Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Koine Greek: Three Steps to Learning by Listening

I'd like to share a simple three-step technique that I've found very helpful while learning New Testament (Koine) Greek. This works if you frequently have access to an uninterrupted 20 minutes to listen to audio.  For me, this is the daily drive to and from work.  My car stereo reads mp3 files, and has a USB input to make things easier.

1. Listen in English

The aim of this exercise is to listen to a chapter at a time of the New Testament, first in English, and then in Greek.  While listening in English, or your own native language, you're refreshing your mind about what the chapter is about: who does what to whom.  You're listening out for:
  1. The narrative flow: who does or says what to whom and in what order.
  2. Patterns & Repeated Phrases: Listen out for which phrases are repeated a lot, such as "Blessed are the..." or "Jesus replied, saying to them", or "Truly, truly, I say to you..." 
  3. Repeated Words.  Depending on the theme of the chapter, some words like: "bread", "life", "water", "love", "blood", "disciple" will be repeated a lot.
If it achieves nothing else, you've just actively listened to a chapter of the Bible.  You're ahead, regardless.

2. Listen in Greek

The next track you listen to is that same chapter in Greek.  If you're not familiar with the language, or even the particular recording and its pronunciation scheme, this can be very daunting.  Don't be daunted. Don't even try to understand: just listen, and let it wash over you.  

Trying to understand can be like trying to go to sleep: the effort will interrupt the very thing you want to do. 

Get the feel of the sound and the rhythm of the language.  If you understand only καὶ and Ἰησοῦς, then you've understood something. There are subconscious things going on during this process, so just relax.  Seriously: stressfully trying to keep up won't help.
After doing this for a while - either by repeating the same chapter, or moving on to others - you'll find you have some words and phrases stuck in your head.  It's a strange feeling, especially if you don't know what those words mean.  I distinctly remember one of the first phrases that did this to me was Μετὰ ταῦτα.  All the time, this phrase was popping up.  It stayed with me during the day: what does Μετὰ ταῦτα mean?

3. Read, Think, Look Up, Clarify

The last part of the learning cycle is to sit down later (for me, it's in the evening), without the audio, and read the same chapter, as best you can.  If you don't have a Greek New Testament or interlinear, you should try to get one.  (Otherwise, the SBLGNT is available in heaps of free downloadable formats).
This follow-up time is when you can find those words and phrases that have stuck in your head, to find out what they mean.  You should also find that the pronunciation of the words now comes more easily, especially if you've been pronouncing those words inconsistently with your pronunciation scheme (i.e. wrong).
As the Greek words and phrases come together with the meaning you understand from your English translation, you will be learning the grammar.  This is no substitute for formal study of grammar (I like to memorise a paradigm as much as anyone), but it's a great parallel, reinforcing process.  I've come to understand post-positives through this three-step process much better than reading grammar text books in isolation.

0. Setting it all up

Setting up is the technical part.  If you find it daunting, or you're unsure if it's worth the effort, just do one or two books of the Bible, like John and Mark.
What you want to end up with is a file structure on your usb drive, or iPod or other mp3 player that has:
  • A folder (directory) for each book of the New Testament. Most audio bibles do this already "01_Matthew", "02_Mark", "03_Luke", etc.  Don't forget the number prefix: you don't want alphabetical order of books!
  • A file for each English chapter of that book inside each folder, numbered "01.mp3", "02.mp3", "03.mp3", etc.
  • A file for each Greek chapter of that book inside each folder, numbered "01g.mp3", "02g.mp3", "03g.mp3", etc.
This way, the English file for chapter 1 will play first, then the Greek file for chapter 1, then the English file for chapter 2, etc. Separating books by folders - which is the normal way audio bibles tend to come anyway - allows books to be skipped through like "albums" on most mp3 players.

Sourcing the Files

Which versions of both the English and Greek audio bibles you use is up to you, but here's my advice.

English: Use one of the essentially literal translations, such as KJV, NKJV, NASB and ESV.  The reason for this is that you want to recognise and match words and phrases between English and Greek.  A dramatised version of The Message isn't going to help.  I use the ESV, which is also my chosen version for normal reading, study and memorisation.
Greek:  You need to find a Koine audio recording that suits the pronunciation scheme that you want to use.  This page includes a list of a number of available recordings, and provides information on the pronunciation schemes and also the quality of the recordings.  I use, and highly recommend this recording by Dr Spiros Zodhiates, in modern Greek pronunciation.  If you're in Australia, I suggest you use Koorong, rather than Amazon.  I actually started with using John Simon's recordings at - though his reading speed is very, very fast.  His pronunciation scheme is based on, but different to, modern Greek.

Editing the Files

Always create a working directory and copy your files there to work on them.  Use an audio file tag editing program to make the name changes described above: don't sit around renaming each file by hand.  I use kid3.  
Each file should have the chapter number stored as the track number in it's tags, which can be used to create the "001.mp3" and "001g.mp3" type filenames.  That is, you can create filenames based on track numbers.  Kid3 can automatically add sequential track numbers to the files in a folder if required: other programs can probably do the same.
Only once your English and Greek audio files have been renamed in their separate folders should you copy the contents of each book's folder together.  There's probably a quick way to do this, but I did it manually myself.

Other Tips

Here are some other tips I can share from my own experience with doing this:
  1. The Greek recording you use is important.  If the pronunciation is inconsistent, or the reading is without any intonation, or rhythm, then it'll be very hard to achieve what you're trying to do.  This is why I like the recording by Dr Zodhiates I linked to above.  He reads it like it actually means something.  He actually gets quite emotional at times.
  2. Start with books of the Bible with simpler Greek and shorter chapters.  Simpler Greek gives you a better chance to start picking up the words and structure: e.g. John, Mark.  Shorter chapters gives you a better chance to remember what happens in the chapter while stumbling along in the Greek: e.g. not Luke.
  3. Be flexible and sensible in how you use your time.  It will typically take 15-20 minutes to listen to the chapter in both English and Greek.  Depending on how much time you have, it can be helpful to listen to the Greek twice.  Or, listen to a smaller part of the chapter, from the beginning, first in English and then Greek.
  4. Read-a-long! If you're able to listen to your Greek recording while following along - as best you can - in a Greek New Testament, then this is ideal.  I rarely have opportunity to do this myself.  This three-step listening scheme evolved because I was trying to use my commuting time more effectively.  I could try to follow along with a GNT while driving, but as Jesus said, "ὅτι Εἴρηται· Οὐκ ἐκπειράσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου."
Give it a go.  Please share your results, or any suggestions in the comments section below.

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