Second Language Acquisition: Modern & Hellenistic Greek

This post provides some thoughts on a question posed to me by Daniel from Hebrew and Greek Reader.

Specifically, Daniel was wondering about my thoughts on the benefit of learning Modern Greek (or Hebrew for that matter – but this blog is about Greek) via contemporary language learning methodology such as TPR (Total Physical Response) and TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). Their basic claim with which we all already know I disagree is that it would be better to learn the modern form of the language rather than the ancient one.

This is a difficult issue for me for a couple reasons:

1) I am definitely all for the learning of the modern form, to an extent.

2) But at the same time, I do not believe the learning of Modern Greek “communicatively” can replace the “communicative” learning of Hellenistic Greek – even if it can be used as a very helpful supplement.


Well for point #1, the words, “to an extent.” One of the big criticisms I’ve been given for my views on Greek language learning result for the impracticality of implementing such methods in the seminary. And for that same reason (and infinitely more so), I hold the very same view for the benefit of learning Modern Greek. This is not to say that scholars shouldn’t know the language, because they should. There is too much important literature on Hellenistic Greek in Greek that the vast majority of scholar cannot access (its somewhat embarrassing that most NT scholars cannot reading secondary literature that’s in the very same language they specialize in).

But scholars should also be learning Modern Greek because having a grasp of the language beyond the Hellenistic period is essential for understanding Greek in the NT. Caragounis got this point right. He overemphasized it and then beat it to death. But he still got it right. The thing is, its not something new. A dozen or so scholars from the last century, including Moulton & Robertson, said the same thing – but most NT students and scholars don’t read Moulton and Robertson all the way through. Moulton is pretty easy. His Prolegomena is a great read and it’s really not hard or very long. And as for Robertson, well, every Greek student should at least read straight through the first 140 pages. That’s the introduction and it very much sets the stage for being able to use the rest of his grammar as a reference grammar correctly. I’m currently working on reading the whole thing through cover to cover – I’m on page 303.

I’d say learning Modern Greek should be a higher priority for the NT scholar than learning German. But this is for the scholar, not the pastor.

Now, onto point #2, this has to do with the fact that language is really not divisible from culture. No this isn’t the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Think George Lakoff instead – Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things & Metaphors We Live By. By internalizing Hellenistic Greek rather than Modern Greek would give students an opportunity (that would hopefully be pounced on by the teacher) to also learn the culture as well. In my imaginary perfect world, learning about culture would be done at the exact same time as learning the language. Hitting two birds with one stone, if you like. One of the problems with current methodology, as I see it (and I hate to say it, but this includes D&T’s Hebrew syllabus) is that for some reason language teachers at least appear to think that they can successfully teach the language without at the same time teaching the culture expressed by that language.

But culture learning could be implemented into traditional methodology. Yes. I think, though, that culture learning could thrive in communicative learning. Instead of simply learning χάρις as “grace.” Students would learn it as χάρις with all the cultural ramifications of the world for a first century Hellenistic Jew. In English that sort of thing would require significantly more hoops for the student to jump through. They would first learn that the word means grace and then they would like be required to read a several hundred pages, particularly Frederick W. Danker’s Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Fieldas well as Bruce W. Winter’s Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (First-Century Christians in the Graeco-Roman World). Then after all of that students would understand that grace isn’t this special theological word that means “unmerited favor,” but it specifically relates to a highly developed social system of patronage, benefaction, honor, and favor, which was then apply by the NT writers to describe what God has done (and continues to do) for us.

…or you could just learn Hellenistic Greek as Hellenistic Greek without reference to English at all – that would be faster.

But again coming to the question of how modern methodologies would work in a seminary, I cannot say. But I would suggest that keeping an eye of Bethel, Denver and Ashland Seminaries might be a good idea for those seminary professors who are apprehensive about it.