Practice Greek like a Violin Player

I daily contemplate how I can improve my reading ability in Greek and Hebrew (as well as German and French). Now, I consider myself a very disciplined person, setting goals both short and long term, sticking diligently to my reading plans, getting up early or staying up late to finish my intended number of pages or chapters, etc.

Still, I know that I am not as good at these languages as I should be. Applaud me for even attempting to study them if you’d like, but you see, I’m not the kind of person that ever does something half-mast. Ask my wife to describe me and she’ll use one word: “intense.” (I prefer “motivated.”)

My self-assessed shortcomings in the languages are scary, because I’m about to begin a PhD in New Testament studies at Durham University, considered by many to be one of the best theology departments in the world.

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I knew that violin players have to practice many hours a day, but what Kageyama emphases throughout is that the number of hours spent practicing means nothing unless it is deliberate practice. The famous “10,000 hour rule” researched by Dr. Ericsson indicates that, 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 few things I’ve been doing wrong in my language studies that need to be addressed:

1) Expecting too much in too little time – I’ve only just completed seminary, and I want to read my enter Bible in the original languages, i.e. Greek and Hebrew. Ok. But that amounts to only three years of Greek, and two years of Hebrew. Not quite 10 years yet.

2) Just getting through it – Kageyama stresses repeatedly how our practice times must be deliberate, focused, intentional, and planned out. My daily reading of the Greek, 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 on either Logos or BibleWorks, and then “Whew!” time for a break and on to something else. But I’m hurting myself. I’m practicing a method that will not yield results in the long run, will leave me stuck in a pattern of mediocrity, and ultimately keep me from achieving my goal.

Being a musician, I resonated with her advice to spend time on the littlest details and take my time:

“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.”

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Her advice is timely, as I have just completed a read-through of Paul’s letter in the NT, and began Romans again this morning. It’s part of my preparation for Durham, suggested by John Barclay, to read through the Pauline epistles at least once before crossing the pond. I have 2 months until my program at Durham begins, but I want to make the most of that time to get my Greek really good.

Here are some ideas I have to help to this end:

1) Set aside adequate time. I’m thinking four hours a day to practice Greek. Set session time limits of 45-60 minutes. Stick to it even if the chapter(s) is not complete. Come back to it later to finish the planned work for the day.

2) Log and review mistakes. Write down every unknown word while going through each chapter. Review the list after reading is complete for that session, and once or twice more later in the day.

3) Practice parsing. Verbs rule the day in Greek, so I will parse every verb I come across. Now, that seems a bit intense. Yes, but it’ll be good for me. If I don’t drill myself, who will? My 4-year old son? Gotta be my own drill instructor. Keep parsing sheet next to me throughout to double check work, and don’t move on until I understand why I got something wrong.

4) Do the drills. Daily work on memorizing the principal parts, endings charts, and paradigms. Boring? Dull? Difficult? Yes, yes, yes. But necessary, and if violin players have to spend hours each day running through scales, I have no excuse.

5) Grammar, grammar, grammar. Set aside an hour or two each day for grammar review. This includes reading through Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, and also Porter’s Idioms of New Testament Greek. I’ve 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 my work is before me, and if you have at all been inspired by Kageyama’s post, then your work is before for you, too. The one question you must ask yourself is this: how important is it to you (whatever it is)?

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

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12 comments

  1. Yep, I just started trying to get fresh with Greek again a couple days ago. I’m gonna try your #5 in particular—even though it seems initially quite boring to rehearse on things once learned and now grayed.

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  2. thanks bro, just thinking through these issues recently,
    <

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  3. […] last post about “Practicing Greek Like a Violin Player” included a lot of commitment-type statements about some radical changes I was going to […]

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  4. […] log” of the first day of my Greek study regime, introduced in two previous posts here and here. Time is given in 24-hour format because that’s more hardcore […]

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  5. Reblogged this on Dunelm Road and commented:
    Tavis is part of the newer Durham (i.e., Dunelm) crowd, and he has a great post about learning languages and the discipline and time it requires.

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  6. Really enjoyed this, some helpful thoughts. At Durham myself, just about to go into the third year of my undergrad (BA) degree. I definitely fall into both the things you say you feel you’ve been doing wrong, good to be encouraged to think about them.

    One of my current issues is balancing doing multiple languages, next year I’ll be doing modules in Greek (which will be my 3rd year of Greek study), Hebrew (2nd year doing so) and Aramaic (1st year doing so). Trying to get a good grasp of all three, to the extent that translation doesn’t feel like trudging through mud is hard. Feel encouraged by your ideas about how to do language study better though, need to think through how I can incorporate them into my life.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Look forward to following your adventure. May see you around at Abbey House!

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  7. […] the breakdown for Day 1 of Week 3 of Greek like Violin (if you are new to the practice logs, read this Introduction […]

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  8. […] lieu of the infamous masochistic nerd Tavis Bohlinger’s recent task entitled “Greek like violin,” I have responded with my own flavor – Greek like Knitting. I have found my heart to love […]

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  9. […] ago I began a series on Greek like Violin. My purpose was to bring to you, the reader, a methodology and motivation for serious language […]

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  10. Your article is really good to read. Excellent!!
    Thanks for sharing, I will post it on my LinkedIn to share to my friends?

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    1. Thanks, Terry! Yes, please do post it to your friends on LinkedIn. I hope that it helps them as well!

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