Monday, July 14, 2014

How many hours do you need to 'learn' Greek?

Periodically I like to soap-box about classical language instruction, this is one of those times.

I was standing in the kitchen the other day thinking away half in English, half in Mongolian, and particularly I was reflecting on a recent short post by someone who had calculated 'hours estimated to fluency' against 'number of L1 speakers' to work out which language would be worth investing time in. (Spanish, by the way, is the best choice if you're an English speaker, but I do not endorse such a method of selection.)

I had also been reflecting on the problem of simply 'hours in the language', and it just gave me reason to go back to the CEFR standards, which are reasonably well explained on Wikipedia.

Estimates suggest that you need around 150 hours of classroom time or guided instruction to reach A2 in German, 180 hours in English, 160 in French. That's not homework, that's instructional time.

2 years of Seminary Greek, at 2 standard credit hours a semester, gets you 112 hours, more or less.

Now, granted, most seminary Greek classes are designed on different lines, with different goals. Those are: to teach you a somewhat antiquated semi-linguistic approach to analysing a small corpus of relatively easy Ancient Greek. Almost no other language does this. Except Biblical Hebrew. And a few ancient languages for which the corpus is quite, quite small (Gothic comes to mind, as does Ugaritic). Even Latin or Syriac requires a slightly different approach, because the body of texts is thankfully larger.

This is why I am, probably a little snobbishly, dismissive of the depth that any such program can produce.

Here's what I think a seminary course should produce: at least a B1 oral proficiency matched with a slightly stronger reading ability approaching borderline B2/C1. I'm not expecting graduates to come out spouting Demosthenes and Libanios and able to speak fluent Attic with rhetorical flourish. But I am expecting them to have some acquisition of the language, not just knowledge about the language. At the very least they should be able to put together a grammatical discussion of the sort that I posted recently.

We won't get there without explicit commitment to teaching Greek in Greek, without improving pedagogical methods, without a vision for what's possible, without a sense that despite all that's good about the present, it could be paradigm-changingly better.


Jonathan H said...

I think it depends. Although I am a student of the Bible and intend to study it in the original at a graduate level, my Greek education has been almost all in Classical dialect. I just did the math and I have had 162.5 hours of Greek. After a quarter of Homer, my quarter spent reading Luke in Greek felt like a breeze. But I wouldn’t say I could do anything orally in the language. In my experience, the best way to make students learn Greek is to make them teach is to others.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Anyone who refined themselves in the fire of Homer will generally find the NT breezy, except occasionally being caught out by shifts of meaning between Classical and Koine, which are usually not too troublesome unless you come straight from Homer.