Teaching biblical languages for all learning styles

15 August 2011 by Brian Schultz

I’ve recently (re)read an article sent to me this past summer entitled “Preparing Latin Teachers for Second Language Acquisition,” pp. 184-191 in Teaching Classical Languages (Spring 2010) by Robert Patrick, PhD.  This online peer-reviewed journal can be found here, and the article in question here.

While the BLC does not at this point provide resources to teach/learn Latin, much of what is suggested in this article is equally applicable to the teaching of biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek, and as such needs to be heard by Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholars who teach these languages.  All one needs to do is replace “Latin” with “biblical Hebrew” (BH) or “Koine Greek” (KG)—depending on which language one teaches.  I suggest doing this as one reads the rest of this blog entry.

The main thrust of the article is the need for our fields (Latin, Greek, Hebrew) to start seriously taking Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research into consideration.  (As an aside, this is exactly what a small group of scholars are trying to do at the Society of Biblical Literature and the Evangelical Theological Society with the “Applied Linguistics and Biblical Languages” groups; news about these groups can be found here.)

Probably the single most important point to be learned from SLA is the difference between “language acquisition” and “language learning,” or “language acquisition” versus “knowledge about a language.”    The former is what happens to students “as they make progress in the language” (p. 184), while the latter is “a student’s knowledge about the language, its grammatical structure and syntax”‘ (p. 184).  Traditionally in the last 100 years, the teaching of classical languages has focused solely on the latter, with the assumption that it automatically leads to the former.  However, as Patrick highlights:

Unfortunately, students do not make progress in a second language through such learning about the language, however rigorous it may be (p. 184).

This is not to say that one should never teach about the language, as Patrick himself points out, but that it is not what we in the field have commonly been led to believe: internalization of the language as language.  Instead, it leads to rapid “decoding” of a language, rather than processing language.  Patrick puts it this way:

At this time in history, when it is very likely that most Latin teachers were trained under grammar-translation approaches, it is also likely that most of us teachers learned to engage in what I will call “speed-parsing” when we “read” Latin.  Speed-parsers have gained the skill to convert Latin very rapidly into English as we move across the Latin text…  The grammar-translation approach depends on the Latin student developing  this speed-parsing method and never enables the student to read Latin as Latin (p. 189, emphasis mine).

Not only is the problem that speed-parsing is not processing the language for what it is in its own right (independent of another language), but that “speed-parsing” is only attainable by a minority of learners with a specific learning style: “it excludes most students who are not logical-learners” (p. 187).  Consequently,

we are in a strange time when most who are in the field teaching have been trained in methods which worked for us (grammar-translation) but which, according to various learning models, do not work for the normal student (p. 188-9).

This singling out of the elite few learners with the right learning styles to be those granted the privilege of accessing the biblical texts in their original languages may be fine for Ivy League schools.  But for those of us who are teaching the biblical languages to faith communities and who would like the study of the Bible to be as democratic as possible, such elitism is not desirable.  And if, as SLA research suggests, there is a way to teach all languages, even the classical (and biblical) ones as Robert Patrick as a Latin instructor affirms, in such a way that all students can learn, then we need to be exploring them with all the enthusiasm and gusto we can muster.

We who have been involved in trying to motivate the field of biblical languages to move in that direction for that very reason expected to see unprecedented excitement among our colleagues.  (Imagine being able to double or triple student enrollment as well as retention rates!)  While there have been some very encouraging signs, ultimately they have been few and far between.  Most simply dismiss the SLA research.  The question I ask myself, therefore, is: why such a resistance to something which seems to offer so much promise for the field, especially before it has even been tried?  Any ideas?

Categories: ancient language acquisition, Blog

4 Responses to “Teaching biblical languages for all learning styles”

  1. Davis 21 August 2011 at 6:57 pm (PERMALINK)

    I read the article and it was very fascinating. I don’t have many thoughts about why there is such a dismissal for SLA research. But I was wondering what your thoughts were about the benefits the article gives for the grammar-translation approach for more advanced studies. It was interesting reading that SLA research doesn’t entirely dismiss the traditional method of teaching. But when does a grammar-translation method start becoming useful? Do you think because of the low levels of fluency and language acquisition for Greek/Hebrew students, that even for now advanced students grammar-translation is still more of a hindrance? Is it only after a person is relatively fluent that a grammar-translation approach can become helpful?

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  2. Justin Olmstead 22 August 2011 at 2:44 am (PERMALINK)

    On resistance to SLA research (tongue-in-cheek, of course). Question: How many old-school instructors does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Change!?!

    SLA challenges entrenched ideas and practices. That is always problematic when basic human nature factors in. I have learned Greek from four sincere, genuine, highly intelligent professors. I look up to them and esteem them, but I know they dismiss SLA ideas. “Why acquire the language when you’re not going to speak it?” is the reply.

    I started supplementing (replacing?) my training with the BLC Living Koine system and the New Testament is already coming alive in ways I did not expect. Language acquisition has me sold. I look forward to the same with Living Hebrew, and soon supplementing my Latin training with the same.

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  3. Randall Buth 1 September 2011 at 5:40 pm (PERMALINK)

    for Davis:

    Your statement is on target:
    “Do you think because of the low levels of fluency and language acquisition for Greek/Hebrew students, that even now for advanced students grammar-translation is still more of a hindrance?”
    Yes, by itself grammar-translation is a hindrance to fluency at all stages. Grammar-translation is not a vehicle for internalizing a language and is not a natural vehicle for communication, Grammar-translation is more a method for analyzing morphology and syntax of a language and talking about it. If fluency has not been developed in a language, then grammar-translation will not produce it, even at advanced levels when discussing ‘how and why a language works the way it does’ (that is, ‘advanced grammar’). The proof is in the pudding, or in a famous rabbi’s words, by their fruit you will know them.

    If you ask a French teacher of twenty years to tell you briefly and quickly what they did last week or perhaps to summarize the last story that they read, they can do it without further ado. If you ask the same question of a typical ancient Greek or biblical Hebrew teacher of twenty years you will be greeted with silence or an unnatural stumbling and lurching as the professor attempts to generate one individual sentence at a time. Those outside the field of ancient language studies would never believe that such is the reality. What is more, if those slowly-elicited sentences are analyzed, they are typically offbase structurally from the biblical Hebrew and ancient Greek attested in our sources.

    Having said the above, I am not for a minute implying that grammatical analysis is not good and wonderful. For example, knowing why English works a particular way or is in a particular shape is a fascinating field of study. It does not produce fluency but it is still valuable for its own contribution to knowledge. Let there be grammatical analysis! But practioners should not mislead themselves into thinking that such is the way into personal fluency of a language. For the best research, one is recommended to first learn the language fluently so that they can communicate in the language with automatic, unconscious processing. Then they will be able to cover more ground when analyzing the language and will be more sensitive to discussions. Finally, as with English, students should recognize that fluency in a language does not make someone a linguist. Fluency is a desirable goal for everyone who would use a particular language. Some of those fluent speakers and users may also have an aptitude to discussing the inner workings of the language. But such linguistic analysis is a separate skill.

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