Communicative Method for Ancient Language Learning = Misplaced Priority

[I’m being a bit antagonistic on purpose with that title to get some reactions, but only a bit!]

Tonya & Daniel (bloggers at Hebrew & Greek Reader) asked me a question about communicative methodology in learning Hebrew when they interviewed me. After that, Seumas MacDonald wrote a four-piece essay (here, here, here, and here) on “Conversational” “Dead” languages which generated some good comments and led me to Daniel Streett’s work. Rather than bog down Seumas’ blog with a lengthy response, I’ve decided to bring my further comments here to my own blog. Mike Aubrey also has a lot to say (here and here) in response to Daniel & Tonya’s own posts on their blog (here and here) in response to Seumas. I know I’m missing some other contributors to this current discussion (but I’m not leaving them out intentionally)! I think we need a flow-chart to follow the conversations.

For those who may not be familiar with the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), you can read about the work of the Cohelet Project here. They have provided a very good summary of the goals and methodology of CLT. Paul Overland and his team have been working very hard to integrate SLA research into a program that is primarily driven by the communicative approach to language learning. Randall Buth has been running Biblical Hebrew ulpans for years (and is now also offering Greek ulpans). Randall is also part of the design team for the Cohelet Project.

Bottom line?

  • Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research shows that a communicative approach to learning a modern language leads to more internalization of the language. This is (in part) due to the student participation in generating meaningful communication in the L2 (the second language that is being learned).
  • It seems like (and that’s a big “seems like”) it would be a no-brainer to use that method to teach Biblical Hebrew (especially since traditional BH classes do not produce effective long-term results for most students).
  • So, biblical Hebrew pedagogy starts to incorporate the SLA methodology (hence, the rise of the Cohelet Project and Randall Buth’s biblical language ulpans). Now we have students who can act out the story of Jonah in conversational BH (this is just one example, I’m sure I’ll get some comments on this hyperbolic distillation of the results).

What’s wrong with that? It looks like CLT has great results and students are really learning Hebrew. But toward what end?

And this is where I get on my own soap box. We are putting the cart before the horse. Before discussing what the benefits of CLT are (which, I will agree, there are), we need to prioritize the discussion on content of coursework. I believe pedagogy has two components: content and method. Methodology (like CLT) is a tool that serves the content of the coursework. It should not determine the coursework! What should determine the content of a course? Good question! And one that should be answered with attention to the end-use of the language by the student. And here is where we need to take note of the limitations of SLA research as applied to Ancient Language Learning. The goal of many modern language courses (especially those upon whose research SLA is dependent) is to communicate in the language. So, it makes sense to focus on communicating in the L2 as soon as possible in the coursework. It is productive to learn how to ask questions and explain situations in the language that is being learned, because this is how the language will be used! It is not only a methodology, but a skill that will be sustained after the coursework is finished.

I have to disagree with Daniel Streett (on Seumas’ blog):

I think you’re right that course goals must be clarified. My own goal, as someone interested in Christian origins, is to be able to hear and understand ancient Greek texts with the same immediacy their original audiences encountered them (of course, I realize that the cultural gap will still exist). I would like to reach the point where I can read ancient texts for pleasure, the way that I read English. I think your exhortation to talk about the content of the course before we talk about methodology is helpful, but the two are so intertwined that I’m not sure they can be separated. If we use a grammar-translation pedagogy, the content of the course will be English equivalents, translation method, grammatical metalanguage, linguistics, etc. On the other hand, if we use a natural/communicative approach, the content of the course will be comprehensible input in the second language itself.

First, Daniel’s goal is a noble (and lofty) one for anyone. I applaud his endeavor for himself, but I think it is highly unlikely that most seminary students are going to be able to read biblical texts in the original languages “for pleasure, the way that [they] read English” (although, I’m sure John Hobbins would agree with him). In fact, I think most seminarians are learning the languages to be able to exegete and preach/teach. They are looking to be able to understand the text in a very close manner. When I read “for pleasure” I am not doing the kind of close analysis that is necessary for exegetical work. Now, granted, we all will have some students who go on to do philological work, become language scholars, or continue on a lifelong endeavor to be able to truly “read” (and not just decode) scripture, but they are not the majority. The end-use of the majority of a group of particular students should drive the definition of the goal.

More importantly, I do not think that course content and methodology are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. This is precisely my point. We have for too long allowed other issues to take our attention away from deciding what to include in a course. We’ve done it for so long that we don’t think it can be done! Not so. Daniel & Tonya put together a hypothetical syllabus (really a compilation of several courses they have taught) that is very intentional about including and excluding material based on how their particular students will use the language and the constraints of the course (i.e., student time, hours for the course, etc.). I’d like to see more discussion along these lines (I am taking a closer look at their syllabus before reviewing it in detail). What would you include in such a course? Why? What would you intentionally exclude?

In fairness to Daniel (since I picked on his comment above), I do like the direction he is going with his Koine Greek classes. I really like what he is doing with his Greek exams. Seumas has posted one of Daniel’s final exams here. Appropriate examinations are another area that need attention. You can say all you want in your syllabus about the goals of a course, but the true proof of what your goals are is found in what you hold your students accountable for in an exam.

I think there are benefits to be gleaned from the communicative approach (but I also don’t think it is the panacea many claim it is). My effort is to re-prioritize the content of courses by focusing on the end-use of the language by the students so that we give them a a sustainable skill set that matches their needs. How we implement that content is the role of the methodology, which can include CLT in a productive manner if it is seen as a tool serving the goal and not as the goal itself. In other words, in exploring HOW to teach ancient languages, let’s first figure out WHAT we should be teaching.

9 thoughts on “Communicative Method for Ancient Language Learning = Misplaced Priority

  1. Karyn Post author

    Seumas Macdonald actually now has 6 parts to his series on ‘Conversational’ ‘Dead’ Languages (and promises one more soon). Here are links for Part V and Part VI.

  2. Mike Aubey

    You know for a polemic soapbox. I actually agree with the majority of you said.

    We both agree on the strengths and benefits of modern methodology.
    We both agree on the need to focus on the end users.

    The point of contention is how much time it takes to bring students to a level of language acquisition where they can naturally read.

    From my own experience with modern methodology (SIL training), I am quite convinced that a student could reach such a point after two years of learning via modern methods (maybe two and a half).

    The problem is that none of us can be sure of that because at this point, there is no Greek or Hebrew program in a seminary that see if that’s the case.

    Its all well and good to say that its impossible, but 1) nobody has tried and 2) nobody (at least in a seminary setting) is willing to try. Buth Ulpans are not seminary and neither is the Cohelet Project. Daniel Streett is currently limited to a single year of introductory Greek.

    So its all well and good to say that modern methods won’t heal the wound, but until someone actually tests them in the necessary setting. All of us are in a dream world arguing about things nobody actually knows anything about.

    But hypothetically, if a seminary student were able to obtain such a reading level, the amount of time placed on studying the original text for sermon prep would be greatly reduced because reading would cease to be a chore – that’s an end user issue that we all need to pause and think about.

    Another hypothetical.

    Let’s say that we do the work, test the methods in a seminary and we conclude they don’t work. Great. Now we know. BUT. That’s only one type of end user. What sort of language level should the professors have? Shouldn’t they be able to actually know the langauge? Even if it doesn’t work in the seminary for whatever reason (time constrains, end user issues, whatever), there is absolutely no excuse for the scholar to not actually know the language. If anyone should be able to simply read the text it should be the professor teaching it to the seminary students!

    The professors have no excuse. None whatsoever. If they’re working in the text, they should know the languages, really know the languages.

    So to quote Daniel from a comment on my blog, “I would … point folks to Stephen Krashen’s work, which has established the role of comprehensible input in SLA. He has also shown that the greatest progress in a language is to be made by “free voluntary reading” (which of course, can only take place once the basics of the language have been internalized).”

    Okay, you’ve got a response. I hope that’s reactionary enough…

  3. Mike Aubey

    Now that I’ve said all of that…and since read your response comment on my blog…

    1) I feel kind of silly for writing so much.

    2) I agree with you that we need to be talking about content just as much (if not more) as we are about method.

    Instead of making an assumption and then ranting, I’ll ask a question.

    When you say method cannot be not the panacea many advocate because we need to be talking about content too?

    That is are you rejecting modern methodolgy? Or just saying its only part of the equation?

  4. Seumas


    Thanks for another fine contribution to the discussion. I would just make two points.

    1. In considering end-goals for seminary education, I think we do best to consult the seminary’s purposes in teaching languages, not the student’s goals. Students coming in have little idea why they are learning languages, except in the vaguest sense that they’re supposed to. Generally, given the option, the majority will drop them and avoid them. That’s why languages need some compulsory courses.

    2. Defining the end-goal doesn’t necessarily guide us methodologically. I’m thinking fitness here, and I hope my analogy holds: often we need to cross-train, vary exercises, come at a muscle group from various angles, etc., to get the best result. Our aim might be to do one specific thing, but our approach might need to be varied. I suspect the same might be true for languages – too narrow a focus on a ends-generated methodology, might not actually produce that end as effectively as we suppose.

    I might have some more thoughts later… (I can hear them milling in line in the back of my mind)

  5. Karyn Post author

    Hi Mike,

    I had a reply to your first comment almost finished when your second one arrived. Which simplifies things for my own reply a bit!

    First, I’m glad for your comments, all of them. The more we discuss this, the better.

    Second, yes, when I say that method cannot be the panacea many advocate it is precisely because we need to be talking about content first. This does not negate the necessary discussion about methodology, just prioritizes the discussion to deal with content first.

    You are also correct that seminaries are like the Titanic when it comes to changing curriculum: very hard to change course direction quickly. But I am not willing to give up. I think we have our work cut out for us, but it is vital work.

  6. Karyn Post author


    1. I do agree that students are not the best source of defining the end-use goals. This is why I went to the ordination committee of some of the presbyteries that receive candidates from our seminary. I asked them what they expected their pastors to be able to do with languages once they had graduated. I also asked how they tested for this during the ordination process and how they provided support for ongoing maintenance of that skill once a student has moved into serving a congregation. This is also why one of my questions to the people attending BT2007 was what level of Hebrew do you expect for future translators?

    2. Your fitness analogy is good, but needs some tweaking. Your end-goal is fitness, to get there you need various exercises (methodologies). If you are training for a specific event, you will be even more focused on certain muscle groups. I don’t think end-use goals as a focus is too narrow. Why do you do all the different exercises? To be fit and have a balanced set of muscles. That’s an end result, goal orientation. Your methodology is varied, and I agree the methodology for language learning should also be varied. We have a good toolbox of language resources we can use and we should pick what is appropriate for the task at hand.

  7. Mike Aubrey

    Sorry for making you type all of that for no reason… your reply on my own blog helped me understand immensely!

    The content question, in many ways, is more complex than the method question since we’re talking about multiple languages at the same time.

    For my own part here’s my view (and I’m talking about Greek since that’s the language I focus on): I’ve already talked enough about first year learning, which I think should follow much of what we see in Buth’s Living Koine Greek

    In terms of content for the second year, Greek courses really need to get away from using 1 John or really any of the NT letters for study. New students with so little language background should really be focusing on narrative, not epistolary material.

    I also think that basic grammatical (linguistic) analysis should be taught rather than typical Greek grammar categories found in intermediate grammars. It wouldn’t be that difficult to teach students cross-linguistically keeping Greek at the forefront, but discussing how language works in general rather than teaching students about all the different categories we can use to translate the Greek genitive into English.

    Anyway, those are a few thoughts. I wouldn’t know what to say about Hebrew, though I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  8. Daniel Streett


    I agree with quite a bit of what you say in this post. I simply think, though, that if you are going to have a Greek class, it should teach Greek, not linguistics, not exegetical methods, but the language itself (via comprehensible input in the target language).

    Do pastors-in-training need the ability to read Greek fluently? I don’t know? I also don’t know whether they need to be able to name the key points of Thomas Aquinas’ thought, but we teach that in church history courses and systematic theology classes.

    I think that if a major part of my job was to authoritatively teach 100 people twice a week from Don Quixote, I would want to learn Spanish inside and out–even if the already-existing translations of that work were superb. I would want this all the more if I had spent 3 years (and mucho dinero) in school preparing for that job!

    Shifting gears slightly, I would also question the value of most exegetical methods courses–which appears to be the direction you would have biblical language teaching go. I have seen the best and brightest students at many schools–those who took all the linguistics, syntax and exegesis classes–parse, diagram, and analyze a passage to death, and come up with the most off-the-wall interpretations you can imagine. They don’t know how language works, they treat the ancient texts bibliomantically, and they have no feel for the language. And, why would they? They were taught, at least indirectly, that Greek and Hebrew were artificial codes to be broken, not living, breathing, imprecise, unpredictable, “rule”-breaking—in short, normal—languages.

    Thanks for the interaction!

    1. Karyn Post author

      Welcome Daniel, I appreciate your comments.

      “I simply think, though, that if you are going to have a Greek class, it should teach Greek, not linguistics, not exegetical methods, but the language itself (via comprehensible input in the target language).”

      I think this depends. I agree that sometimes you might have students where you just want to teach the language for the language itself, but other times the student will also need to be able to speak about the language (i.e. future translators), so for them, linguistics is helpful. In seminary (at least where I was), we are going to take the time when looking at the HB text to realize that whenever we translate (and I’m going to say that first year students typically are still translating in their head as they read, or translating on paper as they work through a passage) we are making decisions and interpreting. That’s exegesis. So, it’s important to at least recognize there are choices being made, and that you can make good or bad choices (or wrong choices). If there were no interpretive issues to deal with then computers could do all our translating just fine. Some of these issues are at the discourse level, which I think is critical to include in the language classroom.

      “I think that if a major part of my job was to authoritatively teach 100 people twice a week from Don Quixote, I would want to learn Spanish inside and out–even if the already-existing translations of that work were superb. I would want this all the more if I had spent 3 years (and mucho dinero) in school preparing for that job!”

      I would agree with you on this. However, I don’t think this is the culture of the pastorate in the United States right now. So, we have to think of how to deal with the current situation while also hoping to change the future. A big part of my job is to convince my students that it is vital for them to learn Hebrew (and to keep learning) exactly for the reason you stated: they are basing their lives, their teaching, and their profession on this text. Remember, my students were required to take these courses, but they still didn’t always see the reason in the long-term. I have to demonstrate to them why they ought to know it in the original language. And yes, a translation (no matter how superb) is not the same as being able to read the text in the original language. I will take time to show them how translations can “miss” things from the original and to show them the payoff for understanding the syntax in the Hebrew or the semantic domain of a word or phrase. I’ve often wondered if the best way to encourage pastors to keep up their languages would be to train some of the congregation to read the original language. If a pastor knew that a member of the congregation was following along in their Hebrew or Greek Bible, I’ll be they would be motivated to keep ahead of them and make sure they “got it right.”

      “I would also question the value of most exegetical methods courses–which appears to be the direction you would have biblical language teaching go.”

      For my particular students, yes, exegesis is the direction they will go with the language, so it is appropriate that I set up a trajectory toward that task. I take the time to show them examples of “off the wall” interpretations and how to be self-aware of their own potential to do the same thing. We do learn to appreciate the imprecise, unpredictable, “rule”-breaking character of Hebrew. When they become frustrated with the inability to put everything in a nice box, I point out issues in English (or another language) that are unpredictable, yet we accept readily (because we are so “used” to it).

      One thing to consider when dealing with biblical languages is what is at stake. It is not like paraphrasing an article from the New York Times into another language to see if you “understand” the gist of the text (or even describe the content in the original language). I agree that reading lots and lots of text may help students “get a feel” for the language, but my students also need to (eventually) learn how to interact with the text in a close manner because sometimes the details really are important for theology or doctrine. Some of my Hebrew exams give the text in Hebrew and also in an English translation they are not familiar with. I ask questions that require them to pay attention to how the Hebrew is structured and how the translation dealt with those structures. I ask if there were other options and ask them to explain why you might choose a particular option. I ask them to identify the things that cannot be communicated well in English. In order to do that, they have to learn “how” the language works and have a feel for the different ways that different languages represent ideas. Thanks for letting Seumas post your Greek exam. I liked a lot of what you were doing in that.

      And for the record, I think that Biblical Hebrew has some additional difficulties that Koine Greek does not have. For example, we could both learn vocab down to the same frequency, but due to the size of the HB compared to the NT, the Hebrew student will have many more unknown vocabulary words below that frequency. So, “reading” (when we define that as knowing at least 95% of the vocabulary) is much more difficult.

Comments are closed.