Saturday, March 08, 2014

If we took Biblical Language education seriously, and the reasons we don't

Of course, this is just another rant, some of my regular readers can skip it.

This video popped up on my feeds lately, and of course I heartily agree with Van Pelt. However most schools are getting this wrong, and most students don't know any better, and this isn't going to change quickly. Here are some of the myths we keep endorsing.

Myth #1: Grammar Translation is the way to mastering biblical languages.

Well, this would be great except that many people master the grammar of biblical languages and can't string half a sentence together. This doesn't mean they don't know anything, but it is really, really odd that we treat these languages as somehow 'different' to living languages. If we really wanted to do that we should teach students linguistics and then let them apply that to biblical languages, instead grammar translation is kind of an unhappy medium burdened with pedagogical methods that aren't as old as most of us think they are. (For the record, I think teaching linguistics and applying it would be great. Let's do more of that, but I don't think it's an either/or with my other proposals).

Myth #2: Communicative methods will get us where we want.

It's pretty obvious that I think we need to engage in an absolute revolution in how we teach languages, and embrace communicative methods wholeheartedly. However, we need to be aware that this in and of itself doesn't get us where we want. Yes, I want to and I want my students to be able to order a skim decaf cappuccino with carob sprinkles in Koine. Actually I don't because that drink is an abomination that causes desolation and no-one should order it, but I do think it should be hypothetically possible to do so. Yet if that's all we achieve, we have missed our goal. Why did we ever start dissecting the biblical languages in the first place? To analyse the Scriptures for better and precise understanding. That's only going to come if we not only understand the languages, but can talk about them. We need meta-language.

Myth #3: Communicative methods won't get us where we want.

This is the flipside of number 2. There's nothing inherent about communicative methods that means you can't teach explicit grammar. It's just pedagogically sounder to teach explicit grammar in the target language. I long to see Latin students discuss Latin grammar in Latin, Koine students discuss Koine grammar in Koine. Suddenly you haven't given up on grammar, though you have given up on 'translation' as a means to get there, and you're spending your class time in your target language facilitating second language acquisition. This should be win-win, this should be a no-brainer.

Myth #4: The problem is lack of hard work.

I think this is a relic of the old-schoolers who put in hours after hours following a G-T method and became really could at it. You know, in one sense it works. Spend enough hours (a lot) doing grammar-translation, you'll get really comfortable with it.

However this attitude basically comes down to "We're going to give you 1, 2, 3 hours of class a week, but you need to pour in X hours of individual study memorising, rote-learning, pouring over books". Frankly, this is mostly inefficient. I say this as someone who did do a lot of rote-memorisation of vocab and got great benefit from it. I also say it as someone who has a range of mastery across at least 5 languages. There are better uses for students' time and just telling them to work harder is not the solution. Plenty of them are working plenty hard and we need to help them learn smarter.

Myth #5: We can keep doing what we've been doing.

I didn't quite know how to phrase this. It kind of relates to 4. What I really want to say is this, Getting serious about increasing the quality of biblical language education requires a level of institutional and personal backbone most seminaries lack. You actually need to say:
- Languages are not optional here
- We aren't going to let you fail if you turn up and make an effort (if you do what it takes, we'll do what it takes)
- 3 hours class for a year isn't going to get you to Intermediate.

I personally think there are numerous problems with the FSI estimations of hours to reach "General Proficiency" (this is equivalent to Superior on the ACTFL, which would be C2 on the CEFR), but at the same time let's just take it at face value for a moment: 1100 hours to reach that level for a language like modern Greek or Hebrew. They mean contact hours. If you were doing a 3 hour week Biblical language course, and let's say you have a 16 week semester, that's 11 years. No wonder most graduates don't keep up their languages, don't use them, and aren't sure of their value.


Unknown said...

Excellent points all around. To expand on Myth #1: the assumption is that because ancient languages no longer have a native-speaking population, they should be taught differently from ones that do. Latin has no native speakers; therefore it’s justified to teach it in a way completely unsupported by second language acquisition. (As Douglas Brown says, it’s the language teaching theory without theory.) But of course that makes no sense. Languages are languages, and our cognitive mechanisms for language learning are not affected by the presence or absence of native speakers. If communicating in a language is more effective, then we should do that, even if we can’t talk like Cicero or Jerome or Plato or Chrysostom right off the bat (or ever).

Stephen Hill said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seumas Macdonald said...

Don't know why the comments are doubled-up, but I can't seem to fix it properly without deleting it entirely. Anyway, thanks for your comments Stephen. Most of use can't talk like Cicero in English, so it's no surprise that we probably aren't going to speak like him in a second language.