Friday, October 24, 2014

A slower road

At the end of 2007 I graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity, and at that time I had some consideration of immediately entering a doctoral program. I decided not to, for a variety of reasons. I suppose that if I had, I might have completed in 2010 and be 4 years post-degree by now.

Instead I choose a much slower path; I completed a 2 year full-time-equivalent MTh program which laid a further groundwork in the area of my specialty, I spent about 2.5 years ministering in an under-privileged area of Sydney,  another year working in an over-privileged part of Sydney, and now almost 3 years in Mongolia, including 2 teaching.

Sometimes I regret that I did not 'advance' my 'academic career' more directly and swiftly. That, as we now go back so that I can return to full-time studies, I have little to 'show' on my cv for these years. At the same time, my hope is that this has made me a more well-rounded figure. The other day I reflected that I have undergraduate majors in philosophy, literature, classics, and theology. That is a breadth that few bring to the table these days.

The next 2 years will be a fairly intensive time of research, and like many I often suffer from imposter-syndrome. On the other hand I despise the hubris of some programs. Perhaps one day I will master my field, until then I feel like there is always so much to learn.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

On the division of case usages.

Daniel Wallace in his widely used, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics categorises 33 different usages of the Genitive case.This was the textbook used in my 2nd year seminary course for teaching us how to use Greek for exegetical purposes. Today I want to soapbox about some bugbears I have regarding endless classifications of case usages.

When you read some of the material in the debates about πίστις Χριστοῦ, between it being an 'objective genitive' (where Christ is the object of the implied verbal idea, so 'faith in Christ') or a 'subjective genitive' (where Christ is the subject of the implied verbal idea, so 'Christ's faith/fidelity'), one gets the idea that some people think that there was a 'choice' between the two. As if Paul had a drop down menu of genitive case usages, and 'selected' one or the other. This is, obviously, not how language works. The 'option' that Paul could choose from was just 'genitive'. Where there is no morphosyntactic difference, there is no option; Paul's other options were to express the idea by means of other constructions rather than the genitive.

Take that illustration and multiply it out; one error that I find students sometimes making is thinking there is this kind of 'choice' between case usages. There is not. One does not choose between different 'types of genitive' as a speaker, one simply chooses to use a genitive construction. Which means when we, as receivers, come to a text we should not imagine they did have that kind of choice! It distorts our understanding not only of what that construction might mean, but also the importance of that choice.

This also sometimes manifests in a false sense of free choice among learners. The kind of thinking that says, "Okay, here are 33 genitive usages, and here is a genitive, and I would like to understand it according to category 15." We don't have that as a 'choice' either. My current students don't normally come up with this kind of error, because they haven't been exposed to this kind of classification and I don't encourage this kind of labelling (besides the nightmare it would be to translate and explain 33 categories of genitive usage into Mongolian). But I have encountered it elsewhere. The student says, "I think it's usage Y", "Why?", "That's how I take it". Sometimes the choice of usage is wildly inappropriate.

What's the role of labeling? What it isn't is a way of getting the meaning out of the text. That is back to front. Consider participles. They do a real load of work in Greek language. I won't bother counting up the number of usages Wallace categorises. Almost all of these can be figured out by considering, "what is the sense of the words involved". This, for instance, is how to evaluate between concession and causation: does the sense of the two phrases/clauses/ideas fit better with A because B, or A despite B. It is always ad sensum. Labeling is a post-understanding process - once I understand the text, I may put a label on it.

However, and this is perhaps were labeling is useful, the sense of a construction is ambiguous. For example, going back to pistis Christou, that could be an ambiguous construction. I would argue that we need to recognise two types of ambiguity, sender-side and receiver-side.

Receiver-side ambiguity occurs when we are inadequately able to make out the meaning of the text. This may be due to inadequate language acquisition, on a broader scale we may simply have an inadequate corpus to allow us to work out some ambiguities at all. It presumes that the author didn't perceive the message to be ambiguous, but we do.

This happens to me all the time, when people say, "What have you been doing?"; lacking a temporal reference, I always find the statement ambiguous. Now I take to clarifiying, "Do you mean right now, or today, or in the last six months?" Sometimes the context of the conversation has clarified this. But other times not. Clearly the speaker considers it unambiguous; the ambiguity is receiver side. When we deal with written texts, disambiguation cannot be achieved through dialogue.

Some ambiguity is sender-side; the sender has failed to communicate in a way that is clear, either intentionally or unintentionally. If it is unintentional, we might consider it a fault of the speaker; if it is intentional, we may conclude that the speaker deliberately wants to 'keep options open' for interpretation.

To come back to pistis Christou as my example, I do not believe this is
sender-side ambiguity at all. If Paul wanted to express a subjective genitive idea, I believe he would have rendered the whole phrase differently, avoiding the genitive construction. It is one reason I find the evidence on this question from patristic authors compelling - native speakers of Hellenistic Greek did not consider Paul's construction ambiguous, so much so that they don't even discuss the objective vs. subjective idea. That tells me that there was no ambiguity for them, that the ambiguity exists primarily from moderns, as a receiver-side ambiguity created by inadequate thinking about case usage and/or inadequate Greek acquisition.

My point in all this is not to focus on pistis Christou, but on the practice of labelling categories. Is it useful? Yes, but labeling should follow understanding, not be used as a tool for understanding. If  you don't understand the Greek text, you will not be able to label either well or fruitfully.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Koine Reading Class, January 2015

I'm pleased to let you know that I will be teaching the Advanced Koine Group at the Macquarie Ancient Languages School in January 2015. The School has a long and excellent tradition of Summer and Winter intensives, of which I have previously been a participant. This coming Summer school, 5th to 16th January, I will be leading a group looking at the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Martyrdom of Perpetua (the Greek rescension).

If you are in Australia and free over the summer, I strongly encourage you to come along. Full details can be found at the Macquarie University website.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Koine recordings

Today I made a start on some recordings. Think of these three as samples.

There's a re-recording of the first chapter from Rouse's A Greek Boy at home, with a Koine pronunciation. Then there's one of John 1:1-18. Lastly there is a reading from the first chapter of my Greek Natural Method reader.

They're all a little rusty, but it's good practice for me. Hoping that quality and quantity will improve in due course.

edit: sorry for the broken links, they should work now.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Interviews with Communicative Greek Teachers (7): Jordash Kiffiak

This is now the seventh in this series, and possibly the last. I sent out a few others but have not received definitive answers; I will persist in encouraging those few others to consider completing their interviews. With this post I think you'll agree that it has really been a rewarding enterprise, hearing what such teachers are doing, where and how.

Earlier posts in this series may be read here (one, two, three, four, five, six)

Today we hear from Jordash Kiffiak....

1. What is your personal academic background?

I received my BA (University of Victoria) in History in 1998. During my undergraduate studies I also took courses in French, Spanish, Latin and Teaching English as a Second Language. An MA (University of British Columbia) in Religious Studies, focussing on the New Testament, was awarded to me in 2004. I am currently writing my PhD dissertation (Comparative Religions, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) on responses in miracles stories in the Gospels.

2. How did you first learn Greek?

I first learned classical Greek, through a grammar-translation approach, at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada.

3. What made you shift to a communicative methodology?

The first influence leading me towards using ancient Greek as a living language was, despite the traditional approach, my first-year classical Greek instructor, Dr. Shirley Sullivan (UBC). She absolutely insisted that we pronounce the Greek words we read with the accent on the correct syllable. Thus, for example, we would not mistake Τύρος (the city of Tyre) with τυρός (cheese). The principle she instilled was invaluable. This is a language—let's treat it like one!

Following a second-year classical Greek course, I began memorizing chunks of text from the New Testament for academic and personal interests. This is when I first began to use ancient Greek, here Hellenistic Greek, in a way that approached or was living-language usage. Sometimes I would use phrases in the text I had memorised, manipulating them for new contexts. This procedure aided in both memorising text and internalising the language.

Another important step occurred when I adopted the Imperial koine pronunciation system outlined by Dr. Randall Buth, upon the insistence of Joanna (Jo) Woo, my then long-distance girlfriend, whom I am now married to. It was a great decision on many levels.

Jo was a member of an informal Greek group based in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, meeting at Margret and Randall Buth's home to read Koine Greek texts and discuss them in the language. Upon my arrival in Israel in 2005 I was warmly welcomed into this small yet vibrant Greek-speaking community. In addition to my connection to Jo, relationships turning into friendships between me and Randall, Margret, David Bivin, Sharon Alley, Gary Alley and others in that circle of Greek-speakers were the biggest factor in my shift to the communicative methodology.


4. How did you first equip yourself to use a communicative method? What were some of the difficulties?

When Randall asked me in the summer of 2006 if I wanted to assist him the following summer to teach what would effectively be the world's first-ever, intensive beginners' communicative Koine Greek course, I knew that I would have to do a lot of hard work to get myself up to speed to be a useful assistant. For one I had never taught Greek before. Also, my level of ability to communicate was severely limited at that point. Even Randall, though he had taught Greek communicatively before (a once-a-week beginners' course), knew that he would have to put in numerous hours to be ready for what lay ahead: 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. As the Biblical Language Center (BLC) began to advertise, we began to make the most of the 10 months or so that lay ahead of us for preparations to teach.

That academic year (2006-2007) at the École biblique et archéologique français de Jerusalem I enrolled in Dr. Christophe Rico's first-ever second-year immersion Greek course. (At the time, to the best of my knowledge, this once-a-week course was the most advanced immersion Greek course officially offered in the world.) Despite the pronunciation difference (Christophe and all the students save me spoke with Erasmian pronunciation), this course offered me the best opportunity for preparing to teach the following summer. It met regularly and offered lots of comprehensible input. Also Christophe is fun and animated—he keeps your attention. Some of the texts were amusing and engaging, some a bit dry. I was talkative in class (all the while making mistakes, of course) and outside of class I spoke with other students, including on some archaeological field trips, organised by the École, which allowed for a lot of relaxed time together. Frère Paul comes to mind immediately as a great conversation partner.

The meetings that year with Jo, Randall and others were more sporadic, if my memory serves me right. Additionally Randall and I did meet periodically to do recordings for BLC's Living Koine Greek: Part 2a&b. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with all the vocabulary. (More than once he recorded my voice reading a sentence whose meaning I was not even certain of!) For me one of the basic challenges I faced was simply getting my range of vocabulary to a place where I would be able to follow unaided the texts we were scheduled to teach with the following summer—let alone ask students grammatically correct questions about the texts!

When it got closer to the time of the BLC course, I was over at Randall and Margret's house much more frequently. We would talk together about simple things, such as what we were eating. Alternatively, I practised giving commands to anyone who was willing to “play” with me—Dr. Brian Schultz (then a doctoral student), Randall and Magret's son-in-law, who was often at their house at the same time as I, was very generous with his time in this regard.

Thus, with a great stroke of luck, in preparation for venturing out into teaching using the communicative approach I found myself learning from Randall and Christophe, the world's two leading communicative Greek instructors, in contexts where they were speaking at more advanced levels.

In addition, on my own, I continued daily memorising large portions of the New Testament (a practise I wish I was still in the habit of doing). I also read some simple Greek texts, such as Revelation.

The BLC course went well. For teachers and students. It was exhilarating. It was exhausting. It was a whole lot of fun. I am still in touch with many of the students. I think I learned more that summer than all of them!

One of my biggest challenges—with 4 hours a day of class time and so many hours daily in preparation for the next—was simply having enough mental reserve to stay focussed. It was difficult to stay on top of the vocabulary in the texts too. I know that I was more useful to Randall during the first two weeks than the last two!

The intensive course, incidentally, prepared me for something I was not expecting, a fearful undertaking—teaching on my own! In the academic year 2007-2008, at Christophe's request, I taught one of two sections of first-year immersion Greek at the University of the Holy Land (UHL). Christophe in one classroom and I in another, we used Polis, the textbook he was then preparing to publish. He graciously accepted some of my suggestions for exercises and the like.

In those days, while the harvest was plentiful, the potential workers were indeed few. This fact, as with the BLC course, afforded me many opportunities, for which I am grateful. At the same time, the results these courses sought to provide were beyond what was realistic to expect from my stretched and strained skill set.

5. What courses or materials do you currently offer?

I currently offer two online communicative Greek courses. I teach one; two colleagues teach the other. A course runs for 10 weeks of sessions at 2.5 hours per session (one session per week). An upper intermediate course (nine participants; me as teacher) deals primarily at this point with specific Hellenistic texts—a Gospel, a letter of Paul, excerpts from Josephus etc. Many of the members of the group have been with me in this context for three years, as one set of 10 sessions follows another.
A lower intermediate course (eight participants; G. Schliesmann and C. Smoker as teachers) has just begun. This course is currently focussed on stories I have designed, which aid in internalisation of the language through use of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Story-telling; Blaine Ray). Some short New Testament stories (from the Gospels) are read and discussed.

The requirement for being in either group is previous usage of Greek as a living language, notably through participation in fluency workshops offered by BLC in Fresno, California, a number of which I helped teach. In both courses participants range from Greek enthusiasts through BA and MA students to Greek instructors.

To put the courses in context, I will give a quick history of the group I teach, which has essentially been together continuously since before it became an online group. Following this I will explain more about what we do in a given session.

In the winter of 2010-2011 I started hosting a weekly Greek session, focussed on conversational fluency, at Jo's and my place. This occurred especially on the insistence and encouragement of David Bivin, a friend who also lived in the Jerusalem area. One friend in Tel Aviv and, a later, another in the United States, who were both prohibited from joining us physically, joined the group via Skype. This was before the days of free video-conferencing. We had to use two laptops in our apartment to Skype each remote friend. So there were three or four of us physically present and two virtually.

When Google+ hangouts first appeared in the fall of 2011, we were ready for the service. A hangout allows for ten participants. At this point we switched to being an entirely online group, with Bivin no longer coming over to our place. The rest of the spots in the hangout filled up quickly with people I had formerly taught, mostly through BLC. At this point, also, I started to charge for participation in the weekly sessions, though I allowed a discounted or waived tuition for those whose finance situation required this.

As for the format and contents of the sessions. A weekly 2.5 hour session has a 10 minute break in the middle. Since a given reading is rarely completed in one session, some of the sets of 10 sessions have been modular, focussed on Mark 1, John 1, Philippians, Philemon or, presently, Luke 4. Other texts we have read include passages from Acts, Genesis, 2 Kings, 1 Enoch and Josephus, Judean War. Alternatively, a given session may cover in its entirety a short story I have written.

Blain Ray's Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling or TPRS is the main approach utilised in the sessions. TPRS is a communicative teaching method which focuses on the core vocabulary and structures used in a given language. An unfamiliar story with a simple plot structure forms the base of each lesson. Repeated asking and answering of comprehension-based questions—constantly varying, though often subtly—allows for the copious repetition of the target vocabulary and structures in meaningful contexts necessary for acquisition. A significant period of asking questions follows every new line in the story. Student boredom, which in a mother-tongue situation might well be expected, given the slow pace of the story, is generally not a problem, since students have their hands full learning the language expressing the story. In measured doses questions calling for creative input from students are asked in addition to the comprehension questions. The story remains flexible or negotiable—open to even significant change. However, the ultimate decision about what will happen in the story remains the prerogative of the teacher.

When the story is found in a reading, Ray uses the same basic principles. Thus, for example, the plot is not fixed. Creative input from the students and the teacher may well be incorporated. Thus the story that is “read” by the class may be different in the end from what is printed on paper.

Ray insists on less than 100% immersion in the target language. It is better, in his opinion, to give a quick gloss of a new vocabulary item in the mother tongue, say English, rather than take a number of minutes to describe it accurately in the target language. (This may happen especially for more abstract nouns.) Similarly, he does not hesitate to jump into English if the phrase and/or grammatical concept he is introducing needs explanation. He advocates writing both the new vocabulary item and the English gloss on the board and leaving them there for the students' reference throughout a class. From watching some recordings of his teaching Spanish, I would estimate that he stays in the target language 90% of the time.

For Hellenistic Greek instruction the TPRS method works well, just as it is, for the stories written by me and others living in the 21st century. As regards written stories found in ancient texts, however, TPRS needs some modification to suit the needs of Greek pedagogy. Modern readers are very much interested in what the ancient texts have to say. Thus, though the type of comprehension questioning remains the same, we do not allow for a change in the outcome of a given story. Nevertheless, participant creativity is elicited, at times, for imagining extra, plausible details that might add colour to the story at hand.

I use the chat box provided by the Google+ hangout for displaying what might need to be written, whether lines from a made-up story or text or a new word or phrase and the approximate English equivalents. As the text in the chat box scrolls upward when new text is added, participants often have to scroll up in order to see words or phrases introduced earlier in the session.

Regarding English usage, I follow Ray's approach, taking the liberty to explain in English new Greek structures and, when necessary, important semantic nuances of a new word that may not be apparent if I were simply to give an English gloss. This is especially true of, for example, particles—δέ, καί, οὖν κτλ (etc.). At times I may speak in English at some length, if it seems necessary. Alternatively, some new words in Greek can be fairly effortlessly and speedily described in the target language, using if necessary dolls or gestures.

One of the down-sides to using TPRS for teaching Greek is that the method is slightly artificial with respect to communication for at least two reasons. First, content questions are constantly asked for which the answers are presumably known or knowable. Second, answers are often given using a full expression of the words used in the question. This procedure is unnatural in normal communication. In addition, as focus is set on internalising core vocabulary and structures, it is more difficult in lower language levels to devote significant time to topics of great interest to the learners, such as historical and social realities in the first century CE, for a richer vocabulary is needed.

In addition to the two-and-a-half hours online, participants typically receive, a day or two after the session, the following: the text of the TPRS story and/or of the ancient text concerned; a voice recording of me reading the same; and a list of comprehension questions, about 10 per line of the story or reading.


6. What sort of outcomes do your students generally finish with? Where are they ‘at’ when they’ve completed a course of study with you?

To answer this question I will focus on the more advanced group (the one I personally teach). After a 10-week course students can describe in their own words the situation and/or story relevant to the text we have read. For example, they would be able to tell about what happened upon Jesus' return to the Galilee (Luke 4) and what transpired in the synagogue in Nazareth. Or they would be able to describe why Paul is writing to the Philippians and what has taken place where Paul is. They will of course also be able to read the respective text, with comprehension, without recourse to aids. They will also be able to approach similar texts that they have not previously read and follow in large part what is being communicated without turning to dictionaries and the like. Students also will usually be able to describe aspects of their own life, employing concepts and language from the text being studied (again using Luke 4 as an example—where one was born, has grown up, whether one is well known and/or respected there etc.).

The longer one stays in the group, the greater the results. As I said previously, the group that I am currently teaching continues to advance collectively and raise the bar. As a group we recently witnessed one (friend and) participant, W. Hafen, speak to us all for around 10 minutes, playing the role of the assistant in the synagogue (ὁ ὑπηρέτης), as he described what he knew about Jesus from growing up, what he had heard about his recent activity in the Galilee and, especially, what happened on the Sabbath in which Jesus taught in the synagogue. All of this was done without recourse to written materials and spoken freely, though he had prepared for the theatrical stint early in the week. To me it seemed a milestone in the use of Hellenistic Greek for communication. But the biggest dividends are when it comes to reading. It is hard to quantify. But I trust this friend, when he tells me that he has seen a significant improvement in his ability to read ancient Greek texts, on account of his participation in the online courses.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Who were the Gospels written for?

Recently I was listening to a sermon and the preacher said that "John was written for Christians" among some other statements about who the four gospels were directed at. Very often I hear statements that Gospel X was directed at: Jews/Gentiles, believers/non-believers, people at Rome/people in Judea/etc..

This is not a bad question to ask. We ought to be very interested in understanding who the gospel documents were going to be read by, it helps us understand what they are saying. But the answers are often very poor.

Reading recently something by E.A. Judge I was struck by lightning - all 4 canonical gospels are in Greek. That means every single one of them is written for a Hellenised/Hellenistic audience. The choice of language determines that. None of them are aimed at Galileean peasantry. None of them are aimed primarily at Aramaic speakers, unless the target Aramaic speakers are bilingual in Greek. This is especially important for Matthew. However 'Jewish' one decides Matthew is, it's written for Greek-speakers.

Secondly, some of these are false dichotomies, or gross oversimplifications. In my view none of the four are more 'Jewish'. All of them make extensive use of the Old Testament, albeit in different ways. Nor would I be inclined to say any of the gospels was exclusively aimed at insiders or outsiders. Luke may be presenting more with attention to outsiders, but he is also so steeped in OT that he clearly has insiders in view as well. John, which my preacher said was "written for Christians", tells you explicitly and clearly that he wrote his gospel to engender faith in his readers! It's an evangelistic book through and through. It's also very clear that John is not 'only' for outsiders.

I don't think these questions are going away. But I wish stupid and facile answers to them would.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Grammaring grammar

On the very excellent google group Ancient Greek Best Practices we have been discussing a little lately about the place of using target language grammar terms to discuss grammar in the target language (e.g. Greek terminology to discuss Greek grammar in Greek, rather than English terms, or in contrast to no grammar discussion).

In today's post I want to sidetrack to personal reflection, which is why here's a blog post instead of another discussion post on that group.

I like grammar. I find it interesting. It's one reason I fared so well under the traditional grammar-translation approach, and ended up where I am. The Latin teachers I interact with talk about 4%ers, those who 'get' and excel with grammar translation. That's me, "I am the 4%".

Why do we even 'have' grammar terms? I take it that it's because grammar terms are a very helpful tool for communicating when what we want to talk about is language itself. So for students who are learning a language, it's sometimes useful to discuss language itself because it can clarify "what's going on".

As you may know, I am a L2 speaker of Mongolian, largely acquired by one-to-one lessons and living and working in-country. Being a 'grammar guy' helped in two ways. Firstly, when my teachers wanted to explain a new structure, they didn't need to explain it to me as a new idea. Basically, once I grasped what kind of structure it was, or what it was doing, I had an understanding of the concept. I didn't (and don't) necessarily have mastery of the usage. Indeed, there are a lot of features I don't regularly use in daily conversation, but I 'get' what's going on. I didn't have to learn the idea of case, I didn't have to learn what the 8 cases are doing. And that's the shallow end. This is a huge advantage.

But more importantly, I think, though perhaps not more 'foundationally', learning Mongolian grammar terms gave me the ability to interact with my teachers about the language in the language. This was crucial since only one of my teachers speaks English, and even she would generally feel more comfortable conversing about grammar in Mongolian. So discussing grammar in English was not a viable option.

This has also helped me in teaching Greek here. Although I state that my preference is to discuss Greek grammar in Greek, I don't teach introductory Greek, so I kind of miss my critical period there. Instead I predominantly teach text-based classes. Therefore, knowing Mongolian grammar terms is invaluable, because I can express grammatical ideas in the students' native language.

This might seem to go against my stated principles, and to be fair it does. It's a compromise wrought by circumstances. But my focus in this post is on the Mongolian side of the equation.

To bring this to a close, if you don't have a common language with an interlocutor except your target language (i.e. if my interlocutors only speak Mongolian), then grammar in Mongolian is the only way to discuss Mongolian language. If we never want to talk about language, we never need to learn grammar terms. Just how I don't know any terms related to building except the most basic ones. I can barely remember the word for hammer; I never talk about construction. I do talk about language a lot though.

To talk in a language requires talking in a language. To talk about a language requires language about language (meta-language).