Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Interview with Danny Zacharias: The Singing Grammarian


I am a Greek grammar junkie. I am constantly on the lookout for the latest and greatest in Greek grammars. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for such publications is slowly waning. This is due to some recent attempts (no names, please!) to change the manner in which Greek is taught.

Happily, I am able to report, that all is not lost when it comes to Greek grammars, or tools for its acquisition. One such product that does a nice job of engaging the senses, The Singing Grammarian (Kregel), by Danny Zacharias, offers both visuals, in the form of videos, and aural, in the form of music, happily combining the two most effective ways to learn a language. Danny has tapped into what I hope continues to be a trend, namely, language acquisition through visual/oral (aural) performance.

I recently had the chance to ask Danny a few questions regarding The Singing Grammarian. Enjoy!

1.       Biblical Greek is traditionally taught via the textbook, workbook, and vocabulary cards. I always told students to try and use all of their senses when learning Biblical Greek/Hebrew. Was it a similar desire on your behalf that led to the creation of this project?

Absolutely. The intro language courses in Bible colleges and seminaries hit students like a hammer with endless memorization and new concepts. When I started teaching Greek I began the course with the same message as you. Knowing what it was like for me to learn by reciting paradigms over and over again to get them memorized, I figured there must be a better way to get those to stick.

2.       How was the project tested, and how did it become more refined as time passed?

During that first year, as I racked my brain trying to figure out memorization techniques for my students, I was listening to a Greek alphabet song and then I wondered if there were other songs for learning Biblical Greek—Google said there wasn’t. So that first year, with a very encouraging and positive group of students at Acadia Divinity College, I started to download MIDI files of popular tunes and did very simple voice recordings over top of them. I chose children’s tunes that everybody knows, as I figured it would be one less thing their brains would have to absorb. The students laughed and poked some fun, but mostly they kept saying “your song was how I was able to remember the paradigm.” That was when I knew I was on to something. I started to get more serious at that point, focusing more on the lyrics and writing more and more songs for my students. So the test ground has been 100% my students over the past four years at Acadia Divinity College.

3.       This question is probably related to the prior, but could you tell me about the contributions of Michael Fredericks to this project?

I’m very glad you asked me this, because Michael deserves a huge amount of credit. I would still be working on this project if it wasn’t for him and I’m quite convinced that if I had been left to my own devices the songs would not have come out nearly as well. Michael was in that first class of mine and one of the voices of encouragement. But Michael was also straight with me when a song or lyric didn’t work well. Over a period of about a year, Michael became a master of Apple’s Garageband app and made magic out of everything I gave him. Just imagine someone giving you lyrics for the aorist active & middle paradigm, to the tune of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and asking you make it into a rock song! But Michael never disappointed.  He is a very talented musician and has a great musical sense, so I couldn’t have had a better person helping me. Our voices are actually quite similar, but you should be able to tell when it is Michael singing. He is featured in the dialogue of The Greek Alphabet Song, my talking partner during The Third Declension Song, and doing any harmonization you hear through the entire project. His wife Julie even helped out a little in The MI Verbs Song.

4.       How does The Singing Grammarian differ from a similar project done a few years ago by Ken Berding for Zondervan, and was this a springboard for your idea?

We were in the thick of writing and recording when I heard about Berding’s publication of songs from Zondervan, so no it wasn’t a springboard for my own project. I was sad he beat me to the punch, but there is a significant amount of difference between the two projects and I hope they both meet the needs of students. The Singing Grammarian has more songs and a wider variety of musical styles. I also tried as best as possible to match introductory textbooks. So for instance, Berding has 1 song called the “Noun Endings Song,” whereas I have a song for each declension which may fit better with an introductory textbook.

5.       Your music and accompanying videos are 18 total. Were there any that proved to be more difficult to craft than the others?

The Participles Song was definitely the most difficult. There is so much information to get in there. I think we had a few different versions before we landed on that one. The Article Song was the easiest because Michael actually wrote that one :-)  Another major time component for every song was the accompanying video, as the timing always needed to be just right, and some of the songs were faster than others!

6.       What sort of feedback have you received from colleagues regarding The Singing Grammarian?

I’ve received some very kind endorsements that you can find on the Kregel site as well as the Facebook page. As the publication is still quite new, I am very eager to hear from colleagues in the coming months. I’m even more excited to hear from students out there. If you want to provide some feedback, please post on the Facebook page. You can also add a comment to the Greek Alphabet Song on YouTube, as we have put it up for free there. We will probably add another free song to YouTube later this summer too.

Currently, you can only purchase The Singing Grammarian on the Kregel site. This is a new type of publication (a collection of videos) but Kregel hopes to have it on Amazon soon as well. Amazon is another good place to leave feedback if and when the time comes.

7.       Have you decided to do more projects along these lines?

In that first year, with the hopes of attacking all of the senses during memorization, I also set out to make vocabulary memorization easier. So concurrent with this project, I was also working on multimedia flashcards. I’m very proud of these flashcard sets as well, and they have been very successful, particularly on the iTunes appstore. I plan to work on Hebrew multimedia flashcards as well. Some have asked if I want to do a Hebrew version of The Singing Grammarian—I’m not sure I want to commit to that. I have already written some Hebrew songs, but not near the amount as for Greek. Those guttural sounds and throat clicks are hard to rhyme !

8.       Finally, can you tell the frustrated student/professor why they need to purchase The Singing Grammarian?

Because I need the money to pay off my student loan debt :-)

More seriously, I put all of this time and effort into The Singing Grammarian because I believe learning NT Greek is a worthwhile enterprise for those who want to interact with and better understand the New Testament. It saddens me how many students work to just get through Greek and then forget about it. This project is an attempt to make learning Greek a more enjoyable process that will then encourage students to keep up their Greek for a lifetime.

Professors, this is your chance to easily add a useful multimedia component to your syllabus AND your classroom time. It is amazing how laughter in your classroom can really change the dynamics of a group of students. The Singing Grammarian will bring laughs, learning, and music to your class time. Think about the hundreds and thousands of songs you can easily sing along to on the radio or your iPod. The Singing Grammarian taps into that ability to remember things through song.

I was also very happy at the price Kregel assigned to The Singing Grammarian, it works out to only $1 a song. This is a very reasonable price, something that can easily be added to a syllabus without breaking the bank. Finally, in the tradition of other Kregel products, professors should know that this can easily come alongside most introductory grammars—so whatever intro textbook you have decided on, The Singing Grammarian will be a melodious teaching companion.


Mark Davis said...

Hey, Matthew. I was confused by this statement:

"I am a Greek grammar junkie. I am constantly on the lookout for the latest and greatest in Greek grammars. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for such publications is slowly waning. This is due to some recent attempts (no names, please!) to change the manner in which Greek is taught."

Interesting, you seem to be referring to some kind of recent controversy, of which I am not aware. Could you please provide some further detail about what you're referring to?

Also, due to your blog article I purchased the complete set of the Singing Grammarian. Awesome stuff!


Matthew D. Montonini said...

Hey Mark-

Thanks for stopping buy, and I am thrilled to see that you have purchased this fine resource.

Without disparing anyone in particular, hence, "the no names please!" part of my quote, it seems to me that grammars, with their heavy-handed emphasis on paradigm memorization seem to miss the boat. I am not saying that paradigm memorization is a bad thing, indeed, it is essential. However, it is the methodologies that I object to. Danny has tapped into a way of memorization that is fun and much more manageable for the beginning Greek Student.

My friend, Mike Halcomb, offers another avenue for learning Greek by emphasising a conversational approach as a way in which one can learn the language without strict paradigm memorization. This approach of immersion seems very helpful and natural for those who may be intimidated by the language.

Hope this helps.


Mark Davis said...

Hey, Matthew.

I have seen you mention Mike Halcomb's class on the blog and I've given myself a reminder to take a closer look at his work when I have some extra time.

I've been reading about Greek for a while now, but it's only been in the past few months that I've actually started to really study it. I've got Mounce's books and audio CDs that I've been listening to, and I appreciate how he highlights early on the true case ending of a noun to avoid confusion later.

I've also seen other approaches where some have recommended learning only one set of case endings and then the rules for how the noun stem will interact with the case ending.

I've gotten the feeling from Mounce that the simpler approaches that involve less rote memorization, like the kind he advocates in his book, are what's newer, and that the older approaches involved a lot more memorization. So I was confused when I saw your comment about the "recent attempts," and now I'm even more intrigued. I thought you had meant that there were recent attempts to make learning Greek even simpler, but now I understand you to mean that there are some trying to make it more complicated.

I know you don't want to disparage anyone, but you've got me really curious now for an example. Would it be possible to email me privately with more detail or otherwise point me in the right direction?

Also, for my memorization I've found Quizlet to be quite useful. I discovered ParseGreek this morning due to your blog, and it looks like it'll be quite useful for me when I'm on the go.


Unknown said...

I like your Singing Grammarian product. I also purchased your Greek stripped down book and absolutely loathe the way I have to read it on scholarspub.com. It is awkward and difficult to navigate. If there is any way I could get a downloadable version that would be great. But, the current electronic version is horrible.