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The Key to Greek Language Retention - An Excerpt from Advances in the Study of Greek

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9780310515951With the significant investment of time and effort needed to learn Greek, developing a strategy for language retention is critical. How might a student develop good habits for retention early on? What pedagogy should a professor adopt to build retention exercises into course work? Constantine Campbell offers valuable insight in this excerpt from his newest resource Advances in the Study of Greek and describes what has been key in his retention of the language.

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This chapter differs from previous chapters in that it does not address issues about Greek per se, but rather the teaching and learning of the language. It is all very well to apprehend the significant (and some very significant) changes in our understanding of the Greek language, but what will be the point if no one wants to study the language in the first place?

It is commonplace to hear the concerns of Greek professors about decreasing numbers of students interested in studying Greek, seminaries and universities that are decreasing their commitment to biblical languages in a competitive race to the bottom, and all too many celebrity preachers who don’t know a word of Greek — which occasionally becomes evident to those who do know Greek, by their exegesis of the New Testament. If we fail to teach Greek well, in a way that engages the student and makes the acquisition of the language as pain-free as possible, it is little wonder that potential students weigh up if it is all worth it. Bad teaching simply cannot be tolerated in a climate in which the margins for error are already thin.

Add to those concerns the real issue of language retention and the alarming number of Greek students who fail to keep their Greek over the long haul, and we see that Greek pedagogy is an incredibly important topic. You might be the best Greek teacher in the world, but if most of your students forget most of what you taught them, how useful is that? I always cringe when a pastor either embarrassingly admits, or (perversely) proudly declares to me, that he or she has lost the knowledge of Greek; it always causes me to wonder whether I am completely wasting my time.

Greek instructors who do not want to waste their time and the time of their students must pay attention to pedagogy, and their pedagogy must include a strategy for retention. This chapter will explore some innovations within the traditional mode of Greek pedagogy, offer a discussion of immersion learning, and briefly address the subject of Greek retention.

Fresh Ideas for Traditional Methods

The traditional grammatical-translation method of teaching and learning Greek needs no introduction, since virtually everyone reading this book will have learned Greek according to its pattern. Typically, it involves a grammar book, the learning of grammatical rules, noun and verb paradigms, basic translation, and lists of vocabulary. There is an emphasis on rote memorization, the fundamentals of grammar and some basic syntax, and gloss translation. The only really significant alternative to this approach currently is the immersion method, which will be explored in 10.3. But there have been some innovations within the older method that are also worth pondering.

Reading Greek

Probably the most significant variable within the traditional method is how soon beginning students are encouraged to read Greek. Older versions of the traditional method tended to leave translation until most of the grammar had already been learned. The reasons for this are understandable. How can a student be expected to read a real text when all they’ve learned so far are, say, nouns and twenty-five Greek words? A well-known example is J. W. Wenham’s The Elements of New Testament Greek. While Wenham’s streamlined approach has certain strengths, the student is never encouraged to read even a paragraph of the Greek New Testament. The grammar includes several exercises, including translation exercises, but these are all fragmentary clauses or isolated sentences. That is decidedly not the same thing as reading Greek text, in which each clause and sentence is understood in light of its context, and through which the student may gain an appreciation of how clauses relate one to another and how wider units of text shape our overall understanding of Greek.

Rodney Decker’s new grammar, Reading Koine Greek, however, includes the reading of paragraphs of the Greek New Testament from as early as the second chapter (John 1:1 – 8). Each subsequent chapter includes at least a paragraph (often three or four) of text from the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint, or the Apostolic Fathers. These set readings come with notes and other helps based on where the student is up to in the grammar, so that knowledge not yet acquired does not prevent the reading experience.

There are great strengths to Decker’s model. While his grammar still belongs to the traditional grammatical-translation pedagogy, this one characteristic alone makes a significant break with many other Koine grammars. Right from the beginning, the student is experiencing the text of the Greek New Testament, which progressively becomes a more fulfilling experience as the student is able to understand more and more of each text. This enhances one’s ability to digest the “vibe” of the language in a way that other expressions of the grammatical-translation pedagogy are not able to convey, because there is no substitute for reading Greek text.

My own experience, first as a student, then as a teacher of Greek, has been under the model set by my former colleague at Moore College, Richard Gibson. Similar to Decker’s approach, students begin reading and translating Greek text almost from the beginning of their instruction. Working through the first few chapters of Mark’s gospel, students spend between a third and a half of class hours in small translation groups, engaging the text together, while the instructor would “hover,” answering questions and providing assistance as needs be. I remember my own enjoyment of learning Greek under this model and the sense of satisfaction of being able to read the Greek New Testament very early in the process. I also knew satisfaction as a teacher seeing my students come under the same experience of enjoyment and wonder at encountering the Greek New Testament from an early stage in their learning. (Pgs 209-212)

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Advances in the Study of Greek offers an introduction to issues of interest in the current world of Greek scholarship. Those within Greek scholarship will welcome this book as a tool that puts students, pastors, professors, and commentators firmly in touch with what is going on in Greek studies. Those outside Greek scholarship will warmly receive Advances in the Study of Greek as a resource to get themselves up to speed in Greek studies. Free of technical linguistic jargon, the scholarship contained within is highly accessible to outsiders. Order your copy today.

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