This is a guest blog by Paul Nitz on Learning Another Language Through Actions , expanded 7th edition, by James J. Asher, Originator of the Total Physical Response known worldwide as TPR. Paul teaches Greek in Malawi and will be attending the Fresno BLC workshop this summer. Comments are welcomed:

I had been looking for a better method.  I found an APPROACH! 

My grandfather, father, and every Greek student I have ever known were taught by the traditional grammar/translation method.  When I inherited the job of Greek instruction at our Lutheran Bible Institute (Lilongwe, Malawi) I followed the teaching tradition. But I quickly started to feel discouraged. My students were not getting to a practically useful level of competency.  The idea was niggling at me that there must be a better method of teaching Greek.

Isn’t there a better method?

My students are language sponges when it comes to learning a living language.  Couldn’t we tap into that ability somehow?  Maybe auditory learning was the key.  I emphasized fluent reading to my students, “Read, read, & read a phrase until you think the Greek!”  Better, but not great.  I felt like I was teaching musical notation with the promise, “Study hard and someday you’ll hear the music in your head.” The niggling was beginning to hurt.

I heard about BLC and worked through Living Koine – Part One (the picture book).  Part Two went on the back burner as I filled up my time searching for a better method (B-Greek, SLA papers).  Meanwhile, I was also trying to increase my own Greek comprehension (rapid reading, memorization with gestures). I had heard of Total Physical Response and had Asher’s book, Learning Another Language Through Actions sitting on my shelf for a year.


Last week I finally picked it up. Eureka!  I expected to read about a method.  What I was absolutely delighted to find was an APPROACH.  The approach is characterized by using commands to couple language and action.  Read “κάθισον = sit!” and you have faint learning. Hear κάθισον, and obey by sitting, and you have bold-faced learning that instantly enters into long term memory.

Interestingly, one of the key points Asher makes is that production interferes with the painless and efficient reception of meaning.  Hear and obey, but don’t speak.  Let speech spring naturally from internalization.  This came to him together with his eureka moment about language acquisition.

Asher had been using his training in psychology to research language acquisition.  He found that in order for language to be internalized efficiently, new content had to be true, believable, or useful.  He hypothesized that this condition could be fulfilled if cause/effect could be established through hearing and acting.  He and his secretary were the first experiment.  A Japanese friend barked out orders and modelled the action.  They verbally repeated the command and actively obeyed.  But as each new command was uttered, the last one was erased from their minds.

His intuition told him to leave out the production.  No repeating this time.  The Japanese friend gave command after command, making things more complicated.  Within one session, Asher and his secretary were comprehending and obeying commands as complex as, “Run to the window, pick up the book, put it on the desk, then sit on the chair.”  The three of them were amazed at the results, and the Total Physical Response (TPR) approach was born.

More than the Imperative Mood

TPR makes extensive use of commands, but is not limited to teaching the Imperative mood.  Nouns, adjectives, and adverbs can be easily added to commands.  Different moods, tenses and constructions can be embedded in commands and coupled with action,

ἐὰν ἔλθῃ πρὸς ὑμᾶς, δέξασθε αὐτόν

If he comes to you, welcome him!

An added benefit is that vocabulary is added in meaningful chunks, rather than disconnected lists.

This approach is based on an understanding of how efficiently the right hemisphere of the brain can uncritically and instantly comprehend with meaning.  Our right brain receives speech every day and processes voluminous chunks of language with instant comprehension.  That receptive ability is something we can tap into when lessons are aimed at the right brain.  When we play solely to the left brain with explanations, terms, and paradigms, learning slows to a crawl. But Asher does not by any means dismiss instruction directed at the left brain.

Grammar-Translation has a role

In fact he encourages appealing to both hemispheres.  Within a lesson he suggests doing “brainswitching.”  Do something coupling language and movement, or make some other appeal to the right brain (music, manipulating props, observing action).  Then switch to the left brain (explanation of grammar, writing down what was commanded, use of linguistic terms).

In this way, the approach can easily be added to an existing program based on any textbook.  Simply teach some of the upcoming content through right brain activities, and then teach it according to the text.

The hope of comprehension

My desire for improved learning has blossomed into a more confident hope for real comprehension.  Could my students acquire a reading comprehension of Greek?  That makes my four point list of the benefits of studying Greek look stingy.

Probably the biggest obstacle in my case is the competency of the teacher. But I can work on that.  In the meantime, my right brain is swimming with the possibilities. Commands, gestures, storytelling, comics, and more.  I set out to find a better method.  εὕρηκα!  I have found a storehouse of better methods through this APPROACH.  Thank you Dr. Asher.

(uploaded on behalf of Paul Nitz)