6 reasons for a mobile phone correspondence course in Papua New Guinea

photo by Kahunapule Johnson

The context here is the mountains, swamps, and jungles of Papua New Guinea. And the course of study is Biblical Greek Grammar. But the reasons we need to develop a mobile phone correspondence course for follow-up after an initial course may fit your context as well.

Here are 6 reasons we need to develop this course…

  1. “I know enough Greek to be dangerous.” We are currently compounding this unfortunate situation. Every two years, we run an Intro to New Testament Greek course for PNG Bible translators followed by an Intro to NT Greek Exegesis course. However, for the past four years, the exegesis course has not run for one reason or another. We often don’t have enough students registered to run the course, and those who are interested are not prepared enough after the first course to enter the second. But if we don’t run the exegesis course, we might as well not start them off. It’s too dangerous to know just a little Greek! Many a false claim have have been made by those who know just enough Greek to think they know what they’re talking about.
  2. 6 weeks is not enough to cover a one-year introductory course. The follow-up exegesis course is intended to have the first year grammar course as a prerequisite, but the 6-week intensive course has been progressing at a slower and slower pace over the years in order to help the participants be more successful. We think this is good. It’s better that they learn well what we cover rather than to try to keep up with an insane pace and get through the whole textbook with little understanding. A follow-up correspondence course could help the students finish the first year grammar.
  3. “Train and dump” is culturally inappropriate. Papua New Guinean leaders in the Bible translation movement are explicitly asking for something that goes beyond our traditional training system. Learning within the Melanesian context means that it best happens when connected to real life practical experience and application. Classroom learning when divorced from application of that new knowledge and skills in practical experience will not be truly understood or utilized. A correspondence course could help bridge the gap between classroom instruction and application in the real world of village life and the work of translation.
  4. Relationships are key. Papua New Guinean learners don’t simply want their heads filled with knowledge. They desire for mentor relationships with those who care about them as real people. Being real people means that they are connected to many other people with a history and a story to tell. This goes beyond the particular academic subject that may have brought student and mentor together in the classroom. Thus, regular communication in a follow-up correspondence course would not be limited to passing the questions and answers back and forth. It would also be an opportunity for relationship, storying, and encouragement.
  5. We need to evaluate our training effectiveness, but we often do not have contact with course participants after the final day of class. If we run a follow-up correspondence course, we not only increase our chances of maintaining contact with the participants in order to determine the long-term effectiveness of the training, the continuing involvement in the subject matter will substantially boost the likelihood that our training will be proven effective.
  6. Mobile phones are used in remote PNG villages. Communication is generally quite poor in the country, but mobile phone service is quite good and on the rise even in many remote areas of the country. Correspondence by post, email or internet are not viable options for many people in Papua New Guinea. Many candidates for this course may live most of the year many hours or even days from a post office, much less an internet connection. However, in the past four or five years, mobile phone service has been heavily marketed to the needs and situation of the 80% rural population in the country.  The digital network service is constantly expanding, and it is not unusual to find charging and balance top-up stations located off the beaten path even in remote villages.

Not everyone has access to mobile phone reception in PNG, and in such cases, HF radio scheds or communication via an intermediary at a regional center may be more appropriate. Others, on the other hand, may have access to email and internet.

Therefore, I am hypothesizing that a follow-up correspondence course could be designed with the limitations of mobile phone text messages and radio scheds in mind. This would not preclude others, however, from opting for the convenience and added benefits of email, the Internet, and social media if they have the capability.

Has anyone done anything like this? Any thoughts?

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Refresher Greek Course

I have completed teaching the first week of a 2-week refresher Greek course. I am team-teaching this intensive review of basic Koine Greek morphology and grammar with one other person. We meet from 8am until noon every day, and the mid-course evaluations were overall very positive. We have 12 participants—all Bible translators, translation trainers, and translation consultants—who have not had formal Greek training for anywhere from 7 years ago to 34 years ago. Although we entered this course with a bit of fear and trepidation, knowing that the participants must have a broad range of experience and ability in Greek, we soon learned that everyone felt rusty and were looking forward to whatever they could get out of the course.
We have mostly been using Bill Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, and we have been following his “Track 2” for the most part in order to get into verbs sooner. Here is what we covered in the first week…

  • Day 1: Introductions, syllabus, Greek alphabet, 1st & 2nd declension nouns, articles, nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative case
  • Day 2: Prepositions, present indicative forms of εἰμί, adjectives, 1st & 2nd person personal pronouns, introduction to verbs, present active indicative
  • Day 3: Contract verbs, present middle/passive indicative, imperfect indicative
  • Day 4 (only met from 10:30 until noon): 3rd declension nouns
  • Day 5: forms and uses of αὐτός, demonstratives, relative pronouns, first aorist active, introduction to participles, present participles

We had laid out a tentative schedule that would allow us to get through Mounces entire introductory grammar in 2 weeks, but we affirmed that we would slow down if the pace was too quick. At the end of the first week, we are actually 3 chapters ahead of schedule. This may allow us to get into a few more discourse topics and the use of computer tools during this second and last week of the course.

Luther and Hafemann on Studying Greek

When I first found out that I would be teaching the introductory New Testament Greek course to national Bible translators and pastors in Papua New Guinea this month, I had to write my former Greek teacher, Scott Hafemann, right away. He was the first one who ever thought I would be doing this. Back when I was taking his classes for the Wheaton College Graduate School in 1998-99, I knew I was studying Greek so I could be a better qualified advisor to national Bible translators. But he was confident that I would be training mother tongue translators to use the Greek text for themselves.

So when I wrote to Scott with the news, he immediately made available to me the CD for his soon-to-be-released online course for distance learning through the Semlink Office at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In the first lesson on the CD, Hafemann reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther that he had recited for us in class in 1999. Luther talks about how important the study of Greek is…

Insofar as we love the gospel, to that same extent, let us study the ancient tongues. And let us notice that without the knowledge of languages we can scarcely preserve the gospel. Languages are the sheath which hides the sword of the Spirit, they are the chest in which this jewel is enclosed, the goblet holding this draught. Where the languages are studied, the proclamation will be fresh and powerful, the scriptures will be searched, and the faith will be constantly rediscovered through ever new words and deeds.

I explained Luther’s images of the sheath, the chest, and the goblet so that my English-as-a-second-language students could fully grasp the word pictures. Papua New Guineans frequently use ‘tok piksa’ in their daily conversations. Judging from the nods and groans that accompanied the teaching, I believe Luther’s message spoke powerfully to the students. One student even came and asked for the quote after class. He got the following quote from Hafemann as a bonus.

Echoing Luther in his online course, Hafemann states:

Our study of the Greek language is not an end in itself, but we study Greek for the sake of knowing scripture, and we know scripture for the sake of understanding God’s self-revelation to us, and we want to understand God’s self-revelation to us that we might live in relationship with him. So Greek for the sake of scripture, scripture for the sake of knowing the Lord, and knowing the Lord for the sake of living in relationship with him. Greek and the gospel: inextricably linked…

It’s a spiritual discipline. Learning Greek is not simply an academic exercise. It’s a calling and it’s a privilege. It is a spiritual exercise like any other spiritual exercise, whether it’s prayer, fasting, worship. I would like you to think about Greek as loving the Lord with your mind in the same way that you engage in loving the Lord with your heart and your soul and your strength in all the other pursuits of your life.

That is what I am asking my Greek students to do here in PNG. Throughout the 6 hours that we have together each day, we intersperse the lectures and group activities with prayer, singing, Christian greetings, and lessons from God’s word that illustrate the Greek material. They are used to hearing explanations of God’s word through two or three subsequent translations, and they said “maybe something has gone missing.” So they are motivated to learn Greek so they can really hear God’s message to them and live in relationship with him.

Learning Greek is a Spiritual Discipline

My passion for Greek was ignited in 1998 when I started graduate school at Wheaton College and took classes from Dr. Scott Hafemann. His teaching was a model for academic rigor that is not divorced from a life of faith lived in service for others. His challenge was that the study of Greek not simply be an academic exercise, but a spiritual discipline in which we love God with our minds (cf. Mark 12.30). This was a challenge I needed to hear.

So, this is how I seek to teach my intensive introductory New Testament Greek course to Papua New Guineans this month. One of the things we are doing as we learn Greek is to learn Greek scripture songs.

We started with the alphabet. In Revelation 1.8 we read that “Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the one who was, and is, and is to come, the ruler over all things.” So Jesus used the Greek alphabet to explain his sovereignty. He is ruler of all. And that means he is ruler over this Greek course. An intensive NT Greek course that meets for 6 hours a day for 6 weeks is difficult! But Jesus is ruler of this course as well.

So the first song we learned goes like this:

Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon,
Zeta, eta, theta, iota,
Kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron,
Pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon,
Phi, chi, psi, omega,
Ἰησοῦς ἐστίν τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ Ὦ
(Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega)

It sure is pretty powerful to hear a room full of Papua New Guineans belting this out full voice on the first day of class. Although it seems a little bit like 1st grade with the alphabet in big letters up on the wall across the length of the room, it’s not just an academic exercise. Even the foundational lesson on the alphabet is a spiritual discipline of singing praise to Jesus as Lord.

Teaching New Testament Greek – Guiding Principles

Tomorrow I start teaching New Testament Greek to 19 national translators and pastors in Papua New Guinea. Here are the guiding principles that I included in the syllabus:

  1. The study of New Testament Greek is a spiritual discipline. We learn Greek in order to know and understand the New Testament scriptures better. We study the scriptures in order to know God more. Therefore, the study of Greek is one way that we love God with our mind.
  2. The study of New Testament Greek is a tool for ministry. We learn Greek not simply for our own good, but to love and serve others. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Koine means ‘common’ – it was the language of the common people. We learn Koine Greek not to raise ourselves up above others, but to become better equipped to communicate God’s message to all people.
  3. The study of New Testament Greek is foundational for independent exegesis of New Testament texts. We learn Greek not to strengthen our own biased interpretations of the text, but to better understand the range of possible and probable meanings that can be derived from the language used. Therefore, the study of the Greek language goes hand in hand with understanding general principles of interpretation.
  4. The study of New Testament Greek is inseparable from our knowledge of other languages. Knowledge of other languages aids the student in learning Greek by recognizing the similarities and differences between languages. Such cross-linguistic comparison also aids the student in communicating the meaning of Greek texts into other languages, whether that communication occurs in oral or written explanation or in translation.
  5. The study of New Testament Greek is necessary for understanding secondary literature about the New Testament. In order to follow the discussion in commentaries, theologies, and translation helps, one must be familiar with the patterns of Greek language and standard grammatical terminology. Even if a student is not able to master the Greek language, familiarity with the standard terminology will be helpful in using exegetical resources and translation helps.
  6. The study of New Testament Greek is a valuable discipline to pursue in a pattern of continued lifelong learning. In a 6 week course, one can only be introduced to the Greek language. However, skills and resources that will help the student to continue making progress in the study of Greek will be introduced. Self-discipline is key to the ongoing learning process.