Monday, 12 August 2013

Review: Learn New Testament Greek by J.H. Dobson, 2nd edition + Some Advice on Learning Vocabulary

It will have been around 2005 that I saw this book in the Exeter branch of SPCK and thought it
seemed worth a shot. In 2013, an engagement, change of country, marriage fluency in Italian and child later, I've finally finished the last of its 52 chapters. This is not the envisaged duration ("If you do 2 lessons a day 6 days a week, you will complete the course in 1 month"), but I did get rather distracted... Anyway, this is a little piece of history so far as I'm concerned, and given the very - 'hem - interesting experience I've had using this book and the very polarised reviews of it that I found online, I decided I wanted to do my own.

The premise

"The Learn New Testament Greek course [...] takes full account of modern research into the way people learn."
  • concentrates on vocabulary and forms common in the NT
  • enables you to begin reading the NT itself after just a few lessons
"By the end of the course you will be able to read much of the New Testament without constant reference to a dictionary."
"You will not be asked to memorize long lists of words, or grammatical forms."
"[You will be equipped] to tackle even unfamiliar passages of the New Testament with confidence."

Sounds rather good doesn't it?

My experience

Well, from what I recall of my first attempt (I think I had perhaps 5 goes in all), the best part was the beginning. A whole new alphabet is introduced relatively painlessly. A tape which accompanies the first few lessons really helps the pronunciation stick on your mind - in itself, a great aid to memory.

A simple, but very effective technique employed is that of continuous translation exercises. A column of Greek on the left with a column of English translation on the right. You cover the English, and have a go at translating it. I read that this Dobson chap's approach (according to the aforesaid "modern research") is the inductive method, where the idea basically seems to be to stretch students from the off by not giving them quite all the information they need and forcing them to do intelligent guesswork, so that they make grammatical connections themselves. However, the intro assures you that you shouldn't worry if you don't get something, you just note it, revise earlier lessons and do the lesson again.

Lesson two walks you through John 1:1. You know it's not a lot of material, but it is already the Bible, and just knowing that you can read one verse of actual scripture means a lot.

Most chapters contain a short vocabulary, which you need for the exercises but you've been told that you won't be asked to memorize long lists of words, but that information "is frequently repeated, which makes it easy to remember". On the other hand, the intro instructs you to write new words on flashcards (I think it means), carry them with you "for a few days" and review them in "spare moments".

I found the material interesting, and I found working through the exercises rewarding. When you get to chapter 17 and you're told to have a pop at 1 John 1:5-7, that's quite satisfying. I think the longest passage, near the end was two whole chapters of something.

A rather strange characteristic of the book is that it avoids grammatical terms insofar as possible, but mostly at the beginning. At a certain point there's a big switch and you find yourself adrift in a sea of second person singular aorist indicative passives, wondering if perhaps it wouldn't have been better to do all this terminology stuff one step at a time...


At a certain point, I began to lose confidence in the adequacy of the system of repetition. I began to find the number of words I was forgetting frustrating. The intro suggested underlining or highlighting things I found difficult but... how would that actually help? Perhaps it would help me if I repeated the lesson, but I wasn't sure. I repeated some lessons, like the book said, but it didn't seem to help much, and it seemed silly to carry on repeating it when the method "takes full account of modern research into the way people learn", so I decided I would press on.

Still later, I decided I would do best to ignore the book's implicit advice and use a proper system (spaced repetition using software) to memorize the material properly. That helped a great deal, but it takes some effort to formulate the information, and by the time I realized that I needed to do it, I had a frustrating backlog of half-memorized vocabulary to work through and type up. I felt a bit cheated. But since I had been specifically told that I wasn't meant to try and memorize long lists of grammatical forms, I stuck to the short vocabularies: besides, the effort of arranging the other material into a usable format seemed rather prohibitive, so I left the nearly 24 forms of ὁς to one side and hoped for the best.

What I also started to realize was that Dobson was only showing me certain forms of things. The vocabularies and explanations implied the existence of other forms which we were not covering. Now, I can deal with that: obviously Dobson is concentrating on forms which help me understand to other forms, and the idea is that I fill in the gaps by making intelligent connections myself. However, the uncertainty is oppressive. One reviewer described the book as being like a long joke with no punch line. I'd say that was rather harsh but I do know precisely where he's coming from. Even after having finished the book, I know that there are plenty of gaps in my knowledge, but so successfully is the mechanism hidden that I don't even know what to look for.

The realisation that I wasn't retaining the vocab like I needed to made me temporaily abandon the book two times, I think. It was a big deal for me.

SRS Geekery (but it's useful, honest)

One particular bugbear of mine was the formal presentation of prepositions. Plenty had already been introduced gradually through the vocabularies, but quite near the end, there's an attempt to put it all together. As far as I'm concerned, it's pretty cack-handed. Instead of trying to adapt the material in the book for learning, I found it easier to use another book entirely. To explain why, have a look at this (There's a summary at the bottom: see 1-4, 9, 11):

Twenty rules of formulating knowledge

It's an article I only found recently, but I wish I'd found it sooner because I think it would have saved me a lot of grief. In hindsight, I find it makes an awful lot of sense, and if you plan on using spaced repetition software, I'd say that you should definitely read it. I'd say that the section on prepositions is the most extreme example of how the presentation of information inhibits learning in the book generally, and that it breaks all of the "rules" I pointed out above.

Take επι: Wenham's Elements of New Testament Greek tells me that the basic meaning for all cases (accusative, genitive, dative) is "in". That's pretty basic, and it leaves a lot to account for, but at least I know where I stand. (3)

In chapter 37, Dobson gives me 6 synonyms for the accusative case. An explanatory section follows which uses different terms in a different order.
In chapter 39, 5 for the genitive. The explanation gives different terms in a different order.
In chapter 42, 7 for the dative. The explanation gives different terms in a different order. At this juncture, the text helpfully points out that επι has "an extremely wide range of meanings". Well, duh. At least I can try and memorize the different cases separately, but those 7 synonyms for the dative? That's hellish. (9 - "It is nearly impossible to memorize sets containing more than five members..."!)

In every chapter, the initial list contains synonyms which are impossible to understand without context, since prepositions are used in myriads of ways in English too. (1-2) The repeated, spaced out listings of επι with different translations can only add to a general sense of confusion. (11)

General complaints

Index: either I'm mental, or a number of the page references are just wrong. Given that the material is splurged rather unpredictably throughout the book, that's pretty annoying.

Reference section: I've finished the course. It contained 3 noun paradigms, which it said I didn't need to actively learn. I now realise that it would have been a hell of a lot easier if I had. To add insult to injury, the reference "summary of types of noun" lists twenty of the buggers, with no explanation of why these twenty were selected. Are they regular, irregular, common, rare? What the hell am I meant to make of it? Same with the adjectives. The reference section contains new vocabulary. That's hardly a reference then, is it?! Is it worth learning?

This Dobson is an M.A. (Oxon) and B.D. (London), but he had me scratching my head in the wrong way at quite a few points. To take one example: "We should not translate βαπτισμα μετανοιας as 'a baptism of repentance' (AV, RSV, NJB, NIV) since baptism is not something that can be baptized." But... what kind of cretin would think that was the meaning of "baptism of repentance"?

In summary

It's rather difficult to work out how I feel about this book. On the whole I like it, and found it engaging, but I've found it to be beset with flaws which seem so pointless, which seem to render the whole course so needlessly arduous. Reading that back, I seem to have drawn up a paradox. The thing is, I would definitely recommend this book, but through gritted teeth, exhorting you warmly to read the article I linked to and save yourself frustration by not relying on Dobson's approach, but on another way of memorizing information. I like spaced repetition (see my post on Mnemosyne below), but it doesn't seem to be everybody's cup of tea.

I think the book is a great way into New Testament Greek, but unfortunately its claims seem to me to be rather exaggerated. Confidently read much of the New Testament without constant reference to a dictionary? Still a way off I think. I plan to fill in the gaps with Elements of New Testament Greek. It looks less friendly, but it has the benefit of laying it's cards on the table: learn this stuff, even if it seems overwhelming, and you will have a sound foundation for reading the New Testament.
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