Notes on Terms and Language Teaching

Notes on Terms and Language Teaching

Dave Black comments some on linguistics and teaching biblical languages in a post today. (Check out the linguistics conference coming up!)

The difficulty is the difference between teaching someone a language in a classroom and in discussing and describing that language in some detail as a linguist would want to do. Both the framework and the deeper understanding are good and proper goals, though there is often a conflict between the two. When do you teach what?

Dave covers a good selection of points from the debate over verbal aspect. There are problems with words like “punctiliar” or even “progressive” in terms of verbs. There are also problems in mapping the tense system (and the word “tense” itself) when teaching. But these issues are part of the problem of linguistics generally.

Consider a label like “tree.” What do I mean by the word tree? Is the plant growing in my yard that is three feet tall a tree, a weed, a plant, or perhaps a bush? It might, under the right circumstances be called any one of those things. A simple, singular label is necessary to communication, but at the same time, a singular, simple label is also a cause of problems. For example, if I say to my wife, “We need to throw that tree out,” I may mean that a potted plant has grown very large, and I’m using tree hyperbolically to refer to it while demanding its exit forthwith. On the other hand, I could be referring to a shoe tree that’s worn out and should be discarded.

This is why the line, “it’s just semantics” is so often lazy. When someone is playing rule book lawyer with the language, it’s quite appropriate to point out that one is expecting more of language than one is likely to get from it. We get along with ambiguity all the time. The problem comes in when we decide to be picky, or when we accidentally manage to use just the wrong word at the wrong time, meaning one that is almost right, but that can lead one off into a completely different semantic range than intended. But semantics is precisely what “it” is, and what it always is. It is about meaning. What did you expect? So it’s semantics. The word “just” is a bit oddly used. Bad semantics!

What I try to do is very quickly introduce students to the idea that labels are shorthand. When I use the term “punctiliar,” I point out that this is a shorthand label. Why don’t I change the word then? Because my new shorthand label will also pick up unnecessary connotations, and then I’ll have to explain how it applies. Further, the student is doubtless going to see the word “punctiliar” in commentaries (as Dave points out), and he or she needs to know its intention, and even how to understand the potential fallacy. Commentaries are quite capable of containing incorrect linguistic information.

It’s easier for me, because I teach by ones and twos, not by large classes of seminarians forced to do their required courses. I had that experience as a graduate student when I tried to tutor marginal or failing Greek students. They wanted me to get them past the test. I wanted to help them understand. Conflict! But those students I have taught since have come to me because they want to learn and understand, so I take the time.

My conclusion is that no matter how you label it, you’re going to have to make sure students understand how these labels we call “words” work. Even if you take a living language approach, and try to get the students to understand the language as naturally as possible, you’re still going to have to help them understand linguistics if they’re going to translate those words and ideas into their own language for the benefit of those who haven’t learned a foreign language. I’d almost, almost, prefer to teach a student linguistics over teaching that student Greek or Hebrew. If I had to choose, that is. Which I don’t.

(Featured Image Credit: Adobe Stock #126360408. Not Public Domain)

2 thoughts on “Notes on Terms and Language Teaching

  1. Well stated. It’s important for me, as I study alone (without the advantage of Biblical languages), to know limits and linguistics and, well, semantics. I learned English in the 40s and studied in Canada under the then British system. There was nothing new beyond 8th grade about grammar. As I studied French at age ten and Latin for five years, I learned new things about gender, declension, verb tenses and endings, etc. For my Master’s in English I had to be responsible for everything written from Old English through Middle English – all the literature, poetry, novels, Shakespeare’s plays/sonnets, etc. Most I considered a waste and studied “to pass the test”! However, I became an expert proofreader, keyboardist, and editor (of English). Even now I find eyes-on proofreading to catch mistakes computer spell-check software miss. Thanks for your “tree” metaphor – enlightening.

    1. Thanks for your note. Learning something about linguistics is extremely valuable. I’ve found that it’s always easier to teach someone their third language than their second. The first tends to loosen up the mental soil!

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