The Pilot and the Mechanic

(These are some notes I am drawing up for an Intro Greek class; the proximate source the analogy is Mike Aubrey over at It’s a very versatile analogy, when you put it to use; like all analogies, it has points of dis-analogy though.

Welcome to flight school! Before we get going in learning Greek, I want to talk about two type of learning, and the type of approach we’ll be taking in this course.

Languages are incredibly interesting things, and they can also do incredibly useful things. In this way, a language is a bit like a plane. Planes can fly, which is amazing, but it’s also what they were designed to do.

When it comes to learning a language, what do we mean? Researchers in the area of Second Language Acquisition (that is, learning any language that you did not learn by growing up with it from childhood) distinguish between (a) learning a language, and (b) learning about a language.

The first is actually acquiring the ability to use a language – to speak/hear/read/write the language. Many of you may know several language like this. Most of us learnt our first language like this. This is language acquisition.

The second is learning about how a language works. That is, things like grammar (the rules governing a language), or more broadly linguistics (the scientific analysis of language). This is language learning.

These two things are not the same. They are related, they can influence each other, but they don’t lead to each other directly. Language acquisition is like going to flight school, and language learning or Grammar, is like going to mechanical school.

A pilot knows how to fly a plane. They can take it up in the air and control it. They may not even really understand how their plane works on the inside, but they know how to fly it. So too with languages – people speak, read, understand, all the time, often without knowing how their language ‘works’, indeed they can even have lots of wrong ideas about how their language works, and still use it perfectly well.

A mechanic knows how the plane works. They understand the pieces, how they fix together, how it all functions. That’s a lot like being a linguist – a trained linguist understands how languages work, and often in detail how a particular language or group of languages works. They don’t need to speak those languages (and very often don’t!). But they might! A mechanic might also know how to fly a plane, but that’s not what it takes to be a mechanic. A pilot might learn about the mechanics of their plane, which is really helpful, but not the same as flying.

Pilots, Mechanics, and You.

A lot of ancient languages, including Koine Greek, have traditionally been taught using the ‘mechanic’ approach, for various reasons. This tends to produce people who are successful at analysing Greek passages. It is a very slow way of producing people who can read and understand Greek texts.

I take it that our goal here is primarily two-fold:

  • to learn to read Greek well enough to read the New Testament with some degree of fluency and ease (and other Koine literature).
  • to learn to analyse Greek in order to talk about the grammar of texts, and to interact with scholarly work on the New Testament (and other Koine literature).

The first is a flying goal, the second is a mechanical goal. You might lean more towards one or the other, you might find one or the other easier. You might find one or the other intimidating. Those are perfectly normal and fine reactions to have.

In this course, then, I’m trying to both teach you to fly, and teach you the mechanics of how planes work. That is, I’m going to be trying to teach you to understand Koine Greek as a proper, living language that you can not only read, but speak/hear/write a little bit (though our focus in the end will be reading). I’ll also be teaching you the nuts and bolts of how Greek works.

I expect that most of you want to be better pilots, and if you’ve ever studied an ancient language, I also expect that you think studying mechanics is the way to get there. That’s the biggest myth I want to dispel today – studying the blueprints of a plane does very little to help you fly it. So, too, the rate of return on studying grammar to understanding a language fluently is marginal. Not zero, but definitely not high.



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