Beginning Greek, Again and Again
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What do you think?
My take: It's excellent. But it raises a problem I see with teaching ancient languages. We don't teach other languages by getting students to puzzle out contextless, compressed, poetic tidbits like θερμὴν ἐπὶ ψυχροῖσι καρδίαν ἔχεις ("You have a warm heart for cold things"), and marking them wrong if they "cold men" not "cold things." We don't throw little stray bits of Goethe at German students, or half-lines from Pope at English students. I doubt that ancients learned that way either.
Poetry is not natural language, but a game language plays with itself. It's therefore not the best way to teach a language. This is why Reginal Foster, the renowned Latin teacher, railed against poetry in teaching Latin.
Anyway, my Greek and Latin have rusted so much—I can really only handle the Bible now. But if I had to teach them again, I'd teach prose alone. I don't think it's a coincidence I can still read the Bible, while reading Euripides has become a joyless struggle.
But yes, I fully agree. It's a lousy way to teach any language.
Just this evening I was pulling old textbooks down to discard and opened the Gothic grammar to a text passage. I don't think I was in that class, and if so it was several decades ago. But after just a few words I did a double-take and checked what the text was. Sure enough: 'In those days a decree went out from Ceasar Augustus...'
Biblical Greek I can handle well enough to enjoy it. (Hard work, though.) Hebrew is another matter, and my current attempt is to forget about the Bible, and try to learn modern Hebrew first. I struggle. Still the writer of that article did well. We may have started with 10 students in the first semester class. One or two disappeared during the semester; two more will be in Israel before the new semester starts. Another has a time conflict. One more said she was dropping out. I have a funny feeling the second semester class won't happen. We need 6 to sign up and pay. I'll go in next week and discuss my options.
But I agree, the methods used in teaching ancient languages are 19th century at best. This is complicated not just by the poetry/prose issue, but by the way we combine a long time period and large geographical area into one 'language'. We don't expect ESL students to handle Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and J. M. Coetzee all in their first semester.
One memory from Latin class in High School. Besides Gallic Wars, we were supposed to read fables in Latin for homework, although it was seldom checked. Usually anyone who had read it shared before class. But this particular day I was the only one who hadn't read it and I got to class at the last moment. Mr. Carr wrote a sentence on the board - surprise quiz! Well, serves me right for not doing the homework. I came up with a totally ridiculous translation. Everyone else had managed to make sense of it because they had worked it out the night before. Trouble was, my translation was right. That particular myth was rather weird.
The former hardly applies to classical languages. (I know there are a few programs that teach Latin conversation, but even there the point must be to improve facility for reading, not to be able to talk to other speakers of fake Latin.)
If the point is to read in the original, it must be because there is something there that one does not get from translation--an interest in the peculiar use of the peculiar language; which would seem to belong more to poetry than to prose, and to prose most where it is strange and stylized.
And I'm not sure poetry is always harder than prose. Word order (which gives students of classical languages problems anyway) can be even messier in poetry, true. But the vocabulary tends to be more circumscribed and more concrete where in prose it is often abstract and specialized. (Not only in Greek and Latin: I've been trying to read some Flaubert and the vocabulary is kicking my ass; I'll take Ronsard any day.)
Elegiac couplets are especially good for students because the clauses generally end where the couplets do, so the number of pieces in the puzzle at any one time is limited; hexameters are more open-ended, and something like Horace's stanzas can be really difficult, of course. But I think most would find Tibullus easier than Cicero or certainly Tacitus. At any rate there are easier things than Euripides, surely!
I too thought the article was excellent--I forwarded it to my daughters, to whom I teach this stuff in the afternoons.
The great language learning website and app Duolingo.com has a Modern Hebrew course under development (currently at 70% completion, i.e. probably ready for beta in half a year) and also a (quite stalled) Modern Greek one. Users clamor for a Latin one, though preference is given to modern languages.
I see your point too. But I'd argue that reading poetry is only part of the reason to learn Greek, and both poetry and prose benefit from knowing a language from the inside.
And even if your point is conceded, I'm not sure you really can learn a language from poetry anyway. I can't tell you how many adults I've met that believe Latin has no word order at all. This is craziness. Latin has a word order—overall, for example, it's SOV—it just doesn't always require that word order. But even when the order can be free, deviations from the expected order have an impact. (That is, "limax lunam amat" means "the slug loves the moon," but "lunam limax amat," although composed of the same words, is more like "The moon is what the slug loves.")
Poetry is, as I said, a game language plays with itself. But you can't understand what poetry's doing until you know what prose would do.
As for vocabulary, you have a point. But, personally, I resent all the useless plants and birds I had to learn to understand Greek and Latin poetry--none of which help me in the least to understand a passage of Herodotus or a chapter of Mark.
The worst cases, though, are the ones where you look up a word and it says, "a type of plant mentioned by Vergil." Thanks, dictionary!
I certainly agree that reading is improved by knowing a language from the inside. I'm just not sure what that looks like in regard to a dead language. Where is the inside?--other than reading texts written by people who spoke the languages. Other things may be helpful--may even be the best approach, I don't know--but they are ultimately a matter of manipulating speculative reconstructions founded on texts written by people who spoke the languages.
(The diagrams of plows are a bit like that too. I don't think any Roman plows have survived at all intact, and the diagrams all have a troubling air of the ersatz, as if they had been confected out of words found in Vergil.)
Here is a very interesting piece by a guy who has some notions about learning Latin from the inside. Some of it is quite persuasive, though I still have doubts of the sort expressed above.