We are five weeks into the semester at Wake Divinity, and I am surprised to find that my favorite class this semester is New Testament Greek I. The professor is fantastic, the book is helpful, and the material is challenging and interesting.
Most all of the New Testament was originally written in the Greek language, using a form of Greek sometimes called Koine Greek or New Testament Greek. When one compares English translations (the King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, etc.), one discovers that the translations are often different in theologically meaningful ways. So, being equipped to read New Testament Greek, rather than relying only on the translations of others, is helpful to a theologian.
I have not taken a foreign language since 1986, at Southern Alamance High School. I took Spanish in Ms. Hume’s class and forgot nearly all of it in the summer of ’86. How did I pass the test in August that let me not have to take a foreign language in college? Yo no se.
In the Greek class, we are moving through the material faster than I expected. I thought the first couple of weeks would be spent learning the Greek alphabet—I know my Lambda Chi Alphas, Delta Zetas, Alpha Delta Pis, and Chi Omegas from college days. But we went past the alphabet and on to verbs and verb structure in the first 20 minutes of the first class-session. We were translating simple sentences in the first week.
Although the class is going well so far, I remain worried about it, mostly because I have read lots of articles that say that learning a foreign language becomes more and more difficult as you age. I turned 48 this year. I suspect the average age in the class is about 26.
A lot of the material resonates with my math/engineering brain. There are rules on how to decline nouns, rules on adjective use, rules on accent placement, … lots of algorithms. It is somewhat like learning to play a musical instrument, though. Speed matters. You can know how to read music and which keys are which on a piano, but you have to be able to process it all at once and you cannot take the time to think about the algorithm. You have to just do it. So, lots and lots of rehearsal is really the answer.
When we engage in in-class exercises, like reading sentences on a screen or responding to the professor’s questions about words or phrases on the screen, I can easily detect that most of my classmates respond faster than I do. I can see that they can keep track of a regular-pace reading of sentences while I am a half-step behind—and sometimes far enough behind that the reading of the sentence is done before I figure out which sentence we are reading!
I notice the speed issue, too, when working with much younger classmates on in-class exercises. Sometimes our professor has us work in pairs on a set of sentences, translating them from Greek to English or vice versa. My classmate usually moves through the translation quickly, while my brain dwells on the syntax of the first phrase.
On Par With Some Things
I can keep pace with my classmates when the professor explains a concept, like declension structure or vocabulary. And I can read and interpret the sentences accurately. I am just noticeably slower than my classmates when reading or speaking.
[This is where my guy friends would say, “well, you are noticeably slower when reading and speaking English, too.” This is what guys say to each other.]
It will be fine to be slower when I am done learning the material, as I will put it to theological use, which usually involves preparation, by yourself, at a desk, rather than reading unpracticed and under time pressure for an audience. But for keeping up with the learning process, speed is necessary.
I try to spend an hour-and-a-half or two hours each day studying Greek. I’ve probably averaged doing this 5 days a week so far. We are in class 3 hours a week on top of this study time.
Bottom line on learning Greek at 48 so far is that I do not think my age impacts my ability to learn the concepts, but I am detecting reading- and processing-speed challenges that I suspect are attributable, at least in part, to my age. I’m trying to compensate by working hard.
I wish …
This past week, our professor seemed to speed up.
Let’s hope I can speed up, too.
(The picture is the Greek word for “I wish” or “I desire.”)
Sources & Notes
Our book: Croy, N. Clayton. A Primer of Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1999.