Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Randall Buth on a Living Approach to the Biblical Languages

When I joined what is now the Biblical Greek Forum in the late 1990's, Randall Buth was a lonely voice in the wilderness, calling for an approach to teaching the biblical languages that draws on best practices in second language acquisition. The effect, in my case, was to sow the seeds of dissatisfaction with the traditional grammar-translation method of learning Hebrew and Greek. Now, almost 20 years later, there is a (small and diverse) movement of people committed to recovering and developing a living approach to teaching and learning the biblical languages.

In a recent interview with Seumas Macdonald, Randall talks about why he moved to a living approach. Here are a few excerpts:
Both Greek and Hebrew were first introduced to me as “grammar translation” languages....Things changed when I went to Israel and learned to speak Hebrew fluently. In the process, I noticed that my reading of biblical Hebrew changed. ...Basically, Hebrew changed from being very fast, instantaneous crossword puzzles to a real language, to reading a language for content from within the language. I was young, early 20’s, and naively assumed that the field would gradually move in this direction over the coming decades. I could not imagine a program ignoring the benefits involved, nor had I ever met anyone who had gone through this process up to a fluent level that regretted the time spent or did not see it as qualitatively improving one’s reading and access to the text.
Reading theory linguists attribute these outcomes to automaticity where the morphological nuts and bolts of the language are backgrounded and dropped below conscious focus, which allows more of one’s working memory to focus on interpretation and content. In a word, spoken fluency remarkably improves one’s reading skills.
During the 1980's Randall spent time in Africa working with Bible translators (my claim to fame: I went to boarding school with the Buth children):
In Africa I was responsible for recommending training programs for occasional translation projects. One of the discoveries was finding out that there were no Christian institutions or seminaries to send students where optimal language learning methods were being taken seriously. African translators were multilingual and good language learners but intuitively they were often puzzled and frustrated by what would take place in “biblical language” classes. My sensitivity to the need of a radical, paradigmatic change in biblical studies was reinforced by watching Bible translators from Africa go off for two or more years of training in biblical language(s) and returning with skills far below what is possible, for example, in programs like Goethe Institute for German and German literature. 
As with Seumas's other interviews, the whole interview (here or here) is well worth your time.

I have written about my reasons for working toward a living language approach in previous posts (here, here, and here).

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