The Borg Cube analogy for language learning, complete with spiders

I often find myself coming up with analogies and illustrations that help students understand not only how a particular piece of language works, but how languages, and language learning, works as a whole. Here’s one that I think is good, but a little bit odd.

Think of your language ‘knowledge’ as a kind of cubic tower. And you’re trying to build it. And there are three factors in this analogy that you can work on. Firstly, you can build up. The tower gets taller. This is adding grammatical understanding of syntax, and morphology. You pick up your textbook, read about feature X in the language, find out how comparisons work, or indirect statements, etc., and the tower gets taller.

Now, a lot of textbooks in the grammar mold, they’re prime aim is to get you through ‘all the grammar’. That is, to get your tower up to a minimum specified height, as quickly as possible. Yes, you need a bit of vocab along the way, but that’s mostly secondary to them. And this is the premise of all titles that talk about ‘teaching you all of X language’, they mean ‘all the grammar’. But tall towers are very flimsy.

Secondly, then, you can acquire vocabulary. And in this analogy, that’s extending the breadth and depth of your tower. It’s thickening the diameter, extending the sides. Maybe your cube is actually a triangle. Maybe it’s a cylinder. Whatever. maybe it’s an odd shape because you have extensive breadth in only a few specific domains of language use. Who knows. The point is, vocabulary doesn’t scale up, it scales out. Think of every piece of vocabulary as an individual piece of the cube, but they are posts, bars, planks, etc.. So, build a broad tower that’s not so high, it’s still pretty useful. You can talk about lots of stuff, in simple language. Build a broad, high cube, now we’re talking.

But there’s a third feature to the cubes we build. And that’s the spiders. Imagine the spiders are semi-autonomous robot spiders, and what they do is they shoot across your whole tower with spiderweb, linking individual ‘chunks’, morphological chunks, syntactical chunks, and vocabulary chunks. They jump from low to high, from near to far, up, down, sideways, and everytime they do they are making a connection, and those connections are thickening the cohesion of your language inside your mind. It’s this that creates the structural integrity that let’s the cube-tower rise higher and higher, and get broader and deeper, without all falling apart.

And this is why I’m never in a rush to add too much height or too much breadth to learner’s language-systems, too quickly. Slowly, slowly, we can add more words, more morphosyntactic structures, but the real question for me is how much time are we spending exposing your brain to messages in the language. That’s what is going to keep making those connections, and binding in the new elements, the new vocabulary and new structures, into the Cube.

Greek for ‘that’s interesting’…

There’s two types of modern expressions that present difficulty for speaking ancient languages:

  • names for things they didn’t have
  • expressions for things they didn’t say

In many cases (1) isn’t so bad. You just have to neologise. How do you say helicopter, television, mobile (=cell) phone, etc etc..? Even coffee, tea, present problems, but not insurmountable ones. For Latin, with its longer continual history, it’s often easier. For speaking ancient Greek modernly, various strategies can be used: adapting an ancient word with a similar meaning; using the Greek equivalent to a Latin word used for the same modern thing; deriving a (sometimes entirely fictive) ‘ancestor’ form for a contemporary Greek word.

The second issue is much more problematic. Consider the expression, “It’s interesting…”. In Latin, we can use phrases involving studiumstudium me tenet, studium me excitat, and the like. Greek is, it seems, more tricky.

I asked my good friend Στέφανος about this, as I often do, and he proffered a few suggestions:

διαφέρει — it’s important

ἄξιον σπουδῆς — something worthy of zeal/esteem/effort

προσέχω τινὶ τὸν νοῦν, τὸν νοῦν ἔχω πρός τινα – expressions for paying attention to something.


None of these, as he recognised, quite fits. We want something for “here is a thing that is worth paying attention to/thinking about”.

But perhaps we can build off these. ἄξιον + infinitive makes a good impersonal structure for “worth doing X”. So…

ἄξιον τοῦ τὸν νοῦν προσέχειν – worth paying attention to

ἄξιον διαλέγεσθαι – worth talking about

ἄξιον ἐπὶ ᾧ νομίζειν – worth thinking on,

ἄξιον μελετᾶσθαι – worth contemplating


Take these out for a spin, let me know what you think.

On neglecting, or choosing not to learn, new languages

I always marvel when scholar X talks about ‘picking up a new language’ like it’s nothing. Or even like it’s something. Perhaps I’m actually bad at languages. (I don’t believe that people are good or bad at languages, aka language aptitude).

For myself, I made a conscious decision to not continue investing in more languages. I’ve written previously about my experiences, learning (to one degree or another) some Japanese, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Mongolian, and Scottish Gaelic, and superficial dabblings in French and German.

I’ve reached a point in life where I know that I do not have the time, either week by week, or long term, to truly learn French of German to a useful point. I have largely abandoned them. My Hebrew is… rusty. 3 years of grammar and exegesis at seminary were indeed useful, but the apex of my Hebrew ability is gone.

And yet, I do not mourn these, except insofar as I mourn the opportunity lost of many good things in this life. But my choice is not a passive one, it’s a very intentional and active one.

It’s the choice to pursue few languages deeper. I want to know Greek, Latin, and Gàidhlig really, really well. ‘Superior Speaker’ well. ‘Read any text with relative ease’ well. Converse with comfort well. And that takes a lot more focus, dedication, and narrowing, than ‘learning’ 15 languages would, or worse, 15 grammar + dictionary usage abilities.

I’ve been at these three a long time now. And not always efficiently. Well, not always optimally. The longer I’m in this game, the better I understand the game itself, getting better at learning languages, and learning these three better.

Reading in 3s

This was mentioned to me by a student recently in a small group class that I am kind-of mentoring, and I think it’s worth adapting and sharing. The original idea, or at least where the student got it from, is Daniel Wallace, here. It’s the idea that you should translate each chapter of the New Testament three times, and rotate chapters in and out of rotation.

Now, I don’t really think you should be translating, I think you should be reading passages at a level you can comprehend with just a little bit of help. But I do think this idea has a lot of merit. Here’s how I’m implementing it in my own readings: the rule of 3s (see also Where Are Your Keys technique: Three Times)

So, say I’m reading a text, like Ørberg’s Roma Aeterna (which I happen to be. Everyone raves about the first book, Familia Romana, and for good reason, but the second book might be even more well-thought out than the first, for different reasons). I decide that reading 3 pages of text is enough for each reading session (i.e. each day or so), and so I read like this:

Day 1: Pages 1, 2, 3.

Day 2: Pages 2, 3, 4

Day 3: Pages 3, 4, 5 etc..

This is a really helpful reading strategy for comprehension and for repetition. After you “get-going” in a text, 2/3 of your reading will be re-reading. So you get a chance to tackle that material two extra times before leaving it behind. It should be easier those times, right? So you’re getting repetition, and slightly spaced repetition, but you shouldn’t be getting bored or overwhelmed, because you’re moving forward.

Also, your new material for the day is contextualised. You don’t have to pick it up and wonder where you were and what was going on. You create your own lead-in to the new section of material.

You can do this on a page level, or multiple pages, or sections, or however your text is divided and however you want to carve it up. Just remember that you’re probably better underestimating your ability to get through text, than being gung-ho ambitious at the start. You can always scale your reading up, but if you start with overly high expectations you may end up giving up rather than scaling down.

This is one approach I’m trying for extensive reading with a few texts I’ve got “on the slow burner” at the moment. Try it out and let me know how it goes for you.

The New understandings in Greek, Part 4: Voice

This week we’re going to talk about voice in Greek and ‘deponency’. In some ways this is the most radical element of the new understandings, for those training in a traditional scheme. And yet, on the other hand, it is one of the elements about which there is the most consensus.

Here’s how traditional grammars tend to teach voice, overly simplified to what students normally take in.

Active voice refers to sentences where the Subject does the action of the verb.

I study the Greek language. (study is a verb in the active voice).

Passive voice refers to sentences where the Subject receives the action of the verb.

The Greek language is studied by me. (is studies is a verbal phrase in the passive voice).

So far so good, for English anyway. But when we take students to Greek we have the disconcerting problem that there appear, in some tense forms, to be not 2, but 3 voices.

The aorist, in particular, has three voice forms, traditionally labelled active, middle, and passive.

That middle voice is the one hardest for English speakers to grasp, and it’s often taught as ‘kind of in the middle between active and passive, with some idea of the Subject doing the action with some kind of respect to themselves and please figure it out from context.’

Then you have two more features that appear as problems: (1) Quite a few of the tense-forms, including the present, have no distinction between so called ‘middle’ and ‘passive’ forms. (2) Important verbs appear with a middle but no active voice form. ἔρχομαι is a very good example. Traditional grammars borrow from Latin and have called these deponents, meaning a verb that is active in meaning but uses a middle/passive form for the active.

This may well describe how you were taught Greek. Here are the bombshells if you’ve never heard this before:

  • The primary voice contrast in Greek is between ‘active’ and ‘middle’, not ‘active’ and ‘passive’.
  • There are no such thing as deponents.

I would say that the consensus, more or less, is that Greek developed with two voices, one of which we could call ‘active’, though ‘default’ or ‘common’ would also describe it. The focus, if there is any, is on the Subject rather than the action per se.

The second is the middle, which we could also call ‘subject involved’ or ‘subject affected’. The Subject is involved in the action in some way that affects themselves. The focus tends to shift from the subject to the action itself. The subject may or may not have an active role.

The passive, as a voice (not as a morphological set of forms) exists and develops as a subset of the Subject-Affected voice. It is one possibility for it.

Furthermore, the θη forms of the aorist are not strictly passives, and do not always ‘maintain clear boundaries’ between themselves and the aorist middle forms.

Forms that we have traditionally labelled ‘deponent’ did not lose an active, they generally never had one. They might in some cases develop active forms. But the reason they are ‘middle only’ or Subject Affected-voice only is because inherent in their meaning is something about subject-affectedness. To return to ἔρχομαι, it’s one of a number of movement verbs that ‘involve’ the subject in their own propulsion. That’s why the Greek language consistently treats it as middle.

Often this understanding of Greek voice is difficult to show in translation. Because however well you understand Greek voice, if you’re tasked with translation to English, you still have to translate into an English active or passive. So don’t feel like you somehow need to preserve ‘Subject-affectedness’ at all costs. You don’t.

But realising this about Greek voice opens up the possibility of understanding Greek better as Greek and reading middles more ‘naturally’. Get used to their Subject-Affectedness. Dwell in it. Learn to love it.

Two final things:

  • If you want a bit of a map to the different kinds of middle usage in Greek, here’s a link to my summary of Rutger Allen’s work.
  • If you want some further reading on the deponency issues, here’s a list:

Why I do Sub-Optimal Language Exercises

Why bother doing anything but the best types of language acquisition activities?

I’m a firm believer in Comprehensible Input, and fairly sold on Krashen et al., that CI is the key to language acquisition. I don’t quite buy Krashen’s “strong” version that nothing but CI is necessary, because I think he’s framing the question a little incorrectly. Krashen these days makes a strong claim that CI, only CI, is sufficient by itself for language acquisition. I think this might be true, but there are other aspects of language competency that are perhaps not quite ‘acquisition’. The ability to speak, write, produce output is probably a secondary outcome of acquisition, but in my view and experience one still needs some practice in these output skills in order to actually output.

Anyway, I do all sorts of activities that are not optimal CI activities. I read texts too difficult for me. I do ‘composition’ exercises that are really translation exercises of banal sentences from English to Greek/Latin. Lately I have been working on an idiosyncratic but modern translation of the New Testament (I’ll write more about that individually later on). Why? Why waste time?

  1. Don’t wait for the best.

There is no way to get optimal CI in Greek or Latin. There’s no language community, there’s no children’s cartoons, there’s no 5 levels of graded readers about contemporary society, there’s no young adult extensive reading materials available. One will never derive enough genuine CI from currently available resources.

  1. Output exercises are nonetheless moderately useful.

Because (a) they develop output automaticity, even if no new language is being acquired. And because (b) the process of doing the exercises does involve some CI even if suboptimal.

  1. The art of translation is itself an art to be acquired.

While it’s generally and genuinely preferable, in my view, to work mentally in the target language, there are times when one will want to translate – in either direction. There are structures of phrasing and thought that come to one naturally, and in the absence of knowing a target language structure, you tend to code switch or break thought. Working systematically to acquire some of these structures will improve translation ability.

  1. For others

I think a previous generation thought you acquired language competency largely by suffering and toil. They were wrong about that, but using sub-optimal methods requires suffering and toil because the amount of time required to get the same amount of genuine CI is so much more. The only way we will produce teachers who are competent enough to utilise more-optimal methods is if we have teachers who are prepared to suffer a little to acquire by the hard way, and generous enough to pass that on by an easier way.

Like a broken record

Q: Patrologist, why do you talk so endlessly about language acquisition?

A: Because our field is so broken. In no other field do so many people who know their target language so poorly talk with such authority. I honestly wish it wasn’t necessary, that we rather lived in a time, an age, a place, where we took for granted that people who studied ancient Greek literature knew ancient Greek, where people learned in Hebrew had learned Hebrew, where scholars of Latin had been schooled in Latin. But we do not live in such a mythical land, we live in its counterfeit where people peddle outdated methodologies to reach inadequate heights.

I believe this is changing, but slowly, and only because some are agitating – pointing out that the Emperor does indeed have no clothes. You can try it at home – approach a Greek professor or a NT one or whatever, and initiate a Greek language conversation. If you don’t get a quick χαῖρε, ὦ μαθητά, πῶς ἔχεις σήμερον; then there really is something wrong.

On the flipside, all I am saying is that we apply Best Practices from contemporary Second Language Acquisition to classical and biblical studies. This should be the least controversial thing in the world. And all I am discussing is how we can do that. There is a long road ahead of us. That’s why I keep talking about the same things over and over. Until the revolution comes.

Why there’s no communicative language approaches in classics in Australia

1. Like most places, Classics and Biblical studies are dominated by teachers who didn’t train in language teaching, know little about language acquisition, and never acquired an active ability in their chosen languages.

2. The population is comparatively small.

3. Modern language teaching in Australia does not have even the small dedicated movement of those interested in fully communicative approaches (TPR, TPRS, etc..), and so there is no possibility of spill-over into classical languages.

4. There’s thus no opportunity for teachers to attend workshops, seminars, etc., to be exposed or trained in these techniques.

5. Most online classes are run in what, for Australians, is the middle of the night, or the mid-morning of the workday, limiting the possibility of participation.

6. Summer intensives, say like those run in the States, Europe, or Israel, all occur in the Summer. Which is not summer in Australia, and so is not the summer break. Due to the extreme distance involved in travel, to participate in one of those intensives (any of them) would cost, I have calculated, anywhere between $3300 and $6800 dollars, and generally one would not get away with less than $4500.

7. The (small) population that are interested in classical languages generally don’t know about communicative approaches to these languages, don’t realise the benefits, don’t understand much about language acquisition, and are often monolingual to begin with, so there is little drive for such an approach.



Of course, there could be people doing things I haven’t heard about. If you’re in Australia doing communicative-type methods for classical languages, get in touch and tell me I’m wrong!

How fast can one learn a language?

I’ve written on this topic a few times previously, on my former blog, notably here and here. Today I want to explore a different side of this question.


I’ve previously suggested that to get to a level of ‘fluency’ in Ancient Greek or Latin, we might estimate 1100 class hours (based on comparison with contemporary Indo-European languages). That might break down to something like

100-150 hours (A1)

160-220 hours (A2)

400 hours (B1)

600-650 hours (B2)

800-900 hours (C1)

1100 hours (C2)


Maybe. We just don’t know. While there are certainly individuals with exceptional Latin and Greek ability, we don’t have quanitifiable data on this.

Okay, so I’ve also said we probably need to get students to B2, at least, in a serious language program.


At 1 hour a week, 40 weeks a year, this is 15 years. Too Long.

At 3 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, this is still 5 years. Too Long.

At 6 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, we get down to 2.5 years. This would fit in a degree program.

If we wanted fluent speakers, i.e. that was the focus of the program, we need to raise the hours to, say, 1000. Then we really need to make it a full-time course.

At 12 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, this is still 2 years. On a standard 12 contact hours per week per semester, that is a students’ full load. Probably our notion of ‘contact hours’ needs to be radically altered from the ‘lecture + tutorial/seminar’ model of Arts/Humanities Faculties.

At 24 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, a student would complete this many hours in a year. Of course, this is about 4.8 hours in the language, with a teacher, per day. That is going to be both an intensive and extensive course. We will probably not be able to teach them much else. If, heavens forbid, we design a two or three language program, then a year will not suffice.



All of this is a long, number-crunching prelude to say that it takes too long. As teachers, and even as learners, we must find ways to accelerate the process. To put it into Krashenesque terms, we want to work out how can students get maximum exposure to comprehensible input that is in the ‘sweet spot’, that is, input that is interesting, and at the limit of their comprehension so that they are always getting things that they can understand, while at the same time acquiring things they previously did not have, while providing enough repetitions, but not excessive repetition of previously acquired structures.

There are definitely no silver bullets for this. Indeed, it will vary for learner, for learning cohort, for life circumstance, and for teacher. However, of this I am certain – part of what it is to be learning as a teacher or self-reflectively as a language learning is figuring out ways to accelerate the language acquisition process. To become more efficient at using the time, and the inputs, available to us.


This is one of the things I like about Where are your Keys? Techniques, or “rules of the game”, are designed to be accelerators of learning. That’s why they exist. Every technique is built around that one facet: how to make language acquisition more efficient: more learning, less time. And, that’s why there’s no arbitrary ‘cap’ on Techniques. Sure, there are some, indeed quite a few standard TQs, but there’s no definitive no-more-than-these list. TQs get invented when something doesn’t work, and someone comes up with a way to make it work. TQs are formalising ‘what works’ and applying it. That’s meta-learning.



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.