Practice Greek Like a Master Violinist

I daily contemplate how I can improve my reading ability in Greek and Hebrew (as well as Latin, German and French). These languages are essential to my career as a biblical scholar. But like muscles without exercise, language abilities atrophy without use.

The problem is this: nobody ever taught me in seminary, in my MA program, nor in my doctoral studies how to properly go about studying the ancient languages on a daily basis. What are the best practices I should employ every day to master, not simply “maintain,” ancient Greek (or any other “dead” language)?

Deliberate Practice

One place that I’ve looked for inspiration in my language study is music. I had heard that violin players have to practice many hours a day, but a few years ago I came across an exceptional article by Noa Kageyama, a master violinist who combines his love of music with his research in psychology.

His post is aptly named How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice. Kageyama claims that the number of hours spent practicing means nothing unless that practice is deliberate.

Taking this into consideration with the famous “10,000 hour rule” proposed by Anders Ericsson (and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell), to achieve expert level in anything requires at least 10 years of deliberate practice. According to Kageyama,

Deliberate, or mindful practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, that is, for lack of a better word, more scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of hypothesis testing where we relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems.

And here is where I’ve been getting it all wrong. Actually, there are a two very specific things I’ve been doing wrong in my language studies that need to be addressed:

1) Expecting too much in too little time – Even after seven years of higher education, I am still unable to read my entire Bible in the original languages without a dictionary. Disappointing? For my standards, yes. But I haven’t hit 10 years yet. I haven’t spent enough time.

2) Just getting through it – Kageyama stresses repeatedly how our practice times must be deliberate, focused, intentional, and planned out. My daily reading of in the GNT, for example, has not been any of these. Usually, I sit down to read, say, Romans 1, going through it as fast as I can, stopping to parse a verb here or there, looking up words I don’t remember (easy to do on Logos), and then “Whew!”, time for a break and on to something else, like writing. But I’m hurting myself, at least in some respects. I’m practicing a method that will not yield results in the long run, will leave me stuck in a pattern of mediocrity, and will ultimately keep me from achieving my goal. I’ve been building habits that are counterproductive and inefficient.

As a musician, I resonate with Kageyama’s advice to spend time on the smallest details and, paradoxically, to slow down to eventually speed up:

Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of a skill instead of just playing through. For example, if you were a musician, you might work on just the opening note of a solo to make sure that it “speaks” exactly the way you want, instead of playing the entire opening phrase.

Greek like Violin

Four years ago, as I was about to leave California for Durham, John Barclay suggested that I read through the Pauline epistles in Greek before starting my studies with him. I had already read much of the GNT, but here was my supervisor telling me to begin reading Paul’s letters deliberately.

Since then, I’ve continued to read through Paul’s letters as a daily exercise (not the entire corpus, just chapters at a time!). I’ve been consciously reading Greek as if practicing violin.

Here are some tips I offer from my own experience for those of you wanting to gain a true mastery of Greek, or any other language (if studying more than one at a time, prioritize accordingly):

1) Set aside adequate time. In the summer between graduating seminary and coming to Durham, I set aside four hours a day to practice Greek. These hours were broken into four sessions of 45-50 minutes, with a short break in between each of about 5-10 minutes. Stick to the daily plan even if the scheduled chapters are not completed. Come back to the work later, if possible, to finish the sections you had scheduled for that day.

2) Log and review mistakes. Write down every unknown word while going through each chapter. Review the list after your reading is complete for that session, and once or twice more later in the day. Index cards are your best friend; at every impulse to check your mobile, reach instead for a card. You’ll know that you’ve mastered a chapter’s vocab when that particular index card gets so beat up it’s like your old baseball glove from 4th grade.  

3) Practice parsing. Verbs rule the day in Greek, so parse every verb you come across. Sure, that seems a bit intense. But it’s good for you. If you don’t drill yourself, who will? You must be your own drill instructor. Keep a yellow legal pad next to you and make it your parsing sheet. Check your work later when your brain is fried.

4) Do the drills. Do daily work on memorizing and/or reviewing principal parts, endings charts, and paradigms. Boring? Dull? Difficult? Yes, yes, yes. But necessary to achieve mastery. And if violin players have to spend hours each day running through scales, true mastery of Koine Greek is surely equally demanding.

5) Grammar, grammar, grammar. Set aside an hour or two each day for grammar review. You might want to reading through Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, or Porter’s Idioms of the Greek New Testament. Pick up BDF, and give Smyth a shot. Yes, you learned all these concepts before. But a violin player doesn’t learn the scales once and then move on to Mozart. She practices them incessantly, always seeking to play them cleaner and in perfect pitch each time. That takes work, hard work. Deliberate work.

So, the work stands before for you. And the first question you must ask yourself is this: how important are the biblical languages to you, and what are you willing to go through to achieve mastery?

But the second, and more important, question is this: how will this monumental effort serve others, in your vocation as a Christian scholar, pastor, church member, or language enthusiast?

However you might answer those questions, Kageyama offers the way forward:

Life is short. Time is our most valuable commodity. If you’re going to practice, you might as well do it right.

The amount of Greek language resources on Logos 7 are simply astounding. You can learn Biblical Greek, consult a huge collection of Greek grammars, and do advanced study of Greek grammatical constructions.

Visit the Logos Pro Team site for even more Greek and Hebrew training videos:

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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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