Some rambling thoughts on an ideal ancient languages classroom

A response to Fran’s comments here.

I don’t think anything I have to say here is particularly new, from my perspective, in that I haven’t changed my views that much in the past couple of years. An old but still valid post on this topic is here.

I’m convinced pedagogically, and experientially, that an ancient languages class ought to major on comprehensible input and communicative methods even if the main orientation of study at a macro level is the reading and interpretation of texts. The not-as-traditional-as-presented Grammar/Translation methodology does not produce good readers of texts, except almost accidentally among those who do enough G/T to get a relatively large among of ‘exposure’ to comprehensible input.

It does produce students, among those who survive, capable of commenting on texts using grammatical jargon. This is not totally useless, but teach grammar and you produce grammarians.

Meta-language discussions (linguistics/grammar) I would want to (a) teach in the medium of the language itself, (b) teach in (English/other) separately to the language classroom.

I do think there’s a difference between seminary settings and college/university/other settings. That primarily has to do with time available to students for languages, and scope of their target texts. Seminary students primarily want to read a very limited corpus (e.g. the New Testament), which is understandable but problematic (from a language perspective), and they have more restricted time (a Greek course sitting precariously amidst myriad other commitments). Students in, say, a classics program (or parallel situation, but I’ll stick to rambling about Classics for now) ought to do a lot more language, a lot earlier, and shift their upper level courses into using the target language as medium of discussion.

What else would I want to say? I don’t think it’s true that most teachers of Greek at theological colleges have only one year of actual Greek study. Based on my analysis of staffing practices, Greek is almost always taught by New Testament lecturers with PhDs in New Testament. The problem there is not lack of Greek, but that how much Greek you need for a PhD in New Testament is surprisingly limited.

I don’t do enough communicative work in my own limited teaching, partly my own failings, partly due to the fact that I predominantly tutor students enrolled in other people’s programs who need to conform to those expectations not my own. I do think with a free hand, a radical overhaul is worth it.


12 responses

  1. Thanks for that. Helpful food for thought, especially alongside the other post you linked.

    Have you read Alana Taylor’s PhD thesis (University of Birminham): Potential Applications of Second Language Acquisition Theory and Modern Language Teaching Curriculum to Koine Greek Pedagogy? I’ve been rereading it this week. She has a sound grasp of linguistic theory, and surveys a broad range of LA approaches. I find it very balanced and thorough.

    I can certainly understand the benefits of incorporating communicative methods into the ancient language classroom. In fact, I cannot see that there’s a helpful reason to exclude it, but perhaps it’s more helpful to talk about degrees of doing so, depending on teacher competence and curriculum flexibility. For example, having a list of (Greek language) reflection questions to be asked of students in class as they read through a text to prompt teachers if they don’t feel competent to launch into a Greek conversation, so that the students need to process the information in Greek before they translate. From what I have read re: modern language acquisition (for my MAAL studies, so unrelated to Greek), there is a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that both real language exposure and explicit grammatical instruction are to be recommended when dealing with adult learners.

    What I’m really not sure of is the benefit of teaching students to chat as in the case of the BLC crew (from what I can see – I know there is a lot more to it than that). The reality is that among bilinguals it is very common to have language competency relevant to the area in which he or she uses that language. For example, if they use German only in the workplace, but English across all contexts, then their German vocabulary is much less likely to include informal greetings, pantry items and other household conversation topics. I can see a real benefit in using live conversation (even if half scripted) in the ancient language classroom from a language acquisition point of view, but I see little benefit in artificially extending the topics beyond the scope of what is textually (or culturally) relevant. That’s why I’m interested in looking at the value of papyrus documents for bible college language teaching, because they really do provide very accessible glimpses into everyday life, are “real” Greek, and there’s an endless supply of them. They also allow for variety according to priorities, and provide very interesting conversations about textual issues etc. I can certainly see the value of conversation about the texts being in Greek.

    As much as some people talk about the universal appeal of learning languages with the communicative method, there are some of us in the world who actually don’t like chit chat that much and don’t find learning in groups particularly appealing or helpful! There has to be a degree of recognition that there never can be a one size fits all, which is what I hear you saying.

    I completely agree regarding standards of Greek of college teaching. The amount of Greek covered (from a grammar point of view) in first year bible college is equivalent to 6 weeks at uni, and unfortunately the only “real” Greek that’s considered relevant enough to translate from is from the New Testament anyway, so of next to no value as a language learning practice (given the students are already so familiar with the English version). I don’t think that’s good enough, but I have to be realistic enough to acknowledge that it is the state of affairs and it is unlikely to change soon! I am starting my MDiv project next semester (so extremely limited in scope) looking at the challenge of applying these things to the context of Bible Colleges. We shall see what happens.

    Well, I have to prepare a preschooler Sunday school lesson before it gets too late… that’s enough rambling from me!

    • Just to clarify, in saying that some of us don’t enjoy chit chat, I’m actually not saying that communicative methods aren’t applicable to some students. I do understand that there are consistent realities in how our minds acquire language. I think what I’m trying to say is that even with that acknowledgment, there is no such thing as universal appeal in a language course. The personalities of instructors, course style etc. will all have a part to play in that. As well as the fact that different students do have very different goals for language study, some of whom do just want a crash course in metalinguistic terminology. I’m not particularly convinced that the latter goal is helpful (or wise), but that is the reality.

  2. I haven’t read Taylor’s thesis, but I will add it to my to-read list. It sounds right up my alley.

    I think all shifts to more communicative methods are, indeed, have to be relative to where are teacher is at and with consideration to what is possible. But every step in that direction is generally a good one.

    As for “chatting”, my experience in Mongolian is that you can’t really get domain specific learning without at least a core of conversational ability. But that domain specificity will emerge naturally in relation to the material read and discussed. I am very good discussing biblical texts, theology, and grammar in Mongolian, because I spent a lot of time discussing those things. However that domain-specificity requires a core of conversationality.

    I don’t know what the BLC crew’s sessions look like in-person, but based on their materials, it seems like their working domains of vocabulary are those directed towards entering 1st century life in Judea – which is the exact kind of domain students need to acquire if they are to read New Testament texts well.

    I don’t like chit-chat, and I don’t like groups, but I think even as an introvert recognising that languages is fundamentally about communication and that acquisition is fundamentally social, forces one to give up the dream of becoming competent by studying individually to inert materials.
    However, all teachers and students are different, there must be flexibility, I think that’s a given.

    My thoughts on structure and small groups in that other post are partly shaped by the fact that I think language courses should go from the 3 hours lecture, 6-9 hours ‘expected outside class hours’, which is really a content-delivery model, to a 9-12 hrs of actual language instruction per week. That requires either a huge demand on a solitary teacher, or a dispersed model with multiple modes of engagement.

    • Yes, I understand and probably agree with most of what you’re saying. What I meant by chatting focus is in response to a fairly scathing remark from Streett (who seems well aligned with BLC’s views, which is fine) that seminary Greek teachers’ competency is next to nil because they couldn’t cough up ‘basic’ vocabulary at random: items like cat, ball, monkey, hello etc. I suspect that the people he was surveying did have a fairly ‘passive’ knowledge of Greek, but I don’t think that this kind of vocabulary is necessarily a good measure of it. He seems to too quickly align first language and subsequent language acquisition. I may not be expressing myself very well, but there is just something about this emphasis that doesn’t sit right with me. I am struggling to find critical application of a variety of LA theories (outside of Krashen and Hymes) to the context. Taylor’s thesis as an exception. The assumption in a lot of the discussion is simply that the situation between ancient and modern languages are the same, as well as primary and subsequent language acquisition, without teasing out the very complex differences between the two.

      As an aside, I wonder if looking at semantically simpler vocabulary as building blocks for conversation, paired with lemma frequency might be a more helpful measure (cf. semantic primes theory, not that I would go that far).

      Again, your remarks re: Mongolian are still applying modern experiences to a very different context. I am willing to see that there is a great deal of similarity, given the fact that languages are, as you say, for communication, I’m just still thinking through how the differences are relevant to the conversation.

      It’s ok, I won’t keep bombing your blog with this conversation. It’s just good reading what other people have to say because this is basically a conversation I’ve been having with myself and no one else for around 10 years other than reading papers and trying to think through the application of my linguistic studies. I guess (ironically) what I’m latching onto is the difficulty of thinking through something outside the context of conversation.

  3. If you didn’t read them earlier, in 2014 I interviewed 8 people doing ‘communicative Greek language teaching’ (the top of this post has links to all 8:

    Of course, my experience with Mongolian is not a perfect analogue for the situation, very few things are. Probably the best analogue is what’s going on in the world of Latin teaching, because (a) there are more Latinists and more students (b) more SLA informed practices, (b) communicative-based methods are further along.

    >The assumption in a lot of the discussion is simply that the situation between ancient and modern languages are the same, as well as primary and subsequent language acquisition, without teasing out the very complex differences between the two

    I’m not sure that is true. At least, from where I stand and the people I’ve spoken to, they are simply arguing that while the *situation* beteen ancient and modern languages varies greatly, there’s nothing intrinsic to the nature of ancient languages that compels an argument to teach them differently, as they have been for the past few hundred years. Meanwhile, I don’t know anybody outside of corporations that doesn’t recognise how different 1st language and 2nd language acquistion is. Again, the push is to recognise that 2nd lang. acq. is not driven by explicit grammar instruction.

    There is definitely a larger conversation going on about these things, by people invested in linguistics and/or classroom experience, but more needs to be done/thought/read/tested/developed.

  4. No of course. I know it’s a much larger conversation. I am also extremely aware of my own ignorance/lack of experience. As I’ve said above, my motivation is to study it further.

    What I mean is that it doesn’t seem very clear to me how those contextual differences are being applied, and how that informs course content. I don’t think there is any innate difference between modern/ancient lang as such. I simply mean the context of learning is different and the purpose of learning is different. As Michael Halliday said, writing is not speech written down. The two are functionally and structurally different. I realise those facts are acknowledged, but I don’t understand how they are playing out practically. To me, suggesting that a seminarian’s vocabulary is inadequate on the basis that they don’t know vocabulary that a child would know (ball, cat, monkey etc) isn’t a particularly enlightening test. That seems to suggest assumptions about what makes for relevant language knowledge based on childhood, but perhaps I’ve completely misread his meaning. As said above, I agree that G-T on its own does not usually result in language competency, and as far as the value of using all language faculties for learning, I am fully on board with that.

    I need to read further, but the impression that I get is that much SLA as applied to koine Greek (and again, I need to read further re: Latin etc) seems to represent some research that was done several decades ago, and the more recent research has barely been acknowledged. A lot of SLA is now moving away from prior assumptions about native speaker competence as a goal, spoken language being the foundation of written language etc. Moreover, there is actually no consensus on what best practice is for SLA with modern languages, whereas claims seem to be thrown around the classical/biblical language teaching circles such as ‘this course is based on language acquisition research’ or ‘language acquisition theory tells us…’ as though there really is any such (homogenous) thing!

  5. Fran, You need to sign up to our Ancient Greek Best Practices (AGBP) – a Google group we set up for discussions just like this. It’s been fairly inactive, but it’s still there waiting for more people like you to engage. Seumas (though he might not remember) is a co-owner of the group.!forum/ancient-greek-best-practices

    I’m in the middle of a master’s in Foreign Language Acquisition (online through Michigan State University). There’s much I’m learning that plugs directly into some of the questions you and Seumas raise. It will probably be delayed, but I will respond to and expand on some of the points in this thread and the thread of the orginal Orberg post on AGBP.

    In the meantime, I think you’ll be very interested in the Latin Best Practices listserve.
    I haven’t had time to follow it lately, but in my earlier days of learning to teach Koine communicately, it was my life-line.

    Paul Nitz

    • Thanks for this, Paul. I do want to join this group. I have just had over a month of dealing with sick children (on top of a full time study load, plus paid work), so I’m still reeling from that! My Intro/Methodology was due last Friday, so I need to ‘complete’ that before I allow myself to get up to speed on all the fascinating contributions from the international community. I’m finding it really hard balancing children and study!

      I’ve roped my husband into starting the CKI’s intro Koine course this coming weekend, so I’m anticipating that will give me a lot of food for thought. I’m so looking forward to deepening my knowledge of Greek and taking it into new areas!

      At first I found it destabilising how diverse the various voices contributing to the Koine teaching picture are. However, if you compare it to the modern language teaching arena, this might be an advantage in the long run.

      I am in the process of studying a Master of Applied Linguistics, looking primarily at Language Acquisition. It’s exciting how much rigorous study is going into this area in the worldwide community. It is deeply encouraging to me! I started teaching myself Greek as an 11 or 12 year old with very little external input (Strong’s concordance and ‘Little Greek 101’ (Jonathan Robie)). The situation is so different for students trying to learn now!

  6. Thanks so much for the tip on Alana Taylor’s thesis.
    A quick look at the contents makes me excited to read it.

    Taylor, A. I. (2009). Potential applications of second language acquisition theory and modern language teaching curriculum to koine greek pedagogy. University of Birmingham. Retrieved from

    This thesis explores the possibility of changing the prevailing method of teaching for Hellenistic Greek, which is the grammar-translation method. First the processes of first and second language acquisition (i. e. how we as human beings learn to understand and produce language and the reasons why) are explored in order to illustrate that the learning of a language is distinct in many ways from the learning of other types of information; and therefore requires a teaching method specifically designed to instruct students in a language’s phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. From there, the work moves on to show how a growing understanding of those processes has affected the evolution of modem language teaching curriculum; and to show some ways in which the various syllabi and new methods can be applied to instruction in Koine. Finally, it reviews course materials already available for Greek teachers, their strengths and weaknesses in light of what language acquisition involves.

    Available (with registration) here:

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