03 - Applying Pedagogical Models from Modern Arabic to Ancient Greek

Pedagogical methods from modern Arabic curricula offer promising models for introducing undergraduates to complex aspects of ancient Greek, whose enrollments routinely trail those of Latin - and Arabic (Looney and Lusin 2019). The additional complexity - a new alphabet, more principal parts, definite articles, aorists, optatives, middles, duals, and the ever-dreaded accents - intimidates new students. Attrition rates in introductory Greek can be steep and the inclination is often to delay presenting complex material until students have attained higher levels.

The Department of State's Foreign Service Institute categorizes languages based on similarity to English and time needed to achieve proficiency. Greek is in Category III (44 weeks' full-time study), but Arabic is Category IV (88 weeks). Despite this, significantly more postsecondary students in America study Arabic than Greek. Yet Arabic curricula do not shy away from introducing students to complexity early on. This paper focuses on three kinds of complexity - variations in alphabet, script, and register or dialect - and how these can increase student engagement.

Initially, we teach students to read a homogenized Greek alphabet, glossing over the varied epichoric alphabets that emerged in the Archaic Period. Modern Arabic provides parallels: variant renderings of standard letters; and additional letters used regionally to represent sounds particular to local dialects or to render loanwords more faithfully.

Greek curricula are aimed at getting students to read typeset copies of literary texts. Teaching students to read actual writing from antiquity or the middle ages is generally the purview of specialized graduate seminars in epigraphy, palaeography, papyrology or numismatics. From the outset, Arabic textbooks present a wide variety of typefaces, alongside handwritten and calligraphic examples to familiarize students with the many different appearances the language can take on. Even before students understand what they read, they gain proficiency in identifying letterforms in myriad manifestations.

Greek courses generally teach Homeric, Attic, or Koine Greek, depending on the texts targeted. Yet advancing students will encounter texts in various dialects, often with little understanding of their differences, save for tidbits in glosses and commentaries. Arabic instruction presents the diglossia of the modern language early on, teaching students the formal register of Modern Standard Arabic together with one of the colloquial Levantine, Egyptian, Maghrebi, or Gulf dialects. Grammatical paradigms and vocabulary lists highlight distinctions in the dialects and students learn that the language changes based on context and audience.

Arabic curricula offer models for presenting the multifariousness of ancient Greek. We need not restrict students to the literary language of Homer, Classical Athens, or the New Testament. Rather, by introducing them to epichoric alphabets, different scripts, and assorted dialects, students will appreciate the dynamics and development of the Greek language. This approach allows courses to cater to a wider variety of student interests in reading ancient Greek texts for literary, archaeological, and historical purposes, thereby providing opportunities for students to transcribe and read authentic texts from antiquity at a much earlier stage of their studies than is common at present. Heightened interest and greater engagement lower attrition.


Simeon Ehrlich, Hebrew University of Jerusalem