Second Language Acquisition and the Grammar-Translation Method

Posted on June 15, 2012

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Since I started my first Masters degree, I had really attempted to learn four languages (French, Anglo-Saxon, Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew), but had fallen far short of my desires and expectations. All of them I had tried to learn the exact same way: memorize charts and tables of verb conjugations and noun declensions, memorize morphological rules, memorize one-word glosses for vocabulary words in the target language, then, as I read, apply all these rules on the fly to produce a reading in English. At best, it was laborious; at worst, it was a waste of time.

I studied this way because I was told to study this way. At the same time, I was teaching English grammar to my classses, and becoming more and more convinced that explaining grammar to poor writers would not help them write better. As I repeatedly told my students, I learned good English grammar by growing up in a home where good English grammar was spoken. I knew bad grammar because it just sounded wrong. I wasn’t able to explain grammar, really, until my students needed me to explain it to them, at which point I went to the reference books for an explanation.

As part of my continuing studies in Greek, I found some online forums for people studying Greek, where I found some support and encouragement. Eventually, I followed a path of links and found Daniel Streett’s 2010 presentation at the Society for Biblical Literature. It opened my eyes. Everything made sense. He referenced Stephen Krashen, so I investigated his approach to language learning.

Let me summarize: Of the four languages I listed in the first paragraph, three of them were dead languages. The only way to use them was to read written material from centuries (or millennia) ago. The fourth language, French, I did not need to converse in; I only needed to use it for research purposes (reading scholarly articles that had not yet been translated into English). So, of course, the smart thing to do is to eliminate all listening, speaking, and writing practice, right? After all, why practice those skills when the only skill you need is to be able to read?

The problem is that the human brain is not capable of splitting the skill of reading off from the skills of listening and speaking. In modern language programs at state universities, all upper-level courses are conducted in the target language. Students are not only able to read in the target language by the third or fourth year, but they can discuss what they read in the target language. In short, they learn to think in the target language. Contrast that to my training: in none of these four languages did I engage in activities designed to practice listening or speaking, but focused entirely on a method that consisted of learning grammar and practicing translation. End result: I was not able to read in the target language. I was only able to slowly decode the language into English. As I put it to a friend, “After wrestling for an hour over a few Bible verses, I come up with a translation that is almost, but not quite, as good as the NASB.” And my experience is not only typical of seminary and classical language students but of many professors who have spent their entire lives studying this way.

So, Daniel Streett and a few others are attempting to apply modern Second Language Acquisition practice to ancient (i.e., dead) languages. Robert Patrick and SALVI are applying it to Latin; the Cohelet Project and Randall Buth are applying it to Hebrew. All of these attempt to teach language by using language acquisition methods based on Stephen Krashen’s principles.

I decided to try this method. After all, years of practicing Greek the old way hadn’t accomplished what I wanted; maybe this way would. So, last fall, I ordered the basic “Living Koine Part 1” course from Randall Buth.

Next up: Greek – Where I am and Where I’m Going

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