I have been asked by a number of people about the best way to prepare for taking a beginning Biblical Greek class. I would like to address two areas in answering this question: your attitude and some practical steps of preparation before your class starts.
Attitude and Commitment
A large part of your success in learning Greek will have to do with your attitude and commitment. Having a long-term commitment to learn a little bit each day will be more profitable than trying to start out at a sprint and eventually having to drop out of the race. I have heard it said that, “Learning Greek is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” This is true, but I feel it may be more accurate to say that, “Learning Greek is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent repetition and reiteration.” The repetition of a few vocabulary words and verb charts each day will be much more profitable than trying to cram for a quiz each week or so. In other words, the long-term commitment to learn a little bit every day is what is critical. Greek will prove to be much less difficult of a language if you are persistent!
Please also realize that learning is a continuum. Even after studying Greek for 10 years, people may refer to you as “knowing Greek”, but your realization will probably be, “I know it better than I did a few years ago, but I am still in the process of learning.” The same will be true after one year or even six months of elementary Greek. Be encouraged with how much you do learn; don’t be discouraged by how much you have yet to learn!
Technical Terminology (Grammar)
There are some practical things you can learn now which will help prepare you for what you will encounter in your first year of Greek. One area that challenges many people during a beginning language course is what I will refer to as “technical terminology”. Every field of specialty has its own particular set of vocabulary to refer to its elements. This terminology helps to save time in talking about aspects of the subject and enables one to have the ability to more accurately define and communicate technical details. For instance, in the medical field, I would have more confidence in a surgeon that asks a nurse for a scalpel, than in one that asks for “that sharp thing-a-ma-jiggy over there”. Technical vocabulary plays an important role in any field of specialty. The same is true with learning a language. The technical vocabulary of learning Greek is “grammatical terminology.” (And you thought that your Jr. High English grammar would never come back to haunt you!) Understanding the meaning of English grammatical terms (such as “noun”, “pronoun”, “verb”, “infinitive”, and “participle”) will greatly enhance your ability to comprehend the same (or corresponding) ideas in Greek. Whether or not you know the meaning of these terms now, you certainly will need to know them by the time you finish your first year of Greek. I hope that the “perfect passive participle” will become your good friend! I have often said that I learned English grammar when I studied Latin and Greek.
There are a number of ways that you can go about learning these terms and thus have a head start on your beginning Greek class. I have found a small book entitled, “Essential English Grammar” (by Philip Gucker, ISBN 0-486-21649-7). It’s a book that is directed toward the adult learner. The beauty of this book is its short and concise definitions, its “Dictionary of Grammatical Terms”, the exercises (and corresponding answers) found at the back of each chapter, and its inexpensive price. (Last I checked, retail was about $5.) If you learn and understand Part 1 of this small book (through page 85), you will have a good basic understanding of English grammar and be well prepared for the grammar you will need to master in your beginning Greek class.
Another way to help learn Greek (and English) grammatical terms is by using the “New Testament Greek” web site (http://www.ntgreek.org/). There you will find a page that lists all grammatical terms used on the site. It attempts to explain these grammatical terms in simple English and to give Biblical examples, applied to Greek where appropriate. [From the main web page, go to "Learn Greek" and then see the link for "List of All Terms."] (As an alternative to this, see the section entitled “A Further Head Start for You Ambitious Ones” below.)
The Greek Alphabet
Another item that can cause difficulty for the beginning student during the first few days of Greek class is the task of learning the Greek alphabet. This is usually assigned to be done in the first week (if not on the first day). The Greek alphabet is similar to the English alphabet but there are enough differences to create a challenge, especially when trying to master it during the first week of class. I suggest that you try to get a jump on learning the Greek alphabet. If you know what beginning Greek book you will be learning from, then you should probably buy that book and use it to help you learn the alphabet. If you don’t know what book you will be using (or have a few extra dollars and want another great resource for beginning Greek), then I highly suggest you get “Greek for the Rest of Us” by William D. Mounce (or alternatively “A New Testament Greek Primer” by S.M. Baugh or “Teach Yourself New Testament Greek” by Ian Macnair). I mention these books because they teach you all the skills you need to know about the Greek alphabet without needing the aid of a teacher (such as relative letter height and how you produce the handwritten form of each letter.)
You should be able to say the alphabet (i.e. to pronounce each letter in order) and know the sound it makes. You should also be able to recognize each letter in printed form and, if you are able, you should also learn how to write each letter. So, there are four skills you need to acquire: (1) say the alphabet in order, (2) recognize the printed letter, (3) know the sound each letter makes, and (4) be able to write the letters. If you have limited time, you should at least learn the first two of these skills.
A Further Head Start for You Ambitious Ones
There is a fantastic little book entitled, “Greek for the Rest of Us” by William D. Mounce (subtitled, “Mastering Bible Study without Mastering Biblical Languages”). I highly recommend this book for anyone that wants to understand Greek so that they can understand the Bible. If you are planning on going on to study Greek (and want a great jumpstart) or just want to learn enough Greek to do word studies and understand biblical commentaries, then this book is a must. It will take you through all the basic Greek terminology, tell you about some great Bible study methods, help you choose appropriate Bible versions and commentaries, and help build a framework for understanding Biblical Greek.
Thus with a proper attitude, the resolve to make a long term commitment to learn Greek, and some time of preparation, you will be well on your way to a profitable first year of learning New Testament Greek (and probably struggle much less than if you did not do this preparation). The journey you are preparing to embark upon may not always seem exciting, but the benefits gained by making this commitment of your time and resources can be invaluable to your knowledge of God’s Word and to your contribution in furthering His Kingdom.