Monday, September 01, 2014

Some challenges of teaching Greek for non-English-speakers

This is now my fourth consecutive semester teaching Greek exegesis in Mongolia, in Mongolian. This semester my students are studying John, which is a real delight. In this post I am going to explore some of the linguistic features of the Mongolian language in comparison to Koine Greek which provide difficulties for my students.

To set the scene, before I get these students they do two semesters of introductory Greek. They are taught in a quite traditional grammar-translation method using the textbook by Ray Summers. I’m not deeply familiar with that textbook, but it’s pretty standard fare. Their teacher is a quite competent Mongolian who also teaches English. So students learn Greek through the medium of an English textbook. This is less than ideal, but it is what it is. There was a translation project to try and create a Mongolian version, but lack of consistency between translators meant it did not see completion.

Nouns and Case

Case and inflection normally presents a considerable ‘up-front’ barrier for English speakers, since they have an almost caseless language. Not so Mongolians! Mongolian has 8 morphologically marked cases (depending how you count them, I count eight!): Nominative, Accusative, Genitive, Dative, Ablative, Instrumental, Directional, and Comitative. It is agglutinative, rather than fusional, and there are also suffixes that mark subject-relatedness (i.e. reflexive), and a type of vocative.

So students do not generally fumble over the idea of cases. They need to adjust to working with 4 standard cases and the rare vocative, and they have to get use to fusional inflection across several patterns, but the very idea of morphological case is not an obstacle for them.

Mongolian lacks an article. Generally definiteness and indefiniteness are inferred from context, as in Latin. Where greater specification is required, definiteness can be marked by a demonstrative, or by the use of an enclitic marker. Mongolians tend to find the Greek article easy to ‘deal with’, but struggle with interpreting its significance in exegesis.


Mongolian inflects verbs for tense, but not person (generally) or number. Again, this provides no major obstacle in the field of tense. However voice and aspect become trickier.
Mongolian marks an active and a passive voice, but no middle. This is naturally a little tricky, especially with recent recasting of Greek as having active/middle, and passive as a category of the middle.
Grammatically speaking, Mongolian can be represented as having passive, causative, reciprocal, plurative, and cooperative voices. This do not have clear correlations to Greek morphosyntax, and so I do not normally deal with them as ‘voice’. Nor do Mongolians themselves tend to analyse them as ‘voice’.

Aspect is one of the trickiest points. Mongolian does distinguish between perfective / ongoing / habitual aspects in its tense system. However for Mongolian speakers, these are classified as tense distinctions, much as English speakers do. And ongoing and habitual are distinguished, they are not a single imperfective category. Further, they are only generally available as markings in Indicative type clauses.
This means that the concept and the implementation of Aspect is relatively foreign for Mongolian speakers. While aspectual distinctions are clear in the Greek indicative, at least for everything outside the Perfect/Pluperfect, they are difficult to convey outside the Indicative. I suppose this at least has parallels with the issues that English speakers also face!

Mood and Syntax

Mongolian constructs its complex sentences by putting the subordinate clause first, and by suffixing the infinitive verb with case-type endings and a further postpositional marker. This means that the idea of a whole ‘mood’ for subordinate clauses is foreign, as well as the order of clauses in Greek. Indeed, whereas Greek will generally move from Main clause through a series of subordinate clauses, Mongolian will reverse the order, starting with the ‘most subordinated’ clause and linking them in a chain, ending with the main clause. This makes reading long hypotactic sentences a real pain. It also has lead to some odd features in the standard Mongolian bible. Rather than preserve a close syntactical fidelity, the Mongolian Bible breaks long sentences by verse, preserving a correlation to other versified Bibles, and breaking long complex sentences down into shorter ones, by use of resumptives and other pro-words.

The relative

I’ve saved my two greatest difficulties for last. The first of these is the relative pronoun and relative clause. There is no corresponding structure in Mongolian. Instead, relative type clauses must be rendered as adjectival clauses. I will give an English example:

               The man, who was wearing a red shirt, sat at the station.
               The [red shirt wearing man] [at-the-station] sat.

While this example is trivial, the problem is exponential in Greek, which makes freer use of relatives than English does. Greek will regularly use a relative clause later in a sentence, and even as a way of connecting and introducing new sentences. All of these present difficulties for Mongolian speakers in processing Koine Greek. It is particularly difficult when a relative pronoun both refers to a prior subject and presents new information, as Mongolian must generally represent the former function with a demonstrative pronoun, but the new information as a separate clause, before continuing on with the main clause. Here is a made-up Biblicalese example:

               Christ died for our sins. Who, having rendered an acceptable sacrifice, then sat enthroned in 
heaven at the Father’s right hand, is now our hope and joy.

               Both the participial phrase and the ‘sat’ clause must be rendered as a distinct sentence, before the main clause can be rendered as something like, “That one is our hope and joy”.

The Participle

This is the second major headache for Mongolian speakers, as there is no real equivalent in Mongolian. There are participle-like formations. For example, one can link two verbs together to show that one happened after and as a follow-on from the other. Or, there is a participle type form that can indicate simultaneous action, that one verb was done by doing another, or as part of a continuative aspect. But there is no participle proper, because these are all really adverbial verbs, rather than verbal adjectives.
So the concept of an adjective formed from a verb is difficult to process, and attaching them to nouns is difficult to do, and the notion of using them adverbially in the variety of ways that Greek does is horrendously complex. All the adverbial uses of participles would be rendered by different complex clause constructions in Mongolian, requiring the Mongolian student to perform a very large one-to-many mapping of possible semantics and syntax.

I think English speakers often think Greek is ‘hard’. But English has a structure that is quite comparable to Greek, and maybe after reading this they will be a little bit more thankful for articles, relatives, and participles.

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