Looking back

Ten years ago, on the brink of retirement, I began dusting off the Latin and Greek I had learned decades ago in college. In the process, I discovered there were two ways of going about learning ancient languages. For lack of better terms, we can call these the grammar-first approach and the natural-language approach. In college I learned via the grammar-first approach (and was blissfully unaware it was called such). In resurrecting my Latin and Greek, I also started with the grammar-first approach (Wheelock and Crosby & Schaeffer), because that was all I knew. But as I became familiar with it, I gathered the appropriate resources and veered down the natural-language path. My situation was hybrid, since I once knew these languages pretty well. I evolved a personal program which in the case of Latin I dubbed “Adler + Millner + Ørberg.” I decided to blog about my experience.

One year ago, I gave away the considerable collection of Latin and Greek textbooks and intermediate readers I had accumulated. I needed to liberate some space on my bookshelves. Other than a reference grammar and a dictionary, I didn’t need them anymore, because I had now for some time been reading ancient texts. But something in me had also changed. I like examining my own experience and writing about it, and I do believe that can be helpful to others, in particular autodidacts. But I have grown a little weary of and less confident about dispensing advice to others. More importantly, I had decided — and this was one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions — that I wanted to spend the few compos mentis years I may have left focused not on the process of learning Latin and Greek and the debates, though I find them interesting, about the most effective ways of doing that, but on the res ipsas. I did not want to dwell on how I got to the point of being able to read Aristotle in Greek. I wanted to dwell on Aristotle. The act of giving away my textbooks was thus also symbolic of this resolution.

These days I am consolidating various writing activities of mine onto this new (as of January-February 2021) ‘Reflections’ blog site. As part of importing my ‘autodidact’ blogs of the last decade, I have been rereading them and doing some reflection. So in shameless contradiction of what I just said, here goes.

In sum

The very first thing I wrote was that, in my experience, I could distinguish three types of aspiring Graecists and Latinists, viz., Dabbler, Serious, and Intense. Serious and Intense want to learn Latin and Greek so they can read their favorite works “in the original,” “fluently,” that is, unabridged and with minimum aid of translation. Intense understands that this takes hard work over many years; she is deadly serious and is willing to put in that hard work. (I don’t mean to imply that it is all work and no fun.)

So the question is, how does she get to that “OTC moment,” as I called it? She needs, obviously, the three ur-skills, that is, (1) forms (aka accidence, aka morphology) (2) syntax (“grammar” = forms + syntax), and (3) vocabulary . My first two posts provided some of the most commonly utilized resources for that. Looking back, my only serious omission as far as I know was Mastronarde for Greek. Of course Google Books and others have made available many nineteenth and early twentieth-century textbooks, and some of the more resourceful people I know use these for one reason or another.

She also needs, I would strongly argue, to learn how to read a Latin or Greek sentence, because “The Latin [and Greek] sentence is constructed upon a plan entirely different from that of the English sentence.” This really should be considered a fourth ur-skill, as I argued in Reading Latin and Greek Sentences. Rereading (and reediting) that post, I still feel strongly about that. I proposed there some personal customization of the HH method (Hale’s anticipatory parsing, Hoyos’s reading in word-groups), but however she learns to do it, she needs to learn to read and process the Latin or Greek sentence in the order in which it was written, or she will be in for a lot of frustration.

Au naturel

Should she also learn to speak the language?

Here we drift into the business of the natural-language approach. I really do not want to wade too deep again into the turbulent waters of the so-called natural, direct, or immersion approach (I use these terms in the most general sense) and their various “schools” ( most notably these days, Comprehensible Input).

[We] learn ancient languages largely passively. It is both the plus and the minus of Latin that we never have to ask for a pizza, or the way to the swimming pool, in it.

Mary Beard

As I recounted in my blog, when resurrecting my Latin and Greek I used various resources for story telling, listening, and speaking to complement the more mechanical business of brushing up on the three ur-skills. In so doing, I felt I achieved a much more “natural feel” for the languages, especially Latin, than I had had in graduate school. I still believe this to be the case, but in hindsight it is hard if not impossible to say how much the intervening decades and unknown psychological factors also played a role.

That was my experience. But what about my hypothetical Intense Greek or Latin aspirant? Here is where I have become wary of making recommendations. The problem is, we are not hypothetical. We autodidacts vary tremendously in age, background, circumstances, personal characteristics, and purpose.

I know a community of people who very much enjoy speaking Latin and Greek. They even hold conferences to do so. They have impressive icons — the late Father Reginald Foster, Luigi Miraglia, Terence Tunberg. On the other hand, it is the twenty-first century. Latin long since ceased to be and never again will be a lingua franca in our social and intellectual lives. Suppose your sole interest is in reading ancient texts. Will speaking help you do this more fluently? Will listening (to, say, lots of recordings)? The British classicist and Roman historian Mary Beard somewhat famously and provocatively acknowledged her disinterest in speaking Latin, even her relief at not having to do so. Others retort that, yes, that is true when we learn Latin and Greek passively, but why not learn them actively and more effectively, the same way we do modern languages? Because, one replies, people go through the trouble of learning ancient languages for a different purpose.

The Theory of Rigidity

If you haven’t heard of that theory, it’s because I just made it up. I referred to potential psychological factors contributing to my feeling that, in my second go at it, I experienced a more “natural feel” for Latin and Greek.

I am, it seems to me, inherently a rigid person. In high school I racked up a decent record as a wrestler, but I was all muscle. Skinny Ron Johnson, two weight classes below me, would wrestle rings around me, because he had an inherent flexibility. He was a natural, and it was beautiful to watch. In my 50s, I took up the tenor saxophone for a while as a hobby. I love jazz, and my goal was to learn to improvise. I had the perfect teacher for this, but I just couldn’t do it. Waiting outside Michael’s classroom, I would jealously listen to his previous student, a young man perhaps a freshman or sophomore in high school, nicely play the changes on Girl From Ipanema. But I just couldn’t do it.

The one exception I can think of was high school Spanish. There I was a natural. Good old El Camino Real ! I loved listening to and imitating Señora Manas. I wasn’t burdened by any theory of language acquisition. The only “method” I can discern looking back on it was that I naively gave into the language and let it teach me. To this day I can still “think” Spanish.

Somehow, for some reason, I detect that in late life I have shed some of that rigidity. I still pursue things with intensity, but it is a relaxed intensity. I do believe “Adler + Millner + Ørberg” helped me achieve a more natural feeling for Latin. But perhaps equally so, a change in my psychological being. I relax more and let the text teach me.

Read a book!

If I stare at this long and hard enough, will I begin to discern its meaning?

Language is present in a piece of work like the sea in a single drop.

Kató Lomb

So when is our hypothetical Intense Latin or Greek aspirant ready for her OTC moment? Forget the OCT moment, I would now suggest. The scenario I painted in that post was like that of a novitiate going through a long and intense preparation leading to the climactic moment of taking her vows, in this case, of cracking open a Teubner or an Oxford Classical Text, aided only by a critical apparatus and by the minimal use of a dictionary. I was trying to prepare her for, and to forestall, a major disappointment. But looking back I see that I was projecting my own rigidity.

In an online forum I follow, I can see the progress of many others in learning to read Greek and Latin. I detect a pattern. Quite consistently, the ones who clearly have reached the stage of reading with some facility and enjoying their chosen texts (many, by the way, retirees who have chosen Latin or Greek as a post-retirement pastime), have followed the same “method”: They read, and read some more, and then read some more. Isn’t that remarkable?!

“Language is present in a piece of work like the sea in a single drop.” The Hungarian multilinguist Kató Lomb, in her memoir Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, goes on to say, “If you have the patience to turn the text up and down, inside out, break it into pieces and put it together again, shake it up and let it settle again, you can learn remarkable much from it.” She learned English (she only began studying languages as an adult) by intensively studying a novel by Galsworthy. She learned Russian, with the help of a beaten up 1860 Russian-English dictionary, by reading a sentimental romance novel from 1910 that she found left behind in a hotel room.

One has to acquire the phonetics, vocabulary, and grammar for each and every language separately. We can say rule, pattern, paradigm, or even subroutine or program. I prefer the term shoemaker’s last — so I stick to my last.

Kató Lomb

Of course the extant works from Greco-Roman antiquity are of a considerably different nature, collectively and individually. Nevertheless, once you have learned enough of the Latin or Greek “last” to be comfortable with this, pick a prose work you find interesting (it should be prose, with the single exception of Homer) and try turning it up and down and inside out, breaking it into pieces and putting it together again. Rinse and repeat. Let it teach you.

Published by Randy Gibbons

I am retired. I have several strong interests, in particular classical studies (Greek and Latin); a lifelong passion for music, especially jazz; and more recently, dabbling in philosophy. For more information about me, click on About Me.

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