Institute of Biblical Greek
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Posted: 3/15/16
Dr. Schwandt is currently on a sabbatical from offering Greek courses and reading groups. We are currently working on a way to offer the educational materials without the live component.

Learning Greek

Why Work Toward Fluency

With all of the helps and software available, people often ask why we should put in the extra effort or even be interested in becoming fluent in Biblical Greek. I have also heard that is simply overkill to work on composition and communication with the language since our goal is merely to read the ancient material. This page is dedicated to answering these questions.

1. Learning Greek is not Learning Greek (The Great Academic Shell Game)

2. Testimonies about the difference in learning the language and learning about it

3. Methods

1. Learning Greek is not Learning Greek (the Great Academic Shell Game)

I remember that when I signed up for Greek in seminary, I looked forward to eventually attaining a relative degree of fluency after a couple years of classes (much like occurs after a couple years of Spanish or German). However, after I finished the curriculum I discovered that I knew far more about the language than I actually gained fluency in the language. I could not simply read much of anything Greek without helps (no matter how simple), but I could interact with subtleties of verb tense discussed in commentaries. This was a completely different result than I expected from a language course entitled Greek.

I think my expectations would have been better set if the course was titled something like the courses graduate students take to fulfill higher education language requirements. A title like "Greek for Exegesis" or "Greek or Graduate Studies" would have communicated the goals for the course far better than simply "Greek". Basically, there is a difference between learning about a language and learning the language itself. Both have their benefits but they are completely distinct and not a stepping stone to the other. The problem is when a course about Greek is extended for a couple years and includes a tremendous amount of rote memorization. That sort of time and method should be used to achieve fluency goals. If one is not interested in fluency then they should take an intensive course to learn the structure of Greek and then spend the bulk of their their time learning exegetical and hermeneutical methods and application. See my brief video here: Greek In A Week Video. Now, if you are interested in fluency and I hope you are then you should set your expectations and methods to something similar to what we find in modern language courses. It is possible to gain a basic level of fluency within a couple years.

Unfortunately nearly every Greek course out there is a merely a course about Greek. We offer a course online that is geared toward fluency. However this online course also has lectures that explains the grammar and syntax of the language so you can also interact with commentaries and other academics who are not fluent. Here is the link if you are interested: IBG Online Greek Class for Fluency. The course can also be used merely as an additional language lab if you are already enrolled in another course.

2. Testimonies about the difference in learning the language and learning about it

From the B-Greek List-serve:

I was a professional teacher of ancient Greek for 40+ years. I long suspected that grammar and linguistic terminology had very little to do with achieving fluency in the language, but I am now fully convinced of it. Even as a grad student half a century ago it seemed to me that composition exercises did much more for my grasp of the written texts than all the grammatical reference works. ... I have some difficulty understanding why so many should be satisfied with a 'casual familiarity" with ancient Greek rather than knowing it as a vehicle of communication.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)


Not Tedious!

When I was young I recall that my brother and I would go outside and catch a softball, hour after hour. We used no gloves, catching first with our right hand and throwing it back with our left hand, then catching the ball in our left hand and throwing it back with our right hand. Hour after hour we did that, not thinking it was tedious at all, because we wished to gain "fluency". But I had no such interest in basket ball, dribbling was just tedious. Those who wish to gain "fluency:, doing drills will not be tedious, but it will be a lot of work.

How Long?

I would say that if one has one and one-half to two hours to give to learning a foreign language (living or dead), and using the methods as generally prescribed in modern learning theory, then one can become "fluent" in a year or less. If one has less time available, then it will take longer. Using modern learning theory can, I believe, accelerate the acquisition of the language.

When to learn intricate linguistic functions of the language-

John Cicoski, an Classical Chinese Linguist (although he referred to himself as a Classical Chinese Philologist] believed that one should "know the language" before acquiring knowledge in the language. There is a lot of drive in put out in classical languages, it is not because the author "knows the language" and not linguistics, but rather because they do "not know the language" yet are quite capable in the science of linguistics.

John Sanders
Suzhou, China


3. Methods

I will use this section to begin compiling a list of suggestions of methods to work toward fluency

  • Conversation
    • This is the best way to work toward fluency. Start with the smallest bits of conversation and slowly incorporate more elements.
  • Retelling Narrative
    • Often there isn't anyone to converse with. After translating a passage (stories work best) practice retelling it (summarizing it) in your own Greek words. This take effort and a little time but will really pay off if you can turn it into a habit.
  • Listen with understanding
    • get recordings or record yourself reading stories and listen. It is important that you understand the majority of what is said. Listening without understanding is useless. Keep reviewing until you understand everything at speed. This will greatly increase your comprehension speed since you are not in control of the language speed.
  • Using Flash Cards
    • It is important that you don't waste time or spin your wheels when using flash cards. Don't spend more than 1-2 seconds on a flashcard. (We use the word "flash" for a reason.) Show the answer immediately if you don't know it instantly. Repetition is the key.
    • Keep your stacks of cards small (10 or under when first learning so you get the most frequent repetition with new material). After you have a few small stacks mastered, then you can combine them into larger stacks (but pull out missed ones into a new small stack.)
  • Flash cards mixing syntax and endings
    • Create flash cards with nouns in different genders, numbers and cases (computer programs can help) and then put an adjective like "εἵς, μία, ἕν" or "πᾶς, πᾶσα, πᾶν".
    • If you can incorporate audio or pictures with this all the better.

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