Biblingo, a review

Biblingo is an app developed for learning the biblical languages (very specifically, New Testament Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew), through a (semi-)communicative approach. I became aware of Biblingo some time ago, and followed some of their pre-launch promotional material, but more recently decided to test it out with a 10-day free trial.

Firstly, a little background. I studied Hebrew at Seminary for 3 years, doing quite well along a traditional grammar-translation track. I didn’t succeed very well in keeping Hebrew up, and so my Hebrew slowly atrophied. I did teach a course on the exegesis of Amos in Hebrew (in Mongolian), but my ability to read Hebrew now is very weak. I have off and on considered taking some communicative courses to get some Hebrew back in a more robust and active mode, but it is relatively low down my everyday priority list of languages.

You can sign up for a 10-day free trial of Biblingo at present, and that’s what I did. It gives you access to the four current ‘modules’ – Language Learning, Flashcards, Alphabet, and Bible Reading. Beyond that, one needs a subscription, for either or both languages.

The user interface is very pleasant, and generally easy to navigate. You are given some short pop-up intro videos to get you oriented, and if you don’t know the alphabet at all, there are a number of video lessons to get you acquainted with it. Those video lessons are high quality presentations, but there are no exercises to familiarise you with using the alphabet. You also have a range of choices for pronunciation in each language.

The core of the engine at present appears to be the Language Learning module. This starts off as all locked, and you need to do and complete lessons in sequence, with 3 levels, a total of 26 units across them, and 4 sub-lessons per unit. Each lesson consists of a sequence of Vocabulary, Grammar, and ‘Final Act’ or application. I can’t say if the format and organisation changes in the more advanced units, as I haven’t gotten there.

Vocabulary begins by offering you 6ish new vocabulary items, each presented with a short video or an image, with an audio track. You can click for an english language gloss, but I did not use that feature, preferring to associate image directly with word/phrase. This did leave me unsure about exactly what some verbs were portraying, but my presumption is that I’ll figure that out as I progress.

The images and videos are high quality, and tied to an imagined biblical world, that is you will see people in biblical settings, with biblical type clothing, doing biblical type things. There’s no telephones and where is the bibliothèque here.

Vocabulary proceeds through several stages: presentation, then passive knowledge (selecting the right answer from multiple choices), and ‘active’ knowledge – inputting the correct word(s) by either typing or using a word bank.

Generally, I found the typing frustrating. Partly this was some technical issues with my own Hebrew keyboard layout, but the app would benefit greatly from some kind of typing tutorial mini-app. Similar to, say, duolingo, it doesn’t penalise you for minor misspellings, such as accents, but offers a gentle reminder and a chance to ‘practice’ (i.e. retype), though the retype is not compulsory. I did notice that even when I had entered the Hebrew correctly, I was sometimes told to ‘watch my spelling’, perhaps because of a mismatch in coding between the Hebrew keyboard I was using and what the app expected. I had no problems when testing out the Greek side.

I’m not quite convinced that simply entering vocabulary by typing it out quite counts as ‘active knowledge’. It certainly helps spelling. But it still seems to me a rather limited treatment of active recall. The Hebrew/Image presentation is a good improvement over bilingual flashcards, but we are still mostly being presented with isolated vocabulary items.

Grammar in each lesson takes the vocabulary you have learnt, and puts it into sentences, with one or at most two new grammar elements per unit. Again you are prompted with a video or image, and with a symbolic presentation. The symbolic presentation uses symbols to prompt for things like definite articles, 1/2/3rd person pronouns, and the like, which would not be obvious from the videos alone. This is quite a novel feature and well executed. The movement through this section is very similar to vocabulary – presentation, ‘passive’ recognition (multiple choice with 4, then 8 options), and then active input.

The last section is usually quite short, and asks for active response to a slightly harder prompt, requiring some creative application of materials you have learnt. It is a way of testing that you’ve understood and can apply in a more adaptive way, the things you have been shown with more restricted vocabulary.

Overall the sequence of lessons is well done, it moves in very bit-sized pieces, and gives lots of opportunity for exposure and integration. I will say that a few features and perhaps critique are in order though.

The multiple choice responses could be improved on the UI level by offering keyboard numbered responses. The typed-response was frustrating in not recognising some correct responses because of presumably some Hebrew Unicode representation issues, and so I ended up using the wordbank more, which makes those exercises a little more ‘passive’ again. There’s no way to skip lessons, or even to skip to, e.g., the latter part of a lesson that you’ve already completed, you have to work through each one in sequence, and if you ‘retake’ a lesson, you need to go through it from the start.

The inability to skip/unlock was frustrating, partly because I wanted to check out some more advanced Greek lessons. I have a very solid knowledge of Greek, but the linear direction of the app prevented me using features that would be useful for me, without investing significant time.

Two other modules are present in the app. Flashcard Deck is a spaced-recognition presentation of vocabulary that either (a) you have tackled in the lessons, (b) some preset decks (fairly limited at present), or (c) custom decks (to which you can add words from the Bible Reading module). The flashcard deck presents the vocabulary in ‘sets’, and asks you to work through the same association>passive>active sequence as are presented in the Language Learning module. For that reason it was also, in my view, a little tedious. I couldn’t indicate I ‘strongly’ knew a word for instance, and so I had no choice but to see it over and over, nor vice versa. I would like to have seen a more fine-grained version of ‘how well you know a word’ in the vocabulary engine.

The last module, and the most recently released, is Bible Reading. This is really meant for more advanced learners, it seems, so for this review I’ll talk a bit more about the Greek version. Essentially, you have the chance to browse the Bible at Book, Chapter, Verse level, and at each level it indicates what percentage of the words you know. You can thus sort and look for parts that you know more vocabulary, and which therefore should be easier to read.

Then, when you select a book, each word (or morphemes in the Hebrew version) is colour coded based on whether you know 0, learning-some, learning-all, or know-all sense of the word. Each word can be clicked, and you are given a ‘dictionary pop-up’ which divides the word into various senses, divided by semantic domain (this seems to draw on Louw-Nida). Pictures are given where available, but otherwise English glosses. Each word also has parsing information.

Navigating the Greek version of this, it was fairly cumbersome to try and ‘fast-track’ what I already know. So I couldn’t easily bring the app up-to-speed with what I knew, without again investing significant time in teaching it.

Nonetheless, especially for someone working from scratch, this is a good feature. Though it could be improved – it still presents the biblical text, and only the biblical text, as its reading input. So your ‘input’ options in biblingo are either isolated sentences in the language learning module, or raw biblical books.


The biblingo interface is smooth, and the underlying principles are generally sound. The de-emphasis of explicit grammar, the modulisation and indeed granularization of learning chunks, and the focus on image/video material for direct association of vocab, are all great features. So, too, is the use of a symbolic code for sentence structures.

I’ve now done a week of Hebrew, 15mins or more a day, and I feel like I understand everything i’ve been presented and can respond to it clearly, directly, and in Hebrew. That’s what you want in language learning, and that’s what I’m getting on this app.


The structure of learning is very linear, and each sub-unit has to be worked through in sequence, and as a block. There remains something of an emphasis on passive recognition, even in ‘active’ exercises. Comprehensible Input is limited to isolated sentences, and there is no truly ‘communicative’ component to Biblingo – I am interpreting meaning at an atomised level, but only for the purpose of language learning, not for any other purpose. I am also not actively outputting meaning-based language, and there’s no negotiating of meaning between parties, it’s all one way in that sense.

The fine-grained nature of ‘know/don’t know’ is not adequately, or at least adequately transparently, presented to the learner, so it feels like overkill on some words, underkill on others, and knowledge also appears to be mostly tied to vocabulary knowledge. For biblingo to be more data-driven and user-responsive, it needs to find ways to track learners’ exposure, and comprehension, of other features of language (e.g. syntax).

I would also suggest that biblingo simply doesn’t provide enough, and enough variety, of comprehensible input. The gap between ‘isolated sentences’ and ‘biblical texts’, is enough to mean that the jump from one to the other is too far. Learners need extensive exposure to CI, and that means broad and wide and varied input. This has long been a problem for historical languages, and is only starting to be addressed for Latin. It’s an ongoing problem for Greek, which I try to solve for my own students in a variety of creative ways (mostly involving finding new easy things for them to read).


Despite these criticisms, I find biblingo engaging enough as an app, and I am learning some genuine Hebrew without explicit grammar (which I mostly try to ignore even when it pops up), and without translation. That’s a very significant difference to any other app/program/asynchronous set of materials out there (though there are some other options, yes), and for which the biblingo team ought to be applauded. And, work on biblingo (to all appearances) is ongoing, so it may yet improve and offer more and richer ways to learn.

To find out more about Biblingo, see their website.


Reading Greek: a review

A short foreword: I thought, thanks to a suggestion, that I’d start blogging my way through reviews of introductory materials in Greek and Latin. I don’t pretend to thoroughness or rigour, just my thoughts on textbooks and readers I’ve dealt with in some way or another. I’ll alternate between Greek and Latin as best I can for the duration of the series. I’m also open to requests.

No further ado required:

Another product of the late 70s, Reading Greek appeared as a joint project (a second edition, much improved, appeared in 2007) under the auspices of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. It aimed to produce a reading-method text via a “continuous, graded Greek text, adapted from original sources”, and then accompany this with grammar explanations, and exercises. In the first edition, this was done in two volumes, with running vocabulary notes put into the second volume, the first being the main text alone.

The text itself is a tour-de-force. It has nineteen sections, with various subsections, and moves quite rapidly from a heavily adapted ‘framing’ story, to more lightly-adapted material drawn from classical texts (primarily 5th century Attic material, but not entirely). The spread of material through the nineteen section suffers from being uneven (some sections are shorter, others longer), and on the whole moving to too complicated Greek too quickly (a problem with most readers). The removal of the vocabulary to a second volume was a mistake, rectified in the second edition which (a) moved the vocabulary to the same volume, and (b) fixed another glaring problem, the linking device. The first edition had ‘connected works’ marked by a ‘linking device’, and then listed those words as a group in the vocabulary. This was fine in principle, except using the article this way made the vocab a mess.

The grammar presentations in the first edition are cramped, and not particularly user-friendly. They are followed by the usual Grammar-Translation exercises. The formatting in the second edition improves some of the first issue – grammar is presented more readably and with better formatting.

My own experience with RG is really using it as a post-introductory refresher for reading. I haven’t taught from it, and I probably wouldn’t choose to do so. A graded reader is a great idea, but it needs to be incredibly well-formulated if it’s to meet fundamental pedagogic needs, and those require very careful sheltering of vocabulary and scaffolding of grammatical structures, and a ton of repetition. RG doesn’t accomplish this, because it chooses (for some good reasons) to use as much original classical Greek text as it can. This is commendable (students do need to grapple with original texts early, and not with merely ‘composition Greek’), but at the same time difficult (most of our literature that classical Greek students aim to read is ‘high literature’, they need ‘easy’ Greek for pedagogical reasons).

For these reasons, I wouldn’t recommend RG as a primary book for introductory learners. I think it makes a great supplementary reader for introductory learners at least into a second semester, or as a great source for post-introductory learners who should be getting some more extensive reading in. For this purpose, the second edition text + vocabulary book by itself should be sufficient.

There are some follow-on volumes that tackle (1) Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles, and (2) Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato, as well as a (3)rd Anthology volume. I haven’t read my way through any of these but if I do I promise to give them their own review.

Review of Advances in the Study of New Testament Greek (C. Campbell)

This is a relatively short volume from Campbell, which can easily be read in a few days. It is pitched at what I would call the ‘Seminary and Biblical studies’ market. That is, seminarians, pastors, and others involved in biblical studies at a degree level or higher. It generally doesn’t reach the depth needed to engage those already involved in Greek scholarship at a significant level, though depending on their area of expertise, some elements of Campbell’s book will be of interest. It is, on the whole, very introductory in its level.

The book grew out of Campbell’s class Advanced Topics in Biblical Greek and Exegesis which he taught at Moore Theological College. Although I was there for some of the time Campbell taught there, he did not start this class until after I had finished, so I did not have the benefit of that. I have had some association with Campbell in the past though.

The book contains 10 main chapters, including a (quite) brief combined history of Greek studies and Linguistics to the present day (1); an overview of the field of Linguistics (2); Lexical semantics; the Middle Voice; Aspect and Aktionsart; Idiolect, Genre and Register; two chapters on Discourse Analysis; a chapter on pronunciation issues; and a chapter on pedagogy.

The first chapter is quite brief, and very introductory, but it does do its best to set up the rest of the book. For those with little knowledge of a history of either Greek scholarship or Linguistics, it will give them a sense of the field that the rest of the book builds upon. But it does not pretend to do more than that, and it doesn’t. However, I don’t want to fault Campbell for not doing things he wasn’t trying to.

I will critique the introduction to chapter 2 though. Campbell distinguishes between ‘the study of language and the study of linguistics’ (emphasis his), and quite rightly. But, and I will return to this point under chapter 10, the way that the traditional method of grammar-translation teaches is in fact to teach about language, not to teach language. In this, I would disagree that ‘Language study is simply the study of the “content” of a particular language’, precisely because there is a large gap between what’s going on in biblical Greek studies programs, and what anybody else in language education thinks language study is. Of course, this is one of my hobby horses, so let’s move on.

Campbell’s overview of Linguistics in general is relatively good, though I think his own preference for Functional Linguistics tends him to treat Generative Linguistics too briefly and set it aside too quickly.

For anyone unfamiliar with Lexical Semantics and Lexicography, chapter 3 is not a bad introduction. but it is a relatively brief chapter and amounts to little more than ‘lexicography is hard and a lot of it has been poorly done’ alongside ‘people don’t really understand how hard it is and have a bunch of unexamined fallacious ideas about meaning and lexemes’. Both of which are true and need to be fixed! I suppose my complaint is that there was simply not more content in this chapter.

Chapter 4 turns to deponency and the middle voice. This chapter looks briefly at the history of the discussion, and notes the contribution of major authors to dismantling the idea of deponency, and more importantly reconfiguring our whole notion of the voice system in Greek. This is truly an area where there is an ‘advance’ – there is a considerable consensus on the core issue that there isn’t such a thing as deponency, and quite a bit of consensus about how to reconfigure our understanding of the active vs. middle voice dichotomy. Helpfully, Campbell includes some discussion of remaining issues in this area towards the end of the chapter, ‘mixed deponents’ and ‘passive deponents’. Indeed, working out these two areas will greatly clarify our understanding both of voice in Ancient Greek, and of diachronic changes in the language.

Campbell’s own main area of scholarly work in Greek linguistics has been in dealing with (Verbal) Aspect and Aktionsart, and so it’s not surprise that chapter 5, on this topic, is the longest, most in-depth, and probably best-written section of the book.

Here, Campbell carefully delineates the distinctions between tense, aspect, and Aktionsart. He then offers, again, a brief history of contributions to the issue. Campbell surveys debate over whether tense per se is cancellable or uncancellable (semantic vs pragmatic), and then moves on to outline the dominant understandings of the Perfect tense-form (Traditional, Fanning, Porter, Campbell).

All this is pretty fine. I want to critique some of the next section, in which Campbell offers a compact version of his simplified method for dealing with Aspect and Aktionsart drawing from his Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. To summarise, this involves a four step process:

  1. Identify semantics: aspect? spatial value?
  2. Lexeme: punctiliar? stative? transitive? etc.?
  3. Context
  4. Work out Aktionsart.

I have a few problems with this. And my first issue is that we need to talk about verbs and predicates more clearly. A verbal lexeme, I would suggest, allows and disallows a range of predicate possibilities:

John walked, John was walking, John walked to the park.

‘walk’ is not stative. That’s a feature of the lexeme. It’s uncancellable and its semantic. But ‘walked’ and ‘was walking’ are both activities, while ‘walked to the park’ is an active achievement. The addition of ‘to the park’ modifies the verb, so that the whole predicate becomes telic. In sentence (3) ‘walked’ is the verb, but ‘walked to the park’ is the predicate.

My point is that steps 2 and 3 of Campbell’s approach need to be integrated better, because the semantics of verbal lexemes are not enough to establish Aktionsart, they must be integrated directly with other elements of the context to establish the Aktionsart of the predicate, not the verb alone.

My other criticism is that Campbell considers ‘Aktionsart’ to be a description of the type of action ‘out there in the world’, so objectively. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with this, but I suspect more nuancing of how Aktionsart itself is a term susceptible of various meanings would help.

Chapter 6 deals with Idiolect, Genre, and Register. This is another relatively brief chapter, which mainly serves to introduce these terms and concepts to those totally unfamiliar with them. it does that, but not much more, and I am not sure the introductory student of this level will necessarily know what they should do with this information, except read the Further Reading suggestions.

The fact that two whole chapters are dedicated to Discourse Analysis demonstrate its importance as one area of emerging work in Greek studies. The first chapter deals with Halliday in particular, and gives a reasonably good overview of Halliday’s approach to DA. If I had a criticism of this chapter it’s that Campbell repeatedly draws attention to the fact that Halliday and Hasan’s approach has yet to be properly applied to Greek, or Koine Greek in particular. I suspect the reader will end this chapter wondering why Halliday’s approach is so significant and what value it has, particularly since coherence and cohesion are yet to appear as particularly interesting topics to most of those engaged in exegesis.

The second of these chapters focuses on Levinsohn and Runge, work much closer to home for most Greek students/scholars. Campbell’s chapter offers a fairly thorough and condensed overview of both of these authors, and again I am left wondering why, but for a different reason. Essentially, Campbell works through Runge’s Discourse Grammar in a chapter overview manner, much like this review. Wouldn’t it have been better to perhaps overview a little more, and provide some pointed examples, and convince the reader that they needed to read Runge, rather than what Campbell does, which is overview, exemplify, and give a virtual contents list of Runge’s whole Discourse Grammar? My second criticism of this chapter is that the main problem that Campbell raises, from Porter, with Levinsohn and Runge is that they are mainly confined to the sentence level, rather than larger discourse blocks. This is a weak criticism, because it is really just a complaint that their work didn’t do something else which it wasn’t doing anyway. Both scholars readily acknowledge the need to move from what they have done so far, to larger units in the work of Discourse Analysis. This is a mis-aimed criticism.

Some will wonder why a whole chapter of this volume needed to be given over to pronunciation, but Campbell is right that it has been a hot topic for a little while among Greek scholars. He gives a historical treatment of how the Erasmian pronunciation came about, the evidence against it for Koine, and a presentation of Lee’s reconstruction of Koine Greek, ‘essentially that of Modern Greek’ (p198). I would have liked Campbell to more clearly outline the three positions of Erasmian, Reconstructed Koine (Buth, et alii), and modern (Caragounis, Lee, et alii), but he treats Buth as virtually modern.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Erasmian should be abandoned, and there is virtual agreement amongst scholars in the field, as evidenced at the 2011 SBL conference. It is very difficult to defend the continuing practice of Erasmian, despite Wallace’s best efforts to do so on the grounds of ‘convenience’.

The final chapter deals with ‘Teaching and Learning Greek’, obviously a field I have long had an interest in and have a bunch of informed, but quite firm, opinions about. Campbell demonstrates some familiarity with emergent approaches in the field, including ‘fresh ideas for traditional methods’, and the contrast with what he calls ‘Immersion method’. Personally, I don’t think that’s the best descriptor for Communicative based methods, but it’s not terrible. I disagree that this movement traces its roots to French immersion for English-speaking Canadians in the 1960s, this is a rather truncated history of second language acquisition theory and application, and somewhat erroneous (I’m not doubting that it happened, I’m just doubting that this is the origin of communicative approaches overall); I suspect this is because of the choice to think of this methodology as primarily about ‘immersion’.

Campbell treats Buth primarily, as the best known representative in this field, with some awareness of Halcomb, and draws on material from Daniel Streett on his blog. All good sources, but again this appears to be a field where Campbell is not himself well educated, and so there is some deficiency, i would say, in his depth of knowledge of the area of SLA.

His main criticism is the difficulty in making this work on a large scale, and on a long scale. It is the critique of ‘this is too idealistic’, but also a hope that maybe it could possibly work.

The last section of this chapter deals with Greek retention, with a nod to Campbell’s own book Keep your Greek: Strategies for Busy People, a volume that I am still bewildered every became a print book, since it’s more or less a glorified collection of blog posts with a bunch of hints that you could probably brainstorm yourself if you had some time. I’m not sure this section adds much to this book either, since it appears to be a description of the other books contents and a mild plug to buy it and keep reading Greek.

Overall, Campbell has succeeded in this volume to do what he set out to – introduce some issues of current Greek scholarship to those who ought to know about them but perhaps do not and furthermore, need a helping hand to even start to approach these areas. However the book as a whole lacks some depth, and parts of it appear too cursory, perhaps too surface overall. Campbell’s book is to be applauded for indeed finding and filling a hole, and we can only hope that these areas of research reach a broader audience.