Here’s part four of this interview series with Communicative Greek Teachers.
Last week we spoke with Christophe Rico of the Polis Institute. This week we follow up with Stephen Hill. Stephen both studied, and now teaches, with the Polis method at the summer intensives. For this reason I thought it would be helpful to hear from Stephen, to get another perspective on the same ‘strand’ of the Communicative Greek world.
1. Stephen, I wonder if you'd share about your own academic background?
As an undergraduate, I majored in English literature with minors in philosophy and Spanish, and I also took two years of Greek the traditional way. In May of this year, I finished an MA in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) at the University of Illinois, where I wrote a thesis on the philosophy of second language acquisition (SLA), took some courses in the classics department, and taught writing to students of English as a second language. I start an MA in Classics this month at the University of Kentucky, where I look forward to developing speaking and writing skills in Latin. Since 2012, I’ve taught communicative Greek in the summer through the Polis Institute, which I talk about below.
2. Specifically with relation to Greek, what was your experience in learning the language?
I first learned Greek the “traditional” way, via grammar-translation: memorize and translate, usually from Greek to English. After two years of this, my classmates and I were “reading” – that is, laboriously translating – more or less authentic Attic prose. But I could do much more in Spanish, which I’d also studied for two years, and in French, which I’d studied for one. So it didn’t take long for me to start questioning the methodology.
3. What first made you interested in communicative methods? Was there something that triggered you to shift over to them?
As I mentioned, the initial catalyst was the difference between my ability in Spanish and French and my ability in Greek. After four semesters of college Spanish, I was able to read actual Spanish literature. My comprehension wasn’t perfect, but I could do it, even though my classes focused much more on speaking, listening, and writing than they did on reading. The same was true for French. Even though I took only two semesters, the oral-aural foundation I got in class allowed me to study the rest of the grammar on my own and start reading French literature. But after two years of memorizing paradigms and translating Greek, I found the easiest authentic Greek texts to be unassailable without a lot of hand-holding from dictionaries and commentaries. To be fair, Spanish and French are both easier languages than Greek. But I didn’t think that was enough to explain the dramatic difference in outcome.
I think it was during my first year of Greek that I came across B-Greek, at that time still a mailing list, and its vigorous discussions of Greek pedagogy. Participants like Randall Buth and Carl Conrad reinforced my doubts about traditional teaching methods. Buth in particular convinced me that teaching Greek like a modern language wasn’t just a pipe dream, but instead was perfectly realistic and extremely useful. I began to realize my failure to speak and write ancient Greek was a major reason why I couldn’t read it very well. Eventually I heard about another teacher of living Greek – Christophe Rico, whom you’ve already interviewed – and I decided to go to Rome to take his intensive summer course in spoken Koine. After four weeks of speaking, listening, reading, and writing Greek – and especially after studying second language acquisition – I was convinced that active use of any language, ancient or modern, is the most effective path to learning.
4. What are some of the methods or resources you've utilised to equip yourself for learning and teaching in this way?
For me, the intensive course in Rome was essential. It gave me an active vocabulary of useful words and reinforced grammar that’s essential for communication but sometimes given short shrift in traditional textbooks. Even more importantly, it gave me four hours a day of comprehensible input. It was Greek that I could understand without recourse to dictionaries or grammar; if I didn’t understand something, I could ask and have it explained in Greek. In that way, even failure to understand Greek becomes an opportunity to acquire Greek more fully. Second language acquisition research indicates that comprehensible input is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for acquisition, and it’s here that traditional instruction often fails. Beginning students of Greek and Latin need to read lots and lots of easy texts, not a few sentences or paragraphs from harder ones, and (optimally) they need to speak and write.
5. You've had some involvement in teaching in connection to the Polis Institute, what have you been involved with?
I first came to the Polis Institute’s three-week intensive courses (at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross) as a student in 2011, and then returned in following years as an instructor. As Dr. Rico mentioned, we offer three levels of Koine Greek, four of classical Latin, and two of biblical Hebrew, all taught exclusively in the target language. In 2012 I co-taught the first level of Greek and in 2013 I co-taught the second level. This year I taught the first level at Ave Maria University in Florida and last month I taught it in Rome.
6. Lastly, what sort of 'results' or outcomes are you seeing in students learning Greek through communicative methods?
Unfortunately I can offer only anecdotes; one thing that ancient language pedagogy sorely needs is empirical applied linguistic research. But after three weeks in the first level, for example, students are able to comprehend very simple texts in Greek without recourse to dictionary or grammar (of course, vocabulary and grammar is presented in Greek anyway). Many students return each summer to take the next level. In my own case, after my first immersion experience, I noticed that reading Greek didn’t give me a headache anymore! It was more like reading and less like puzzle-solving. I had internalized the linguistic forms through constant use. One problem with traditional textbooks is that they put off high-frequency forms considered “difficult” till very late in the course. Δίδωμι may be a dreaded –μι verb, but it’s impossible to communicate in Greek without it. So constant use of the language naturally eliminates some difficulty by forcing students to become comfortable with high-frequency irregular forms.