Another Take on Learning Greek

The Art of Reading Latin: How to Teach ItWilliam Gardner Hale. The Art of Reading Latin: How to Teach It. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1887. 64pp. Free from Google Books.

“The attacks which have been made of late upon the study of Greek and to some extent upon the study of Latin have had at their backs the conviction that the results obtained are very much out of proportion to the years of labor spent upon these languages by the schoolboy and the college student.” (5)

So opens Hale’s work, and I suspect many still have the same concern today, over a century later.

A professor of Latin at Cornell University, Hale delivered the first portion of this book as “an address delivered before the Associated Academic Principles of the State of New York” (5). He is dissatisfied with both the method and the results of the (then) current model for language learning, and believes he has the solution. Hale has in mind the Latin and Greek of classical studies, but the jump into biblical studies is a small one. He chooses to focus specifically on Latin in the address but notes, “the whole substance of what I have to say applies with equal force to the teaching of Greek” (6). I would add Hebrew as well.


Hale begins with a brief note on the obstacles facing the Latin student. Learning another language requires a great deal of effort. One cannot simply memorize the vocabulary, paradigms, and syntax and expect to read another language well (7). English and Latin sentences are constructed differently. Hale calls these sentence structures ‘plans’. Referring to Latin sentence structure he states,

Until that plan is just as familiar to the student as the English plan, until, for page after page, he takes in ideas as readily and naturally on the one plan as on the other, until, in short, a single steady reading of the sentence carries his mind through the very same development of thought that took place in the mind of the writer, he cannot read Latin otherwise than slowly and painfully. (7-8)

The problem is that the current teaching method does not produce the required “familiarity” needed to read naturally. Hale’s description of the method yields no surprises for those of us learning the languages today—translation by dissection. Students are taught to scan the sentence pulling out and translating various parts as they match English sentence order. But no Roman would ever read a Latin sentence like that!

Now the Roman heard, or read, first the first word, then the second, then the third, and so on, through sentence after sentence, to the end of the oration, with no turning back, with no hunting around. And . . . when the last word of that sentence had been spoken or read, the whole of the meaning had reached his mind. (16-17)

Instead, Hale proposes ‘anticipatory parsing’. In this method, a student is forced to pause at each word and consider its possibilities in relation to the sentence. A student would list all the ways (or at least all the ways he knew) the word could function. At that point he would be told,

Keep those possibilities always fresh in your mind, letting them flash through it the moment you see such a word; and that having been done, WAIT, and NEVER DECIDE which of these possible meanings was in the mind of the Roman speaker or writer until the rest of the sentence has made the answer to that question perfectly clear. (20)

And then the student would proceed to the next word, until the close of the sentence. Several examples are given to illustrate this method and he lists additional benefits (such as frequent case reviews). But he always works through each word of the sentence, in order, one word at a time. Hale notes, “I have not asked a student to ‘parse’ a word after seeing its full connection in the sentence (an exercise which loses four-fifths of its virtue by this misplacement), but I have demanded anticipatory parsing” (21).

The second section of the book is supplemental material. Here Hale gives class papers and many more examples of how his method can be implemented in a class.


Overall, I find Hale’s method both feasible and compelling. Hale makes what seems to be a logical proposal, and he provides evidence that it works. We already practice this very method (though subconsciously) for English. We have expectations for words and phrases as we hear or read them because we know the range of their functions. We are able to hold the words from an entire sentence in suspense until the close of the sentence makes their meaning clear. Sentences that start with prepositional phrases, or poetry that distorts typical English sentence structure are both understandable, because we know the range of functions for words and phrases.

I wonder if part of the reason we teach Greek (Koine) with the sentence-dissection method is because we are working solely with a text—a medium that allows one to see the end from the beginning. Then we think the easiest way to get started is to look first for what would come first in English. I wonder also if this is the problem we try to correct when we emphasize the need to spend a lot of time reading in the Greek text to ‘get the feel’ for the language. On the other hand, even when learning a modern language in a conversational format, a speaker typically pauses and allows the learner to absorb and think about an entire sentence. Ideally, one tracks with the speaker as the words are spoken without the need for pauses after each sentence, but this doesn’t happen in the beginning.

Perhaps Hale’s method and the typical method are both equally effective. Perhaps. But anticipatory parsing seems to require fewer corrections as the reader’s ability grows. For those of us who have already studied Greek a number of years, I think Hale’s method would be a good exercise to further hone our skills and push us toward a more natural reading of the text.

At the least, Hale’s address is worth reading. It is short (shorter if don’t know Latin and skim those portions!)—about 32 smaller book pages—and he makes a number of good observations. Parts of the address are humorous, and I found the older English itself enjoyable to read. The supplemental material can probably be skimmed or skipped unless one is trying to build a course from this method.

Comments? On Hale’s methodology? How have you been thinking through learning biblical languages?


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