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.

4 responses

  1. As much as I’d like to be reading and understanding, when I saw “δός μοι τοῦτο. τί ἐστι τοῦτο; τοῦτό ἐστι ποτήριον, δός μοι ποτήριον” I was translating word-by-word in my head back into English, even with such simple sentences.

    Presenting the series of phrases as a comic book with someone gesturing at a cup would be helpful perhaps in bridging that gap, and keeping me in the target language.

    Though I know the word ποτεριον by sight, it comes into my inner monologue as “cup”, not as “ποτεριον” with a mental image of a cup. I guess I have a long way to go.

    • To which I’d say, two things:
      1) Don’t beat yourself up. Even the simplest phrases cannot be understood without context. These ones would make much more sense if a physical cup were in view and we pointing to it and talking about it. And, as you say, a comic book might bridge some of that gap.
      2) You’ve also spent (I suspect) most of your Greek-studies-life being told/encouraged to translate, and had very few people saying, “try *not* to think of the English”. So your brain is wired to translate. Learning to read in the way I advocate does require some contrary ‘unwiring’. Some mental translation is probably inevitable and inescapable, I suspect, but generally I’m trying to discourage that as a process that’s seen as necessary in itself.

  2. One thing that might help the commenter is to get away from translation is to force yourself to keep reading (for instance by keeping a constant pace reading it out loud) for a few sentences or a paragraph, and then ask yourself not to translate but more summarizing questions, like, ‘what just happened?’ If reading narrative or drama, can you picture the action? This is easier when the text is more concrete – travel, battle, transactions, than when it is more abstract. If you have a general idea, move on. If the continuation makes sense to you, you were probably right in your understanding of the passage you just read. Detailed analysis doesn’t have to happen for every paragraph of Greek you read – you don’t do that with other languages either. Instead pick bits for slower (re-) reading and for going faster.