Learning and Decoding

I’ve known Carl Conrad a long time online, and I sense that he may have said something like this before — but the remarks that jps reports put the finger exactly at a dangerous soft spot of theological education. The vast preponderance of seminarians and divinity students learn Greek in order to decode the hidden message concealed in those ominously different-looking letters (be they Hebrew or Greek), not to learn how to read well the texts written in those languages. Indeed, that sensibility of decoding a cryptogram often carries over into further dimensions of the interpretive task, so that students (and some teachers) suppose that there’s a single hidden “correct answer” to each of our interpretive problems.

It ain’t so, it can’t be so, and in order to recuperate from the delusional hope/need that reading work this way, we have to learn first of all to read rather than to decode. It ought not be too hard; we read most of the texts we encounter and interpret. Unfortunately, years of decoding-thinking (structured into the ways biblical languages are taught and into the ways Scripture is deployed in theological argument) have saturated the imaginations of at least a generation’s prominent theological spokespeople, and any recognition that reading well entails more than decoding risks being shouted down as “relativism” or “postmodernism” (in the derogatory sense).

Deep Weeds has it right: “The basic goal — improved reading aloud — seems to be coming along. More and more, I think I will begin next year’s class with at least 6 hours of mimicry, memorization, and simple commands, before getting into the written language at all.” (I think Randall Buth teaches Greek this way at the Biblical Language Center in Jerusalem, and I expect that Baruch will teach future Greek classes on that basis.) I know that the “decoding” approach to learning Greek has hampered my appreciation of that language over the years, and I wish I hadn’t written my Greek textbook before I came to the full conviction of how pernicious the conventional way of teaching and learning Greek could be. (By the way, read and appreciate Baruch’s acrostic, too.)

3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thanks for your words, especially since, at this point, I’ve jacked my lesson plan up to 10 hours of oral/aural learning before getting into alphabets or written texts. I imagine four “mods”: 1) “Walking Around the Table,” where we narrate simple sequences in several verbal tenses; 2) “What are These?” where we discuss objects and their adjectival properties; 3) “How Are You?” which is simple conversational dialogues; and 4) “We Sing,” where we learn songs, prayers, etc. A big influence on my planning has been the “Total Physical Response” method, demonstrated at the SBL/AAR conference last fall by Sharon Alley and Gary Alley, Jr., Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Abstract[huge page: search for “sharon alley”]).

    After the ten-hour session, I mean to continue with a pretty conventional, grammar-centered two-semester program, though we’ll keep up our dialogues each day, focussing on whatever we are currently acquiring. I’d sure like to hear suggestions from anyone who uses immersion-style techniques in a one-year biblical language class.

  2. What you describe is the method by which I was introduced to Russian at the Army Language School (now the Defense Language Institute) back in 1952. We spent from 4 to 6 weeks in oral use of the language and its phonetic system before we were introduced to the written system. I am convinced this is the only way to avoid enslavement to our first language phonetic system and the way it is encoded in print.

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