An entrée into the world of 18th and 19th century Greek textbooks

Let me tell you about a little side-project I’m cooking up.

One of the great advantages Latin students have in seeking a lot of reading content, is that between the easy reading material that some Latin teachers are pumping out, and the products of the Direct Method, there’s a fair amount of reading material to get stuck into. (See here, here, here).

Not so with Greek. The Direct Method advocates produced not very much Greek, unfortunately. You can see some on the second half of that vivarium novum page. However they are not very accessible either.

So, what I’ve been doing is scouring the 18th and 19th century textbooks, a range of books with endless variations on “A First Greek Reader”. I have almost 30 in scanned pdfs. Some are more “directish method”, others are very traditional, almost all are far more advanced than “easy greek reading” should begin at.

The project:

  • Digitise: create plain text copies of all the readings in these books.
  • Lemmatise: lemmatise all the texts as well
  • Gloss: produce a version with appropriate glossing to help readers
  • Annotate: provide notes to go with each text to help readers
  • Record: audio files for each text
  • Scaffold: write Greek language content as both pre-reading and post-reading material.

Actually, there are some more things going on behind the scenes as well. Most of my side-projects these days involve overlapping and interlocking methods and goals. In this case, the goal is to create a digital resource of freely available material that helps bridge the long plateau between “1st year Greek” (not a real thing) and “fluently read authentic high-register ancient texts” (a real thing and quite difficult).

More on this, obviously, as it develops…

Actually, since I’ve penned this post, there are at least 2 people doing OCRs of this kind of material. So that means I’m probably going to shift my focus from simply digitising, to making more of this material more usable.

Re-reading (for speed)

Technique: re-read something you’ve read before

Why is this even a post? There’s zero new content here, zero ideas that you haven’t read elsewhere or thought of yourself. But the fact it, so few learners spend time re-reading text that they’ve already read, that it’s worth my writing this just to encourage you to do it.

Suppose your reading a text. Perhaps you’re even using the “Reading in 3s” method I outlined some time ago. And you’re getting along in a book (Italian Athenaze perhaps? One of my current favourites for doing lots of easy reading).

Go back to the start, set a timer, read for 10 minutes. Stop.

How did you go? Reading like this should be a lot easier than it was the first time, or the 2nd or 3rd. And the fact that you’ve read this is what makes faster reading possible. But it’s also a really easy, effective way of getting more reading in. You’re reading material that you’ve previously understood, so now you should be reading it with greater comprehension, and faster. Increased accuracy, increased speed.

This is also a great way to refresh your memory on low-frequency vocab items. ἕωθεν and ἀπέραντος are both words that appear very early in Athenaze Italian, not words I had been terribly familiar with, and not words that appear a lot in the chapters that follow. How to get repeated exposure? Rereading the earlier chapters!

So do yourself a favour, don’t spend all your time reading “new” things, spend some of your time revisiting old things. Increased proficiency and acquisition will be your reward.

Is it possible to think in a dead language? (Yes)

This is probably the most sub-blog post I’ve written, as let’s be honest that it’s a response to a twitter conversation built of a previous post, a twitter conversation in which I appeared more like a bystander.

Here’s the counter-view: you can never truly learn to ‘think’ in Latin because Latin is dead and our access to it is only via translation.

I think this is wrong, but I think it’s wrong in important and interesting ways.

Let me ask a different question: is it possible to think in a living second language?

Gosh, I hope so, because I do this all the time. As do millions of other people. I speak moderately well in Gaelic, and I spoke very well (though now slightly rusty) in Mongolian, and when I speak those languages I think in them. I’m not translating, not (even) mentally. So just anecdotally (and based on a fairly broad anecdata of second language speakers), plenty of people operate in an L2 without ‘translating’.

So what’s different between a living language and a dead one?

Here’s what I’m ‘hearing’ as the difference put forward: there are no native Latin speakers so our only access to Latin is through (a very, very large) corpus of texts. So we never “think” Latin except as we’ve learnt to approximate it by having its meaning translated into (L1).

And this is why this is wrong: there’s no real linguistic difference between this and a living language that’s L2, because in both cases I’m a non-native learner that’s acquiring all this language from an external ‘corpus’, whether written or spoken around me. Sure, the ‘corpus’ of Mongolian I was exposed to was being spoken by native speakers around me constantly for several years, but it was just as ‘external’ as a written corpus of Latin texts.

It is true, that we can never speak Latin as a native 1st cent. BC Roman did, but that’s not what I’m advocating, or arguing for. Neither will I ever speak Mongolian as an L1 native speaker. But neither do I speak English as you do. My English is an idiolect, formed by my linguistic and socio-historical experiences as an Australian of a certain age, gender, geography, demographic, etc. etc.. In this sense, no two people share the same English, they have only Englishes. There is no “English” (unless some platonic “Form of the English”!).

If the answer to whether you can learn to think Latin is “no, because it’s all externalised“, then this is true of all L2s, and so true but trivially true, because no L2 speaker learns to speak an L2 as an L1. That doesn’t equate to all L2 being ‘translation’ or ‘learnt via translation’, that’s a false equivalency.

Let me end by saying, without any offense intended, that if you’re a monoglot whose only experience of a language is an historical one focused on translation, then believing it’s possible to “think in Greek/Latin/ancient Hebrew/etc.” may be difficult, but it’s possible, even at the simplest level. Just this past week I’ve conversed with several people, at different “levels” of complexity (mine and theirs) in a range of languages. This is the norm for most of the world who are proficient in an L2, or the vast number who have more than a single L1.

Listen-Read-Listen

Technique: Listen-Read-Listen

Here’s a technique that works well if you’re intentionally trying to develop aural comprehension skill. You need an audio source with text, so generally either (a) a recording that has an accompanying transcript (I use this for Gaelic with a 5 minute podcast that comes with transcript), or (b) a text for which a good audio recording has been made (for Latin there are quite a few good recordings of poems/letters/etc., which come to mind.

Step 1: Attentively listen to the audio.

Your goal here is just to understand as much as you can. If it’s totally incomprehensible then there’s probably some factor making it too difficult (accent? text? you’re not ready for this particular text?). You’re not trying to recall everything, and definitely don’t try and transcribe it (a different skill and a different task).

Step 2: Read the text

Now it’s time to pull out the text. Depending on your level and the text’s, this might be extensive reading, or it might be intensive. Reading will help make sense of what you heard. My suspicion is that the previous listening doesn’t contribute very much to how much you comprehend reading, but the reading does to the listening.

Step 3: Back to the audio.

So now you go back and listen attentively to the audio. You should understand a lot more this time! There’ll be things you can more accurately ‘pick out’ and recognise, and overall your comprehension will improve. You probably won’t understand everything, and you will feel like there are things you just read that you can’t quite remember while listening. Don’t stress, just listen and seek to understand.

 

And that’s it! Simple, effective, a good way to use audio but leverage it with written material.

Reading to Learn v Learning to Read

Recently I was reading a document about extensive reading and it highlighted the difference between intensive and extensive reading in the above terms (reading to learn, learning to read).

Intensive reading is reading ‘above’ our level, or sometimes below our level but with a lot of analysis thrown in. This is “learning to read”. It’s when we encounter a whole lot of ‘unknowns’ – unknown words, concepts, structures – and we need to do “work” to make a text comprehensible. It’s slow, and because the amount of “unknowns” is so high, we are not really reading. We are learning to read. We are using a bunch of tools-that-aren’t-reading in order to make reading possible.

Which is fine, there’s a place for this. Unfortunately this is almost everything that historical languages students (looking at you, Greek, Latin) do. They read texts that are far, far too difficult for themselves, and they agonisingly pull them apart until they understand the meaning. And then they go on.

Extensive reading is reading that is at, or even ‘below’ our level. It’s when you read for the sake of the message being transmitted by the text, you operate mentally in the language of the text, you don’t stop to analyse the text per se, though perhaps you might linger to savour the text! You can read a lot faster at this level, and you’re not looking up unknowns, except maybe a very occasional one that you kind of thought you knew the meaning of, but wanted to check or were just interested.

This is reading to learn. The skill being practices is reading, and the object is learning, not vice versa. This is what is missing from most language students’ practices. And this is what’s particularly hard for classics and biblical students. There simply isn’t enough material at an easy enough level to do “a lot” of reading. Better for Latin than any other classical/historical language, but still difficult to obtain. For Greek, a nightmare. I’m working on a little side-project to help with that (btw).

So, if you want to improve as a reader, or a language learner in general, you almost certainly need a lot more extensive reading.

(The document I was reading is the Extensive Reading Foundation’s  Guide to Extensive Readering, see here;

For a great presentation of this applied to Latin, see Justin Slocum Bailey here (31 min video))

A much shorter presentation of the case for Extensive Reading, again by JSB, here (6 min video)

Parse + Translate ≠ Reading

Recently I was reading an introductory Greek grammar for which the ‘reading’ exercise had the instructions (non verbatim):

  1. Read aloud
  2. Parse all words fully
  3. Translate

Firstly, commendable at all that “read aloud” is an instruction at all. But as usual I think this is a terrible way to teach people to read, because there is very little, if any, ‘reading’ going on. This is how a linguist reads (no offence to linguists, very fine people and one of my favourite disciplines!). But this is not ‘reading in a language’ and it’s not likely to produce a reader of a language anytime soon (it will eventually, but only incidentally and with  great deal of inefficiency).

This is analysing a sentence/utterance, describing its morphosyntactical features, and then rendering it into one’s native tongue in order to understand. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but reading a foreign language doesn’t have to be like this and doesn’t have to be taught like this.

Here’s where I’m coming from (and pretty much where I’ve been ‘coming from’ for the last decade). The goal of most historical language programs is to produce readers, but ‘reading’ ought to mean “reading texts in the target language while processing them mentally in the target language.” It does not mean translating. It does not even involve translating. Translation is a different act, “understanding a message in one language and rendering its meaning in a different language.”

So, how do we learn to read in the language without translating?

We need Comprehensible Input, and a lot of it. Comprehensible input means that we need input (i.e. a message in the target language) that is comprehensible (i.e. the learner can understand the meaning). They don’t have to understand, far less analyse, every aspect and word and morpheme in that message, they just need to understand it.

At the simplest level this can be the simplest of sentences: δός μοι τοῦτο. τί ἐστι τοῦτο; τοῦτό ἐστι ποτήριον, δός μοι ποτήριον.

These can easily be rendered comprehensible if you are standing there, with a person, pointing at a cup. Or they can be understood by translation, yes, by translation! I said that dirty word. Translation makes a message comprehensible. It’s not the worst thing in the world. But then we have translated in order to understand, which is a learning activity. But what we really want is to understand in order to translate. That’s actually the order of operation we seek. So if we do translate to understand, we still want to go back to the target language and stop translating.

And from here, it’s about i + 1i represents what the learner knows1 is the smallest possible unit of unknown, new information, which is made comprehensible by the i, but it’s the 1 that we are ‘learning’. So you learn something new, you add to your i, and then repeat. That’s language acquisition.

At no stage of this process is it (a) essential to parse/analyse/tag/etc.., though we can/might do that for other reasons, (b) essential to translate, though we might choose to do so.

Practically, for Greek, the main problem is this: getting enough reading material to continually climb a ‘slope’ of texts that’s as gentle as possible. Such a mass of texts, particularly easy texts, simply does not exist. Conversational work is important, but reading is going to be essential, for reasons I discuss in my next post on this topic.

Adventures in LSJ: From J to Cypriot Epigraphy

One of the many current things occupying my overfull plate is trawling through betacode entries of LSJ headwords to sort out things that are ‘odd’. And LSJ has some odd things. Like

pe/dijos

Why is there a j there? That ain’t no Greek letter. So off we go to the print version.

The print version of LSJ is a host of mysteries, and mystery resolution. Most mysteries are far less interesting than this one. Lo and behold, there is a j in the entry. It’s not a typo in LSJ, and it’s not a typo in the data-entry.

So next we look at the entry.

= πεδιεινός

Now, if you happen to look up the page, you see πεδινός is also listed as equivalent to πεδιεινός. So it’s also worth looking at πεδιεινός, which finally yields an actual gloss and meaning: flat, level, of the plain.

But back to πέδιjος. We clearly need to look at the source:

E. Schwyzer, Dialectorum Graecarum exempla epigraphica potiora, Leipzig 1923. 679.18 (Cyprus).

Sadly this doesn’t appear available online. A copy resides in my erstwhile institutional library, controlled by robots. But in this case an easier alternative is at hand, a more recent collection of Cypriot inscriptions (Les Inscriptions chypriotes syllabiques, O. Masson, Paris 1964 [1985 with Addenda nova]. And we are after 217, the Tablet of Idalion, B side, line 18, and this can be accessed online! (This last sleuthing by none other than J. Tauber again).

So 217 B18 gives us the syllabic transcription pe-ti-ja-i, and the alphabetic transcription πεδίjαι

And so the j represents a consonantal iota preserved in Cypriot epigraphy, and there’s no mistake in the betacode headword anyway. Thus we carry on. In my next installment of LSJ adventures, we shall discuss the mystery of the upside-down smiley face.