Re: How Long to Learn K. Greek?

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu Apr 23 1998 - 16:40:03 EDT

At 10:06 AM -0500 4/22/98, clayton stirling bartholomew wrote:
>I suppose I ought to respond to my own question. I am not "gifted" at
>languages. The only class I outright flunked in high school was German. I
>hated languages so much that when I attended seminary I enrolled in an MA
>program in Theology to avoid the subject.
>Years later, after dabbling in linguistics for some time I started looking at
>Goetchius "Language of the NT" for some problems to solve in a foreign
>language. I kept dabbling in Goetchius for about a year before I actually
>purchased a GNT. Now 12 years later I am still a dabbler.
>I still think 10 years is a good number.
>Obviously there are people like Carl and Edward, or perhaps Bruce Waltke who
>can just learn a new language in six months. Most of us cannot do this

It's obviously time for me to say something about this thread, and first of
all that I have yet to meet anyone who can learn a new language in six
months. I certainly have not ever done so, and I am appalled when I hear
that there are some seminaries that give 3-week crash courses in
introductory Koine Greek and Hebrew for entering students who've never done
either language previously. The only word I can think of for that approach
is "lunacy."

I can remember almost to the month and day that I first began to feel I
could read Greek with any real fluency, and I'll describe it. It was during
the first week of classes in graduate school in late September of 1958. I
had started Greek as a Freshman at Tulane in Fall of 52 and did it every
semester until I graduated in summer of 55, did a year of graduate work
including more Greek at Tulane in 55-56, a year reading Aeschylus and
Aristophanes in Munich in 56-57, and then was off teaching for a year in
57-58. So after five years of academic Greek I started serious Ph.D. work
in Fall of 58; I had to take survey courses in Greek and Latin literature;
what to read was up to us, but we were advised to work on those parts of
the graduate reading list that we hadn't yet read. Since we were spending a
month on Homer, I decided that I would read 12 books of the Iliad and 12
books of the Odyssey during that first month of graduate study. Thus began
the long nights working through Homer, carefully looking up and making
notes on the vocabulary--and, of course, making notes on the same words
over and over again until I started Book 4 of the Iliad. And then, all of a
sudden, what seemed like a miracle: I started moving over the text for line
after line without looking up words and finding that everything flowed like
it was obviously supposed to flow! The only analogy I can think of is that
it was like learning to ride a bicycle while some patient adult is holding
up the bike to keep you from falling on your arse--suddenly you start
peddling a little faster and it dawns on you that your gliding effortless
forward, completely on your own. That was my experience. Now I didn't get
the same kind of sense of fluent ease with prose until I had read a fair
amount of Plato, and then the Plato started skimming along the same way.
And I'm convinced personally that this is the only way one ever really
acquires fluency, by forced reading of continuous narrative or exposition
in huge chunks of text.

Don't let anyone ever tell you that it's effortless for anyone! My own
experience in teaching Greek for nigh onto 40 years is that it is those who
do NOT expend effort, endurance, and industry on the acquisition of fluency
in Greek who will never acquire it. Sure--some learn faster than others,
but nobody learns to read Greek effortlessly and it is a gross delusion to
imagine otherwise. How long it will take depends partly on the individual,
but it also depends very much on the time and effort one is willing to
expend on the project. I don't think Clay's 10 year estimate is necessarily
an average, but I don't think it's an unreasonable expectation. But I do
tell beginning Greek students that I would rather that they not try Greek
at all unless they are willing to make a very substantial investment in it
in order to reap the very great rewards that it affords.

Perhaps I should add a word for those who want to say that Koine Greek is a
different thing from classical and Homeric Greek. Yes, it is different in
some ways--but nevertheless, it's the same language and I think the same
effort and industry is called for if one is to become fluent at reading NT
Greek. Does it take as long as learning to read Homer and Plato and
Sophocles? Probably so, because reading John's gospel with ease hardly
prepares you for reading the Pauline letters or Hebrews or even Luke's
gospel--so that even NT Greek is a "many-splendored" thing, to read which
you have to LOVE it. But I have to add that there's so much in Greek that's
worth reading, it's a real pity, however richly rewarding the reading of
the Greek NT surely is, that one should learn to read Greek at all and then
never read any other Greek besides the NT.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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