Yes, but its (very-)sub-optimal, hard, and the results might be less than stellar.
But you might also have not that much choice. There are few Latin speakers in Australia. A few Gàidhlig speakers. Less ancient Greek speakers. Opportunities for communication events are limited. And what if your situation is even less tenable? The last native Manx speaker died in 1974, but there are an estimated 1800 speakers today? Plenty of indigenous languages have <10 speakers, and some are actually dead but well-recorded. I’m not even an educated amateur on language revitalisation, so I’m going to stick to talking about Greek in this post, but I suspect the principles are generalisable.
Comprehensible Input is still king. If you don’t have speakers giving that to you in conversation (and even if you do), you need to get as much rich , appropriate, language content as you can. So, read everything you can, work within your abilities as much as possible and resist the desire to tackle difficult texts unless you have to; rad aloud, to get your mouth moving. And get as much audio as you can – conversation material is best, soliloquies are okay; written literature being read-out is good but arguably not the best thing; oral exercises aren’t the worst thing either. Listen, comprehend, listen again.
Learn the basic of question and answer. This is easier than you think and the pay-off is great. If you can construct questions, you have a means of turning any text into a conversation piece. All you need is to get used to asking questions: start with sentence-type questions, then move on to the interrogatives (In English: who, what, where, when, why, how; Greek: τίς, τί, ποῦ, πότε, τί (διὰ τί, ἵνα τί), πῶς; and others…). Questions can be done in Greek, at the level of story, paragraph, sentence, even clause. This lets you (a) have a conversation with yourself, (b) have simple conversations with others, (c) compose simple sentences and stories that build off texts you’re already working with.
If you’ve come through a traditional grammar-translation curriculum, it’s also not that taxing to learn basic grammatical terminology, especially for Latin or Greek, since they are almost all Latin terms anyway and the Greek forms basically are equivalents. And that permits you to have grammatical conversations about texts too, if that’s what you love.
If you have friends, ahem, students, then start inflicting spoken Greek on them. Start easy, simple, and fun. Prepare well – script up as much as you can before hand so you have phrases to mind/hand. Doing some of the WAYK universal speed curriculum is a good way to do this. When I first did this, I would keep a cheat-sheet handy. It’s no shame to say, “hey, we’re all trying to do this thing, and this little reference sheet is to keep us speaking Nice Pure Attic not some degenerate barbaric language, ahem, Koine.”
Related to the above, develop a habit of note-taking when you are trying to say something and can’t find the right word or structure. And then after a session of whatever, take that list and figure out how to fill in the gaps. I use English > Greek, and Latin > Greek lexica for that, or go away and find the right syntax structure, or ask a friend.
Talk to yourself about whatever you can. If you don’t have other people to talk to, and even if you do, you need to talk to yourself. Why? Because you’re the conversation partner who is always available, and who always understands what your trying to say. Talk about things around you, talk about things you have vocabulary for. Just get talking.
Lastly, look and pursue opportunities to talk with others, or at least listen to others talking. There’s audio resources (not much, let’s be honest), videos on youtube, there is spoken Greek out there to listen to. There’s also a weekly online chat that is freely open: https://latinandgreekchats.weebly.com you don’t even need to speak. I’m never there (alas) as it’s a terrible time for my schedule. And lastly, yes, you can sign up to classes. CKI, which I mentioned in the last post, also I see that BLC is starting to run some classes in Koine not just Hebrew. There’s also some conversational Greek offered through Telepaideia, again terrible for my schedule so I can’t tell you what they’re like from experience.
I don’t have a repository of links for communicative ancient Greek; there’s one here (http://www.latinteachertoolbox.com/ancient-greek.html) but it’s a little out of date. Perhaps its time to make a repository, there’s not lots of material, but there’s stuff out there, and its often a matter of scouring the internet for it….
Did you ever have communicative Greek training with a more fluent speaker? If not, how did you get to this point? Do you have a post on what you did? Despite the apparent contradiction, do you think it’s possible to therefore get to a certain point of speaker fluency on ones own?
Firstly, let’s remind ourselves that I’m not that great a speaker. I’m past the Tarzan stage, but there’s plenty I can’t do with the language. But I can hold soliloquies with myself on familiar topics with familiar vocabulary. And I can have basic conversations about texts or concrete things.
So, I don’t want to overplay the experience I’ve had with others, but nor do I want to underplay. I had to think this over, and I did do about 50 hours all up in group classes with Halcomb over at Conversational Koine Institute, about 5 years back now. I do think that was incredibly useful for me, but I don’t think it contributed a huge amount overall to reaching this level of speaking. It did show me something of what was possible, about the same time I was experimenting in Mongolia with some basic Where Are Your Keys approaches, and trying my hand at an ill-fated Ørberg conversion.
Other than that, I did work through the self-study materials by Randall Buth at the Biblical Language Center. That I did, prior to the above work with Halcomb, and I found it helpful to (a) transition my pronunciation mostly to a restored Koine, even if I have vestiges of Erasmian or a lingering overrealised aspiration problem. It also (b) helped me to cement down quite a few fundamental phrases.
Thirdly, I do do some regular online chats with a more advanced speaker. That too probably didn’t get me to this point, and we’ve only clocked about 10 hours together, but it’s incredibly useful to me. I think there’s great advantage in speaking to people above you and below you in communicative proficiency.
Fourthly, though, there’s just a long familiarity with the language and with Koine texts. I started learning Koine in 2003, and can’t think of a year since when I haven’t been doing something with the language. And since at least 2007 I’ve been advocating, exploring, researching, and experimenting with more active/communicative/living approaches to historical languages. And I’ve had the experience of learning other languages as ‘live’ ones, and working on speaking Latin, and this all is fuel for the fire. Even if a tonne of my language exposure has been to written texts, it’s still exposure, and to the extent that that has been sufficient input for acquisition, it can create spoken output.
Fifthly, apart from the language I’ve gotten from being a student of others, I’ve worked at speaking more Greek to those under my tutelage, as best I can and as much as possible. This, too, is a context for learning how to speak, even if I am not learning more language per se. The more I can speak with students, both (a) the more I get to put my own communicative competencies into practice, and (b) I realise the gaps in my own language. Gaps that can be filled by going away and figuring out what to put in them (perhaps ironically, in the heat of conversation my brain regularly reaches for a Latin expression if it doesn’t have a Greek one to hand).
Do I think someone could get to a certain point of speaker-fluency on one’s own? Yes, but with considerable difficulty, non-ideally and non-optimally. It’s taken 15 years for me to get to this point, and I reached the point where I could teach certain classes in Mongolian in 2, and preach in 2.5 years (not in anyway linguistically or literary sophisticated, but genuinely Mongolian sermons composed in Mongolian idiom). It shouldn’t take 15 years to get to this level of spoken Greek. I do hope that I will get a lot more fluent a lot more quickly in the years to come. And I hope it won’t take the next generations of learners as much time or effort to reach the level that I have so far attained.
Obviously quite a bit of the education I’m involved with is theological. I think some of the concern I express in this post pertain to non-theological contexts and colleges, but mutatis mutandis.
The issue is this: when a student can pursue an entire theological degree online, via distance, you lose a significant part of the embodied formation of that person. They aren’t living in your institutional community, being shaped by daily interaction with faculty and other students. So you don’t know how they’re being shaped as persons, or necessarily what kind of person they are or will turn out at the end to be. This, I think, is one of theological educations big distance problems.
And, sure, I understand the push-back – that people ought and can be involved in other communities, their local church one for instance, and that they can interact online with faculty and students. But, this latter factor is a mediated one, and in my growing experience is inferior for it. It’s not without reason that 2 John 12 says “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” It’s a reflection on technology and mediated presence, and while every NT epistle bears witness to the value of mediated communication, I don’t doubt that each of those authors would prefer to deliver messages themselves.
The more higher education degrees get reduced to content delivery, and also are modularised, the more incohesive that education process becomes. It becomes parcelled and packaged, and its integration in the pastoral and spiritual formation of the individual becomes weakened.
At the same time, this ‘package it up and sell it’ approach affects institutions too. Once you have a top-notch scholar produce materials for a course, you’re set – they’ve done the work once and at best you keep paying them a licencing fee. Sure, you will probably want to revisit and update that course every now and again, but it’s certainly a different course-construction dynamic and cost than, say, hiring an assistant professor and letting them develop over the years. Meanwhile, the ground-labour of these courses is mostly done by adjunctified and casualised labour – highly educated workers who have unstable positions, incomes, zero prestige, and receive no ‘credit’ for this grunt work. And since we’re replicating a model in which stars produce courses and adjuncts service them, there’s no path from adjunct to professor, and there’s no motive to create one. You can just run a course with more students, with more adjuncts, and that’s that. I think in the long run that is going to create issues. What does it mean, on either end, that Esteemed Professor XYZ ‘taught’ a student, if they simply followed pre-set materials. There’s no educational relationship on the Professor end. There might be a perceived relationship on the student end, but that’s a mirage. And then the Adjunct side, in which the adjunct has not ‘taught’ anyone either. They’ve oiled a machine.
Not that I have any solutions. I also happen to think that distance/online education is an unstoppable juggernaut in our society. The horse has bolted, and we need to figure out how to catch up and ride that brumby for all its worth. But the one thing we can’t do is uncritically and thoughtlessly embrace technological changes without reflecting on, and deliberately practising, in light of their social and personal effects.
Even though I have negative free time, lately I’ve been trying my hand at new things.
Firstly, I’ve put up a few videos on youtube. They are a ‘talk-through’ of the Greek text of Melito’s On Easter, 1-2. There’s one where I talk through it in English, and one entirely in Greek (the context of my talking is not identical though!). This is similar to what I do with some online classes, and it’s not that far removed from what I do with students more interested in working on a text than entirely communicatively. Later this week there’ll be a similar video on Romans 5:1-5. I hope to do more of these kinds of videos, particularly if people find them helpful.
Secondly, by the time this post goes up, the first episode of my podcast ὁ διὰ νυκτὸς διάλογος should be posted. It’s rough, in so many ways, but I would rather be cutting some rough DIY Greek podcasts in my metaphorical basement, than waiting for perfection. Again, my hope is to do many more, and trust that they’ll improve over time. If you want to improve my dismal album art, by all means help me out!
Are there other things that might be worth giving a go? I’m honestly open to suggestions at the present. Anything that will help people get more Greek in their lives, and will develop my own skills both as a Greek-communicator and as a teacher. And propagandist.
I not-infrequently talk about different types of encountering language with the following schema:
Is when you’re in a literal classroom with books, and you’re learning ‘about’ foreign language, as something far, far removed from you, as this exotic and abstract ‘other’, that you can hardly imagine. And L2 words exists as ‘things’ that you treat as objects, and manipulate as facts, and you put the right ones in the right order on a test and you get a number and feel good about yourself.
This is when you drag a dead piece of language into the lab and analyse it to death (again, because it’s already dead). You get a sentence or phrase and you cut that sucker open and look at its innards and try to figure out which part does what and how does it work.
At the Zoo
Where you go to see animals, and they’re alive! But they’re in enclosures, and they’re mostly tame (but not domesticated), and there’s a safe distance between you and the language, and you can look and observe but the whole environment is artificial.
Out of Safari
Now things are getting exciting! You’re out in a jeep, and driving really fast, and you’ve got a guide who tells you where to go and what to look for, and is savvy enough not to lead you into any really difficult language that would overwhelm you. So it’s still a curated experience, tailored to your level, but the language is alive and wild.
Dropped in the Jungle
You’re the real Bear Grylls. You get air-dropped into a language immersion environment where everything is in the language, and no-ones curating anything. You might be hitting easy language and its all fun, you might get dropped into some complex discussion of hypothetical worlds based on the latest avant-garde Danish film that everyone watched with Esperanto subtitles at the underground cinema last week.
Notes: feel free to add elements, reconfigure, reuse this analogy. Suggestions welcome. Also, I certainly don’t think these are stages to be worked though, just different experiences people can have.
This week in my meandering series, let me talk variously about other distance education environments I’ve experienced.
I did the mainstay of my Latin studies as an external student at the University of New England (in Australia, not those other New Englands in other former colonies). A four year sequence of 10 subjects, ab initio, right through to Horace and Prose Composition (Not that Horace is the pinnacle of Latin, I am just pretty sure it was one of my final year classes and Horace wasn’t my favourite either). This was the 00s and UNE was well entrenched in DE delivery. Courses consisted of (a) mailed out booklets, (b) mailing assignments back in for marking, (c) an optional residential week in Armidale. So it was more like a self-directed course of study with some external support and feedback. The residential schools made a huge difference though. You’d trip off to Armidale for a week, do a bunch of intensive latin classes, covering the same material but in person, and stand around in the cold while Tesoriero smoked a lot. I went to most of them. I think in the later years, email discussion became a feature!
Anyway, technology has moved on, and so has my Latin. But this worked for what it was worth, primarily because I was a highly motivated and disciplined self-learner.
I took 3 years of online classes in Gaelic with an institution, which was valuable though also frustrating (hence I won’t name them!). The teacher was high-quality, the classes were a group Skype, and 3 hours long, so they involved a great deal of Gaelic input, but the quality of materials was non-optimal. That is, we worked through some deadly boring explicit grammar instruction, were expected to learn contextless series of model sentences, do partner exercises that were “say one line, your partner will correspond with the translation”, which is more like a code-word exchange than language practice. I confess, it did do good things for my Gaelic, but I think with more effective language pedagogy, it could have been much more effective.
Right now I adjunct for another college that is doing theology via DE probably as well as I’ve seen enacted. Courses are high quality, with a structured weekly sequence of video materials by faculty or scholars, set readings, discussion forums, exercises assessed and non-assessed. I’m still not 100% convinced this is optimal for theological-formation of students, but it’s the best I’ve seen in a DE mode. I also haven’t seen their introductory language offerings, but my understanding is that it’s all explicit-grammar driven. Which you know my feelings on.
One-to-one online language tutoring is obviously a thing I’m into. Firstly, just the technological marvel of being in an age where one can connect to a speaker of Latin, Greek, Gaelic, even Mongolian, around the globe, and have a audio-visual conversation in almost real-time, mirabile! I’ve seen both sides of this equation, as student and teacher. I do feel there are drawbacks, notably the loss of physical embodied presence and shared realia. There are a host of things one could do in person that one cannot do when stuck behind a screen and one’s visual field is limited to the scope of the webcam. But the benefits seem to outstrip that. A lot depends on quality of teacher, no doubt. I recall one tutor that I had several years back who was really not good at all. I think I’m still developing in this area, and the dual challenge of developing as a teacher, and developing myself as a Latin and Greek speaker. (current students, no need to comment!)
I’ve also done some shorter group-courses online, on both sides. With mixed feelings. Conversational turn-taking is much harder to manage in a conference call, which means effective group size needs to stay relatively low. But all the groups I’ve been have been relatively small anyway (Greek and Latin being pretty niche markets). It certainly helps to spread the cost, which I think is great (for both sides of the equation). And it creates some communicative possibilities (3rd persons, plural forms) in a conversation that are less easily constructed in a one-to-one. I wouldn’t mind teaching more like this, but the start-up effort of (a) getting a quorum, (b) finding a timeslot suitable to keeping a quorum, (c) looking professional enough and not just a random Australian language hack, all hold me back.