On Learning New Testament Greek and English Text Familiarity
Nathan is learning Greek. Good for him. I recommend it highly myself! He’s been pondering the best course for a while, and just posted again about how he’s thinking of moving forward. He’s considering Athenaze, and I think that is a grand idea if you want to learn to read the New Testament. On the surface this doesn’t make any sense as Athenaze is for learning Classical Greek. But it is, and here’s why.
Most people who want to learn to read the Greek New Testament only want to study and read New Testament Greek. I don’t feel the same way myself, but I can see where they are coming from and understand that. However, I think learning NT Greek through only reading NT Greek is a very bad way to learn Greek, and the reason is very simple.
Most people who want to learn NT Greek are already very familiar with the NT. Frequently they will be translating a verse and about a third or half of the way through they’ll be thinking "hey, I know what this says" and at that point their brain starts using their knowledge of English to guide their reading. That is not going to help you learn Greek! I saw this in me when I first started learning Greek. I’ve seen it in so many other beginning Greekers. When that English gets applied to the sentence your brain doesn’t have to wrestle with the language anymore and you’re just using your knowledge of English to substitute understanding the text. Your knowledge of the translated NT has become your mental interlinear and you can’t look at the Greek text without thinking of the English.
This will at some point be inevitable. After all, when we’ve gained some proficiency in Greek, we’ll probably want to start comparing translations and study various language-related issues related to understanding the NT. That’s not bad...at the end. But it is horrible in the beginning of the learning process. That’s when you most need to start trying to think in terms of Greek, and if your English keeps poking its head in you will probably never leave the English well enough alone to understand the Greek by itself.
So what is a fella to do? Ideally there would be a really awesome grammar for learning Hellenistic Greek that would work great in a self-study that had the student read a lot of Hellenistic Greek, including the NT. This would be great for the study of the NT because they would get to read some of the NT in Greek as they progressed, but would have to spend plenty of time in texts they are unfamiliar with that are similar in dialect.
But, as far as I know, that doesn’t yet exist. So what’s the next best thing? Well, this is what I would do if I knocked my head on something, forgot all of my Greek, and had to re-teach myself. I would actually learn from two textbooks simultaneously, alternating chapters in each. I would pick a NT Greek textbook and a Classical Greek textbook (Athenaze and JACT are popular options, but there are others) and work through both. Studying the first would keep me in the NT text, which I would of course like. Studying the second would actually force me to learn the language. The first would also be beneficial with the second since there are some forms that are different in the time of Koine than in the time of Classical Greek, and you would definitely want to know them. And don’t forget the vocabulary differences either. Studying a NT Greek book will help you with vocabulary that had a different flavor in Hellenistic Greek in general or NT Greek in particular.
Would tackling two grammars at the same time be confusing? Possibly so. That’s why a Hellenistic Greek grammar would be better. But if you took the time to learn the material well, I think you would find yourself learning both better. Getting different explanations of the same phenomena can also be a great help for learning...as long as they don’t disagree all of the time.
[Update: Apr 13 2008, 7:24 AM] One reader pointed out a possible exception to the no grammar of Hellenistic Greek point, and that is the material done by Randall Buth which you can find on the Biblical Language Center website. I haven’t seen or heard any of it so I can’t vouch for it. If I had a copy I would review it and let you know. Maybe I’ll have to use some of my tax return money...[/ End Update]
I recently started reading the JACT volumes. However, now I’m considering coursework at the University of Wales Lampeter, and they use Athenaze. So I think I’ll be switching to that. I spent time with it a couple years ago and really liked it, so I’m looking forward to the experience myself. I know that I will understand the language a lot better with more time in Greek text I know nothing about.
And, if it helps, I’m not the only one who sees this problem with learning Greek. Carl Conrad on the B-Greek mailing list frequently recommends the reading of large portions of unfamiliar Greek text for this reason. He does it all of the time. If he weren’t 100% right it might get annoying! But he is right, so I’m glad he keeps saying it. More should take his advice.
Anyway Nathan, that’s my two cents.