Tag Archives: language learning

On Language Learning: Dabbling in the shallows vs. Diving into the deeps.

In Mary Doria Russell’s theological sci-fi novel The Sparrow, one of the main characters, Jesuit linguist Fr. Emilio Sandos, speaks about a dozen languages fluently.  Artificial intelligence researchers spend months with him trying to figure out how he learns languages so easily: what are his methods? With me as with him, every new language learned brings more thoughts on how to learn languages and more experiences with different types of pedagogy.

This summer, I have been continuing two languages I already have a solid grounding in (Greek and Hebrew) while continuing to comprehend three more that I am still shaky in (Old English, Latin, and Qur’anic Arabic).  For the latter three, my learning has been an exercise in extreme contrasts.

Summer love.

Summer love.

I have been doing Latin for a year now.  However, I have primarily been dabbling in it, reading easy texts (e.g. Vulgate) while relying on Perseus way too much.  I decided this summer to get my act together and work through Wheelock’s, which would give me the solid foundation I needed to actually get the language.  It’s tedious, I love Wheelock’s: its aphoristic exercises, its side notes, its bad jokes, its crystal-clear (so far!) explanations of how the Latin language works.  I feel that I am really getting the skeleton of this language.  My goal is to jump into intermediate Latin this fall.

By contrast, Old English and Arabic have been far more playful.  The Arabic course has been taught with Munther Younes’ The Routledge Introduction to Qur’anic Arabic, which begins with whole surahs and lists vocabulary for students to learn for each one.  The grammar is given in small increments throughout the book.  For me it’s been maddening because I want to grasp the structures of the language, structures I already understand from Hebrew.  (Wheeler Thackston’s Introduction to Quranic and Classical Arabic has been staring at me from the shelf for a few weeks now!)  Likewise, Old English has been a very inductive exercise for me, with a similar level of crazy-making.

A part of me says that I am wasting my time dawdling around in languages without getting the grammar down systematically.  But I suspect that without that year of playing with Latin, I would not be enjoying Wheelock’s as much.  When I learned Hebrew, I did not dive directly into the difficulties of Page Kelley’s Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar, but first learned highly simplified grammar through Prayerbook Hebrew: The Easy Way.  Getting a panoptic feel for how the language worked made the tough grammar easier to swallow.  With Greek, I dived directly in, and first-year Greek was painful in part because I never got any time to wade at the shallow end before diving twenty feet in.

The conclusion to all of this?  When I start Sanskrit this fall, I will ask the professor if he can explicate some brief prayers or short texts to us before we start the grammar.  For me, it’s useful to have an anchor in how the language works, to play around with a language, before diving straight into the grammar.

Ditching flashcards.

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.

Thrilling bedside reading.

Thrilling bedside reading.

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?