Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Reading versus decoding Greek

In a continuation of the post on Latin, I turn now to Greek. Yesterday on the B-Greek list Dr. Conrad had a wonderful post, a long excerpt of which I include here (with his permission):

"When I came to teach Greek in a classroom on my own, I quickly became aware of the problematic nature of grammatical knowledge both as something necessary and as something having curiously little connection with ability to read Greek successfully. I’ve seen too many students who knew the paradigms and the rules but couldn’t read sequential Greek textual material, and I’ve also seen some who could read Greek texts pretty well but weren’t very good at grammatical analysis.

"Why is that? I think that two not-unrelated factors are at work:

"(1) Students who have learned by the traditional textbooks and pedagogy know the paradigms and the rules of grammar and have learned the vocabulary, but they attack the Greek text as a problem to be analyzed, as a step-by-step hunt for the subject and the verb and the modifiers and then a synthesis of the pieces rather than as an integrated whole: they readily discern the Greek trees by genus and species, but they are lost in the forest of Greek discourse.

"(2) Another metaphor I’ve met with frequently of late is that these students view a Greek text as a sequence of cryptograms to be deciphered: for them, reading Greek is a process of DECODING an alien script — and that involves transcribing an alien script into an intelligible script. Generally that means TRANSLATING the Greek text into the student’s native language, more or less item-by-item. The false assumption here is that UNDERSTANDING a Greek text is fundamentally a matter of producing a corresponding text in one’s native language such that each item in the Greek text has its corresponding term in one’s native language. But in fact, nothing could be much farther from the truth; TRANSLATING is by no means the same as UNDERSTANDING the Greek original text. Accurate translation does presuppose the understanding of the original text, but that text must first be understood on its own terms: unless one can grasp the thought of the writer/speaker in its own format, think that thought as the writer/speaker thought it and as the original reader/listener read/heard it in the original Greek, one will not be able to re-express the sense in the intelligible idiom of one’s own native language. Reading Greek is not a matter of decoding a script and it is not a matter of converting the elements of a formula into another script; rather, it is a matter of THINKING in Greek.

"In the course of my own teaching of Greek I tried several different textbooks. I came to feel more and more that traditional instruction focused on learning rules and vocabulary lists and paradigms and then TRANSLATING sentences from Greek to English and English to Greek (sentences all too often composed by textbook-authors in quite unidiomatic Greek and English) would work only with the exceptional students who actually went beyond those procedures and internalized the language in a manner not altogether different from the way children learn their native tongue. I knew that I myself had acquired as much fluency as I had in Greek and Latin through reading long sequential texts of good (and some less good) ancient authors. I felt that what was needed was a textbook that moved as soon as possible into sequential discourse in the Greek or Latin. Of the traditional type of textbooks the best I ever found for classical Attic was Hansen and Quinn (the sentences were written with authentic understanding of both Greek and English idiom). But I was really looking for something that focused on getting the student to THINK IN GREEK...

"I later discovered and for the rest of my teaching career I used the JACT “Reading Greek” course, delighted to have a textbook that begins from the outset with sequential readings: dialogue and simple narrative all in good, solid idiomatic Attic and moving quickly into barely altered original texts from Aristophanes and then from Demosthenes and Plato and Herodotus and the Odyssey, all in the train of a single course. Like the Ruck text, Reading Greek had exercises in manipulating phrases and understanding words in contexts, and the testing was in terms of sharply re-paraphrased narratives based upon the readings of the preceding lesson. The entire focus of the course was upon reading skills. Grammar was introduced as necessary in order to explain the constructions introduced in the reading passages of the new lesson, but it was rather minimal and was in fact a sort of metalanguage used when necessary to TALK about the language and how it works AFTER experiencing through confrontation with the text the language in pragmatic application.

"I confess that in the course of my teaching from the JACT Reading Greek I found it necessary to construct my own supplementary grammatical materials to distribute to my classes to assist them to use traditional grammars to answer their questions and to be able to talk about how the language works in courses with other instructors to which they would move on from my Beginning Greek course. I always had mixed feelings about this grammar: that it is a necessary evil: both necessary and an evil. What one needs the grammar for is analysis of HOW a Greek text works; one doesn’t really need it in order to learn to read or speak the language. The grammar is a metalanguage to be used to discuss how the language works. Frankly, I have come to think that Randall Buth is right in thinking that, insofar as this metalanguage of grammar is necessary, it really would be better to use Greek for the grammatical metalanguage if the language one is trying to learn is Greek.

"Why? One reason for it is that the grammar that we use most to talk about Biblical Greek is a metalanguage that aims at facilitating translation into English or some other target language. The categories in BDF or Smyth, all the more those of Wallace’s GGBB, are phrased in terms of how to convert the Greek construction into an idiomatic English equivalent construction RATHER than how to understand the Greek construction in its own terms. How can that be improved upon? Probably the grammar to be used for studying Biblical Greek should be written in a Greek that is as close to Biblical Greek as possible even if vocabulary must be added to accommodate concepts about the language not adequately dealt with in the grammar of the Hellenistic schools."

<idle musing>
I have heard similar statements from others who use the JACT. I have never used it, when I was teaching first year Greek, the text was chosen by someone else and it was Chase & Phillips. When I taught second year Greek, my emphasis was on reading large amounts of text, since that is how you learn a language. I also supplemented the readings with my own grammatical and syntactical notes (long gone, they were on 5.25" disks in some obscure word processing format).

I think that the balance here is good. You get students reading Greek, you supplement with grammatical notes. You need both, students need a framework to hang things on, but the emphasis should always be the existing text(s).
</idle musing>

1 comment:

Alex said...

I have a strategy -- I'm not sure how well it works. It's based on my experience in a French class where I was forced to read large amounts of material (i.e. novels) without using a dictionary (it would have been impractical). The idea is to get yourself to start learning words in context. What I do is this: first I read a large chunk of the text (say Alcibiades' speech from the Symposium) in the original language. Then I read a translation. Then I go back and read the original again. It would be ideal to read the original several times for each reading of the translation. This is cheating, in a way, but it gets you to read more and it helps you to stop relying on the dictionary (by exchanging one crutch for another!).