This is the beginning of a series of posts with two goals: 1. show why learning a lot of Greek vocabulary is necessary to grow in knowledge of the language, and 2. provide a set of tools and a systematic plan to achieve vocabulary learning success.
In my experience learning and teaching Greek, it seems these two points are often not addressed. This is unfortunate. In reality, most learners learning Greek are starting as young adults (or not so young) and need real and compelling answers to both of these issues. I learned to frame these two issues by living through many years of Greek study and feeling my way around to get to some answers. Hopefully this series will be able to save someone the effort.
I began my Greek learning journey in seminary. That is not quite true; I had dabbled a little with Greek on my own before seminary, but had never made a serious go of it until then. The fact that I had purchased a Greek book on my own and worked through some of it indicates I was more serious about learning the language than most. My big goal for seminary? Learn the languages.
Learning vocabulary received mixed emphasis in my Greek education. On the one hand, weekly vocab quizzes kept my nose to the grindstone learning key words for reading the Greek New Testament (NT). That was good! On the other hand, there was little emphasis to ever learn words beyond those occurring 10x or more in the NT (that is, the vast majority of NT words). But, more disheartening in hindsight, there wasn’t instruction focused on systematic ways to learn vocabulary (or really, learning vocabulary at all). I excelled in seminary Greek and I felt like I really did not know much Greek much at the end.
Restart #1: Post-Seminary
Being somewhat of an overachiever, I pressed on in vocab learning on my own. By the time I stopped making paper note cards (the only viable vocab learning strategy I really had) I literally had thousands of them stacked on a shelf at eye level as a constant reminder of the need to keep learning (last time we moved I said goodbye to these dear friends). During this time I was regularly reading the NT as well as texts like the Apocryphal Gospels, Apostolic Fathers, and Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. This steady stream of Greek enabled many words to stick via massive exposure. However, I still lacked a vision for learning vocab and a systematic way to do it. Thousands of note cards stacked on a shelf don’t learn themselves, no matter how imposing they look. At this stage of my journey I established the solid foundation of continual exposure to as much Greek text as I could manage, which has served me well. But my vocab learning strategy–if you could call it a strategy–was uninspiring and inefficient, at best.
Restart #2: Doctoral Studies and Re-Imagining the How and Why of Vocab learning
Beginning PhD. studies I left far behind where most people get to go (or want to go) with Greek learning. In the field of NT my focus was, and continues to be, Greek language. Regarding learning vocab, I found the same forces at work. Teachers have a generic expectation that people learn vocab, but little explicit direction. I had to acquire a lot of vocab for various course exams and especially my comprehensive exam (for which most of the Greek Bible as well as the Apostolic Fathers and a section from Josephus were all on the table with no promise of any vocab help). Under the pressure of needing to learn an insurmountable amount of vocab quickly I started getting more serious on the personal level about finding and developing effective ways to learn vocab. Hand in hand with this effort I began to notice a huge pick up in my Greek reading abilities. Coincidence?
Charting a Path Forward
I have rambled on enough about my journey. The one big takeaway from my personal journey is this: no one teaching you Greek is likely to teach you either why you should learn a lot of words or how to do it in a systematic and effective way. They will assume you are either going to figure it out or that you will fall by the wayside (this probably reflects the fact that no one taught them these things either).
This series is aimed at passing on some very specific knowledge addressing both the why and the how of learning a lot of vocabulary. In the next post I will introduce some of the research into second language reading and focus on just how important vocabulary really is for reading Greek.