Think and Speak in Greek

I just returned from a 3-week Greek immersion program in Virginia designed to teach students to speak and think in koine and classical Greek. Perhaps someone might ask, “Are you crazy? No one speaks ancient Greek!” I will let others decide if I am crazy, but there actually are people who speak ancient Greek, and there are even a few schools who teach Greek that way.

This phenomenon is part of a larger movement to treat both Greek and Latin as living languages. The group of people who speak Latin is already rather large. At Washington University, right next door to Concordia Seminary, students can take classes that are delivered entirely in Latin. They don’t read a Latin text to translate it into English; they read it and discuss it in Latin. Not as many people speak Greek, but that number is growing.

How does it work? The course employed a wide range of pedagogical activities. Sometimes we looked at pictures from children’s books and described them in Greek. Other times we listened to stories (like the classic Ἅνσελ καὶ Γρέτελ) or to presentations on the Bible. But a significant amount of time was devoted to the “Living Sequential Expression” technique. The professor gave a series of commands, which a student carried out. After each command, the professor asked, “What did you do?” and the student answered in the first person. Then the professor asked another student, “What did he do?” and that student answered in the third person.

For example, the professor said, ἀνάτρεψον τὴν τράπεζαν! So the student turned the table over. The professor then asked, τί ἐποίησας? The student replied, ἀνέτρεψα τὴν τράπεζαν. The professor then asked another student, τί ἐποίησε? The other student replied, ἀνέτρεψε τὴν τράπεζαν. This is essentially a way of drilling aorist verb forms. But the key is that each action is part of a miniature narrative, which makes the forms easier to absorb than if the students were just reciting them from a chart. The narrative might be something like this: break into the house, turn the table over, rob the money, run from the police. Or something like this: turn on the faucet, fill the sink with water, put the dishes in the sink, take a sponge, wipe the dishes with the sponge, rinse the dishes, dry the dishes with a towel.

After a couple weeks of this, I started dreaming in Greek!

Why would pastor want to do this? The short answer is: to read the New Testament. But let me say more about what I mean by “read.” Most people who learn Greek today do it by memorizing paradigms and vocabulary so that when they encounter a Greek word, they can find its correct spot on the chart and then select the appropriate English translation. They are not so much “reading” as “decoding.” Once the English is achieved, any further reflection on the text is carried out in English, not Greek. The temptation is to imagine that the goal of the Greek is to get to the English.

By contrast, consider how you read English. You do not have to translate it into something else before you can understand it. The words communicate the meaning directly to your mind without the mediation of some other system of signs. When you reflect on what you have read, you naturally do so in the categories and structures of the English language.

What would it be like if Greek words could communicate their meanings directly to your mind without the mediation of English? First, reading would be a lot faster. If it takes you a long time to get through a pericope in Greek, and it feels more like pulling teeth than meditating on the Word of God, then you might consider learning to speak the language. Second, it’s easier to remember the vocabulary because Greek words begin to have meaning in and of themselves, not just as pointers to English words. Third, you begin to have more confidence in your interpretation of the text because you gain a more intuitive sense for how the language works.

I think there is a lot of promise in this approach. I am very pleased with the amount of progress I was able to make in three weeks. If you want more information, visit www.polisjerusalem.org. If you click on “Academic Programs,” you can see the 2-year M.A. they offer in Greek in Jerusalem. If you then click on “Summer Programs” you can read about the 3-week course they offer in Virginia and the 1-week course they are involved with in Kentucky. If you think you might be interested, I would love to hear from you as well. Feel free to email me at maxwelld@csl.edu.

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2 Comments

  1. Guillaume Williams July 29, 2019
    Reply

    Sounds like fun

  2. Kemisade Ayode 10 days ago
    Reply

    Greek words are coded, and I suspect that is one of the reasons it was popular during ancient times. Today, it seems only those who are interested in religion learn Greek, but I believe it has a lot of wisdom that we should all embrace

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