Review: “When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.”

Right now I am listening to The Sparrow, a work of theological sci-fi in which a team of Jesuits lead a mission — part evangelization, part scientific discovery — to Rakhat, a planet with intelligent life.  One of the main characters, Fr. Emilio Santos, is a linguistic genius.  Another character, an AI researcher, spends months interviewing him to understand his language-learning techniques.  Within months of contact with the people of Rakhat, Santos has become mostly fluent in their language, despite its having no relation with any human language.

410hV8nKgBL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-47,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_I am not yet at Santos’ level, but I am already learning quite a bit about language acquisition from John Gruber-Miller’s edited volume, When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.  The book features essays by classicists applying modern pedagogy research to how Greek and Latin have traditionally been taught.  Although it is written primarily for professors, it has made me think deeply about how I learn languages and what has worked and not worked for me in my education so far.  The book has been well-reviewed by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, so I won’t duplicate that, but I will focus on three chapters that were particularly illuminating for me.

Chapter Two: “Cognitive Style and Learning Strategies in Latin Instruction,” by Andrea Deagon

I would never have predicted that such an innocuously-titled chapter would give me so much insight!  Deagon delineates different learning styles and their strengths and weaknesses in the language classroom.  One of her major demarcations is the difference between comprehension and operation learners:

Comprehension learners prefer to get a feel for an entire topic before approaching details … they often look ahead and back; details fall into place last.  They learn through using a language, and are often less attuned to minor errors than operation learners.  In contrast, operation learners approach a topic methodically, preferring a step-by-step approach and building an overall picture of the topic from details.  They tend to be more rule-oriented… (29)

I am definitely more of a comprehension learner.  I look at passages as a whole, and am better at getting the sense of a Greek poem than at discerning the distinction between an aorist and perfect.  My best experiences with Greek have been when I could make connections between the language and broader questions of culture, exegesis, and literary technique.  When I took my Odyssey reading course last quarter, I had a hard time with the in-class translations, but my word analysis paper was incredibly fun.

My first-year Greek course was taught in the traditional grammar-translation method: learning grammar, then applying it to translate “textbook Greek” back into English.  As the year progressed and time became more tight, we stopped doing the passages for each chapter (in the book we used, mostly Herodotus) and diving into details about Greek culture — something that Gruber-Miller and others in this book lament as being typical.  By third quarter I was thoroughly sick of Greek, and stuck with it as a means to an end.  I had a friend in the class who seemed to be much more the operational type: he loved grammar, loved looking at its details and nuances.  Not realizing that we simply had different learning styles, I often felt stupid when working with him.

Deagon’s chapter helped me accept my learning style.  I can find ways that work for me in language, like doing word studies and reading commentaries.  I can also catch myself when I get too lazy about grammar.  Just as the operational learners might get so caught up in details that they fail to ask the big questions of meaning in the text, comprehension learners like me can fall into a habit of bullshitting our way through the technical work of translation.

Chapter Eight: “Ancient Greek in Classroom Conversation,” by Paula Saffire

One of the most helpful exercises in my Odyssey course was memorizing the first ten lines of the Odyssey.  Memorization is often scorned as “rote learning,” but I found that it gave me something concrete to hold onto.  In learning ancient languages, it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing to show for it.  If someone at a party asks me to say something in Greek or asks me to translate a sentence, I am useless.  But I can always quote “Andra moi, ennepe, Mousa…” (“Sing to me of the man, Muse…”) and feel proud of what I have done.  And every time I recall those ten lines and think through their meaning, I re-remember much about the Odyssey and Homeric Greek as well.

Since then I have tried to integrate memorization and other forms of oral learning into my Greek education.  I’m currently working on the Magnificat in Greek.  Next I hope to move onto the Lord’s Prayer.  I hope to attend Latin mass over the summer so I can internalize the sounds of that as well.  Still, I have never thought to go as far as Saffire suggests in her article.  She describes using purely conversational Greek for the first two weeks of the year, using dialogues from her own textbook.  She argues that these first two weeks make students feel comfortable with the language, enable rapid vocabulary acquisition, and make grammar acquisition move faster the rest of the year.

The number of Greek professors who make students speak ancient Greek is rather small, whether teaching Koine in biblical studies or Attic in classics.  But the few who do advocate such methods are a vocal minority.  I have definitely heard of Randall Buth, Michael Halcomb, and Daniel Streett, three New Testament scholars who advocate a “living Koine” approach.  But frankly, I’ve always been too scared to try it out.  Perhaps this summer I will order Buth’s materials or Halcomb’s Conversational Koine stuff.  Saffire concludes her essay with some success stories:

(1) Hebrew, once used only in fixed language for prayer, is now the everyday, living speech of Israel.  That was an experiment in speaking an ancient language that worked, and on a massive scale! (2) I am told that Sanskrit is still spoken in some ashrams in India. (3) Latin is still spoken in the Vatican.  I learned this in a game of Diplomacy played in Jerusalem.  While everyone else disappeared into corners to make their “top secret” plans, the two Vatican-trained priests conversed loudly and openly, secure from prying because the rapidity of their Latin made eavesdropping impossible. (179)

My Latin teacher had a similar experience – four years of conversational Latin at a Catholic high school that had recently been deconverted from a minor seminary in the 1960’s.

Chapter Nine: “Teaching Writing in Beginning Latin and Greek: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos,” by John Gruber-Miller

Gruber-Miller’s article looks at Greek and Latin composition in a new light.  Rather than discounting it as a waste of time, he argues for it as a useful pedagogical tool.

Writing in Greek is not entirely foreign to Greek pedagogy.  My Greek textbook had English sentences for Greek translation.  These were much more difficult but also much more helpful.  However, like the reading passages, we stopped doing these at some point in the second quarter.  But Gruber-Miller doesn’t think that Greek composition is only a means to the end of learning grammar.  He wants students to express their own thoughts and ideas in classical tongues.  This would be much more work than set English-to-Greek sentences, but also more rewarding in terms of student interest.  He lists several exercises that could be useful, such as making students write graffiti like the kind found at Pompeii. has two old books on Greek prose composition.  I think I’ll try them out this summer as well.

Overall, I gleaned a surprising amount of insight from such an academic tome.  I would recommend it for anyone finishing their first year of Greek or Latin.  I wish there was another volume for students, to help us figure out our learning styles and give us ideas for being a more active learner in our college Greek courses and beyond.

5 thoughts on “Review: “When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.”

  1. Brian

    Wait a minute, when you mentioned this friend who is an “operational type” who loves grammar… are you talking about me? 😛 Regarding your comments on chapter two, I agree that everyone has a certain style when it comes to learning a language; as you point out, I definitely prefer the methodical approach when it comes to understanding grammar, but that seems to work better when LEARNING grammar. I’ve found that this process becomes a bit more tiresome when I’m confronted with real Greek, which is when the operational methods becomes less useful. So for me, the operational stuff works best during the grammar-learning process, which helps to speed up my reading and comprehension, which then translates well into getting the sense of the real Greek. Does that make sense? (Side note: Homer doesn’t help with the operational method: his forms are too irregular, and he frequently uses perfects as present tense verbs or something, so the comprehension method often works better.)

    As for Greek or Latin composition, it’s true that we really should emphasize that more. Being able to work through grammar and meaning both ways helps with our understanding of the classical language, but we tend to ignore it in favor of just reading. I’ve found that I can handle Latin composition better than ancient Greek (Prof. Heath gives Latin composition sentences as extra credit), because Latin does not have accent marks; it has a very easy, standard accentuation, while Greek demands that we be able to memorize where the marks are (circumflex or acute?). So writing in Greek is harder because we have to place accents on every single word, for it to be proper ancient Greek. No wonder modern Greek dropped the accent marks!

    1. Post author

      Yes — not that you are only good at operational, because you get the comprehension stuff too, but you are much better at operational than I. I’m sloppy with grammar.

      I may have mentioned yesterday that the Byzantines invented “miniscule script” (lower-case letters) in the ninth century. I learned this in my art history class, and now I am curious why. It does seem that many of the difficulties of classical Greek were dropped as time progressed. I’m really enjoying Koine’s lack of optatives, for example.

      If you’d like to do some Greek prose composition this summer, using North/Hilliard, I’d be open to that. 🙂

  2. lorna

    Hi Johnathan:

    I had the opportunity to hear children recite prayers in Sanskrit in front of a Hindu festival setting in a private home.


  3. Pingback: Septuagint Studies Soirée #9 and #10: Buy One, Get One Free Edition | Words on the Word

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *