Does the 80/20 Principle Apply to Greek?

Studying Greek has a fearsome reputation.  Henry Wake, a seminary classmate of mine, became a military chaplain.  He once reminisced, “I can vividly remember flying in a helicopter in Vietnam, and we drew fire.  You could see the tracers coming up towards us.  And the one thought which kept running through my mind was, ‘It’s not as bad as taking a Greek exam.'”

What makes Greek more frightening than a fire fight?  For most students, it’s the sheer size of the task.  In a typical Greek course, you have to memorize hundreds of vocabulary words, master endless charts of verb and noun forms, and decode long paragraphs of obscure symbols.  The mound of minutia looms ever higher.  And even when you’ve completed the course, you only know enough Greek to be dangerous! 

I believe you can take much of the terror out of Greek by applying the 80/20 Principle:  80% of the results are produced by 20% of the effort.  When you have limited time and energy, use it for the tasks that accomplish the biggest results.

How does this apply to Greek?

1.  You can’t learn it all. 

Greek goes on forever!  There’s always another shade of meaning in a word or a fresh nuance of grammar to discover.  The scholar who devotes his entire life to mastering the subtleties of the language never runs out of discoveries . . . and neither will you.

2.  You can learn something, and you can learn it correctly.

Choose limited objectives at first.  Decide what skills you want to develop, and learn how to wield them properly.  You might simply want to know how to explore the meaning of a Greek word, or understand what teachers mean when they use grammatical terms like aorist or pluperfect.  If you are more ambitious, you may want to develop the ability to translate passages of Scripture on your own.

3.  You can learn a lot if you start with the right things.

Begin with objectives that you can leverage for maximum impact. 

Do you want to master all the noun endings in Greek? 

Start by memorizing the forms of the word “the” — one chart instead of a dozen.

Do you want to understand verb tenses? 

Begin by learning the most common uses of each tense, then move to the more exotic varieties.

Don’t allow yourself to bog down on things like the Greek accent marks. 

        The accent marks are sometimes useful, but only crucial in a few situations.  Save that study for later.

The Ezra Project site does not aim to tell you 100% of the information you could learn about Greek. 

Our programs specialize in the 20 or 30% that will move you most directly to a place where you can do something significant in the original language of the New Testament. 

You won’t know everything, but you’ll know that you don’t know everything — and that’s a good thing!


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