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.

2 Responses

  1. There’s a thought: the communicative approach to Greek and Latin. Of course, with no one around who actually really knows what the languages sounded like in conversational use, it’s a pretty tough call.

    I’ve always wondered though, couldn’t beginner Greek and Latin classes be adapted to the same kind of modern method we use learning a language like Spanish, French or German? Rather than spend our first years translating sentences we could be making and acting out dialogues, and then get into the literature later.

    Of course, that begs the question: is there anyone out there who could teach the Classic tongues that way?

  2. Mark,

    There are people out there teaching beginner Greek and Latin classes that way. Some high schools that still teach Latin use the communicative approach. And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, it was once taught that way at the University of Kansas (it was phased out because of perceived problems). And Randal Buth teaches ancient Greek and Hebrew that way, with workshops in Israel and occasionally in California (not sure which of the languages was once spoken there).

    I think there is some value in the approach. I just thing there are limitations, and if you want to read sophisticated ancient texts (literature) or texts full of lacunae (inscriptions, papyri, etc.) you still have to have pretty good analytical skills.

    I’ll check out your website when I have a little free time.


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