One of the most tedious and frustrating parts of studying any ancient language is the constant drilling of flashcards. Every week I tell myself I will study them, but I never get around to it. How can I learn to read Greek, I tell myself, if I don’t first know the words?
And when translating, words are usually where I start. I print out a sheet of paper with the passage to translate, look up each word, then put the phrases together. This was time-intensive and frustrating – just like using flashcards. I wondered how the other students in my Odyssey class could keep up.
Then this weekend I tried translating not from the bottom-up but from the top-down, reading entire phrases then looking for component parts and familiar words. I didn’t write out my translation until I had read the complete phrase and put it together in my mind. Suddenly my translation went quickly. It was even fun.
Students learning ancient languages are often taught with a deductive approach. When I learned Greek, exercises primarily existed to apply the principles we learned beforehand. Although the text contained long passages for translation, we often skipped them because we had more grammar to cover to prepare us for upper-division courses. By the end of the year, I felt burnt out, wishing we had read more read Greek rather than memorizing the various uses of subjunctives and optatives and different vividness levels of conditional statements.
Yet when I began my study of Homer in January, I carried with me that deductive approach.
By contrast, Yearlyglot advises us to put down the flashcards and read something:
As I began reading some of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, I quickly picked up a great deal of very useful vocabulary. And I don’t have to waste time studying obscure words. It’s easy to tell which vocabulary is most useful, because they’re the words that keep coming up over and over! At the beginning of a story, I may have to look up new words several times per page, but I usually fly through the last several pages of the story without the need to look up any translations at all.
This especially rings true for ancient languages, where instant recall is not as important a skill. It’s more important to understand a passage globally, then work down into the individual words.
When I told that obvious epiphany to my Greek professor after class today, she impressed on me that I should also read the text several times, ideally at least twice before class. This was also Daniel Wallace’s advice:
The best way to read through the NT so as to increase your reading proficiency is to translate each chapter three times.
So, taking a cue from these masters, that is going to be my new goal. Flashcard piles will be set on the shelf until I take up a new language (next up, Arabic). I will find other ways to engage with the text, such memorizing key passages. Blogging enables even more interaction with the text. For example, Jacob Cerone and Robert Holmstedt are blogging their way through various texts, much as I have done with Philippians and the Ten Commandments.
For learners of ancient languages: what is your study routine? What tips and techniques have you found to read and internalize a text?