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.

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