What are some hidden, long-term factors that affect learning Greek that generally are not on the radar screens of students?

I am fully aware that a plethora of factors affect learning Greek. Many of these factors, however, are short term. For example, room conditions are important, but often short-term problems only. Is the air conditioner working today (a huge consideration in New Orleans)? Are construction workers driving pilings across the street this week? Is the electrical supply going to brown out today like yesterday? What I really am focused on, though, in this blog are long-term factors about the learning process that often are not even on our radar screens.

Two long-term factors—nearly impossible to control—about learning Greek are: (1) the actual learning structure of a formal course and (2) the learning background the student brings to the task. Each of these deserves some consideration when anticipating learning Greek. For hypothetical purposes we will assume that we have skilled and motivated teachers and learners.

  1. Learning Structure. First, the learning structure of the course is a hidden factor most often left completely uncalculated by students. The built-in structure of the teacher’s environment, for example, can introduce serious learning limitations over which the teacher has little to no control.
  2. 1.1 Length of Time. Consider the structured length of time alloted for the learning process. For almost all teachers in any formal or academic setting, the length of time of a course is predetermined by the institution. The teacher does not get to choose the amount of time for the course. At college, the time given for introductory Greek is one year. At seminary, however, the time is one semester! Think about that. Since all language acquisition takes time, then, compress the time, limit the acquisition. This time factor also can dictate the teaching method. An inductive method requires the luxury of time. When time is compressed, one does not have this luxury of time to invoke an inductive method as successfully. A deductive method is much more time efficient. Your teacher probably is using a deductive method not because of some theoretical consideration that this method is “better,” but because the limiting constraints of time have almost dictated this method. The time is short and the method deductive. You may have trouble learning Greek because you just do not have time.

    1.2 Frequency. Again, consider the structured frequency alloted to the learning process. The teacher does not get to choose the frequency of meetings each week. Frequency is predetermined by the educational system. One can sign up for a Monday or Saturday only class. Or, one could sign up for a class that meets only one day, all day long, once a month, etc. Such schedules might “fit” the student’s work and church calendar, but they do not fit language learning. Language learning studies have shown over and over that the more times you rehearse in a short period, the more quickly and solidly you learn. A language class that meets four times a week will learn three times as much as a class that meets only twice a week—not because, on logical first blush more total meetings are involved (duh), but because those meetings happen with greater frequency in any given week. Greater frequency allows immersion in a subject. Immersion technique is cumulative and highly productive pedagogically. One can learn Greek in two weeks, if one meets all morning in class and studies all afternoon and evening each day and has absolutely nothing else on the schedule for those two weeks. Such a schedule simply capitalizes on immersion technique. We teach Greek in two weeks, by the way, in our Summer Biblical Languages Institute. While the process is grueling and the enemy is fatigue, students who emerge successfully from this course almost always have a more solid and deeper grasp of New Testament Greek than regular semester students. You may have trouble learning Greek because your class meets only twice a week.

  3. Learning Background. Second, the learning background of the student is often overlooked. Two long-term factors seem pertinent. One is American isolation from other languages. The other is a fundamental disability with the English language itself.
  4. 2.1 American Isolation. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans generally have isolated Americans from even hearing other languages, much less speaking them. Thus, even the subject of a “foreign language” gives us the chills. What we confront as adults is that our language neural pathways long ago were closed off under lock and key due to disuse. We are frustrated that children so easily can learn multiple languages. This facility is because the neural pathways are still malleable. To reopen those pathways in adulthood is like hacking a path in a jungle forest. One should expect that no matter how much energy you throw at the task, the jungle can still exhaust your exertions quickly. You may have trouble learning Greek because you no longer can muscle your way through in an all-night cram before the exam.

    2.2 English Disability. More than half of all students at the seminary level fail a basic English proficiency exam. More than half. This failure is after a college education! Shocked? No one in the teaching profession is. At the seminary we see absolutely horrid term papers. This failure perhaps is not your fault as a student. The “system” (however defined) let you down. Still, the question remains, how do you train someone to be an engineer who cannot even add or subtract? You first have to teach addition and subtraction. You may have trouble learning Greek because you do not know English.

Here are four practical suggestions to deal with these four hidden, long-term factors in learning Greek:

  1. Time. Restructure your time. In the semester you take Greek, take fewer hours of classes. If working, seek a flex-time schedule that allows for times of stress, such as exams. Seek a weekly schedule that offers blocks of time for study. Seek an arrangement with your employer to work less hours in the semester you take Greek, and to make up time during holidays and breaks.
  2. Frequency. Your class meets only twice a week. Find a mentor who can help with homework each week, or a classmate who already has taken Greek, or someone else who is available. Seek a tutor, and be willing to pay for those services. You probably need more daily exposure than just two class sessions each week.
  3. Strategy. College coping mechanisms and study strategies will not work for seminary Greek. You cannot cram for exams. Language just does not “work” that way. Language works by constant repetition, not short-term memory. You cannot cram vocabulary, because not only do you have to remember that word for this morning’s exam but for next week’s homework too. Therefore, change your study habits. Plan on working daily on homework, including weekends. Implement daily repetition routines, including weekends.
  4. Remediation. You must learn English first before you can learn Greek. Quit making excuses. Learn English. If you are fortunate enough to have a teacher who has gone to the trouble to include a summary of English grammar in a Greek textbook, take full advantage of that material. Learn the English grammar lingo. (Every subject has its own special lingo.) Learn the grammatical principles. Know the elements and grammatical structures of your mother tongue. Do not just speak English—know English!
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