodology will have beyond the classroom.

Considering where we are now, there’s not much too loose.

Just the status quo.

And I haven’t even said anything about the attrition rate of the classroom itself, which is completely horrible. D&T themselves experienced a 60% attrition rate in their class and I’m cynical that the 4 students left standing at the end will all be using their Hebrew in five years (for the record, they make it clear that they have more confidence on that point than I do). Traditional methodology requires maintenance outside the classroom as well – just as much, I’d say.

Here’s the classroom attrition rate of my own traditional Greek learning:

Initial Students Change Final Total Time # of Classes
150 –> 115 1st Week 5 Classes
115 –> 90 2nd Semester 5 Classes
90 –> 45 2nd Year 2 Classes
45 –> 25 2nd Yr 2nd Sem 1 Class
25 –> 6-8 3rd Year 1 Class

Now isn’t that nice and depressing? And from what I understand, its pretty consistent in other schools. In preparing for this post, I talk with Daniel Streett on what the attrition rate looked like in his communicative class. He told me that it was 25%. That’s relatively high and he’s not satisfied with it. And in context, it actually looks better than either D&T’s class or my own chart above.


Well, at Moody, where I attended, most students take one full year in order to get their general language requirement out of the way – that’s why in my chart we see a drop after the first year. And then pastoral/pre-seminary students are required to take 3 semesters of either Greek or Hebrew, which explains the second major drop from 45 down to 25. Then the drop from 25 to about 6 or 7 results from the fact that Biblical Language students are only required to take two years of a language and many of them don’t begin until their junior year. They can only fit in two years total. That’s unfortunately what happened to me, though I like to think that I’ve made up for it.

But at Criswell College, where Daniel Streett teaches, students are required one year. The best comparison to make is between his class with its 25% attrition rate and the other 1st year Greek class, which has an attrition rate of 75%: from 20 to about 5-6 after the first semester.

That’s a huge different. So in terms of in school attrition, communicative methods are already doing significantly better.

And that brings us back to beyond the classroom and beyond the school, which is, I think, the more significant criticism in D&T’s view. And we’ll look at it next.

6 thoughts on “So What’s the Main Issue? Part I

Add yours

  1. Mike, Just a clarification on my attrition rate and curriculum at Criswell College. Criswell requires 1 year (i.e. 2 semesters, 6hrs total) of Greek from all its students. Thus, those students who do drop (or fail) after the first semester must either retake the course (very common), or fail to complete their degree at Criswell. The attrition rate in our classes is a mixture of dropping and failing. I also know that the attrition rate is not truly an objective measurement of success or failure on the part of a method or professor. The temptation is always there for the professor to dumb down his requirements or tests, or inflate his grades, in order to minimize attrition.

  2. Mike,

    We’ve been out celebrating. Glad to see you’ve continued the discussion.

    We’ll start out with a related issue that you’ve deferred to later: the Antiochene fathers.

    Let us be more specific. Its not that the material is too advanced in terms of difficulty, its that its secondary material (non-biblical) and thus is more appropriate for advanced students who’ve done enough in Scripture first. Koine is Koine, but if my goal is to read the NT and my prof has me (as a first or second year language student) reading the church fathers, I’ll drop the class and get my money back.

    Secondly, and to us a bigger issue for ministers and seminaries, why are there so many biblical Greek students who’ve never done any biblical Hebrew? In fact, I know many (particularly Baptist boys in Texas) who think they don’t need Hebrew cause that’s the “old covenant”. They are learning to exegete a Greek NT that’s founded upon a Hebrew OT that they’ve never opened.

    More important than getting our biblical Greek students reading a variety of Greek texts, like the fathers, is making sure they first have a solid foundation in biblical Hebrew.

    To your points-

    “It is rather indisputable that the biggest problem for Greek and Hebrew programs is the very fact that the traditional methods do not work.”

    Perhaps we should agree on what traditional methods exactly are. Or at least state that we are not defending what you call “traditional methods”. So far we have set up nothing to defend. So claiming that this method is not sustainable does not by default negate our questions about the sustainability of communicative methods.

    In our experience, traditional methods are boring exercises in memorization of vocab and paradigms. No wonder people quit. But not everyone not doing communicative methods are automatically doing “traditional” methods. Our initial experiences with Hebrew were taught linguistically. Perhaps this is simply an improvement on traditional methods (as translation is still a large part since our goal is to translate), but is is not what you seem to be referring to. The method our Hebrew teacher used is sustainable and most who learned it still use it. In fact, non-college students in Houston audit HBU’s biblical language classes cause the instruction is so good.

    I know what you’re talking about, but that’s not what we had at HBU.

    Secondly, the hypothetical information we gave about a hypothetical class is hypothetical. We taught a few Hebrew and Greek classes while in Houston (more Hebrew than Greek cause we demand Greek students have a Hebrew background) and each class had different results. Our hypothetical story was a mixture of all the various classes. We had the greatest number of students drop in poor areas of Houston. But in the suburbs, where people have disposable income, only one student (ever) dropped.

    Attrition rates are helpful for institutions looking at a few years of data. But in our cases, you need to know each case.

    By the way, the four hypothetical students still standing are now involved in SBL, auditing classes at HBU, one even went to Cambridge’s Hebrew ulpan. And their goal for learning biblical languages is to be able to do their own analysis till they die. Actually, in five years, I’ll be disappointed if they’re not teaching.


    1. D&T

      Thanks for the explanation of your students. That’s helpful and interesting.

      And you’re right. Too many to students only learn Greek and that’s a problem. I would never disagree with that. You’ve got my backing 100%.

      I’ll deal with your comments on the fathers in a later post, like I intended to anyway.

  3. I don’t have time to join this interesting discussion, but I do want to point out that you’re basing conclusions on some pretty tenuous stats. How realistic is it to take a class of 150 in which many are simply fulfilling a gen studies language requirement and then comparing it to the 2d yer students and calcing a dropout rate?! That’s neither realistic nor a fair comparison. Instead look at seminary classes where there are requirements for multiple years of Greek which are intended to prepare exegetically-enabled expository preachers. The numbers, though not perfect, will be drastically different than the scenario you describe.

    1. The very tenousness of the statistics is why I tried to be rather specific as to the situation of the school. If it sounded like I was generalizing beyond that school then I apologize. That was not my intent. I have access to only so much information and shared what I had while trying to be clear about the circumstances of each school described.

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