Sunday, July 29, 2012

Teaching Biblical Languages: Responding to Objections to a Living Language Approach

It is hard for me to appreciate why anyone would not be interested in using living-language approaches to teach Biblical Greek and Hebrew: Isn't it obvious that employing multiple senses and imitating how adults learn a second language will be more efficient and effective than the traditional "grammar-translation" method? (See here and here for my earlier comments along the same lines.)

Not everyone is so easily persuaded, however. My goal in what follows is to consider objections that I have heard seriously and (hopefully) respectfully, even as I attempt to respond to them:
  1. Some think trying to speak a "dead" language is at best a waste of time. It is certainly true that it will take more of my time using a living language approach than it would for me to pull out my old notes and do what I have always done in the past. 
  2. Efficiency: Why emphasize speaking Greek or Hebrew when all students need and want is a reading knowledge of the language? With reading proficiency as the goal, how can a living language approach be more efficient than traditional grammar-translation methods? There is a reason, after all, why grad students who "need German" gravitate toward summer courses in German for reading knowledge instead of sitting through four semesters of conversational German. 
  3. Class time is limited and the addition of oral drills must require sacrifices in other areas. Do any gains make up for what is lost? 
  4. Impressions: Someone once told me that the traditional approach seems to produce better readers than newer alternatives. 
  5. Redefining outcomes: To be sure, the grammar-translation method fails miserably if the goal is to help more than a few students develop a long-lasting reading knowledge of the biblical languages, but the majority who "lose" the languages will not lose the experience of learning it, a better knowledge of how languages work, and the ability to use research tools. If the goal is not language proficiency, but humility, then the traditional approach can still be defended as a success.
I will take the objections in reverse order:

5. I agree that the experience of taking a foreign language is incredibly valuable even for those who do not continue to work in the language, but--to borrow an example that Randall Buth has used repeatedly over the years--any two-year German course that does not produce German readers is a failure. Just so, any two-year Hebrew or Greek sequence of courses that does not produce proficient readers of Greek and Hebrew is a failure. I have no desire to make people who haven't kept up their languages feel guilty, but any language teacher who ditches proficiency in the language as a viable learning outcome is selling themselves and their students short--if, that is, there is an alternative.

4. I am concerned about how our views about teaching methodologies tend to be based on a very limited range of experience, mostly our own: The traditional model caters to analytical learners, who then go on to become teachers. If we even pause to consider the question, we think, "It worked for me, why shouldn't it work for everyone else?" We may also form opinions about other methodologies based on very limited exposure. My experience in immersion contexts informs my views about pedagogy, but my experience is not likely to convince on its own. What is needed is hard evidence that goes beyond individual impressions. I am vaguely aware of the literature on modern language-teaching methodologies. If you know of studies that examine the application of modern SLA approaches to Latin, Greek or Hebrew, please let me know.

3. Class time is limited, and I don't know yet what I will have to give up to make more time in class for oral living-language exercises. In my courses there will still be a textbook that covers traditional grammar using an analytical approach. One of the facilitators at the Fluency workshop put it this way: If you had a choice between a method that would work well for only 10% of the class, and another method that wouldn't harm anyone and would help 90%, which would you choose? Analytical learners can always read the textbook.

2. While a summer "German for reading knowledge" course may be the most efficient way to pass an exam, it takes a great deal more time and effort to get to the place where working through an article in German without resorting to Google Translate is not a major time-consuming, frustrating obstacle. I speak from experience. I suspect that most students who simply pass an exam quickly lose what sense of the language they acquired. If you want long-term retention, a modern language approach is far superior, far more effective than simply memorizing charts--although charts may still have their place. I am also persuaded from my own experience and from the stories I've heard this week, that--all other things being equal--a living language approach combined with an emphasis on reading will lead more quickly to greater reading fluency than the traditional approach. It is also more fun. And joy in learning has a great deal to do with whether or not students continue using the language in the long-term.

1. I conclude with a quotation by W.H.D. Rouse, a brilliant Latin teacher and an advocate of the "Direct Method", an early 20th-century precursor to what I am calling a "Living Language" approach:
"The third [objection to the "Direct Method"] is...that the current system of teaching classics is fool-proof. These are not my words, but the words of a defender. He said, "Any fool can teach it". Well, I am quite sure that no fool can teach on the direct method, but it does not need anything more than intelligence and willingness to take trouble. It is willingness to take trouble which has been our difficulty all along. Those who are invited, will not take the trouble to investigate the facts, which they can quite well do. No doubt the reason in their minds is, that if they did investigate them and found them to be true, they would then be bound to take some very troublesome steps in order to improve the existing system....The last thing that is always said, which I have already answered, is that a few men have a gift for this kind of thing, but the majority of men have not. Of course, that is quite untrue. The truth is, as I have said, that anyone with intelligence, who will take trouble, is quite able to do the thing in a first-rate way."
A couple clarifications:

  • I don't mean to imply that the traditional and living language approaches are two diametrically opposed monolithic entities, so that adopting one means rejecting the other. In reality, a spectrum of teaching methodologies exists, and there is nothing to stop a teacher from drawing on modern SLA approaches here and there, while retaining a traditional emphasis on grammar. In my view, SLA approaches are better, but for ordinary humans like me, change will necessarily be gradual.
  • I don't mean to condemn anyone who doesn't have time to develop new ways of teaching the biblical languages. If I can provoke dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a desire for change, I will be satisfied. That, after all, is what happened to me.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Teaching Biblical Languages and Childhood Memories

My album of childhood memories contains a snapshot of my father sitting on the porch of our Mombasa home, a stack of Bibles in various ancient and modern languages piled beside his chair. The discipline of multi-lingual daily Bible reading had the dual effect of helping my dad maintain his languages and of opening his eyes to new features of familiar texts.

The "album" also includes mental images of both Mom and Dad teaching English to African students, all of whom would have been working on at least their third or fourth spoken language.

This heritage means that I have always known it is possible to maintain a reading knowledge of a language long after the end of formal instruction, and that I have always had some acquaintance with what is involved in teaching a second language.

Because of this background, it just make sense to me that a "living-language" approach to teaching the Biblical languages would be more efficient (for students) than traditional approaches are. The only real obstacle is the need to develop enough proficiency to be able to teach at maximum efficiency.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Teaching Biblical Languages and Tilting at Windmills

In seminary I watched my friends on the M.Div track struggle through the two years of Greek and two years of Hebrew that TEDS required for their three year degree. By the end of the program, Greek was often a distant memory, with Hebrew not far behind.

I had already seen the payoff of learning Greek at the undergrad level, and I was determined not to lose my Greek or fledgling Hebrew. But what, I wondered, could be done differently for myself and everyone else? Is the project doomed to failure, with seminaries like TEDS last hold-outs against the inevitable? Mike Heiser has estimated that 90-95% of seminary students quickly lose the biblical languages after graduation. I don’t know where the percentages come from, but any way you slice it the statistics are dismal.

Almost 15 years later, I am still persuaded that the languages are worth learning well, that Bible software “power tools” are no substitute, and that—in theory—it should be reasonable for pastors to acquire a reading knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and maintain the languages while they are in ministry. I am also committed to doing whatever I can to create a better long-term success rate for my students. This means helping students learn deeper with greater retention, and helping them see the payoff and have fun in the process so that they are motivated to continue learning once required classes are done. I am convinced the church needs pastors in general—not just a select few pastor scholars—who read the Bible in its original languages. Perhaps one of the most important ways I can serve the church is to teach the biblical languages effectively, working to turn theory into reality.

My own experience studying Modern Hebrew by immersion in Israel points the way to an alternative to the traditional grammar-translation approach: Why not learn Greek as you would a living language? Randall Buth and colleagues at the Biblical Language Center asked themselves the same question, and have come up with an answer: I am now part way through a 10-day “Greek Fluency Workshop” in Fresno, California, that is designed to help Greek teachers develop proficiency in spoken Koine. (See here for a description of last year's workshop.) So far, it has been a fantastic experience. I am learning a great deal from the workshop, as well as from other like-minded teachers, and I am excited about how it will pay off in the classroom this fall.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

B.H. McLean on the Blessing of Learning Greek

The introduction to B.H. McLean's new Greek textbook nicely explains why I think all pastors should take at least two years of Biblical Greek (or acquire a reading knowledge of Greek by hook or by crook some other way):
Given the fact that the New Testament is written in Hellenistic Greek, it follows that those who desire a deeper understanding of its message must strive to attain a thorough knowledge of this language. Learning Greek requires patience, perseverance, and the willingness to struggle. But those who are committed to understanding the Christian gospel should not view this task as an imposition, but as a blessing, for with it comes a deeper knowledge of Scriptures. 
There can be no doubt that the ability to read and interpret the New Testament in its original language is a central component of the Reformed tradition. Indeed, all theologians since the Renaissance, including Erasmus, Calvin, and Luther, emphasized the importance of studying the Bible in its original languages. . . . [W]hile mastering Hellenistic Greek may not be a realistic goal for every student of theology, total unfamiliarity with the original language of the New Testament is indefensible for theologians and seminarians. After all, there is probably no rabbi who cannot read the Tanakh in the original Hebrew, or imam who cannot read the Qur'an in the original Arabic language.
But Christians should not approach the study of Hellenistic Greek as if it were a trial or obstacle to overcome. Those who really commit themselves to the regular lifelong study of the Greek New Testament will come to know the true joy of being led through and beyond, its words to a lived, faithful, transformative relationship with the living God. Indeed, we must not forget that patience in the study of sacred Greek Scriptures nurtures patience in the grace of God!
- B.H. McLean, New Testament Greek: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Graham Twelftree on Luke on Mission with an aside on academic prose

One book that I hope to dip into more deeply before teaching Acts this fall is Graham Twelftree's People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke's View of the Church (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009). Here is an appetizer from Twelftree's concluding chapter (pp. 214, 216-217):
  • "As Luke sees it, God is a missionary, Jesus is a missionary and so is the Church. Embodying Jesus so that he continues his mission is, for Luke, the prime function of the Church....[N]ot to be 'on mission' is to cease being the Church." 
  • "Luke raises the possibility that the Church would have had a greater impact on society if it had taken his view seriously, concentrating on proclamation accompanied by signs and wonders, and giving care to each other to the extent that outside observers would want to join the community of believers." 
  • Luke "places a far greater store on the quality of the community of believers than is generally recognized. If the quality of relationships and care among Christians approached the order proposed by Luke, I suppose that the Church could hardly accommodate or assimilate those who sought to belong to it."
  • "The purpose of the Church is the mission of proclaiming, and demonstrating in signs and wonders, the good news of God's salvation in Jesus so that others -- everyone -- can be saved and join the caring, joyful community of believers preparing for the return of Jesus."
I considered adopting People of the Spirit as a course textbook because of its provocative suggestions about applying Acts to the present and because it models one way of answering the central hermeneutical questions we will consider during the semester--namely, how is the narrative of Acts designed to shape Luke's audience? How do we as readers distinguish between reported event and normative example? Does Luke write nostalgically about a golden past age? Is he presenting an ideal to which the church should conform? Or does he simply celebrate the unique events of the church’s foundation narrative?

 In the end I decided in favour of Luke Timothy Johnson's Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church primarily because I prefer Johnson's writing style. (This may seem like a minor issue, but quality of prose ranks high on my list of criteria for textbooks not only because I want my students to complete the readings, but also because part of my job is to help students care about writing well--and I assume that providing exceptional models is one way of working towards this goal.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Wacky Caronport Weather

Last Tuesday a tornado in the vicinity, this evening larger-than-golf-ball-sized hail:

Unfortunately, none of my hail photos turned out especially well:

But you get the idea:

 Add a couple lightning strikes just down the street and some fancy cloud formations:
...and you have an interesting afternoon:

(Educational too: I expect I'll be more cautious next time there's a thunderstorm overhead.)

Anyone up for a jog?