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.