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Response to Daniel Street: Why it is a pipe dream.

September 25, 2011

Daniel Street is making some practical suggestions for Greek Immersion in the Seminary Curriculum. I completely sympathize with the concerns about language requirements in theological programs, but I do not understand the proposals. First, let me say that I know there are some extremely respected Greek programs that are being emulated, and I don’t mean to criticize them. However, I would like to register my cautions and a few questions.

Daniel proposes that:

1) fluency be a goal
2) classes be conducted in Greek
3) there be more class time relative to homework
4) intensive full day courses would be available

First  and foremost, the usual immersion programs and modern language programs are in languages that have native speakers. The teachers and professors of these programs are almost always native speakers of the language. Even then, the French Immersion elementary and secondary school programs do not produce students with a high level of expressive fluency. This is usually gained by spending a year in the second language environment, among native speakers.

Through my own secondary school and university experience, most, but not all of my French language instructors were not fluent in English. They communicated best in French, and therefore there was an authentic communicative need to use their language. I believe that there are two requirements of a language learning context – one is comprehensible input and the second is authentic communicative need. Krashen page 151

After living in a French language environment for a year, I found myself more than capable of fulfilling the language competency requirement for French at the University of Toronto. However, this did not qualify me to be a French Immersion teacher. I taught high school French and had a temporary appointment teaching Latin American History in a French Immersion program until a teacher was hired from France with an advanced degree in history from the Sorbonne. My own graduate degree was from an Ontario francophone institution, although I was able to write my papers in English, as long as I presented them in class in French. I was the only anglophone in the class. I still don’t qualify as an Immersion teacher.

In any case, I feel that proposals to offer Greek Immersion programs in seminaries lack a spoken language, native language instructors, a native language environment, and communicative need. If the intent is to teach modern Greek, then it ought to be taught by speakers of modern Greek. If the intent is to teach Hellenistic or classical Greek, then a significant body of literature must be taught, not just a small collection of documents.

Back to the drawing board. I want to hear what language students will become fluent in, who the native language instructors will be, where the year abroad will be, and what institutions using that language will be established. On the other hand, students could attend classical Greek classes in the academy and take Near Eastern Studies classes where they read great gobs of Hellenistic Greek. There are universities that offer this.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2011 1:25 am

    Suzanne, you mention four things that “Greek immersion” programs supposedly lack: “a spoken language, native language instructors, a native language environment, and communicative need.” I’ll take the first and second together: native-speaker instructors are not at all necessary to successfully teach a language. Modern language immersion programs tend to use native speakers for instructors because native speakers are readily available. But many of my colleagues in my TESOL graduate program, for example, are non-native speakers and as such they possess advantages which native speaker teachers cannot offer (they’ve learned English as a second language, they can relate to students better, etc., etc.). Being a native speaker is not a requirement for teaching a foreign language well.

    Near-native fluency, however, is. Currently, there are very few people in the world who have the fluency required to teach ancient Greek in ancient Greek. Christophe Rico is one of them, and he has no problem creating a native-language environment and establishing communicative need, which are your third and fourth points. I took his ancient Greek class in Rome this summer, and he did not allow a word of English, French, Spanish, or Italian in his classroom (all languages that he speaks and represented by his students). Just as in a European EFL classroom, where students have multiple language backgrounds, communicative need exists by default, since not everyone shares an L1. Even if I had been allowed to ask a question in English, several students would not have understood me. One student spoke only Chinese and Italian, so I spoke to him in Greek only for the month.

    I think the term “Greek immersion” might be part of the problem here. I don’t think Daniel has used that term exclusively for every aspect of what he’s proposing, but in any case “immersion” does not accurately describe language classes, ancient or modern, that meet three times a week. The point is not whether we can completely recreate for ancient languages every aspect of a French immersion program or a German immersion program. Obviously, time travel to ancient Athens or Rome is not possible. The point is that current ancient language pedagogy misunderstands what language is by treating it as something to be decoded in terms of one’s native language. Modern second language acquisition theory treats language as a vehicle of communication to be understood on its own terms, using one’s native language as little as possible and ideally not at all. Fluency, not the ability to produce wooden translations, should be the goal of teaching ancient languages.

  2. September 25, 2011 1:41 am

    On the revival and teaching of a classical language — the most famous example is of course Hebrew: may I recommend Robert Alter’s The Invention of Modern Hebrew Prose? A nice compliment to it (focusing on poetry rather than prose, and from a feminist viewpoint) is Miryam Segal’s A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 25, 2011 2:52 am


    Thanks for such a great response. I recognize that exceptional programs do exist. Regarding your example that TESOL instructors are not all native speakers of English, that reminds me that the director of the TESOL institute that I attended was Carlos Yorio, not a native English speaker!

    But for TESOL the environment around is English. The authentic communicative need is provided outside the class by an anglophone environment, and by the dominance of English as a world language.

    The fact that students do not share a common native language is also important. I teach in a school where the students come from a variety of cultures and do not share a native language. I admit that this also creates communicative need.

    So I accept your examples, but am not sure how they would apply in most seminary settings.

    I do see why this is being discussed, but I am afraid that an interlanguage of some sort would be created, that non-native speakers would create a language that sounded like Greek, but was created from lexicons and grammar books and then used as a communicative device.


    Hebrew is a fascinating and unique example of language revival. I assume that Alter knows Hebrew as a modern language even if it is not his native language.

    In any case, The bibliosphere will benefit from reading both your comments!

  4. J K Gayle permalink
    September 25, 2011 2:14 pm

    Thank you very much for your post. It’s a tremendous problem when proposals for language learning become overly prescriptive. You’ve given good, helpful constructive criticism of Daniel Street’s “pipe dream.”

    In administering ESL and TESOL programs at a U.S. university, I’m often presented with peculiar models for language teaching and acquisition (or learning) that are touted as the best and only “real” way to “do it.” The proponent of the approach (or method or even technique) will ignore critical factors of instructor competency (whether that’s native speaker fluency or / and knowledge of and experience with pedagogical options and opportunities or / and the learner / teacher background of the instructor). You’ve pointed out how Street has neglected some of these factors. I think there are also critical issues of literacy and orality and embodiment of language and learner motivation and learner modality and learning style to factor in to any proposal. Teaching an adult to learn a language also often requires teaching a metalanguage for learning as well. The “how to” and the “who” is often more important than the “what.”

    So we think about successful Greek learners (when that Greek is already a “dead language.” I love to have the faculty members and students I work with think about George Steiner and about Eunice Pike, or even Ken and Evelyn Pike. All are interested and language learning for themselves as it relates to languages such as biblical Hebrew and Greek. All are learners of both dead languages and modern ones.

    Here’s a bit of Steiner’s story:

    Five years earlier Steiner’s father had moved his family from Austria to France to escape the growing threat of Nazism there. He believed that Jews were “endangered guests wherever they went”  and equipped his children with languages. Steiner grew up with three mother tongues, German, English and French; his mother was multilingual and would often “begin a sentence in one language and end it in another.”  When he was six years old, his father, who believed in a good classical education, taught him to read Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad in the original Greek.  His mother, for whom “self-pity was nauseating”, helped Steiner overcome a handicap he had been born with, a withered right arm. Instead of becoming left-handed she insisted he use his right hand as an able-bodied person would.

    What interests me about Steiner learning Homer’s Greek is his and his family’s motivations for doing so.  German, English, and French provided not only a way to be multiply fascile in a cruel and dangerous environment in which multilingualism was a means for survival. But the acquisition of the living languages offered unequaled ways into the learning of dead languages (i.e., paradigms and contextualizations and appreciation of nuance and ambiguities and translation and “language about language,” or metalanguage for teaching and observing and learning).  Language learning became a subversion of oppression, an incredibly human tool for making oneself, one’s family, one’s people, and one’s world more humane.

    Since you bring in Krashen, I’d like to emphasize that he does offer useful concepts such as “comprehensible input” and “affective filter” and “acquisition.” And yet Krashen himself and his disciples such as Terrell (“The Natural Approach”) can be dogmatic and have a construct that sometimes disallows other ways of active and human motivated learning (not mere and mostly passive acquisition) of languages. The Pikes, for example, have an important emphasis on adult models of language learning in which phonemics and phonetics and Emics and Etics provide a crucial frame for parsing motivations of learners. Whether one is an emic insider or an etic outsider makes a tremendous difference. You’ve worked with the Pikes’ material, I understand, so you probably know how influential the useful notions of Emics and etics have become (appropriated by scholars now in more than twenty different academic disciplines in the West).  

    Pike’s monolingual demonstration (in which the only language was the one Pike, as outsider, was learning) is a fascinating and under appreciated method. When showing a video of him working with a native speaker of the language he’s learning, I always ask my TESOL faculty members or their ESL adult students, “Who is the teacher?!” After replying without hesitation that it’s the native speaker, those watching Pike learning via the monolingual (other’s language) method can eventually agree:  the learner of the language, as outsider, is also the teacher. For me, this gets back to valuable notions of multiple frames and perspectives and interactions that do give much credit to the native speaker’s Emics without sacrificing the non-native learner’s etic motivations. 

    I hope that makes sense.  I wish I could show the video of Pike in action here but the u of Michigan copyright owners have made clear that don’t want it broadcast.  I will share a good analysis of some differences between Krashenish and Pikean models of applied language and language learning.  We’ve used this very essay to make substantial curricular and pedagogical changes in some of our ESL classes, putting more emphasis on ethnography (analogous to “field learning”) by the students as outsiders with motivation to engage insiders and to learn their language:

  5. September 25, 2011 2:33 pm

    Suzanne, not all learners of English are surrounded by an anglophone environment. People learn English in Hungary, China, France, and all around the world in an EFL context (not ESL). This creates additional hurdles, but it doesn’t mean that a communicative approach is pointless. A seminary classroom need not be any different from the classroom where I took French in Florida: most if not all students shared an L1, instruction was three to four hours a week, and the instructor was a non-native speaker with near-native fluency in the language. After two semesters in that environment, with an instructor who used communicative language teaching methodology, my French was immeasurably better than after two semesters of Greek with an instructor who used the grammar-translation method. What I’m advocating (I can’t speak for Daniel Streett) is simply a recognition on the part of classical language teachers that the grammar-translation misunderstands what language is and that it needs to be rejected. Instead, we need to apply communicative language teaching methodology to ancient languages. The fact that all the native speakers are dead does not make them cease to be languages, vehicles of communication, not codes to be deciphered. As for your point about interlanguage, I don’t see how that’s any different from what happens in a French or Spanish or EFL classroom. Intermediate learners of French or Greek will both create an interlanguage which is not quite French and not quite Greek; but interlanguage is an unavoidable part of the language learning process. We shouldn’t stop teaching French communicatively just because fourth-semester students still make mistakes.

    J K, of course I agree that there is no “one way” to teach language. But I do think that there are certain broad areas of agreement among teachers of English and other modern languages which are simply unknown to teachers of ancient languages — and that’s the real problem. The professional consensus in SLA is that the grammar-translation method is dead on arrival. It has no theoretical support at all. Yet ancient language teachers continue to use it. Even if you disagree with the particulars of Daniel’s argument, such as the practical suggestions he makes, his broad point is valid: ancient language teachers need to apply the insights of modern second language acquisition theory to their own teaching, just as teachers of English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, etc. have been doing for decades already. Ancient language teachers need to treat Greek and Latin as languages — vehicles of communication to be understood on their own terms — not as codes to be deciphered in terms of the L1. Internalization needs to be the goal, not learning metalanguage.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 25, 2011 4:29 pm


    I was trained through SIL in the monolingual method along Pike’s method, I think I have seen that video, but it is a long time ago now. I have also had various monolingual experiences of varying lengths with German and Punjabi. It is amazing how one can build provisional models for the language based on certain intitial needs. I learned to cook curry and sew salwar kameez from a monolingual friend. It was a wonderful experience and the monolingual method built on expressing needs, and receiving response, engaging in dialogue was incredibly empowering.

    I remember one time sitting cross-legged shelling peas and drinking chai with a few women friends, and discussing babies and the like. They were teaching me a few words to begin to engage in the conversation, (none of them spoke more than a few words of English) and we were talking about their clothes. I was able to say in Punjabi that I would like to wear a red salwar kameez and one of the women said that she had an old one that she was willing to give to me. I loved that salwar kameez because it was a symbol of the power of monolingual language learning, and it looked great on me too!

    Anyone could have that experience, but Pike’s method gave me the tools to organize that experience, to keep track of the vocabulary, to record it, analyse phonemes, build on it and so on. Of course, I also put in a phone call to my dear friend, Al Gleason, who had co- written a Punjabi grammar but that was later.

    I love the monolingual method – that’s not the problem.


    I am taking the position that I am, in order to engage in dialogue and to draw closer, to move towards the centre, not to criticize. The interlanguage of most language students is a provisional language, a stopping point on the way, a personal language that is not used as a model for others. One hopes that eventually the student engages in an authentic language experience that replaces the interlanguage with the authentic language.

    My concern is that an interlanguage would be created for ancient Greek composed of the misreadings and misrepresentations that are found in lexicons, and they are many. I am then concerned that this interlanguage would be generated by instructors, and maintained by students and become a permanent and seriously flawed relative of the original language. But it would carry the conviction of truth. People would believe, as they aready do, that κλῆσις meant “calling” rather than “invitation” or “summons.” I find this excruciating, that certain fictions about ancient Greek would simply take on greater gravitas.

    Imagine the ploy sometimes taken by instructors, that students give themselves a name in the language of instruction. And then one of the young men could name himself Junias. It is already impossible to convince people of the simple facts, that we have no record of any Greek male called Junias. But even today serious theologians, texts and lexicons all attest to this being a male Greek name. No amount of monolingual instruction would ever clear up this point. It is now impossible to have a simply conversation with some theologians on this point. They simply will not interact with evidence in the place of lexicon entries.


    In short, I am not arguing for the status quo, but I am wary of this new model. I cannot see the parallel between modern language learning and ancient language learning as you do. I am not supporting a grammar translation method but rather an immersion in the literature itself as the authentic environment.

  7. September 25, 2011 4:39 pm

    Suzanne, I see that I didn’t completely understand your point about interlanguage. Thanks for the clarification. I share your concerns, but I don’t see it as a reason to abandon the project of communicative ancient language teaching completely (I’m not saying that you necessarily do see it that way). Christophe Rico, for one, is taking active steps to avoid that problem by creating new materials straight from the texts we have — he warned us repeatedly in class (in Greek) that the lexicons are not always trustworthy. Also, dealing with the language without the interference of students’ L1 means that vocabulary acquisition will take place inside the language rather than in translation, which would help eliminate false glosses. I agree that immersion in the literature is absolutely necessary, but I think that communicative language teaching is the best way to make that literature accessible.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 25, 2011 4:59 pm

    We are not that far apart, but I have taken a provocative stance to tease out some of the details, and to register my fear that someone will take an intermediate and theologically motivated lexicon of the New Testament and turn that into a “living language.”

  9. September 26, 2011 2:01 pm

    Internalization needs to be the goal, not learning metalanguage.

    Thanks for your reply, Stephen.
    I should clarify that I wasn’t saying that “metalanguage needs to be the goal.” Metalanguage comes in many different forms and is something that facilitates the goal of language learning. For Steiner, his facility with modern languages helped him learn Homer’s Greek. For the Pikes, their emics/etics frameworks helped them learn modern languages. I don’t think I brought up G-T at all, and I certainly don’t believe that it works as either a metalanguage or as a sound method for SLA. What I’m questioning as much as anything is that it’s the acquisition and not the learning of language that’s valuable. For Streett’s proposal to suggest that a modern Greek milieu will provide comprehensible input for the acquisition of classical and/ or biblical Greek seems very strange. I’m saying to seminarians, look to the Steiners, to the parents and the child, and how successfully they were able to read Homer! (I do remember when Kumaravadivelu started us in TESOL talking about postmethod, and loved Thornberry’s [word]play on that “Methods, post-method, and métodos.” Again, I wanted to talk about Steiner and the Pikes.)

    Wow, Suzanne!
    I had no idea how and how much you’d learned by the monolingual method! Thanks for sharing the various ways you’ve been able to become variously proficient. I love how you summarize the method: “the tools to organize that experience, to keep track of the vocabulary, to record it, analyse phonemes, build on it and so on. Of course, I also put in a phone call to my dear friend,” Your note about your dear friend reminds me how Pike would always insist on having the informants of the monolingual demonstration be somebody else’s friend who had to be “friendly.” (The only other thing he insisted on, of course, was that the friendly person talk in a language that he’d never heard nor read. The bridges of analogies, of parable, of somebody else’s story and language, of ambiguities, of the universals of human friendships, are wonderful bridges for language outsiders going in.)

    Could you say more about Miryam Segal’s A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry?

  10. September 26, 2011 5:29 pm

    Perhaps I will write a post about Miryam Segal’s A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry sometime. Thanks for the suggestion.


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