Students in Classical Christian schools or home-school students often study Latin for at least one year. I have spoken with many over the years about their experience of learning Latin in their youth (students I have taught in the past, friends, etc.). Statements like “it was awful”, “I remember nothing”, “learning it was so hard” and “I hate paradigms” were very common. This last statement, “I hate paradigms”, was, perhaps, the main reason for the past pain of these Latin learners.
If students today spoke to Luther and Calvin, what would they see? Among those who received an education in Europe during the time of the Reformation, they would likely walk into classrooms and hear students speaking Latin, listening to Latin, and reading and writing Latin. That is why John Calvin, Martin Luther, Galileo Galilee, and Isaac Newton all wrote many (if not all) of their books in Latin. They would have been trained up to learn Latin to use it, not just to translate it.
Why do I bring this point up? It is to contradict a prevalent idea that it is “unnatural” to learn how to speak a language that is “dead”. If some of our best Reformation theologians and Enlightenment-era scientists learned this way, perhaps we can learn some lessons from the way that these geniuses learned this ancient language.
So why are students less competent today in Latin than they were back then? Of course, there may be many answers to this. One of them is obvious: Luther and Calvin would have begun learning Latin young and were forced to continue for many years. However, it would not be true to say that all methods of language learning are created equal. As Christians, we know that God has given us skill and ability to become more efficient and effective in certain disciplines in life. Very few (if any) farmers with 100+ acres of crop land today prefer the hoe and elbow-grease method as a substitute for the John Deere tractor. I also do not know a single author who handwrote a book using pen and ink. They, instead, prefer to use the very efficient, modern child of the Gutenberg press. I say all of this to encourage us to realize that there very well may be more efficient and less efficient ways to learn the Biblical Languages.
Thus, I would say that for those who desire to learn the Biblical Languages, it would be good to find out which methods are the most productive to accomplish their goals. Generally productivity in our culture is related to a good or bad use of time. Our goal as Biblical Languages leaners is to learn the Biblical Languages! So, I will degrade to simple math for the moment. If there is a class in which the teacher is using Greek as a spoken language and the students respond in Greek, I would say that the class very well could consist of 70% Greek and 30% English. The alternative is using English as the main language to teach Greek, translate all the Greek words to English, and learn all of the grammar rules in the English language. I studied Greek and Hebrew in many classes like this when I began. Not more than 10% of the class was actually conducted in Greek or Hebrew. More conservative estimates would assume that 5% of the class was held in the respective language of instruction and 95% English. Therefore, if the goal is to learn Greek and Hebrew in class, using them as a spoken language is the most productive use of time.
One thing I must clarify: I do not promote the abandonment of the use of English in a Greek or Hebrew class. Sometimes there are very difficult grammatical points or ideas that must be clarified in English, especially when a student clearly is struggling to grasp a concept or word. Our goal is to provide help to the students, not leave them confused. English is a great language of instruction and is often necessary, even for those who desire to learn Greek and Hebrew as a living language.
There are numerous benefits to learning to listen to and speak the Biblical Languages. Perhaps one of the most significant is the ability to understand audio bibles in Greek and Hebrew. Speaking and listening go hand in hand. When you start listening and speaking, you begin comprehending a language. If you just have English translation of vocabulary in your head, it will be nearly impossible to understand anything in an original language audio bible. However, after learning Greek and Hebrew as a spoken language, one can drive to the grocery store, work in their backyard, or enjoy their morning commute listening to a Greek or Hebrew audio Bible. This helps students to learn the language when they are outside the classroom or office studying.