A Mind for Language

Dec 20, 2019

Learning Greek, an interview with Seumas Macdonald

On 18/19 Nov 2019 (depending on your time zone) Dr. Seumas Macdonald and I had a very enjoyable conversation about Ancient and Koine Greek and how he got to his current level in the language.

Seumas is a Greek teacher and researcher who runs The Patrologist.com. He is working on a number of projects to create Greek teaching/learning materials that reflect what linguistics has taught us about how humans learn languages. He also teaches and tutors Greek online.

This post is a summary of the interview. It starts with Seumas's Greek journey and ends with some recommendations for learners. You can listen to our conversation here.

In the course of our conversation he repeated that it took him a lot longer than it needed to because of the methods used and that with proper Comprehensible Input (CI) based methods it shouldn't take a learner near as long.

Seumas's journey into Greek

It starts

Like many of us, Seumas started in traditional grammar-translation (GT) classes. He began with Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek which he worked through on his own before entering a theological degree. In that program he was required to take four years of Greek. The first year was a reprisal of what was in Mounce's book; the second year moved on to Wallace's Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics; and the last two years were exegesis classes of the Greek text of the New Testament (GNT).

During this time he used electronic flashcards to learn all GNT vocab occurring 3-4 times or more. He also began studying Latin on the side and got additional Greek input from taking outside classes on works written in the Attic dialect.

Journey to CI

Seumas's journey to Comprehensible Input based teaching and learning started with Lingua Latin Per Se Illustrata (LLPSI). Through this book he realized that there are more effective other ways to learn languages than the GT method. He read posts in online Latin teaching forums and began considering how to apply it to Greek. There was less communication about CI methods and materials at that time, but he grabbed some of Randall Buth's materials from The Biblical Language Center.

While working in Mongolia, he had the experience of learning a modern language. His reading of the research in language acquisition helped him understand what to focus on.

So I did almost no homework in my classes. I didn't do any translation exercises. I didn't do any flashcards for Mongolian. I just tried to what I believed would be useful which would be getting exposed to Mongolian as much as possible.

These experiences helped shape his understanding of the effectiveness of CI and how to apply it. He also took some Greek classes online from sources such as Michael Halcombe's Conversational Koine Institute.

Last few years

Starting in 2015, Seumas began tutoring Greek and Latin and doing more conversational stuff online. He also attended some Salvi Rusicatios (Living Latin weeks/weekends). These helped him realize that he could hold and lead a conversation in Greek. He could keep instruction in Greek without the need for English. He's also been involved in some online Greek chats and various reading groups where they read and discuss a text in Greek.

Summary

Seumas has taken a variety of classes, some of which used the GT approach and some were more CI based. He notes that the experience of reading a lot in these classes helped grow his skills and that the communicative classes were more enjoyable and useful. Over time he's moved toward more CI based activities such as online chats, reading groups, and events that were held in the language.

How does CI shape what he does?

I asked Seumas how CI shapes what he does,

... I enjoy grammar, I enjoy linguistics, I enjoy understanding how language works, but knowing that and ... being pretty convinced that acquisition happens when there's input and that input is understandable kind of drags me back and says "What are you doing with your time and what are you doing with your students?" There's a place for grammar and a place for explanation, but the bulk of what I should be doing, both as an ongoing learner, but also as a teacher, is getting input for myself and creating input for others. That's what's going to drive acquisition.

Pushing farther

I also asked Seumas what he does to further his own Greek skills. He said that it's driven largely by the "vicissitudes" of life. He teaches whatever his students need to learn. One day he may be working through a classical text with his students or he may be prepping them for a traditional GT style final exam for a GNT class.

He also has regular online video chats which allow him to speak at a higher level that he normally does with his students. He also tries to read things that interest him. This includes easy stuff such as textbooks and Greek readers.

What he's excited about currently

Seumas is currently working on a project called Lingua Graeca Per Se Illustrata.

It's essentially ... an open ended writing project to create as much text that flattens out the curve for anyone reading Koine or Attic to read interesting stories that introduce grammar and vocabulary gradually and give meaningful, comprehensible repetition.

He views this as a "shared universe of Greek" that people can read and contribute to it. He is intentionally structing the materials and thinking out what readers need to be exposed to and in what order in terms of both vocab and grammar.

He's also working on a podcast, but notes that it's currently on "an unscheduled, long hiatus".

Recommendations

Seumas offers the following advice:

I wouldn't tell people to do things the way I did them because it took too long to get where I am and I think people can get there much faster if they're a bit smarter about what they spend their time on... I think the best use of time is to be reading, reading a lot, reading things that are relatively easy. If it's an intensive type of reading experience where you have to look up a lot of words, you're not getting as much exposure as you would by reading a lot of easy stuff.

He also recommends listening to stuff, but notes that sadly there isn't as much Greek audio materials as there are Latin at the moment.

How to move into more difficult texts

My main question for Seumas was about the transition from New Testament Greek to Classical or other Koine materials. From my perspective one of the main problems is the quantity of new vocabulary. He said texts outside the GNT tend to be written in a higher, literary register so "I think you try to flatten the gradient as much as possible" between what you're already comfortable with and the target texts. "...in one sense the vocab problem never really goes away," and he goes on to explain that Homeric Greek is a challenge for him because the vocab is different so he needs to look up a lot it when reading.

Flatten the gradient

To flatten this gradient Seumas recommends choosing texts "that will make that gap as small as possible."

So from the GNT one might proceed to the Apostolic Fathers. The Didache could be a good place to start because of its similarity to the GNT, but First and Second Clement might be more difficult.

Seumas said,

I tell people to cheat as much as they need to; that is it's always find to be looking things up or using whatever resources you can to make things as intelligible as quickly as possible.

Greek readers can help here (check out Steadman's readers).

Read at multiple levels

One thing I tell people to do is try to be doing different things at different kind of levels.

Make sure to read things that are relatively easy as well as things that are more stretching. This provides more input which is what we really need to learn Greek. Perhaps 70% of your study time on is spent easier materials (A Greek reader or reading and re-reading the New Testament) and a smaller portion on a more challenging Classical text or one of the Church Fathers.

Learn to ask questions in Greek

Developing the ability to ask ... and answer simple questions so that you can talk about the text in the language. Who is this person? What are they doing? Where are they?

This helps you stay in the language when working with a text. (Check this out for examples on how to do this.)

Reading out loud and writing

Reading out loud early on can be helpful as it involves multiple senses. Recoding yourself can be helpful so that you have something to do when you can't sit down and read. Or you can find someone else and swap recordings with them "if you can't stand the sound of your own voice."

Seumas would also encourage people to start writing earlier than they think they should by writing a few sentences or summarizing a text in a simpler way.

Resources

Here are some of the resources mentioned in this interview or in the post.