Jesus Against the Scribal Elite

Friday, December 28, 2012

To Software or Not to Software? - Le Donne

Introduction to Koine Greek is a identity-marking rite of passage for the undergraduate / seminarian who seeks to become conversant with New Testament studies.  In many cases, one's ability to achieve in this class answered the question of one's prospects for a PhD definitively.  This is not to say that every student with an 'A' in Greek has the work ethic, creativity, appetite, and discerning eye to pursue a PhD, but it used to force most folks who could not excel with languages into other occupations.  But has the information age robbed us of this rite of passage?

I remember thinking as an undergraduate that my generation might be the last generation of scholars to really learn biblical languages. It occurred to me in the late 90's that software like Accordance, Logos, and Bibleworks would provide crutches that might stunt the growth of would-be academics.  I can now reflect on this notion with a bit of hindsight.  Was I hasty to think this?

Grammatical governance has never come easy for me.  Paradigms and morphology?  No. But etymology, memorization, aspect, connotative value? Yes.  (I can also dominate you in Scrabble... in fact, I have a tattoo that says "I will domin8 you in Scrabble®"... I roll with a biker gang that rides from town to town dominating in Scrabble.)  

Because I have tended toward the "right-brained" elements of language, I had to work twice as hard at the paradigms and morphology to prove myself.  I was also fortunate enough to have attended a undergraduate institution that put as much (or more) emphasis on Northwest Semitic languages.  So there were several rites of passage along every level of the climb.  I suppose that I wonder if students really have to work this hard anymore.  It is just too easy to find a crutch now.

Add to this the pressure put on professors to cow to the consumer mentalities of most students and admissions offices and the result is that students rarely fail in the humanities anymore.  I fear that we have turned one of our most important rites of passage into a bridge tollbooth experience.

In my comings and goings among pedagogically-minded Greek professors, I have been impressed by a few teachers who have used language software judiciously.  These talented people have been able to wield Logos et al. in a way that doesn't encourage a crutch mentality.  And yet, it seems that these talented few are exceptions to the rule.  So what is the rule?

Most folks who teach Greek to beginners do not have a clear strategy for how to incorporate language software.  Most know that they cannot hold back the tide of the information age.  Most have good intentions.  And most of their students who would otherwise be forced to consider another line of work are walking away with a 'B' and false hope.

So here is my question to you: has the information age helped or hurt biblical language pedagogy?


  1. I'd say there's two distinctions here in which it helps and it hinders. First, how it hinders. It hinders in the sense that bible software like Logos become a crutch on which you're relying on somebody else to give you the information. It's the same concept behind plugging an English word to something like Google Translate and generating a Spanish word back. Just because you know the Spanish word doesn't mean you understand how it ties into the language itself. I've read parts of Chris Keith's book on Jesus' Literacy, and I know he really delves into the Greek in a different way than somebody like the people at Logos Bible Software would do. (Not a knock on them at all.)

    I can see it being a powerful tool AFTER you learn the Greek. In this case, it's simply a time saver so you're not diddling around in a lexicon flipping through hundreds of pages to translate a mere phrase. You have the principles down, so you can make an educated judgement on whether you think the software makers got it right or not.

  2. Sorry, I used Greek specifically a lot in there. I'd stand by the same principles with other languages too.

  3. As somebody just finishing undergrad, I would say that software does more harm than good, initially. It too easily invites the early learner into full reliance. I know because I was one of the guilty, and I regret it. For four semesters now I've fasted from it because I saw its negative effects in my learning, and since I stopped using it I have grown a ton in my Greek fluency. That last sentence sounds a bit like the confession of a crack addict. Anyway, I would say that it is a hindrance early on, but later, after the acquisition of fluency (or at least partial fluency), language software is really, really helpful.

  4. In my (very limited) experience teaching biblical languages, I don't know that software has any real benefit to the first-year student. In my experience, flipping through a lexicon can, in itself, be a helpful tool. For example (I've only taught Hebrew), while looking up a word where only two root consonants remain in the inflected word, it is helpful to have to flip to the I-Nun, I-Yod, Middle-weak, etc. roots—hopefully reminding the student of the differences between those weak-verb types. Perhaps we are looking at the symptom, rather than the illness—in my experience, many students simply aren't willing to put the time into memorizing vocab and morphology and aren't terribly concerned with "learning" a language.

    For second-year+, I say, prepare a translation however you need (software, lexica, whatever; 15-20 verses), come to class and be ready to translate on-the-spot and answer to oral drilling—text only, no English helps. Nothing like the fear of public humiliation to get people to do their homework.

  5. I think there's a couple different issues here. One is access to the text, the other is help on various levels with translation. I think students need to be able to access the text via technology in a way that makes the most sense to them (i.e. via app for phone or tablet, pc software program, kindle or nook ebook, website, plain old softcover/hardcover book, or any other way). Language classes should recognize that students today will access the text in a variety of different ways. Translation helps are then a separate but related issue, just depending on what the student prefers for reading the text.

  6. In my own situation, I require my students to learn every word occurring more than 50 times in the first year (the Mounce method) and then try to take them down to every word that occurs at least 30 times after that.

    Having said all of that, being able to use the software is not the same as being able to understand some of the deeper features of the text: syntactical and discourse elements, an author's style, etc. Ultimately you have to have a firm base in the vocabulary and grammar before you can know more than "enough to be dangerous" as one of my college professors indicated. The software can be a fantastic tool for that, but it is a supplement not a substitute.


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