The wrong and right way to learn ancient Greek

Boy reading a book

Not too long ago I ran across this Washington Post article by Stephen Krashen entitled “The wrong and right way to learn a foreign language“, and it reminded me of a number of issues in current approaches to teaching ancient Greek. Those of you who recognize Krashen’s name perhaps know of him as the father of the Comprehensible Input theory of language acquisition. He argues that comprehensible input—hearing or reading things that are presented with enough context to make them understandable—not intense study of grammar and vocabulary, is the real key to acquiring a language.

The article implies challenges to both of the most common ways of teaching ancient Greek currently in use. First, what is derisively called the “grammar translation” model, focuses almost exclusively on teaching grammar and learning vocabulary from lists of words with English glosses. Research on language acquisition shows quite conclusively that this approach does not lead to fluency. It may lead to the ability to use a lexicon and laboriously work through a Greek text to translate it, but it does not lead to the ability to read Greek fluently, understanding what you read without the need to translate it. In this sense, Krashen is certainly right.

And this squares nicely with my experience teaching modern languages (Spanish and English). I do not use vocabulary lists at all, and I have very few discussions of issues of grammar, yet my students consistently reach fluency in the target language in only a few years, significantly faster than the national average.

At the same time, Krashen’s article implies some critique of the newer Communicative approaches currently gaining wider and wider acceptance in ancient Greek studies. He prioritizes reading over speaking in language instruction.

This also squares nicely with what I do in teaching Spanish and English. My students, after the first few weeks, spend the overwhelming majority of their time reading texts in the target language and answering questions about those texts in whatever language feels more comfortable to them. Slowly over time they develop the ability to answer in the language of the text, and they do this quite naturally without having to be forced to use the target language in speech.

What they do have to do is read and understand well enough in the target language to answer the questions, and those questions are always posed in the target language. When they answer in a language other than the target language, I accept those answers at first, as long as they demonstrate understanding. After a significant amount of exposure to the target language (usually a few months), I change my strategy and still accept the answer in the student’s first language, but assist the student in rephrasing the answer in the target language. For example, if we are reading a book on civil rights, and I ask,

  • Why did Dr. King agree to let the children march in Birmingham in 1963?

A student might answer: “Porque los adultos no estaban dispuestos a poner en riesgo sus trabajos, o tenían temor de respuestas violentas.”

In such a case, I would never answer, “Please say that in English.” In stead, I would say, “That’s a great insight, let me help you phrase it in English. —The adults weren’t willing to put their jobs at risk— and —They were afraid of violent responses— Those are two useful things to say. Let’s work on saying them.”

The student’s response in the first language demonstrates understanding of the text, and providing guided speech to help overcome production deficiencies in the target language removes the stress of having to speak without sufficient vocabulary or grasp of the target language structures.

Inevitably, after a few weeks of providing this kind of assistance, the student will begin to answer directly in English (or Spanish, as the case may be) without needing the additional support. Or perhaps still needing it, but willing to take the risk, knowing that appropriate support will be given if needed.

My own online grammar for Hellenistic Greek fits well within the “grammar-translation” model. I wrote it decades ago, though I’ve made updates to some lessons more recently. I consider it useful for learning grammar and a small collection of vocabulary items (a few hundred of the most frequently used words), enough for getting started in working laboriously to translate Greek texts, but it cannot possibly produce fluency.

Several people are currently teaching hellenistic Greek in a way that can. I am also working on materials with that aim. What I see as a current need in communicative methods is to increase the amount of reading in Greek as a language acquisition strategy. It may be a long time before my own materials for that purpose are ready, but I continue to hope.

Take a look at the following text and see if you can answer the questions that follow it. Can you answer them in English? If so, great, but take a look at the vocabulary in each question and the relevant vocabulary in the passage and see if you can construct an answer in Greek. I bet you can do pretty well if you can read the text and understand the questions.

καὶ τὸ παιδάριον Σαμουηλ ἦν λειτουργῶν τῷ κυρίῳ ἐνώπιον Ηλι τοῦ ἱερέως καὶ ῥῆμα κυρίου ἦν τίμιον ἐν ταῗς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις οὐκ ἦν ὅρασις διαστέλλουσα. . .

  1. τί ὄνομα τοῦ παιδάριου;
  2. ἐνώπιον τίνος ἦν τὸ παιδάριον λειτούργος;
  3. τί ἦν τίμιον ἐν ταῗς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις;
  4. διὰ τίνα ἦν τίμιον;

Feel free to answer in a comment if you’d like my feedback.

Of course, Krashen is not the only language acquisition theorist whose work is worth the time for teachers of Ancient Greek to study, but his writings are certainly a good place to start. His 1982 book Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition is now available online as a PDF document with a few corrections and some added bibliography.

5 Comments on “The wrong and right way to learn ancient Greek”

  1. ο Σαμουηλ Samuel
    ο Ηλι Eli
    η ρήμα Κυρίου the word of the Lord
    ουκ ην ορασις διαστελλουσα there was not a vision subject to interpretation (aoriste participle serving as an adjective)

      • For me that method works better when learning languages although i admit that i usually learn a bit of grammar and basic conversation vocabulary then start speaking it and sometimes read books/texts in those languages for words that you dont really use when talking (thinking to yourself in the language also works well for me) doing this i managed to become almost fluent in german in 3 months (am still learning it right now) but for a lot of people the grammar method still works better although i admit that it will almost never make you fluent.

        • Thank you for sharing your experience, Gabor. Your experience with German sounds similar to mine with Spanish nearly 40 years ago. Now I no longer have to think about what I want to say in Spanish any more than in English, but that was not always the case.

          One thing that students of Hellenistic Greek face that we do not necessarily face in acquiring modern languages is that when they leave class, they hear no-one speaking the target language in the society around them. This makes what happens in class crucial. Students need opportunities to speak, even with errors, in a supportive environment. They also need materials to use outside of class time that support listening and speaking. (I’m working on that one, but it will probably be a long time coming.)

  2. This is a good case for the communicative approach. In the case of Greek, I agree with the argument about focusing on reading. I used my own reading-centric approach to learning ancient Hebrew, and to this day I can read it (with sufficient lexical cues!), even though my grasp of the grammar is really quite elementary.

    Have you made any progress on a communicative curriculum for Greek? I’d be interested in following updates if you have/are planning on it.

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