Biblical Language Pedagogy for Bible Translators

This is the fourth in a series of essays examining how language diversity affects the needs of Bible translation around the world and how Rachel and Michael Aubrey’s work with Wycliffe Bible Translators will help alleviate some of these challenges. For the introduction see: We need new language resources for translation.

This essay is an adaption of a piece I wrote last year: Teaching Greek: Differences in Audience, but it is worth returning to as we look toward our work with Wycliffe Bible Translators. It helpfully lays out some of the ways that the Bible translation community, especially for minority language translation projects, needs new and different tools for both learning and then working in the original languages of Scripture: Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. It starts with this central question:

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

We can do a short version and a long version of the answer. Here’s the short verion first:

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 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 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 for analyzing any language’s grammatical structure on their own. This requires students to become familiarized with a wide collection of grammatical constructions and patterns well beyond 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 larger 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 antipassive systems 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 compared to the ones found in any traditional grammar like Mounce.

As a result, traditional grammars are extremely foreign for the linguistics students in how inflectional morphology (e.g. case & number) and syntax (particularly phrase structure which is never touched on) are represented. They are written as a grammatical nomenclature that simply does not mesh with the linguistic terminology the student has already learned. This has two effects:

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 fail to engage with. For example, no traditional textbook that I’m aware of talks about raising and control constructions in Greek.

But Greek has such structures. They exist in every text. Similarly, traditional teaching grammars rarely say anything about second position enclitics. At best, they mention how accenting changes the previous word in the sentence, but without any discussion or mention of how indefinite enclitics relate to question words or the interface between clitic placement and word order patterns. These are not tangential issues and a good grasp of them has a profound influence on how texts may be interpreted.

On top of that, there is the issue of how languages are learned. Translation/linguistics students are taught language learning methods that are based in communication and social interaction. These methods have more in common with what Randall Buth and Seumas MacDonald are doing, or what our very own Chris Fresch, here at, is doing with vocabulary learning, bridging the gap between traditional language pedagogy and more innovative practices.

The reality is that the traditional so-called “grammar/translation” methods found in nearly every 1st year grammar end up feeling highly foreign for anyone who has gone through course work in applied linguistics. And after you’ve flown first class on an airplane, the thought of flying coach will never have any appeal to you again.

So with all of this, teaching translation/linguistics students with a traditional textbook leaves them feeling frustrated because 1) they know there are better and easier ways to learn language and 2) their understanding of how to study and learn grammar in general often stands in direct opposition, if not contradiction, to the methods and descriptions provided in the traditional textbook.

In an ideal world not only would translators studying biblical languages have their own tools and language learning resources, but also those tools and resources would begin to feedback into learning Greek and Hebrew for Biblical studies. When we (1) look at our table of contents for our reference grammar and (2) consider our assignment with Wycliffe Bible Translators, we see an opportunity to bridge this divide and do it in a way that benefits not only English speakers, but also minority languages around the world.