Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Greek to Me

This is an exciting year for Andrew. He has a great group of students and colleagues, and as he digs deeper into the texts every year, things just get better and better.

But as great as the humanities classes are, the really exciting thing is that he's teaching math again--and he's teaching it the way he wants to. He's doing Euclidean geometry with a small group of bright and committed students, and it's the real deal. They're doing real math, the way real mathematicians do it, with nothing  watered down.

It's hard work, and the class is only possible because the students are so committed. It's not the sort of thing you can force anyone to do.

But for those students who really want to do it, in a lot of ways it's actually easier than a standard high school geometry class. Standard classes are designed to accommodate unwilling students--and what facilitates good compulsory education is often very different from what facilitates easy learning for committed students.

I've found this to be true in my own personal intellectual life as well. Sometimes, if you really want to learn something, you can just dive straight into the deep end, and do it. And sometimes when you jump right in, you can do stuff that you wouldn't have been able to do in the gradual, step-by-step way.
Recently, somebody linked to an interesting article on the Loeb Classics and the Hamiltonian method. (Sorry, I can't remember who to thank...) This is essentially what I've been doing with Greek for the past few years.

I can't really comment on the comparative effectiveness of this method versus a standard grammar-based approach. The standard method may get you further faster, and it may lay a more solid foundation. Certainly it provides more opportunities for cheat-proof evaluation. As a busy mother of five, though, I can heartily recommend a Loeb-style quasi-Hamiltonian approach for one very important reason: it's actually possible.

I wanted to learn Greek for a very long time. Every few years, Andrew and I would carefully scheme to  carve out a bit of time each day to sit down together with our textbooks and grammars, but it never worked for more than a few weeks. Life would always interrupt us, and by the time we would get back to the books, we were at ground zero again.

A few years ago, I gave up on all of that, and just started doing morning devotions in Greek. 

It was all Greek to me. I had about a five-word vocabulary from my many false starts, and I (mostly) knew the alphabet, although I went several weeks without discovering that chi and kappa were two different letters. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but every morning I spent a few minutes staring at the beginning of John's gospel. Every morning I got a little bit further, and every morning it made a little more sense.

Meanwhile, the kids and I listened to the gospel of John on mp3 over and over. It was running in the background as we did our chores, ran our errands, until I had it stuck in my head like a song that won't go away.

That way, when I stared at the unfamiliar Greek, I already knew what it meant. The puzzle was just to figure out how it meant that. It started very, very slowly... but it was exhilarating to watch meaning emerge out of the formless void.

Once I became a little more comfortable, it was very productive to follow along in the Greek while listening in English. Eventually, I began carrying my Greek New Testament everywhere, so I could take advantage of this incredible opportunity every time someone read aloud from the New Testament. (Side note: somebody needs to publish a single-volume Koine Bible, because it's rather cumbersome to carry around both Septuigint and NT!)

I'm still a beginner, but Greek is now an important and enriching part of my life, and of my involvement with Scripture. It's also a sustainable part of my life, with steady progress built right into the fabric of my routines. As it turned out, learning Greek didn't require carving out enough time to break it all down step by step. It just required using the time I already had to step out into the unknown and sit with the frighteningly unfamiliar.

There are a lot of special interlinear texts designed for use with the Hamiltonian method--texts in which the word order of the original is rearranged to match the word order of an English translation. I've never used any of these texts, and frankly, it doesn't seem like a very good idea to me. It also doesn't seem necessary. It's okay to be confused. Just do it. This sort of thing can be scary for us grownups, but we have to become like little children anyway in order to enter the Kingdom, so this is just good practice.

I do sometimes use an ordinary interlinear Bible, and that has definite advantages. This allows me to cover extended passages with greater speed, and whenever I'm just quickly looking up a verse or two, this lets me slip in a bit of Greek practice without any extra time investment. It can be easy to slip into just reading the English, though. For the most part, though I find a Loeb-style format to be ideal--the straight original text with easy access to a fairly literal translation.


  1. This was really interesting to read, especially since I've been teaching myself Greek in the opposite way (meaning: I just picked up Mounce's _Basics of Biblical Greek_, and a workbook, and plowed through it).

    But I did notice that much of the grammar and vocab doesn't really stick until you encounter it "in the wild" a few times, and in order to learn Greek there's no substitute for reading a lot of Greek.

    It also helped to listen to Greek. Zondervan publishes a great "Readings in the Greek New Testament" CD set that I've enjoyed.

    I'd love to talk with you and Andrew about Greek sometime. We're in a small club!

  2. Gabe:
    'much of the grammar and vocab doesn't really stick until you encounter it "in the wild" a few times'

    This is so true. Nothing (in my experience) cements a vocab/morphology item faster and more permanently than using it in context or understanding it in context.

    Also 100% agreement about the listening. That by itself has catapulted my Hebrew forward quite a ways.

    Elena, thanks for the distinction between methods that work to compel learning and methods that work to facilitate motivated learning. Those are helpful categories...

  3. Hey ya'll. I usually don't post a link to my blog in a comments section, but I couldn't resist showing you what one of the students at Southeastern did yesterday. I recorded him reciting Phil. 2:1-11 in Greek and added subtitles so you can follow along. Might be something you'd enjoy viewing and sharing with others.


    Also, here is a link to purchase the combined LXX(OT)/NA(NT).



  4. Looks like on the evidence of two or three witnesses, I'm going to have to get serious about listening to some Greek recordings! =)

    Thanks for sharing the video, TWH!