Having taught Elementary Greek to about 30 different groups of students, and of course having learned it myself before that, I have a few tips and pointers to share. For most of them, there’s a story!
Tip #1: Don’t depend on your teacher or your textbook: Everything depends on you!
If you are using a great textbook, you are blessed. If you have a great teacher, you are doubly blessed. But ultimately, whether you learn Greek or not is up to you. So here’s the story to go with that.
It was back in the 1970’s at the University of Saskatchewan. I enrolled in “Elementary Classical Greek”, thinking it would give me a head start for my later seminary studies. My Greek teacher’s name was “Professor McCloskey”. No, I did not change the name to protect the innocent. He wasn’t innocent!
I suppose Professor McCloskey knew Greek well enough, at least he was very capable of talking over our heads all the time. What he did not know was how to pick a textbook. He selected an experimental textbook, using a bizarre new method. We were to learned how to sound out Greek words and then read Plato’s dialogues to each other, hoping we would eventually grasp the meaning of a few of the words. It made no sense at all. And it did not help that the publication date of the text kept being adjusted, so we had only page proofs to work with. Nor did it help that our dear professor came late to class almost every time, the exception being the times he didn’t show up at all. The rule in our university was that if the prof had not showed up 10 min. after starting time, students could leave and would not be marked absent. Over a dozen people watched the clock like hawks, so that they could leave exactly 10 minutes past the hour, disappearing quickly lest the prof show up before they were out of sight. Sometimes he did, and railed against those who had left. Sometimes he just didn’t come.
Twenty-four of us started the course; twelve of us finished; two of us passed. How did I do it? About 2 months into the course I found a Greek textbook in the library and learned Greek on my own. I should have thought of that the second week already, but I guess I am a slow learner!
So if your prof picks a lousy textbook, supplement it with a good one. And if you get a lousy prof, learn Greek on your own. Ultimately neither the text nor the prof can really teach you. They can only coach you as you learn. I hope you are blessed with a great textbook and doubly blessed with a great professor as well. I always wish the same for my students.
Tip #2: Don’t learn Greek for the purpose of becoming “a cut above the rest.”
By all means learn Greek, but not for that reason! So here’s the story to go with that.
I had just graduated from Seminary. I knew Greek fairly well as I moved to Northern Canada to plant a church. And I enjoyed getting to know the other ministers in town, high church and low church, well-educated and well-intentioned, super-spiritual and very down-to-earth. And then there was Rolf Kuhlen. He was a “minister-at-large” with only one parishioner, his ever-loving wife. He was always the first to volunteer to pray at civic functions, and the rest of us hung our heads in embarrassment. His prayers were long and pompous and filled with theological jargon.
I once saw Rolf Kuhlen’s letterhead, a veritable smorgasbord of ministries and accomplishments listed along the top, the side and the bottom of the page. His letterhead indicated that he could read, write and teach all four biblical languages (by that he meant Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German). And it claimed that he was “Founder and President of Ft. McMurray/Edmonton Bible College [non-residential].” I asked him about that once, and learned that he had indeed founded a college. What he had not yet done was attract any students to it. Along with “non-residential” he could just as well have added “non-chartered”, “non-accredited” and “non-existent”. And then one day he somehow signed up his first student, an oil sands worker who wanted to be “a cut above the rest.” Rolf Kuhlen had convinced him that if he knew biblical Greek he would stand head and shoulders above all his fellow engineers and scientists, not to mention truck drivers and plant workers.
Back then, and every year since, I have been a part-time house painter. (By the way, Greek professors who also paint houses make for better Greek professors.) One day at a ministerial association meeting, Rolf Kuhlen said to me, “Hey, Tim, you paint, don’t you? Any chance you could drop by and take a look at my deck. It is a horrible mess. Maybe you can do something with it.”
And so it happened that, on an unusually hot summer day in the far north, I was kneeling on a very rickety, peeling deck alongside Rolf Kuhlen’s mobile home, scraping paint and dust and who-knows-what-else. And through the open screen door I could hear the esteemed professor tutoring his one Greek student. And that is when Rolf Kuhlen made his fatal mistake! He was explaining something about aorist participles when it occurred to him that maybe I would know the answer to the question he was asking his student. Professor Kuhlen called me through the doorway and asked me to identify a particular verb form. I stopped my scraping long enough to supply the answer. And suddenly everything went silent; you could have heard a pin drop. Both Rolf and I could read the mind of the oil sands worker, the one trying so hard to be a cut above the rest: “If the grubby painter on the deck knows Greek, why am I busting my brains out trying to learn this language!?” And Rolf Kuhlen lost his only Greek student. I felt bad for the young man. Not so much for my ministerial friend, who had convinced him to learn Greek for all the wrong reasons.
Learn Greek! But do it so that you can serve humbly and faithfully. And don’t flaunt it. Maybe don’t even put it onto your letterhead!
Tip #3: Don’t expect your teacher or your textbook always to tell you the truth (at least not the whole truth).
What I learned about gravity in second grade (namely that it is what makes things fall down), was not very close to the truth. But it was a useful way to get started learning some things about gravity. What I learned about gravity in a university physics course was a lot closer to the truth, but I was still not told that gravity just might travel in waves and that even the best astrophysicists have no plausible explanation for the undeniable fact that when spaceships use earth flybys go get gravity boosts, the actual gravitational effect depends on the angle at which the spaceship crosses the plane of the earth’s equator. What gravity really is and how it really works is actually still up for grabs.
It is kind of like that when you learn Greek. If your textbook says that you should pronounce an “alpha” like the “a” in “father”, just go with that, even if it is often not true. It will get you started. You can always discover exceptions and make corrections along the way. By the way, every textbook and every professor will be making compromises all the time between “what’s really true” and “what helps you learn.” Some texts and some profs lean a bit too much in one direction for my liking, and some lean a bit too much in the other. Let it be! And when you discover that something your prof told you a few lessons ago isn’t quite the whole truth, rejoice! But don’t assume your prof was not perfectly well aware of that all along.
Tip #4: Don’t use exercises as if they were tests!
OK, this point might get me into some trouble. The most popular textbook seminaries use in teaching Koine Greek is by William Mounce. It’s the one I use as well. And in his audio lectures, he says explicitly: “Use the exercises as tests.” And I am saying: “No, don’t!”
But I think we don’t actually disagree as much as that sounds. His point, I am quite sure, is that students should first learn the lesson material . . . i.e. understand the explanations, memorize the paradigms, memorize the vocabulary, etc. . . . and then do the exercises. Do them to see whether the lesson material has been learned and perhaps to discover what has not been learned thoroughly enough. I guess that is sort of like using the exercises as a test, a way of finding out whether you’ve learned the material well enough. OK, I agree up to a point.
But one can memorize everything in the lesson material and still not necessarily be very good at figuring out which aspects of the lesson material apply to which aspects of the sentences to be translated. So doing the exercises (translating from Greek to English mostly) ends up being something far more than a test. It becomes a means of learning to apply the theory.
So I suspect Mounce and I would pretty much agree on how this works: First, learn the theory, the forms, the words (that’s the lesson material); then, learn to apply all that (that’s the exercises). While doing exercises, one discovers what one has not yet properly learned in the lesson material, and thus discovers what needs to be learned more thoroughly.
OK, time for another story. My son, Benjamin, went to a High School that requires every student to take two years of Latin. As Christmastime approached, he was struggling with Latin, in fact nearly flunking. It was so bad we decided he had to spend an hour a day on his Latin, all through the Christmas vacation. We did a road trip from California to Saskatchewan, so he spent many hours in the car learning Latin. We visited family, but at least once a day he’d sneak away (or more likely be sent away) to spend an hour learning Latin. Only now I was on vacation myself, so I had plenty of time available to discover what he was in fact doing with his one hour a day of learning Latin.
He explained it like this. “There are 30 sentences that go along with this lesson. Two weeks ago I got only 15 of them right. It takes me about an hour to translate all 30 sentences, so each day I do them over again and see how many I get right. Almost every day I get more right than I did the day before. Yesterday I got 21 right.” “That’s it?” I asked. “Yup, see I’m learning!” “And do you keep track of which ones you are getting wrong and what you are getting wrong when you do?” “No, I just see if I am getting better.”
That’s when I divulged to him a little known secret about tests. When a student takes a test, only one person learns anything. That is the teacher! The teacher learns how much the student knows. The student doesn’t learn anything. The student is just taking the test.
I followed that up with something like this:
“Tomorrow, please do only six sentences. That is, do six sentences in which you get something wrong. If you get a sentence correct, then doing it was a complete waste of time; you spent time doing things you already knew now to do. If you get a sentence wrong, rejoice! Now have a chance to learn something. So, when you find out you got something wrong, find out exactly what it was that went wrong. Were you confused about which was the subject and which was the object? Did you mistake singular for plural? Did you incorrectly identify the word being used? If something went wrong, then figure out exactly what it is. And then find the page in your textbook containing the information that would have enabled you to get that part right, if only you had understood and remembered it. Then spend some time reviewing that part of the lesson. Only after that should you go on to the next sentence.
My guess was pretty accurate. It did in fact take him about an hour to find six sentences in which he was making mistakes and figure out how those mistakes could have been avoided. And next day it took him about an hour to learn from all the sentences on the page where he was still making mistakes. And the day after that he got all thirty correct. And the next semester he got an “A” in Latin.
As soon as he figured out how to learn something while doing exercises, rather than just use them to figure out how much he already knew, learning Latin was a piece of cake. I explain this to every class of Greek students at the seminary. Those who take heed do wonderfully!
I think Professor Mounce would agree with my way of using the exercises, even though he speaks about it differently. But in case he does not agree, I’d gladly compare my students with his to see who learns Greek more efficiently.
Tip #5: Don’t try to get things completely correct 100% of the time.
No, I don’t mean make deliberate mistakes, like the legendary Amish woman who deliberate put one crooked stitch into each blanket she made, because, “Only God is perfect!” What I mean is, don’t spend so much time on any lesson or any aspect of the language, that you can realistically expect to get it exactly correct every time. Why not? Because learning it so well that you can get it right all the time takes about twice as long as learning it well enough to get about 90% of it right most of the time. And with the time you save, you can learn the next lesson well enough to get about 90% of that one right most of the time. In other words, you will learn Greek about twice as fast if you push on before you know earlier material perfectly. Learn everything fairly well and push on. As you learn later things, you’ll be polishing up the smaller things that kept falling through the cracks earlier on.
William Mounce speaks of “moving into the fog.” Truth is, anyone learning Greek in any reasonable way, will always be struggling with the dense fog up ahead, and will also be quite amazed at how quickly the fog will have dissipated when looking backwards.
When I teach Greek I allow students to bring with them to each quiz and exam a “cheat sheet” containing 10% of the vocabulary words included in the lessons studied to that point. That is consistent with how I think the language should be learned. If they spent so much time on vocabulary that they were guaranteed to get every word right every time, they would have spent about twice as much time on vocabulary memorization as they should have.
And, consistent with the way I think languages should be learned, I allow later grades to replace earlier grades. If a student averages 70% on each of their quizzes and then gets 93% on the final, their course grade is 93%. I don’t think they should be penalized for learning the language in the most efficient way possible. Of course if they love the process so much that they want to spend twice as much time learning it as they need to, who am I to argue with them? Let them learn it inefficiently.
An average student who wants to get an “A” in Greek can probably accomplish that, if they invest enough time and effort in learning Greek. But that same student could probably get a “B+” in both Greek and Hebrew with the amount of effort it would take to get an “A” in one of them!
There really are efficient ways of learning a lot, if you don’t get distracted by the questionable goal of trying to be perfect. Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself honestly whether you are perfect in English? No? What went wrong? Nothing, actually. You just decided somewhere along the way that learning the language perfectly was a goal not worth pursuing.
Tip #6: Know your Learning Style.
Some people learn best by understanding, some by hearing, some by seeing, some by rote repetition . . . or at least they think they know that this is true. It always pays to experiment with new methods. You might find you are not maximizing your potential if you don’t. Don’t settle for whichever method seems most relaxed to you. If whatever you do feels relaxed, you can be pretty certain you are learning very little Greek doing it.
I used to tell students that the two factors most likely to predict their success in learning Greek were their ability to memorize and their ability to work things out logically. Now I am convinced that above both of these are the abilities to be self-aware and self-disciplined.
My Final Tip — #7: Keep working both backwards and forwards.
I recommend to my students that they figure out how much time they can afford to spend each week on Greek. Then they should invest about 20% of that time working back (i.e. reviewing previous lesson material and vocabulary). And they should invest about 60% of the available time doing the lesson or lessons for the week . . . i.e. doing the best they can with the available time, but not expecting to get everything perfect. And finally they should invest about 20% of the available time working ahead. Working ahead puts this week’s material into a larger context; it introduces material that will help you make more sense of and benefit more from the next class period; and it reminds you that you will always be in the fog learning Greek, and that you need to get used to it.
Some of my students take me up on the encouragement to review. Very few of them do the previewing that I recommend. It just feels overwhelming to them, trying to keep up with each week’s lesson. Looking ahead just doesn’t seem to make sense. But I stand by my recommendation. Yes, you are stealing a bit of time from this week’s lesson time to start on next week’s, but you’ll be saving more than an equivalent amount of time the next week, and that time can be invested in picking up what you might have missed along the way. That is how language learning works best.
A last word of encouragement: The fog does clear up eventually, and the vista that emerges is worth it all. Trust me!