Reviewing Decker’s “Reading Koine Greek”, part 2

You can read the first part of this multi-part review here.

In this second part of the review I offer thoughts and comments on the first 10 chapters of the text.

 

Decker demonstrates a great ability to write clear and communicative introductions to ideas that will strike English monoglots as ‘new’. This is a testament to his pedagogical experience and acuity. In the first actual content chapter, he introduces the alphabet. One pleasant feature is his inclusion of a sample of his own handwriting to give students an idea of what they should ‘aim for’ and ‘exceed’! In dealing with accents, he gives beginning students enough to know what they are doing, a little bit of history to contextualise them, and relegates more detailed rules to an appendix to the chapter. Wisely, he suggests that a student’s teacher will tell them how much detail they need to know.

Also in this chapter he discusses the difference between analytic, agglutinative, and synthetic languages. Although, I think he is confused, or writes a little confusingly, in that not all agglutinative languages are limitless in their construction, and agglutination is itself a form of inflection. Anyway, his introduction here sets the reader up for the syntax versus morphology ‘shift’ that English learners need to face.

A further very commendable feature of Decker’s volume is the decision to include actual definitions rather than simply glosses for vocabulary. While Decker doesn’t have much more to add to vocabulary acquisition beyond ‘memorise this’ and ‘flashcards have worked for lots of people’, the actual presentation of vocabulary for rote-memorisation is very well done.

Chapter 2 covers the Nominative and Accusative, Chapter 3 the Genitive and Dative. Excellent features in Decker’s introduction to case includes a good, linguistically grounded, introduction to the idea of grammatical gender, reading exercises that mix Greek and English words for the very beginner student; his treatment of the Genitive is well-managed. He avoids treating it as simply equivalent to English possessive or worse, ‘of’. Instead he spends time explaining how it functions to modify or restrict a word in relation to another. He spends a good deal of time showing the range of relationships with English examples and Greek ones. Also through these chapters he begins to teach a way of doing grammatical diagramming. Many teachers employ such a technique, although personally I do not find it very helpful, I am glad to see it taught within an introductory textbook from the start.

Chapter 4 moves on to personal pronouns, and Decker includes a well-rounded discussion of issues surrounding the third-person pronoun, gender, and generic pronouns. Although I think he is slightly misinformed in thinking that singular “they” is a relatively recent innovation, his insistence that contemporary translations aim to represent the antecedent accurately, in a way that is comprehensible for contemporary usage, is spot on.

Chapter 5 moves on to verbs. Unlike the (now) venerable Mounce who pushes verbs halfway back to his book, Decker deals with them almost as soon as possible, which I suspect will allow the text to construct or offer more meaningful example texts sooner. Decker opts for tense-form in place of the traditional term tense, showing his sensitivity to contemporary debates about tense and aspect.

As the chapter proceeds, Decker’s approach is not to introduce complete paradigms for every type of verb, rather to give a reduced set of charts to memorise (personal endings, for instance), and morphological formulae for each tense-mood-form. This is, in my view, a much sounder way to teach if one is adopting a deductive grammar approach. At least this way students are analysing each word for its distinctive markers.

I suppose this is as good a point as any to put in a mild criticism of the whole grammar approach. On p81 Decker proposes that learning the Present Active Indicative of λύω is so vital that one should be able to phone the Greek student at 2am, hear an immediate recitation of this paradigm, and then go back to sleep. In contrast, an oral communicative approach would never demand this. But presumably if I rang a student in the middle of the night and told them to open the door, they should likewise respond immediately – understanding and responding, rather than reciting rote material.

Anyway, Decker is certainly right that for someone taking this approach, they really should have such a degree of rote memorisation locked away.

Chapter 6 introduces Adjectives and Adverbs. At this point I began to feel that some of the chapters were quite long. I am not sure we needed both of these together. I was also a little surprised that comparatives and superlatives were relegated to an ‘additional information’ section towards the back of the chapter.

Chapter 7 then returns to verbs, and introduces the First Aorist Active Indicative. I think this is a real point of favour to Decker – the decision to introduce the Aorist as the second verb form learnt is a recognition that it is, as he says, “the most common verb form in the NT and in the LXX” (p117), it carries the main story-line, and is relatively ‘default’ or ‘unmarked’.

Chapter 8 moves on to introduce conjunctions, and as throughout the book contains some distinct ‘snippets’ that really enrich the book. For example, p144 he gives the text from Mark 2:1-5, with a translation that utilises (&) as a marker for untranslated καί which is so frequent in Mark. Then on p145 he gives an LXX selection and explains a feature of LXX syntax. Especially the attention given to LXX ‘oddities’ is most welcome in an introductory textbook.

I thought the amount of information included in chapter 9, on prepositions and the article, probably too much. It is at this point that one feels the divergent pulls of “introductory reference text for beginners” and “introductory teaching teach for beginners”. In a chapter supposedly introducing prepositions, the great bulk of the chapter seems concerned with uses of prepositions and articles, before the vocabulary on p166-7 which really gives the student some prepositions.

I have nothing too much to say about chapter 10, which deals more with pronouns, except that it too seems a little long and might have benefited from being a number of shorter chapters.

Overall my impression from the first ten chapters is favourable. There is a pleasing layout, clear explanations, though they do err to the ‘explaining too much’ side with concepts that will only be understood from later chapters, good illustration from a range of texts, and many interesting side-bars. It’s a little difficult for me to judge whether the exercises are sufficient for a learner, but my sense is that there is not quite enough for the ‘workbook’ element. These exercises would help a learner understand the information present, but not necessarily master the content for long-term usage.

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