How to teach students the aorist vs. imperfect

Or, how to teach students aspect not time….

Here’s how 95% of Greek textbooks teach Greek verbs.

  1. Start with the present indicative. Explain it’s basically equivalent to your L1 present indicative.
  2. Introduce the imperfect indicative. Explain it’s basically equivalent to “was X-ing” or another L1 equivalent.
  3. Introduce the aorist indicative. Explain it’s basically equivalent to a simple past, “X-ed”.
  4. Introduce the present imperative.
  5. Introduce the aorist imperative.
  6. “Teacher, how can you have a past-time imperative?????????”
  7. Fail.

When you sequence your grammar to build students’ understanding of the Greek verbal system on tenses and start with the indicative where they do indeed carry temporal indications, then when you get out of the indicative, students struggle to make the leap. Because they learnt tenses and they associate them with time so they never know what to do with the aorist. So you need to ‘unlearn’ them – teach them “yes, I know that I said they are present and past, but that’s not actually what’s going on.”

Now, it’s not always a bad idea to introduce a simple version of what’s going on in a language, and then complicate it up later. But I think we can do better. And the best way to circumvent this problem is to start with imperatives early.

This is one reason I like the opening sequence in the Polis book. It starts with TPR and starts with commands. And most of those are aorist imperatives, because they represent perfective events: κάθισον. ἐλθέ. δεῖξον, κτλ. This also has the good effect of introducing aorist imperatives early and as ‘default’. But there are some presents in there too, τρέχε, περιπάτει, κτλ. And those represent imperfective actions.

Which means, if you stop and do a pop-up grammar, you can briefly explain that, e.g. περιπατεῖν is an ongoing, continuous, imperfective thing. κλεῖσον τὴν θύραν is by default a perfective, wholistic event.

And, voila, you’ve taught aspect before tense, and you can carry that forward. And every time you meet an non-indicative, you point them back to aspect. And you’re also a leg-up in teaching the indicative, because you can point them to aspectual contrast, e.g. in the past-time indicatives.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: How to teach students the aorist vs. imperfect — The Patrologist | Talmidimblogging

  2. I was helping a student prepare to start learning greek this year, which got me thinking about how best to start students on the right foot w.r.t aspect. The current method tends to focus on time as primary, and so for lack of a better word, I wanted to find a way to inoculate my student against any misunderstandings. I like the idea of bringing in the non-indicatives early, and it does synergise well with a more active classroom style.
    For my efforts I ended up just trying to stress aspect while introducing verbs. I did, as a good disciple of Decker/Porter, introduce aspect/proximity as a possibility with the hope that it would even more drive home the ‘alieness’ of the Greek verb.
    One technique Decker uses in his textbook is to show an english translation with the tense-form indicated by formatting. On p.263 he does it with Mark 2:1-4 to try and highlight the discourse roles of the different tense-forms, which I think would be a very interesting idea to expand upon. It certainly drives home the weirdness of a rigid time focus in it’s jumping between aorist, imperfect and present.

  3. I mean, one certainly can teach aspect primary from the start in the indicative. Indeed, one should. As I’ve said before, I think the proximity/distance understanding of aspect along Porter’s lines is basically wrong.

    We don’t stick to a single tense-form in telling English stories, why would Greek? I can certainly see the value in Decker’s approach of using formatting to highlight in a paratextual manner the features of the text, especially those that are difficult to convey in translation.

  4. The quest for the greek verb continues.
    What “delighted” me starting Hebrew was to find out that there is a parallel debate amongst Hebrew scholars about their own verb. The next language I learn is going to be Italian or something, because this is getting taxing…

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