Concluding Thoughts on Learning Ancient Languages

One of my students this morning asked if I knew where we could get a flux capacitor.  If we had one, we could build a time machine and transport ourselves back in time and learn Greek by immersion in the language and culture.  Barring that, we could go to Greece for a six-week summer language immersion program and we would be speaking real Greek.

I think that would help quite a bit.  We would be internalizing the language and building vocabulary.  It still wouldn’t be ancient Greek; there would still be a lot to learn if we wanted to read Paul or Plato.  Ideally, we could spend a couple of years mastering the modern language and then enroll in a classics program at a University in Athens or Thessaloniki.

Lacking a time machine or the funds to live in Greece several years, the old fashioned text book approach to learning grammar and vocabulary will get you there.  I have decided in my teaching of Greek to use all the help I can find, to try creative things like conversations, drama, role playing, games, etc.  Someday I will bring some Greek food to class, blindfold students, and have them name each item in Greek based on taste.

But it still comes down to this: the goal of most of us who study ancient languages is not to communicate with ancient people but to analyze ancient texts.  For that reason, we can’t get away from learning grammar.

If I were able to become proficient in communicating in ancient Greek I would succeed in creating my own style.  I don’t know if that would help me or anyone else who wanted to study ancient literary or documentary texts.

I had a class in “Latin Prose Composition.”  When I thought I was getting pretty good, my professor told me my style was too poetic.  Well, I had been studying Latin poetry but not so much prose.  My professor was right, of course.

I have found that each ancient author has his or her style and it takes quite a bit of effort to get used to a new author.  Without developing good analytical skills that can be an insurmountable challenge.

So I probably won’t be joining the ancient Greek conversation cult.

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Another Cult

The cult that is currently trying to draw me in is the cult of speakers of ancient languages. They don’t just study ancient Greek, they have conversations in it and argue over how it should be pronounced.

I first became susceptible to the thinking of this group nearly thirty years ago. I was learning two languages at the same time: biblical Hebrew and German.

In fact, I was in my second semester of Hebrew when I started my German class, and about six weeks into the German class I felt more confident in that language than in Hebrew.  If someone asked me to say something in German I could blurt out, Guten Tag! or Wie Geht’s.  If asked to say something in Hebrew, I might mutter, bereshith bara or something like that.

So I thought to myself, what if we could reconstruct ancient Hebrew conversation and learn the language conversationally?

A couple years later I found myself in a graduate program in classics and started asking the same questions.  Since the dialogues of Plato were already conversations, I thought, they might be a great place to start.

Then I found out it wasn’t a new idea, in fact, folks had already been doing it with Latin.  Not only had it been done, but up until just a year or two previous it had been done at my university.  They taught Latin conversationally and continued their Latin conversations outside of class.

The program had been discontinued because the university officials thought it was becoming a cult!  The students began to imagine they were medieval monks living in medieval monasteries, and evidently some of the students had evidently converted to medieval Christianity, and the university was threatened with lawsuits for advocating a particular religion.  All this I learned through the grapevine.

Soon after learning about this I found myself teaching Latin, strictly by the book, not by immersing myself and my students in Latin conversation.  I had a few students in the class who had learned Latin via vocis viventis by the conversational method.  I was impressed with them the first few weeks.  Their pronunciation was excellent and they had a pretty good head start.  But I also noticed that by the sixth or seventh week of college Latin they had reached the limits of their high school students, and from then on no one had an unfair advantage.

More to come . . .

My Experience with Cults

I came out a while back on Facebook and admitted to belonging to a cult.

My kids suspected it almost twenty years ago when I started wearing lycra cycling shorts, which back then had a chamois pad made from real leather, by the way.  When I built my new bike this summer and found a killer deal on the top-of-the-line, Campagnolo  Super Record carbon crankset with ceramic ultimate level technology bearings that spin in Cronitecht steel races, I realized there was no need to hide it any more, no covering it up with black tape.

I have joined the Campy Cult.

(By the way, google “campy cult” and you are likely to get “Rocky Horror Show, campy cult classic.)

Campy Crank

Ceramic Ultimate Level Technology

I admit it’s a bit ridiculous for me to have elite racing equipment on my bike.  Kind of like Danny DiVito thinking if he wears the same shoes as Michael Jordan he can beat him in a slam dunk contest.

Bicycling Magazine in the current issue (December 2011) has a great article on the Campagnolo company, one of the last hold outs against the pressures of globalization.  While everyone else is chasing cheap labor and outsourcing production to the far east, the family owned company continues to use highly skilled, well-paid craftsman in Vincenza, Italy.

It used to be that nearly every rider in the Tour de France–always the winners– used Campagnolo components.  But that changed with Lance Armstrong.  Never faithful to the women in his life, he was steadfastly monogamous in his loyalty to his sponsors.  Shimano parts worked well enough for him to win seven championships.

When Campy first came out with a ten-speed set of rear sprockets, Lance continued to win with only nine cogs in the rear and waited patiently for Shimano to introduce their own ten-speed cassette.  We devotees of the classic Italian components concede that Lance was just that good–he was able to win on inferior equipment (with one gear tied behind his back, you might say).

We just hope the company survives the coming economic Armageddon in Italy.  As one cycling legend said in the Bicycling article, “I’d rather walk than ride anything else.”

I’ll be back in a day or two with a report on the other cult I’m in danger of being drawn into . . .