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.