Teaching Greek as a Living Language

The following is a guest post by Paul Nitz, who teaches at the Lutheran Bible Institute, Lilongwe, Malawi.


From Seminary to Africa

I took the requisite four years of New Testament Greek at a ministerial college. After some more Greek at seminary, I was still not a confident user of the language, but I was ready to dutifully sit down and perform the necessary textual studies for sermon prep. I had a box full of lexicons and grammars, my first PC loaded with Logos (on floppy disks!), and a seminary diploma. All I needed was a place to preach. But God threw me a curveball.

I was sent off to be a missionary in Africa. For ten years, I did little sermon writing and my skill with the biblical languages lagged. Then I was asked to teach at our ministerial school in Malawi, and—you guessed it—one of the classes I was asked to teach was Biblical Greek 101.

I was able to brush up quickly on my Greek knowledge, but I was entirely dissatisfied with the pedagogical approach I had inherited. It hadn’t worked very well with me, and now I could see that it was working with only a small percentage of my students.

The Grammar-Translation Method

Although I didn’t know it by name at the time, I was using the “Grammar Translation Method,” popularized in the 1800’s and, by now, nearly universal in biblical Greek instruction. It’s the method most readers are familiar with: grammatical terms and explanations, a few example Greek sentences, and numerous tables and principal parts to memorize.

A Communicative Approach

So I spent a few years casting about for a better textbook to use. What I found in the end was better: a different approach, namely, the Communicative Method, which treats Koine Greek as a living language.

Communicative methods are those used by modern second-language learning. These are not the Audio-Lingual methods typified by Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and Berlitz. These are newer strategies based on the theory that we best learn language by using it to negotiate meaning. The approach has produced something of an alphabet soup of methods—TPR, TPRS, WAYK, TBLT and more.

Standard for any communicative method is that comprehensible bits of language are presented to the learner. A sense of genuine communication takes place as learners are offered comprehensible utterances or text, and as they produce coherent speech or writing in response. Learners move, react, and respond just as they would if they were in a Communicative Approach class learning French, Chinese, or any other living language. Explicit grammar might be taught, but only after learners have used language structures implicitly in communication.

Sounds great. But in order to employ this approach in the classroom, I needed to be a fluent speaker of Koine Greek. The learning curve was steep.

I had to know how to say things like “Come here. Sit on that chair… Write your name with the pen… If I give you money, will you give me a ball?”

I needed to get the accent right. When you want to say “come here,” do you say ἔλθε or ἐλθέ?

And what about aspect? Is the default way to say “come!” Aorist Aspect or Present Aspect, ἐλθέ or ἔρχου?

On top of that, how could I know the difference between proper Koine and proper classical usage?

Logos Bible Software

Logos was a constant help in this work. I set up a layout with a search window displaying all of my Koine resources: the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint, the Church Fathers, and Josephus. A search for ἐλθέ or ἔρχου showed me that the aorist imperative would be my default form.

I also often turned to the excellent Lexham Analytical Lexicon which lists all forms used in the GNT. A quick look at the forms there tells me that the Active Voice παύω is rare (outside of the imperative) in the GNT, but Middle/Passive παύομαι is common.

I linked up several lexicons, and a search for the English word “ball” quickly got me what I wanted: “σφαῖρα, ας, ἡ, a ball, playing-ball.”

With hard work and some help from Logos, I made it through my first year teaching communicatively. If this approach interests you, I also suggest consulting Kalos Beautiful Greek Software (a conjugation generator) and Randall Buth’s book Morphologia (Koine paradigms).


Is the Communicative Approach helping my students get Greek “better” than they would otherwise ? To be honest, I’m still in the early days and I just don’t know yet. But I have made some early observations that are encouraging:

  • The students seem to enjoy Greek class more, which can only help the learning process
  • They are visibly enthusiastic about learning and confident about progressing in their learning..
  • They are continually forced to make choices in communication, such as differentiating between the use of the imperfect and the aorist, or the active and the middle. That sensitization will have direct payoff in their reading of Greek texts, whether the NT, LXX, Josephus or otherwise.
  • I can point with more certainty to the effect a communicative approach has had on me personally. My comprehension of Koine Greek has blossomed.


Many readers will not be Greek teachers, but lifelong autodidacts. One fine way to add a communicative element to your study is to learn a text well enough to do a public reading. Do everything you would do for a good reading from a church lectern. Consider posting a video of your performance online.

Keep on doing this and you too will be engaging in a communicative approach, letting the Greek seep into the language-processing parts of your brain.

Interesting in seeing the communicative method in action? You can check out videos of Paul teaching classes in Malawi on his YouTube channel.

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