Teaching Greek: Differences in Audience

What do you see are the main differences between teaching biblical languages to seminary students vs. teaching them to translators?

This is a question that seems worthwhile to reflect on. The one sentence answer is simply this:

Bible translators and the linguists that consult and work with them already have the linguistic and grammatical background for studying the language and it looks nothing like the grammar taught in seminaries.

It’s like this: In Mounce’s first year grammar, he provides discussions of English grammar before discussing the Greek. This functions as a sort of way to provide hooks for students to hang the Greek grammatical discussion on. Most students, however, do not take any sort of formal grammar classes even for English these days. This makes Mounce’s approach generally quite helpful in one sense, since they learn something about their own language (albeit something fairly traditional). But at the same time, it introduces new difficulties, partially unhelpful, because English Grammar and Greek Grammar do not coincide.

In contrast to that, when a student studies applied linguistics with the intention of heading into bible translation, they aren’t so much learning about English grammar or Greek grammar or Tok Pisin grammar. Instead, they are learning (1) how language works generally, (2) what human languages share in common, and (3) a methodology to analyze any language’s grammatical structure on their own. This requires students to become familiarized with a wide array of grammatical constructions and patterns well beyond the English, German, Greek or even Hebrew.

The goal of the classes is to prepare students who are going to an unstudied minority language to both study and learn the grammar while also learning the language for communication. Such a goal requires a significantly broader view of grammar, where not only is there an active-passive system like English vs. an active-middle system like Greek, but also perhaps Direct-Inverse voice systems like Ojibwe or an antipassive system like Chukchi. No class can cover the vast amounts of variation in grammar that exists across all of human language. That is why students learn methods and analytical tools. These methods and tools mean that students already have the descriptive touch points for studying Greek, but they are vastly different than the ones found in any traditional grammar, whether Mounce, Decker, or Croy.

As a result, traditional grammars end up feeling extremely foreign for the linguistics students in how both inflectional morphology (e.g. case & number) and also syntax (particularly phrase structure which is never touched on) are represented. They are written in a grammatical nomenclature that simply does not mesh with linguistic terminology already learned. This has two consequences: first, a student who starts with applied linguistics is forced to relearn grammar, but only for Greek. This is highly inefficient, given what the student already knows about language structure. Second, traditional Greek grammar simply does not engage with a wide set of important topics and concepts for Greek that traditional grammars are unaware of or do not engage with. For example, no traditional textbook that I’m aware of talks about raising and control constructions in Greek. But Greek certainly has such structures and they can be found across the New Testament and Septuagint. There is little research into these types of concerns.

On top of all of that, there is the issue of how languages are learned. Translation/linguistics students are also taught language learning methods that have significantly more in common with what Randall Buth or Seumas MacDonald is doing than what is done in virtually every other 1st year grammar available.

After you’ve flown first class on an airplane, the thought of flying coach will never have any appeal to you ever again.

So considering all of this, to teach translation/linguistics students with a traditional textbook leaves the students frustrated because 1) they know there are better and easier ways to learn the language, and 2) their understanding of how to study and learn grammar in general is often in direct contradiction of the methods and descriptions provided in the traditional textbook.

In an ideal world, not only would translators studying biblical languages have a collection of tools and language learning resources tailored specifically for their needs, but also such tools and resources would begin to feed back into the learning of Greek and Hebrew for Biblical studies. When we look at the table of contents for our reference grammar, we see an opportunity to bridge this divide and do it in a way that benefits not only English, but also minority languages around the world.