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.

19 thoughts on “Second Language Acquisition: Modern & Hellenistic Greek

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  1. …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.

    Mike, How about assigning NT Greek students to read the 1st Century AD novel, Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton? Even the author’s name is a pun on χάρις: Χαρίτων Ἀφροδισεύς. Translator G. P. Goold shows the range of meanings in the word:

    χάριν σοι
    I thank you, sir.

    μίαν αἰτοῦμαι παρὰ σοῦ χάριν
    I will ask one boon of you.

    “δυστυχῆ μὲν” εἶπεν “αἰτῶ παρὰ σοῦ χάριν αὐτόπτης γενέσθαι τῶν ἐμῶν κακῶν”

    It is a miserable favor to ask of you, to contrive that I witness my own ruination.

    εἴτε καὶ ἄξιον ὑπολαμβάνοις χαρίσασθαι τῷ

    or whether you think it worthwhile doing your master a favor.

    “οὐδεὶς ἂν ῥύσαιτο ἡμᾶς ἢ μόνη σύ· παρέξει γάρ σοι Διονύσιος ἡδέως αἰτουμένῃ χάριν πρώτην.” ὤκνει μὲν οὖν ἡ Καλλιρόη βαδίσαι πρὸς αὐτόν, λιπαρούσης δὲ καὶ δεομένης ἀντειπεῖν οὐκ ἠδυνήθη, προηνεχυριασμένη ταῖς εὐεργεσίαις ὑπ’ αὐτῆς. ἵν’ οὖν μὴ ἀχάριστος δοκῇ, “κἀγὼ μὲν” φησὶν “εἰμὶ δούλη καὶ οὐδεμίαν ἔχω παρρησίαν, εἰ δὲ ὑπολαμβάνεις δυνήσεσθαί τι κἀμέ, συνικετεύειν ἑτοίμη”

    “…Only you can save us. Dionysius will be glad to grant the first favor that you ask for.” Callirhoe hesistated to go to him, but when Plangon kept begging and beseeching her, she could not refuse, feeling under prior obligation to her for her kindnesses. So in order to not seem ungrateful,, she said, “I am only a slave and have not the right to speak freely. But if you think I can do something, I am ready to support your appeal. I only hope we succeed.”

    The only time “grace” comes close to being used for χάρις, so it seems, is as the novel gets going. There, it’s a sly “social grace” for χάριτος (and note that there’s no transliterated “hypocrite” here, which is how English NT translators usually put it in the mouth of “Jesus”; Goold actually translates it “role,” as in a dramatic “play”):

    ἦν αὐτῷ παράσιτος στωμύλος καὶ πάσης χάριτος ὁμιλητικῆς ἔμπλεως. τοῦτον ἐκέλευσεν ὑποκριτὴν ἔρωτος γενέσθαι.

    He had a crony who was smooth-tongued and full of every social grace. He told him to play the role of a lover.

    I’m still reading the novel and its translation, so I’m not sure exactly how many more ways χάρις appears. First century communicative fun!

  2. Since there are not that many approaches to learning Hellenistic Greek with a TPR type of method, do you think learning Modern Greek would be more beneficial than learning Hellenistic Greek through the more traditional methods that are used?

  3. Mike,

    You have again oversimplified our views to the degree that they’re no longer our view.

    “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 not so. Our emphasis has always been on goals, and the goal of biblical language students is to learn a biblical language, not a modern one and not a method that applies to modern languages, so we argue. You have insisted that modern methods should be a priority for ancient language students and its that assertion with which we disagree. Our point is simple: if you want to use a communicative method, it works with a modern communicative language. Yes, it can also work with an ancient one, but in our view, that is unnecessary, wastes time, and teaches a communicative language that can’t actually be used for communication. We know you disagree with that, but that is where the debate stands. The way you’ve recapped the issue is not so.

    As far as culture, you’ve got great ideas. But you seem to missed the idea of our class. It has nothing to do with teaching Hebrew, but rather teaching tools so the students can learn on their own. After all, they’re not in school.

    Another question- We know that the classroom communicative Koine is not actually 1st cent Koine cause no one “knows” what that was. So is the cultural info you plan on implementing actually 1st cent culture, or is it those aspects of 1st cent culture you’ve recovered and elected to use in class? The point is that communicative Koine (and the “culture” you’re saying come with it) is a re-creation/fabrication.

    1. Mike, it’d be helpful if you’d give links to prior conversations for context. Daniel and Tonya, your restatement in comments here is extremely helpful; hope you won’t mind my quoting you from earlier somewhere else:

      “While using communicative methods has its advantages in biblical language instruction, we must disagree with Greek Master Bill [Mounce]…. The solution is not to continue on with non-communicative languages as though they were actually used for communication (as the Cohelet project and Mounce do). That’s faking it. We ought to just accept that both Hebrew and Greek exist in multiple forms. If we only have two years at seminary to study, we probably only have time to focus on the biblical forms. But if we have different goals and make more time, we can take the opportunity to learn these old and modern languages in all the forms they’ve existed.”
      –D&T, “No Such Thing. Vol. 1,” posted May 13.

      You may know I work in (T)ESOL, where the questions of effective, time-efficient lg teaching/ adult learning loom daily. One of my colleagues who’s an SLA expert and I are now doing experimental research on the interconnections of “reading” and the “phonological loop” in second-language acquisition. We’re not anywhere near finished collecting / analyzing data, but I’ll throw in a couple of pennies of opinion into this conversation to say that Mounce & Buth are absolutely guilty of “re-creation/fabrication” of a language that never was. (Paul, who is dead, would scratch his head if he could hear such a thing. Forgive, and go with, this analogy: in a couple of millenia, listen in on how professors of your blogger-English are pronouncing aloud with their students everything you’ve written. Ha!) And yet, Buth and Mounce are well-intentioned, whether intuiting or out-right presuming that dead-literacy and living-orality has a real connection (and it does, I’m sure).

      Wonder what you all (and M & B too) might think of Kenneth Pike’s conviction: “a person can learn to speak a language without an interpreter.” I love his emphasis on the person, the learner (which is your emphasis too, D&T!) A couple of philosophers call one of Pike’s methods of learning (in which the learner is her/ his own teacher), “observation sentences.” These, they say, “are at the bottom edge of language . . . It is ultimately through them that language gets its meaning, its bearing on reality. This is why it is they that convey the basic evidence for all belief, all scientific theory.” While we’ve got to cringe at this meta-narrating “all,” seems there’s a kernel of truth here. (I’m quoting from one of Pike’s book, online here: )

      But one of the best statements of Pike’s methods in action is from Robert de Beaugrande in which he compares “two ways of ‘doing language science’.” His 7 statements about the “fieldworker” sound a good bit like D&T’s “seminary student.” See

      de Beaugrande, as you might read, blasts Krashen (who may also be an easy target for his infamous statements such as “language cannot be taught”). Interestingly, Buth’s Cohelet project and his Biblical Language Center invoke Krashen quite a bit. The latter links to a pro-TPR statement of Krashen’s in which he says this: “A constraint on all activities that we might consider is that they be interesting for both the teacher and the students; it is difficult to fake enthusiasm. Someone with little interest in teaching students magic tricks should try something else.”

      which makes me wonder whether “enthusiasm” in language teaching / adult learning covers a multitude of sins. But to make Moses or Paul come alive as if on audio tape seems a little like smoke and mirrors, like the trick of seance from a text, or like mimicking the digital enhancements of the sounds of Richard Nixon’s Oval Office conversations so as to better follow along those 1974 Presidential Transcripts he published. Not that it can’t be done, it’s just that question of efficiency again.

        1. Mike, just as well: ὁ Παῦλος διελέγετο αὐτοῖς, … παρέτεινέν τε τὸν λόγον μέχρι μεσονυκτίου. Καθεζόμενος δέ τις νεανίας ὀνόματι Εὔτυχος ἐπὶ τῆς θυρίδος, καταφερόμενος ὕπνῳ βαθεῖ, διαλεγομένου τοῦ Παύλου ἐπὶ πλεῖον, κατενεχθεὶς ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου …. 🙂

    2. Well, for one. There hasn’t been much of a debate.

      And secondly, I still don’t think you’ve actually given any really evidence for any of your views. To put it rather bluntly, you’ve given everyone a lot of words and rhetoric, but that’s about it.

      As for only giving students the tools, to be honest. The very idea of that makes me shudder if fear. If this generation only learns tools, what will the next one learn? And if a master builder only taught his apprentice how to use a hammer and saw, that apprentice will never be able to build anything of quality.

      And on the culture question, you’re thinking way too hard. If its a reasonable recreation that brings the student closer to the 1st century than s/he was, then what’s wrong with a recreation?

  4. Whatever we’ve given, you seem bent on misrepresenting it.

    A builder must take more than one introductory church class to be a master. Our class is simply inviting them into the confusion via learning how to use a grammar, lexicon, syntax book. If that makes you shudder, then shudder away.

    What’s wrong with it is that you did not and have not presented it like a re-creation of the thing but rather the actual thing itself. In the same way, your cultural re-creation, albeit helpful, is a re-creation, not a real-life experience of a foreign culture, which one could get in a modern form by living in Greece and speaking with Greeks. Call it what it is, not what you’d like it to be.

    1. Whatever we’ve given, you seem bent on misrepresenting it.

      Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt. I believe you when you say I have misrepresented you.

      But I’m not bent on it. It was quite an accident.

      To be honest, I’ll be up front and say that I do not understand you or your views on language learning. They make absolutely no sense to me at all — just like my view makes no sense to you either, since you misrepresent me as well. Like in your comment right here. I never said a re-creation was anything but a re-creation. But for some reason you decided to put those word in my mouth. While I could, like you just did, assume that you’re determined and bent or misrepresenting me, OR I could (and will) assume that you don’t understand my view.

  5. And what is it we’re supposed to provide evidence for? This started out as our contradiction of Mounce: there is no such thing as communicative Koine. There is only a fabrication. You’ve agreed with that. We have not offered an alternative that needs defending. In fact (we haven’t gotten here yet), we agree with pretty much all of your critiques of the traditional grammar/translation method. But we disagree that fabricating a dead form of a living language is the solution.

    1. The evidence issue is very much related to the fact that you, thus far, have only torn down and criticized those who are trying to make things better. Then you tell us to wait and to have patience because we need to tear down before we can rebuild. But I am still yet to see anything constructive on language learning appear. All I’ve seen is a syllabus for the basics and using the tools, that’s it. And its not language learning in any sense. So constructively speaking, how should be teach Greek and Hebrew in a better way than the traditional grammar/translation methodlogy and better than Buth’s SLA model?

      I agree with that (that is, Mounce), but when you brought in Buth and the Cohelet Project then I stopped agreeing.

      The only thing we agree on is that there is a problem and a solution is needed. Is that correct? Or are you satisfied with the status quo?

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