Interviews with Communicative Greek Teachers (8): Randall Buth

Quite a few people were waiting to hear from Randall Buth in this series of interviews. Today I present Buth’s answers to my interview questions! Thanks very much to Randall for taking the time to respond to this interview.

You can read the earlier seven interviews here: Sebastian Carnazzo, Michael Halcomb, Christophe Rico, Stephen Hill, Casper Porton, Jason Weaver, Jordash Kiffiak.


1. Randall, I wonder if you’d share a little about the environment and methods you were exposed to when first learning the biblical languages yourself?

Before the biblical languages I was given traditional Latin and German high school training. The German was done as “grammar translation” in the first year by a teacher who could not speak the language. That was received well by students and reinforced what we had learned from Latin learning. The second year of German was a bit of a shock for us students because the teacher spoke German(!), had a German speaking wife, and spoke German in class. We just wanted to have things on paper and to give “correct answers.”

Both Greek and Hebrew were first introduced to me as “grammar translation” languages, no different than Latin, with maybe the one difference being that the Hebrew and Greek grammar books had fewer pictures and less cultural background information than was included in the Latin texts. I jumped through the hoops faithfully and even read half of the Hebrew Bible before adding an experience that led to a transformation.

Things changed when I went to Israel and learned to speak Hebrew fluently. In the process, I noticed that my reading of biblical Hebrew changed. It is difficult to fully explain this by analogy or words, but I will give a brief attempt. Basically, Hebrew changed from being very fast, instantaneous crossword puzzles to a real language, to reading a language for content from within the language. I was young, early 20’s, and naively assumed that the field would gradually move in this direction over the coming decades. I could not imagine a program ignoring the benefits involved, nor had I ever met anyone who had gone through this process up to a fluent level that regretted the time spent or did not see it as qualitatively improving one’s reading and access to the text.

Reading theory linguists attribute these outcomes to automaticity where the morphological nuts and bolts of the language are backgrounded and dropped below conscious focus, which allows more of one’s working memory to focus on interpretation and content. In a word, spoken fluency remarkably improves one’s reading skills.


2a. Living Biblical Languages was one of the first real attempts to adapt contemporary models of Second Language Acquisition to Biblical Languages, what were the things that personally prompted you to go down that track?

Probably the biggest influence was comparing Hebrew and Greek, though my African experience also helped and will be described below in the second part of the question. The results of the processes of becoming fluent in Hebrew led to a different perspective outside the traditional patterns for training in a classroom and training for Bible translators.

Twenty years after becoming fluent in Hebrew I could compare what I felt and experienced when reading the Hebrew Bible against what I felt and experienced when reading the Greek New Testament. There was a qualitative difference that had to be acknowledged. There was also a kind of brittleness and unnaturalness that I would perceive in discussions about biblical languages with colleagues or in commentaries. I would muse about ways to overcome that for the coming generation. There was no question that being able to think in a language and having the nuts and bolts automatized was an advantage. Unfortunately, automaticity is/was not achieved through grammar-translation. Trying to talk to myself in Greek was a definite wake-up experience in comparison to Hebrew.

The big challenge was finding a way to develop programs to internalize a language that could be run in a classroom. Fortunately, there are modern language programs that have done this successfully.


2b. What role did your work in Africa play in shaping this?

In Africa I was responsible for recommending training programs for occasional translation projects. One of the discoveries was finding out that there were no Christian institutions or seminaries to send students where optimal language learning methods were being taken seriously. African translators were multilingual and good language learners but intuitively they were often puzzled and frustrated by what would take place in “biblical language” classes. My sensitivity to the need of a radical, paradigmatic change in biblical studies was reinforced by watching Bible translators from Africa go off for two or more years of training in biblical language(s) and returning with skills far below what is possible, for example, in programs like Goethe Institute for German and German literature. So both the end product, what is achieved in twenty years, and the introductory phase, what is achieved in two years, fall far short of what is possible with human language learning.

Surely institutions interested in the Bible and Bible translation could do better and develop state of the art language learning. If twenty years of grammar-translation do not produce fluency, then what should be done? What could be done?


3. How did you first go about developing communicative methods for teaching biblical languages?

Basically, it meant applying what was most efficient in second language theory. Put simply, this means doing what is known to work well, and avoiding what is known to hinder or work poorly for internalizing a language.

One widely recognized and tested introduction into a language is what is known as “Total Physical Response” developed by James Asher in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Something similarly effective and able to be reduced to paper were the “Learnables” picture series developed by Harry Winitz. Both of those methodologies could be directly applied to ancient languages. Probably the first time I worked on the issue was running a Biblical Hebrew workshop for translators in a sub-Saharan African country in 1994. Response was enthusiastic but follow-up became an immediate problem. The first time for Greek was in a one-night per week Greek class in Jerusalem in 1996-1997. Again, class response was very positive and enthusiastic. During the Greek class we worked out the picture sequences that became Living Biblical Hebrew and Living Koine Greek 1, based on the Winitz system. We also worked out some of the classroom TPR sequences for Greek. The next question is connected. See below.

In more recent years we have adopted interactive storytelling techniques from Blaine Ray’s TPRS. This adds a lot of language production on the part of the student. It has also worked well in our fluency workshops which have focused on increasing teachers’ fluency.


4. What were some of the difficulties in developing teaching methods and developing materials?

A big challenge was how to provide live, interactive materials for a self-study audience in a low-tech environment. I decided to build on a system that had grown out of the “army successes” of World War Two and later was adopted by the Foreign Service Institute. Those require good student motivation to be successful, something that frequently accompanies self-study learners. The result was what we call Living Biblical Hebrew Part 2 and Living Koine Greek Part 2. These materials would carry on after our Part 1 introduction to the language through either TPR (in live classes) and/or “pictures” (in the Part 1 book). In Part 2, students were given dialogues to listen to and memorize, many audio drills, some grammar notes, and fully annotated readings from original texts, including insights from sophisticated text-linguistic readings. The materials in Part 2 were written on two levels, a main text that could be followed by students of a high school age and above, as well as footnotes that were intended for more of an academic and linguistic audience.

A bigger challenge, though, is in the classroom. Every year I meet teachers who say something along the lines of “yes, I know that you [i.e. ‘me’-RB] are going down the right path, but I am not capable of running a classroom in the language. How do I jump the gap?” That is a big challenge, how does one jump the gap when the teachers have not been trained to speak or think in the language? Our “fluency workshops” have been a first attempt at helping teachers begin to tool up to bridge the gap.

We have been encouraged in the outcome. Quite a few participants, more than we expected, have gone home from the BLC fluency workshops with the confidence, beginning skill sets, and tools to start teaching “communicatively.” Some of these are included among those you have been interviewing.

Another difficulty emerges as one watches interest in this pedagogy grow. An inherent difficulty is making sure the language you are using and internalizing in the classroom is representative of good Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek (which, unlike modern languages, are removed from us in culture and time with no mother tongue community to consult). This requires a high command of the biblical languages, deep familiarity with the biblical texts, and knowledge of how the languages developed over time. For Greek, this means researching the language in the whole corpa of Koine texts.  For Hebrew, much more limited in outside texts datable to classical Hebrew, it means making decisions how to “fill in the gaps” of words or phrases which didn’t happen to find their way into the biblical text.

Teachers need to produce material and develop material that they do not yet control. This can be deceptively more difficult than teachers may assume. Fortunately, languages can self-correct in a kind of spiral fashion. As a person learns more and produces more language they encounter structures and vocabulary that they would not have used themselves. This is then integrated into their language use and so it goes. However, the lack of production in most traditional programs does not seem to benefit from this spiraling process of self-correction.

Let me illustrate with an anecdote from a meeting on biblical language pedagogy. I was sitting in an audience with another professor, an advocate of ‘grammar-translation,’ listening to a demonstration of communicative techniques that was frankly lacking in many respects. Afterwards, the professor turned to me and commented “What was that? That misuse of the language is exactly why these professors shouldn’t be using communicative methods to teach the language.” I responded, “Please note that all of those up front have PhD’s and were trained in ‘grammar-translation’! You just got to see and hear what is actually going on in their heads when they try to process the language. Yes, it can be shocking. Without meaning to, they just demonstrated why the grammar-translation method does not produce desired or intended results. What the professors need is better materials and more fluency training.” The professor agreed that that was certainly a wake-up call on the inadequacies of grammar-translation.

Let me give a another, small example. If a teacher tries to say (ani) eshev אשב for a simple “I am sitting,” they may not realize that they have just created something that is against biblical Hebrew. (This example really happens in the guild of Hebrew teachers, like in the anecdote above.) If they become more sensitive to the language they will run across patterns like ani yoshev אני יושב in the Bible. The point is that writing materials and putting things in print is a big responsibility for the coming generation and we are not doing this lightly at BLC. We have proceeded through several iterations up the language spiral. A tremendous amount of time is spent getting things correct, finding out how things would have been said in Greek in the first century or by Jeremiah in Hebrew if transported to our time period. The point is that communicative language teaching must be committed to the highest standards of language accuracy and cannot be left in the hands of whatever someone might extrapolate from a dictionary or from a theory about what Greek or Hebrew is alleged to be. We end up interacting directly with the ancient writers and users of the ancient language in ways that are quite heuristic.

As an aside to this question I should probably discuss orality and pronunciation. When someone aims at internalizing a language, that requires using the language rapidly and massively. Rapid use of a language means listening and speaking. And listening and speaking require decisions about pronunciation. The pronunciation needs to be something justifiable that a person can live with after internalizing the language. For Hebrew that was an easy call. We use an “oriental” Israeli system that includes a true pharyngeal `ayin and Het, two sounds that were typically ignored in most biblical programs and that are considered desirable for best Hebrew reading in synagogues and official radio.

Greek was more of a problem. From papyri reading I had already known that Greek pronunciation in the first century was closer to modern Greek than the various artificial systems typically called Erasmian, including the “restored Attic” systems. My first assumption was that a modern Greek pronunciation would be best; it would connect to the Greek people and would be parallel to what was best in Hebrew. However, friends convinced me that seminaries and university profs would not consider using the language materials if they were done “modern.” So I asked my friends, “what if the materials were done in a Koine pronunciation?” Friends and colleagues agreed in principle, though it is probably fair to say that most of them were unaware how far their ‘seminary Greek’ pronunciation was out of sync with the Koine materials they were reading.

As a trained linguist that had worked out a phonology for a complex Nilotic language, I was able to distill the phonological system(s) of Koine Greek and produce a workable synthesis that could be justified and that I would be happy to end up with. The Koine system is accepted by modern Greek speakers as being “Greek” and it historically fits the expectations of what travelers and writers in the first century were exposed to. For modern speakers it only means adding a French “u” (German umlaut u, that is, a rounded high front vowel) and adding a clear [e] sound between the ι and ε. Probably a majority of those who are embracing the need to develop internalization and a spoken pedagogy have come to similar conclusions and are adopting a Koine pronunciation. That is the framework that people would have been using to listen to Paul, Mark, Peter, and Barnabas as they traveled and preached. See here [] for more details on Koine pronunciation.


5. Reflecting on the courses you’ve been involved in teaching, what sorts of outcomes do you see from students who go through BLCs programmes?

Things depend on motivation, testing methods, and opportunities. We have also had beginning students as well as teachers go through the programs. Unfortunately, the field doesn’t have standardized testing for comparison and measurement.

First of all, if students do the Picture series and/or a first level program of a BLC course, then they are ahead of typical ‘grammar-translation’ students in terms of internalization. Their brains have started to process the language as a language rather than as a math formula. This is most easily seen when such students go on to a modern ulpan program like at Hebrew University. Those with a BLC background do better than a strictly grammar-translation “biblical” background.

Furthermore, if a student diligently uses the audio drills they can achieve quite remarkable levels of vocabulary acquisition. We have been surprised by this on occasion when students will go through the audio materials thoroughly in order to prepare for an intermediate level BLC program. They come into the intermediate level significantly ahead of other students, sometimes even those students who had gone through the first level BLC program. High motivation with multifaceted audio materials can go a long way.

So summarizing, the BLC programs produce a wider vocabulary acquisition and more internalization than “traditional” programs. Knowledge of morphological structure is similar to other programs. Knowledge of discourse structure may be enhanced through the communicative methods. To use metaphors, one may compare ‘grammar-translation’ versus ‘communicative’ to putting a stick in the ground versus growing a plant. The height of the stick or plant after the first year is primarily a reflection of students’ abilities to take tests. But the plant can keep growing into a tree. The stick, on the other hand, is stuck and doesn’t grow into a tree, though it may be replaced by slightly taller sticks at a few intervals. Grammar translation can build the frame of a house, communicative methodologies eventually allow someone to live in the house.

We do not encourage a focus on metalanguage in the beginning level since that actually impedes internalization. Students going into traditional second year programs sometimes need to learn how to spit out rapidly “third masculine singular la-di-da of the something binyan from the blankety root.” That process seems to take about a month to get used to, where such gymnastics are what many teachers and students consider “language learning.” Spitting out that metalanguage means breaking one’s comprehension and communication and stepping outside of the language for a brief moment with every word and every clause. The students from a communicative background have such knowledge available and discussing this rapidly is something fairly easily learned, but it, too, takes some time and practice. In addition, it should be noted that analytical abilities that are prized by academic programs are not something shared equally among language students. Language learning is something that should be available for all, it is part of being human in the image of God, but becoming an analyst is more specialized.

One may say that communicative methodologies “widen the gate” for more students to succeed at beginning levels, and something equally important, communicative methodologies “raise the bar,” they remove the ceiling in language fluency so that students may attain much higher skill levels in the language than are achievable through “grammar-translation.” Twenty years of “grammar-translation” cannot compare to twenty years of “communicative methodology and language use.” Productive fluency is a requirement for high level reading skills. What does this latter mean? It means that one can read directly to the end of a paragraph and know what was said, picturing the whole, without the distraction of having to continually reread every phrase along the way multiple times.


6. Lastly, given that there is a growing interest in this area, what are your hopes for communicative methodologies in this field for the next few years, and what do you think is some of the needed work going forward?

In the last decade or so we have seen growing interest among Greek and Hebrew teachers at professional organizations like the Society of Biblical Literature and the Evangelical Theological Society in North America. Both organizations now have sections entitled “Applied Linguistics for Biblical Languages.” These provide a forum for discussing all of the issues that arise around language pedagogy. Pedagogy is not something that can be left in the hands of a grad student with a grammar and an attendance book. It is an academic endeavor in its own right that can reap benefits for the whole field of biblical studies down the road.

I would expect that within a decade there will be positions advertising for faculty with an included criterion “able to speak language X and teach in the language in a classroom.”

When that happens a few times in a few places, the upcoming generation of students will “smell the coffee” and endeavor to become fluent in their language BEFORE their dissertations and hitting the job market.

Until then, it would seem that most students and programs are treating fluency and communicative methodologies as “optional” and either ignoring the methodologies or using them only for widening the gate but not raising the bar. The field vitally needs the new methodologies and the greater fluency that they can produce. The internet is making more texts available to an interpreter and the next generation will need to be more fluent rather than less fluent than previous generations.