'Where is the giraffe?': Teaching a toddler to speak Koine Greek, Koine Greek children's books, etc.

Updated: Nov 19

Listen more in-depth on the 'Where is the giraffe?' episode of KoineGreek.com's φωνὴ ζῶσα podcast:

ποῦ ἐστιν ἡ καμηλοπάρδαλις 'where is the giraffe?' I asked my son as I eagerly hoped that he would crawl to his little giraffe toy on our living room rug ...

ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ ἄρκος 'where is the bear?' I repeated as I hoped he would edge his way toward the little stuffed bear moments later.

These and other such questions regularly peppered interactions with my son just months after his first birthday. Now only a couple years later, it is not at all unusual for us to carry on little dialogues such as ...

θέλεις ἀναγεινώσκειν βιβλία μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ; 'do you want to read books with me?'

> θέλω 'I do want to!'

ποῦ θέλεις πορεύεσθαι 'where do you want to go?

> θέλω πορεύεσθαι εἰς τὴν παιδικὴν χαράν 'I want to go to the playground'

(παιδικὴ χαρά 'playground' is Modern Greek here)

τίνα ᾠδὴν θέλεις με ᾄδειν; 'what song do you want me to sing?'

> ὁμολογουμένως (i.e., the song I made up for 1 Timothy 3.16)

θέλεις οἰκοδομῆσαι θρόνον; 'do you want to build a throne?'

-- we proceed to build a throne out of pillows on the bed and he sits on it and then says --

> ἐγώ εἰμι ἀνθύπατος 'I am a proconsul'

There are many more bits of Koine Greek interactions that I could share, but suffice it to say that many (if not most) of our activities in our daily life could be carried out in Koine Greek if we wanted to—and my brain is not too tired :) My son might not always be able to respond in Koine Greek, but he is able to track with much or most of what I say to him in Koine Greek.

In the rest of this blog post—I go into greater detail in the podcast—I want to offer a bit of a window into the process of teaching Koine Greek to my son. Now I should mention that I didn't scour the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) literature to make sure I was doing everything the right way. I didn't necessarily have a developed plan when I first started. I just decided I was going to try it and see what happened. It has ended up working and being really fun along the way. It has also been one of the best things that I have done for my own Koine Greek learning.

So ... how did I teach my one-year-old son Koine Greek? Here are seven important steps and methods that I can remember ...

1. I began with fixed phrases that my son could associate with an action: Some of the first things I remember speaking to my son in Koine Greek were little adverbs like ἄνω 'up', which we would say if he wanted me to pick him up out of the crib and κάτω 'down' if he would want me to put him down. I also used the phrase καταλήψομαι σε 'I am going to get/overtake you' that I would use to start a game where I would chase him crawling across the room.

2. I asked my son where many different concrete nouns were: Naturally, as a toddler, he had plenty of toys around the house including a lot of stuffed animals and other animal toys. I spent a lot of time pointing to certain nouns (like his toy giraffe, bear stuffed animal, etc.) and saying what it was. I would then ask him ποῦ ἐστιν 'where is ... ?' and say the name of one of these nouns. He would then learn to find these toys in response to such questions. Over time, this helped him learn a lot of concrete nouns. It also paid off when we went to the zoo :)

3. This is kind of continuing on (1) above ... I would give him frequent imperative commands: The benefits of using this method early on in language learning are well known to language teachers who use Total Physical Response (TPR) and other communicative teaching methods. Basic commands here in daily life start to build up the child's vocabulary and understanding of verbs over time: ἐλθέ 'come (here)', ἔρχου 'come along', λάβε 'take', νίψαι τὰς χεῖρας 'wash your hands', ἔνδυσαι τὰ ἱμάτια 'get dressed!', etc.

4. Describe what we need to do and our daily activities again and again: δεῖ ἡμᾶς τρίβειν τοὺς ὀδόντας 'we need to brush teeth', δεῖ ἡμᾶς ἀλλᾶξαι τὴν πάναν 'we need to change your diaper', δεῖ ἡμᾶς ἐνδύσασθαι ἱμάτια 'we need to get dressed', δεῖ ἡμᾶς νίψασθαι χεῖρας 'we need to wash hands', νῦν θέλομεν φαγεῖν ἄριστον 'now we want to eat lunch'; νῦν θέλομεν ἀπελθεῖν ἔξω 'now we want to go outside'. Over time, these can become questions: e.g., θέλεις φαγεῖν ἄριστον; 'do you want to eat lunch?'; τί θέλεις φαγεῖν; 'what do you want to eat?'; θέλεις ἀπελθεῖν ἔξω; 'do you want to go outside?'. To get a lot of these everyday sorts of phrases, I used the Colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana. You can read my blog post about them here and watch video cartoons of them here.

5. Watching cartoons and movies in Koine Greek: A massive amount of authentic language input is one of the best ways for children to grow in their understanding of the language. Even though I have a fair bit of confidence in my own Koine Greek speaking abilities, I am nothing compared to an authentic ancient text. That is one of the reasons why so much of the film/cartoon material on KoineGreek.com is just verbatim ancient texts set to film or as cartoons. In my son's first years of learning Koine Greek, he has spent time watching Koine Greek cartoons and films. You might even recall a blog post I wrote about how my two-year old (at the time) quoted the Greek Septuagint to me because he had been watching and listening to a Koine Greek cartoon of the LXX. I also found it remarkable when, after being familiar with the Gospel of Mark film, my son heard chapter 3 of my Gospel of Matthew recording and said, "Hey, that's κατὰ Μᾶρκον!' Naturally, there is similar material between the two Gospels that caught his ear :)

6. Reading children's books in Koine Greek: The repetition of reading the same stories again and again was very good for both of us in our Koine Greek. At the time, I didn't really have any Koine Greek children's books. So what I did was basically translate (on the spot) some of the children's books that we did have into Koine Greek, so we could just read together whatever book he wanted. One other thing I did was purchase a children's book of about 9 of Aesop's fables, print out the most "Koine" version of them from history, and cut out and taped (literally) these scraps of paper into the book so that I had a real Koine Greek children's version of Aesop's fables. Now my readers are going to be at a greater advantage than I was when I first started. KoineGreek.com Books has already released four children's books in Koine Greek, one about learning the alphabet, one about animals and where they live, one of the Parable of the Sower, and one mini biography about Flavius Josephus. You can find more on these here.

7. Singing songs to my son in Koine Greek: The last thing I'll mention here—this list is admittedly not exhaustive—is singing songs in Koine Greek. Most nights I would sing a song in Koine Greek (usually memorized Scripture set to a melody) as I was putting my son to bed. After a matter of time my son was able to sing with me :) This is a really good way to get your children to memorize good Koine Greek and memorize scripture at the same time.

Doing all of these things regularly for a sustained period was certainly not easy. But by the grace of God we did it to the point where now we can enjoy Koine Greek together. There was a season, however, in which I probably spent at least 25% of everyday communication with my son in Koine Greek for months during this process. There were also probably days where most of our communication was in Koine Greek. I do not know for sure, but my sense is that it was really important for me to really hit this hard during the beginning stages. Now, with my son being three years old and having a good foundation in Koine Greek, it is not nearly as important for me to keep up this rhythm. I can go without much Koine Greek for a few days and then jump back into it and, while my son might be a bit rusty, we can still make it work :)

If anyone has any questions on what it is like teaching a toddler Koine Greek, please do not hesitate to ask in the comments below. I would be happy to engage and get into more detail. Also, make sure to listen to the podcast episode if you want to hear more about all of this.

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