Teaching a “dead” vs a “live” language

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Teaching a “dead” vs a “live” language

[Excerpts from an email exchange between Randall Buth and others on whether a “dead” language, Greek in the discussion below, can ever be taught as a “live” language.]

> I think that what is happening is that there is a clear distinction between
> learning, reading and speaking a language that is NOT DEAD and learning, reading
> and speaking a language that IS DEAD.

This is a commonly heard idea that is used to justify an ancient language program that does not produce an ability to fluently think in a language. Things are so far out of sync with reality that many practioners do not even recognize the situation. (Solution for recognizing the problem: take a NEW text of reasonable clarity or difficulty, have it recorded in any pronunciation you like at a reasonable conversational speed, and listen to it. If you can follow the text at that speed, then you can think in that language, at least at some minimal level. If not, then you are still on a major, uphill, learning track, and will have the delightful experience of many a surprise catching up on you.)

Somewhat over a decade ago I made an observation that changed the way in which I thought about this “dead language” question. Inside of a language classroom, all languages are equally ‘dead’, in the sense that the audience does not speak the target language. In too many cases, even the teachers do not speak the target language, and I’m talking about modern languages here. (You will find that not every high school or elementary school language teacher can speak the language, and in most cases the teachers are not mother-tongue speakers of the language.)

> Let’s think about Spanish, French, English, etc., all living languages.
> Ancient Hebrew, Koine Greek, Classical Greek, Latin, etc., are all dead
> languages. It is much easier to learn, read and speak a LIVING language. That is
> what “immersion” is all about. That is NOT to say that the attempt to
> “immersion” cannot be done, but classes in Greek, Hebrew and Latin
> can only approximate the process.

Yes, let’s think about Spanish, French, and English.

1. The first question to ask, is “Can they be learned in a classroom?”
This is not a trivial question and the question has been raised in second language acquisition literature on more than one occasion. “Can a language be learned in a classroom?” The answer is not a resounding ‘yes’, but more of a whimpering ‘yes’.
It is possible, IF…, IF…, IF….

2. A second question to ask is “Can a language be learned from second-language users, non-mother-tongue speakers?” Again, while everyone agrees that exposure to mother-tongue speakers is a definite plus, the answer is that second-language users can teach effective language acquisition programs.

3. A third question then becomes, “Can an ancient language be learned in a classroom?”
Again the answer becomes, Yes, IF …, IF …., lF … .

4. A fourth question then becomes, “Why don’t programs promote or do this very thing?” Here the answers are too painful to put in words. At the end of the day the result is that the ‘dead language issue’ is simply an excuse to perpetrate the status quo. For languages with less than an attested 10,000 — 15,000 word vocabulary a person might make a legitimate case that the task is not practically possible. But Greek is not such a language. (Nor is Hebrew such a language if Qumran and the Mishnah are included. But Hebrew raises special considerations tangential to this discussion.)

5. A fifth question, unrelated to the ‘dead language issue’, is the appropriate training for persons with limited goals of one or two years of study. I might argue that the training should be the most efficient possible, one that allows the student to meet their limited goals, and preferably, one that would allow unhindered progress to more complete goals for those who want to go on.

6. My thesis, then, is that the ‘dead language issue’ is a dead question, a non-issue in terms of theory. Stated as a positive: All languages may become ALIVE in a properly run classroom.

7. PS – an aside: non-mother-tongue speakers WILL make mistakes in production, even mother-tongue speakers make mistakes, (though fewer and often corrected correctly). Somehow, the human race survives. There are occasionally people who claim that not learning a language to a fluent level is preferable in order to never hear a mistake made. Such an attitude will probably hinder any language learning and invariably leads to ‘unreal’ language imaginings. I see this a lot in the field of biblical Hebrew where professors ‘generate’ what they claim is ‘pure’ biblical Hebrew, untainted by fluent use of any Hebrew dialect, and they are chagrined to find out that their ‘tower of Pisa’ is leaning. They produce “grammatically correct” utterances of common material but their production doesn’t occur in the Hebrew Bible or match what is there. They are happily operating within a system that no ancient speaker followed. Poor Samuel and Isaiah, who hadn’t had the benefit of Gesenius (a famous 19th century grammarian).

[As a postscript to this email exchange, note the discussion on this very issue in John Hobbins’ blog, especially the comments he quotes from Paula Saffire’s paper.]
By | 2017-06-12T21:31:46+00:00 February 8th, 2008|Blog|1 Comment

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  1. Nick October 10, 2013 at 4:49 am

    Great article! I’m enjoying going through your Living Koine Greek Part 1, as well as taking an online TPR with Sebastian Carnazzo; the language is slowly but surely gaining more life in me.

    I’m starting to think in Greek and often times when I see an object that I know in Greek, the Greek word comes to mind first, rather than the English word, and I’m able to create a sentence using it and my surroundings. Also, my daughter (3 1/2 years old) and I have started playing games/imagination together in Greek and she has a lot of fun pointing out Greek things to her mother.

    One of the best moments was when I was listening to the John (ch 2) mp3 for the fun of it and I could pick up some of the vocab and glimpses of what was going on in the beginning, but then the mother of Jesus spoke and I understood her! It was not longer just independent vocabulary, but I actually understood that the author was saying the mother of Jesus said to Him and what she said to Him. However, I think that I understood it as “We don’t have wine” rather than “They don’t have wine”. Either way, it’s major progress for me 🙂

    So while others might consider it a “dead” language, I’m enjoying the life that it’s bringing.

    May God bless you for the resources that you’ve provided!

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