Introduction & Clarification
First - From the outset I would like to state that this writer is not linguistically gifted by nature. That is to say that I don’t possess special language learning abilities, in that languages do not come easy for me. I have to work just as hard as the next person. I mention this now so that the following statements and ones like them are not made upon reading this post – “Easy for you to say, you are a natural linguist” “You have special language acquisition abilities, so it just comes easier for you than most”. When speaking about language learning, those who do not know a language and have not put in the effort to even try and learn one will often say such things as quoted above. Such statements are rarely true and I would like to suggest that there is a bigger picture to consider.
Second - The fact that I am not a natural linguist is not to say that I am ignorant of the field of linguistics or languages. By the Lord’s help, prayer, and much hard work I have learned to read, write, and speak Spanish fluently as well as acquired a small level of a native Indian language spoken in South America. My experiences and studies with learning living languages has carried over and influenced the way in which I view Biblical Greek.
Third - I also realize that not everyone learns the same way. People are different and some learn differently. I am not trying to put everyone into a mold. I am also not the authority (if there is one) on the matter of language learning. I am still studying this field, not only from an objective way but also through personal experience. I will share some of my own experiences in the years that I have been exposed to foreign languages through living in another country and culture.
Fourth - The information in this post is not limited to learning Biblical Greek, but rather applies to “living” or spoken languages today as well. In most instances, you can swap the word Greek for other languages as the statements will often apply to languages in general. The issue of indigenous, developing, or unwritten languages is a slightly different issue, though not that much different. If you have questions about such languages you can write me and we can discuss it.
Fifth - This article is rather long, not by intention but by necessity. This is a deep and complex subject which merits discussion and detail, though certainly not everything is covered here.
Hard, but not that Hard
New Testament Greek is not nearly as difficult and complex of a language as some may assume. Greek is not really that difficult to learn. It has been said to be slightly more difficult than Spanish (considered by many in the field to be the easiest foreign language). It is not nearly as difficult as Hebrew, or a number of the Asian or Germanic languages today, including English. There is some superstitious fear that people have bought into which believes that older languages are harder. This is a myth and simply not true.
Dedication, Determination and Devotion
As with any language, learning largely depends on the student: their drive, desire, focus, determination, and motivation. If you are a person who is prone to begin many tasks, yet often grows discouraged, weary, and rarely finishes them, then you will have an extremely difficult time learning Greek, or any language for that matter. If you often start books but end up putting them down you will probably struggle with language learning. If you are a person who gets easily distracted when listening to others (i.e. lacks the discipline of paying attention), you will not be able to learn a language. As with any foreign language, New Testament Greek takes devotion, dedication, time, discipline, resolve, perseverance, sacrifice…and the list goes on. It can be learned if the time and desire is truly there. The reality is that most people just are not willing to make the sacrifice and face the challenge of learning a language. They are not willing to put in the work necessary. If they would, then they would probably walk away some time later with a decent acquisition of the language.
Learning without Learning
It is very possible to be learning a language without actually learning it. Think about the following words: "I think it is wrong — fundamentally wrong — to suppose that a precise and accurate knowledge of how the elements of a language function to convey meaning is the same thing as knowing how to read and write texts or speak and hear speech in a language with understanding."
What this is saying is that a knowledge, even a good knowledge, of grammar and textbook data does not constitute learning a language. I can vouch for this, as I know several people who can read Spanish on a fairly decent level. They can tell you what things are saying on paper. They can in other words translate in a simple and wooden manner. But because they do not get out and speak it much, and put it into practice, they really don't learn the language and don't understand what people are truly implying by their words and mannerisms when they speak. They are in reality only learning about the language but not learning the language. It is kind of like an unregenerate person reading the Scriptures to learn about Christianity. Without the indwelling of the Spirit their ideas and understanding of Christ and His Word will at best be flawed and limited.
In the first few months that I was learning Spanish I could read on paper to a degree, and if given some time, formulate thoughts that I wanted to convey to others. I could communicate in a basic way and “get by”, but something was lacking. When people were speaking I could pick up some of what they were saying, at least the “big things”, but I wasn’t hearing it as one of their own. Looking back now, I realize how much I was really out of the loop.
I find that this is very true of Greek. I want so badly to gain an experiential feel for the language, rather than just be able to read words and sentences. I want to feel the author’s intent and enter in to the language as a native Koine reader. This leads to the next thing.
Language is Learned through Culture
This may sound a bit strange, but let me explain. When people presume that studying grammar and reading literature in the language for hours each day is equals learning a language, and that not much more is needed, they end up not being able to speak it fluently or understand it when it is spoken. They usually will not engage in the culture and lives of people on a daily basis. In my time living in Peru I have witnessed foreigners who do not ever gain a control of Spanish, despite living here for years. There is a common thread which connects them: they flock to other foreigners, that is to say that they spend relevantly large chunks of their time around others who speak to them in English, and when communication is needed in Spanish, they either don’t understand what is going on and wait for someone to later explain, or they resort to a translator. The sad thing is that they will live like this for years. Almost always, the foreigners who I see that greatly struggle to learn Spanish or another language wherever they are, have deep attachments to English. They arrive in the country, and instead of immersing themselves in the new language and culture in large chunks and at all costs, they try teaching English to the natives as a ministry, or they try to start or lead an English Bible study. In the end, when they try a year or so later to "immerse" themselves into the new language they find that it is too hard or possibly too late. They spend too much time attached to English, but make no effort to move away from them and into the language which needs to be learned. This is exactly the issue; the majority of the time is given to English, not to the foreign language. The very ones who say they “can’t learn” or “struggle so much to learn” that foreign language, often do so by choosing not to immerse themselves in it.
It’s like in Spanish, though it applies to any language: Suppose someone is speaking in Spanish: My friend with me does not know Spanish, so he says to me, "What is he saying?" I translate into English for my friend and tell him, "He is saying such and such", while giving him a literal and accurate translation, but then I say to my friend, "But that's not really what he's saying, I mean that's not what he means, it's like...oh I can't explain it, you just have to know Spanish to understand." I understand what the Spanish speaker is saying, not only because I know his language but because I also know his culture, mentality, the reason why he uses a specific word order and where the emphasis is given, voice inflection where it differs from English, things which can’t easily be carried over in translation, things which can’t be understood and felt unless the culture is learned and known.
Think about the same example above, but now suppose that my friend "knows" Spanish, but only grammatically as described under the previous head. I have been in such positions where the person has a grammatical understanding of the language and can understand some things when spoken, but because of a lack of practical and experiential knowledge of the culture and ways of the people, they walk away not understanding what was said, and need things not translated so much for them, but rather interpreted.
Do you see what I mean? I can translate something for someone from Spanish into English when they don't know the language (the first example) or a person "knows" the language though only grammatically (the second example) and though they are hearing the words that the speaker is saying, they can still remain 100% unconnected from the original speaker and his intent, meaning, inflection, and mannerisms as long as they themselves don't personally know the language through its culture. Grammar alone is not enough, and when we think even a little bit that it is, we end up thinking that we are much farther along than we really are. If we are to learn a language, we must learn the culture with it.
Pointers for “living” languages
- You must study grammar. Get a grammar book if one is available in the language, if not seek a tutor possibly, and study grammar frequently.
- You must learn to read. Reading the Scriptures is very helpful, but also reading something that originates in the language you are learning is also helpful. Through reading you gain a good feel of how language fits together and how the grammar you’ve studied flows practically. But this is not enough.
- You must learn to write. Writing is very helpful and causes us to think outside the box. But this is not enough.
- You have to immerse yourself and your mind into the language. You have to surround yourself with people who will faithfully speak the language to you. If you want to learn a language you must be disciplined and limit the use and interaction of English. Of course this will be harder to do while living in the US, but it is relatively easy to do in a non-English speaking country. If you are in a different country, refrain at all costs from relying on a translator, refrain from jumping into ministry too early and teaching in English. Refrain from spending much time talking to others in English, talking on the phone in English. This will only hinder you from learning the other language in the end. For the first two years that my wife and I lived overseas we did not have anyone to talk to in English. We did not have internet in the house, no email, no SKYPE. If we wanted to communicate with the English world we had to travel about 2.5 hours to a public internet cafe. There were no English speakers around, no translators (something which we had decided not to use from the beginning). If we wanted to speak and communicate anything at all it had to be in Spanish, but neither of us knew Spanish. The result was that we learned Spanish rather comfortably in less than a year. Now, that is not "special language abilities", but hard work and sacrifice, yet it was worthwhile and caused us to learn the language. I would not trade that experience for language school any day. We could have chosen the route which most foreigners living abroad do (starting ministry too early and teaching in English, or teaching with a translator constantly, or teaching English as a ministry to reach others shortly after arriving, or surrounding ourselves with other English speakers in our free time and speaking English with them) but we would not have had the success that we did if we had traveled that road. I have never met a person who was totally immersed in the language (from grammar to daily life) who did not learn it. I have met many who were not immersed in the daily lives and culture of the people which claim that they "just can't learn it". However these have been the same people who will also speak English every time they are given the opportunity rather than practice the native language.
- Grammar is essential and this language cannot be learned without it. However, I think that there are dangers, for the above mentioned reasons, with a rigid grammar-translation-method. We must also delve into the field of linguistics in order to get a truer feel of Greek. After you go through first year Greek grammar, at some point read Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament by Steven Runge and go through Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek by Dave Black. This will help take you from strictly Grammar into the actual language.
- Because Koine Greek is no longer a spoken language, we must seek different means to enter into it and gain a feel for it. We may be able to read the GNT with relative ease, possibly because we are already somewhat familiar with the verses from English, but to gain the author’s thoughts, feel, intent, etc. we must do something more.
- There is no substitute for reading Greek. This cannot be emphasized enough. This is what you are striving to be able to do, read the NT in its original language. You must read it frequently, often, daily if possible. You must have “maximum exposure” at every turn. You must get as many senses involved as possible. Read it aloud to help with pronunciation and to "hear" the language. Read it fast to work on fluid pronunciation. Read it slow to focus on the meaning. Read a passage a day. Read a few verses a day. Reading just 5-10 minutes a day can be the different in keeping or losing the language. Make your GNT your close friend, take it everywhere you can. Take it to church and follow along with the teaching and sermon -Yes, some people may label you as being prideful just because you have the GNT on your lap when everyone else has the English. Be humble about it though and don't flaunt what you are doing. You are trying to learn this language. Some bring and English/Spanish parallel Bible to church, you bring Greek. This is something which every Christian has the right do to, many though make the decision not to, so don't feel bad if you are judged for doing it.
- As we’ve said, getting as many senses involved as is possible is key. Today we have the great blessing to be able to listen to the audio Greek New Testament. Hearing the language read and spoken will help you to get a better "feel" for the language, as opposed to just recognizing and reading it on paper. There are quite a few audio GNTs available today. I prefer to use the reading by Marilyn Phemister. It is read with great clarity and follows Erasmian pronunciation. It is a reading of the Westcott-Hort GNT, which works fine if you are using the UBS/NA. You can find it here.
- There is much to be learned and profited by reading other contemporary Koine literature. The LXX (Septuagint) and Patristics are great tools and helps for gaining literary fluency and getting that "feel" that we need. However I would focus more on the Patristics, as the LXX is a translation from Hebrews, whereas the Patristics originated in Koine Greek. This will help to give more exposure to the language and its use outside of the NT.
- Let me suggest a few resources for studying the LXX and Patristics:
- Septuaginta (LXX) - Rahlfs (This is the standard version of the LXX, it is the best we have today)
- Greek-English Lexicon to the Septuagint - Lust, Eynikel, & Hauspin (Complete lexicon, contains all the Greek words used in the LXX)
- The Greek of the Septuagint: A Supplemental Lexicon - Gary Alan Chamberlain (Contains words not found in BDAG and is to be used where BDAG does not list the word)
- Koine Greek Reader - Rodney Decker (A great reader for an introduction to reading Koine Greek outside of the GNT)
- Greek Creeds - Rod Decker FREE RESOURCE (Thanks to Rod Decker, you can study some of the early creeds in Greek)
- The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations - Michael Holmes (This is in my opinion the best and most economical resource for studying the Apostolic Fathers in Greek)
- Make sure you have your copy of BDAG when you study this literature. You can find the 2nd Edition for much less than the 3rd.
Common Misconceptions of Language Learning
Regarding language learning, there is no easy route, there are no shortcuts that can be taken to learn any language, and there is no exception here with NTG. Language learning is hard work. Language learning is demanding. Learning Biblical Greek is hard work. I don't want to make it sound exceptionally easy, but we also don't want to make it seem so difficult that it appears to be entirely unattainable or inaccessible for the average person. Some who have never attempted to learn this language for themselves will no doubt assume that NTG (or any language) is so difficult and unattainable that it is only accessible and able to be learned by the "few and chosen" Christians who possess "special language gifting" or who are "linguistically gifted". This is not so. Alas, a person cannot know how easy or difficult NTG (or any other language) is until they attempt for themselves to learn it. It is demanding and challenging, but it’s not that hard. Time, dedication, desire, determination, resolve, discipline, consistency, and perseverance are the determining factors in learning a language, not "special linguistic abilities". This includes New Testament Greek.
I know a brother who is a missionary in an Asian country. In about 5 months of living there he attained around 70% proficiency in the language. Keep in mind that Asian languages are a bit different than the Latin languages like Spanish, and are much more difficult even than Greek. I began to hear people say such things about him and his language learning like this, “This brother has attained 70% of the language in only 5 months. Who does that? He has some special language learning abilities.” Well I would disagree with that assessment. I am fascinated by languages and always wanting to know how others learn them. So I called this brother only 2 months after he had lived in the country and talked with him via telephone. I asked him how he was going about learning the language, and what methods he was planning to incorporate. He told me the following, in so many words, “Before I moved to this country, while still at home, I studied and learned the alphabet. I tried to do as much as I could before moving here. Now that I’m here I am trying to get my hands on a grammar book and study on my own. There are ministry opportunities right now but they are in English so I really have to refrain. I’m trying to stay away from doing much in English and not get too involved in ministry until I know the language better. I go out daily to the market places and just listen to people, watch them, and try to talk to them.” We spoke more about this, but you see, what he did is exactly the opposite of what most people do when they “try” to learn a language. I left the conversation thinking, “This brother is going to learn the language and learn it well” and he did, not because he has some supernatural gifting, but because he fully applied himself and sacrificed comforts, such as English speaking, to fully immerse himself in the foreign language. If only most people would incorporate these things into their studies. The person who does "as much as they can" to learn a language from the US before moving overseas will do better usually than the one who just "waits" until he arrives in the new country and it is now "necessary" to study the language. In my estimation, this brother did not learn the language because he “possesses some rare God-given ability which others don’t have”, but rather because he drove himself and put in the work which others choose not to or will not. To always claim that a person has learned a language because of some special ability that most just don't have, is to undermine all of the hard work the individual has put into learning the language.
I know that it may seem to you like an impossibility to learn Biblical Greek or any foreign language. Sadly, for many this may be true. If a person is prone to spend the bulk of their time watching TV, playing video games, talking on the phone, listening to music, surfing the internet and such things which do not involve much mental activity, instead of exercising it and training it to think, then it will be exceedingly difficult to learn a different language. This is exactly the problem with so many adults as well. Some of us have become products of our mentally-lazy and anti-thinking generation, and as such, we often cringe at the thought of learning a foreign tongue. We think, "Oh, that's just too hard for me; I could never do that” as we surf our IPhones and internet engaging in things which do not require us to think. I am not against IPhones or technology, I am using a computer and internet as I write this! Language learning is so unpopular today and dreaded so much because is requires something which is not very popular in our day: diligent and critical thinking and sacrifice, and discipline. We want things now and if we can't have them now with relativity little effort then we will not work for them. Anyone can do it, but few desire to. The mind is a precious gift from God; you only have one life to use it. Don't waste it.
As I have stated, when someone learns a foreign language, it is a common tendency for those around them to label the learner as "linguistically gifted" or "possessing language abilities", as if learning a language is easier for them than most people. This is a common saying that "excuses" the person who does not posses the "special gift". We may often hear, "Oh, so and so learned the language, but they are very specially gifted with languages, it comes more natural for them than for most." This is a great misunderstanding regarding language learning and cannot always be the excuse for why so many people "just can't learn a foreign language". Though there do at times exist people such as William Carey, who may have possessed a special and rare ability with languages, the issue of language learning most often does not have anything to do with some special language learning ability, but rather with the motivation, desire, resolve, and refusal for failure which the student does or does not possess. It is the difference in attitude between, "By the help of God I will learn this language, I will not quite, I will endure until I have learned it" and "I would like to learn it, but just don't think I can, I'm just not sure about it, languages aren't really my thing". The first person will usually learn the language, while the second has counted themselves out before ever beginning, and so, will not learn it. In the sports world this could somewhat be equated to Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice. Neither of them were the biggest, fastest, or most talented. There are others who hands down were bigger, stronger, faster, and better natural athletes. However, these two men are the best, as they say, to ever lace'em up in their respective sports. They were the ones who spent every spare moment training when others weren't. They were the ones who refused to quite. They not only had drive and motivation, but strong determination. Remember, Michael Jordan was cut from the high school basketball team, something which he said motivated him throughout his professional career. Jerry Rice was the one said to be too slow to be great, yet he was head and shoulders around the faster more athletic players. Such examples have their place and application in language learning as well.
Most languages can be learned by a determined and driven individual. Languages are out there to be learned. Lost people learn them often, and we who have the Holy Spirit are in a far better place to learn than they are as we have a help that they don't. In a way, the only thing stopping us is ourselves. We simply shrink back from the challenge and defeat our own selves. Biblical Greek can be learned. It usually is not a matter of someone not being able to learn it, but rather choosing not to learn it.
If someone wants something bad enough, they will exert themselves until they obtain it. Though the study of NTG will be challenging, demanding, and take many years to master the language well, it is well worth the effort. In the words of A.T. Robertson, 19-20th Century Greek Scholar, "There is no sphere of knowledge where one is repaid more quickly for all the toil expended." What motivation do you need to study and learn NTG? If the New Testament is clearer, more precise, and can be better understood through a knowledge of Greek, if God can be better known through learning Greek, then we have every reason to diligently strive to attain this language, and not a single reason not to learn it.
This also is true of spoken languages. The reward of learning a language is immense – through doing so we can share the gospel with people, the only message by which man can be saved. That is enough reason and motivation to learn any language. That is enough motivation to abandon all and move overseas to live among and preach the gospel to a dead and lost Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Catholic. There is no more motivation to learn a language needed than that. What will you do?
(13) For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (14) How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (15) And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" (16) But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?" (17) So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.