Thursday, December 8, 2016

An Interview With Daniel Streett On Greek Pedagogy

I interviewed Daniel Streett a few years ago on the "Living Language" approach to teaching Greek. I'm not sure what happened to the interview on my website, so I am reposting it here. Enjoy.

TWH: What are the top three strengths to teaching Greek as a living language?
DS: (1) It’s fun. The learning process is full of activity, interaction, and visual and tactile input. (2) It’s easy. The learning process is low-stress, doesn’t require grinding and rote memorization. It’s not designed just for those 2-3% of students who have the analytical personality and memory skills to succeed in a traditional class. (3) It gets you inside language, and gives you a feel for it that years of analysis will never be able to give you. It helps us realize that ancient Greek was a normal language that just like all languages has its ambiguities, gaps, range of registers, etc. It helps us stop thinking that the NT was written in “holy ghost Greek” or that there is some special precision to the language that we can uncover through detailed exegesis.
TWH: Will you please describe what your class time looks like, from the minute you and the students walk through the door until the time you all leave class? Let’s say you are covering the Present Active Indicative, or feel free to describe covering a different subject matter. I’m curious what your class time looks like compared to the Greek courses I had (David Beck, SEBTS; Dave Farnell, TMS; Paul Felix, TMS; Dave Black, SEBTS).
DS: To begin with, I do not use a grammatical syllabus. What that means is that the course is not structured according to grammatical elements. We don’t cover the present active indicative first and then next week the imperfect. Instead, I use what we can call a topical/functional syllabus. The first week we may cover greetings and names. The second week may be devoted to ‘family.’ The third week we may learn basic actions like walk, talk, sit, stand, run, etc. Another week we may do clothing, or food, or weather. This is very much like what you would find in a typical ESL class.
Once the students are more advanced we can move to more specific vocabulary (temple, farming, etc). A great way to cover these topics is to tell a story that deals with them. Lots of Biblical stories are ideal for this. Another great technique is to learn to do something in the language. For example, we might pretend to be priests on Yom Kippur and learn how to perform a sacrifice in Greek, or we might conduct a Greek banquet-symposium.
I imagine the class is about as different from the courses you mentioned as possible. I aim to conduct the class in Greek as much of the time as possible. If more than 10% of the class is in English, it really breaks the flow and detracts from the learning. Also as I said above, my classes are pretty physical and laid-back. There’s a lot of movement, talking, interacting, laughing, playing, etc. It’s often quite a challenge to get college and seminary students to break out of their typical classroom mentality of sitting at a desk and taking notes!
TWH: From an education standpoint, I have not seen any research assessing the proficiency of graduates in using New Testament Greek, or what percentage even uses it at all in ministry after they graduate. I hope that someone will endeavor to do this research on a broad-scale in the future. I’m curious about your perception. Do you think the Living Language approach has a marked increase in (1) a graduate’s proficiency and retention of New Testament Greek, and (2) graduates’ utilization of New Testament Greek in ministry after graduation? If so, why?
DS: I have seen some surveys on this but I can’t remember where. I do remember that the percentage of those who continued to use Greek after their formal education was very low. I would also venture to guess, based on hundreds of conversations and emails about this, that those who do continue to use Greek/Hebrew after their schooling do so at a very low level, and, usually, to be frank, in a very artificial or misguided way.
As for whether the LL approach aids retention—definitely! There is an internalization of the language. It goes into “long-term storage” not short-term memory.
I do have to remark at this point on your use of the term ‘proficiency,’ since I think it is frequently (actually, always!) misused when it comes to ancient Greek. The way I define proficiency or fluency for Greek is the same way I would define it for other languages. For example, if I am proficient in Arabic, I can pick up an Arabic newspaper and read (not translate!) at a normal pace (100-200wpm) with a high level of comprehension—this is reading proficiency. I would then be able to carry on a conversation in Arabic about the content of the newspaper—this is listening/speaking proficiency—or write a summary of it in Arabic (writing proficiency). At present, I know only a handful of people who could do that for ancient Greek, and none of them got there at the end of a 3 year seminary education, or even a 3 year MDiv followed by a 5 year PhD followed by 25 years of teaching Greek in the traditional way.
It is only when you reach a level of some proficiency in Greek that the benefits start to kick in. That’s one of the serious problems with current seminary education in Greek: it gives students a surface knowledge of a tiny body of literature in Greek, mediated entirely through English translation and structures, and then tells them that they are ready to read and pronounce authoritatively on the meaning of ancient texts. This is just enough knowledge to impress uninformed audiences and to be dangerous.
TWH: What textbook do you use, or can you use a standard textbook while following the Living Language approach?
DS: I don’t use a textbook, since nothing currently exists that would support the kind of classroom experience I aim for. Of course, the typical Bible software, lexica, and reference grammars are indispensable for figuring out what would constitute authentic ancient Greek. There are excellent resources put out by Randall Buth of the Biblical Language Center as well as by Christope Rico. Athenaze could probably also be adapted to this approach, especially the Italian edition. What we really need right now are good interactive software-based materials that students can use for practice in a lab setting.
TWH: Is the Living Language approach only good for beginning Greek courses? In other words, can you use Living Language techniques in advanced Greek courses? If so, how?
DS: It is definitely not just for beginning courses! The living approach really only shines at an advanced level. Advanced Greek courses should be taught just like advanced modern language courses. Class should be conducted entirely in Greek and should be understood not less as Greek classes and more as history courses (or literature courses or linguistics courses) that are conducted in Greek. For example, imagine taking a course on Hellenistic Judaism where classtime, discussion, assignments and tests were all in Greek.
TWH: How did you get involved with this approach to teaching/learning New Testament Greek?
DS: My interest was originally sparked in college by a religion professor who questioned the use of English glosses for teaching Greek vocabulary. He urged connecting the word to the thing, instead. This made perfect sense to me. Then, in my PhD program, I observed the rather sorry state of my own ability in Greek (after 5-6 years of Greek), as well as that of others in the program. I also came into contact with Randall Buth, who had begun teaching Greek using LL methods in Jerusalem. He suggested that I do some reading in modern Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research, so I did and it blew me away how backward and outdated our methods of teaching Biblical languages were. So, when I was brought on faculty at Criswell College and assigned to teach a section of basic Greek, I decided to experiment with this method. Modern second language acquisition theorists are unanimous in their rejection of the grammar-translation method that is typically used to teach Biblical languages. All of them recognize that immersion in the language is the ideal way to learn.
TWH: What were your impressions of Greek courses when you were a student?
DS: Ironically, I suppose, I loved them. I have a very logical and analytical personality, and I’m good at memorizing things for the short-term and taking tests, so I excelled in Greek courses. However, I don’t especially enjoy memory work, and I was rather disappointed that, even though I had succeeded in classes everyone else found so difficult, I still was not able to read Greek for pleasure or claim any meaningful proficiency in the language.
TWH: Are there any weaknesses about the Living Language approach that you have identified as a teacher?
DS: I don’t think there are any weaknesses in the method. It’s not really a method so much as it is the way that human beings are wired to learn languages. All humans learn their first language this way—through immersion and lots of listening, not through grammatical analysis and memorization!
I do think, though, that given the strange state of traditional Biblical language pedagogy, many people will think that there is a weakness to the LL approach. Somehow, learning Koine Greek has been conflated with learning exegesis or learning how to translate—these are actually quite distinct tasks and sets of skills. But because they have been conflated, we expect that someone who has taken a Greek course will be able to analyze grammar and syntax, or be able to translate Greek into English. (Again, in my opinion, all of this has led to a very artificial treatment of the literature.)
An LL approach, on the other hand, aims primarily to teach proficiency in the language, which does not necessarily include the ability to perform linguistic analysis (just as most fluent users of English would not be able to define or even recognize a perfect participle in English, or be able to create a syntactical diagram of even basic English sentences). Those are all great things to learn, but they should be taught after one has acquired a normal level of proficiency in the language itself. The bottom line is, we must be clear about our goals when we teach Greek. Are we teaching the language or are we teaching linguistics/translation/metalanguage?

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