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.

5 responses

  1. I wonder if people who are fluent in more than one language (who can think in those languages) more naturally learn to think in any new language they might attempt to learn (dead or living). In my experience, I find it more natural to just think in a new language I am learning than to try to translate it in my L1 or L2 language.

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    • I suspect this might be true, but I have no evidence. However, my suspicion is that for an L1 monoglot, getting over that ‘hurdle’ and starting to think in an L2 is a ‘breakthrough’ kind of experience. And once done once, is more easily done again. For a person proficient or fluent in an L2, it makes perfect sense to approach the next L2 by learning to think in it.

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  2. It is certainly possible, because I’ve been doing it fairly often for several years now. Two-three times a week I have short conversations in Latin with a friend I see on Sundays and Wednesdays at church services. Recently I’ve started doing Koine Greek instant messenger type chats on Google Hangouts with a fellow B-Greek member. We also plan to have a telephone chat tomorrow in Koine. From time to time I’ve also exchanged emails in Latin, Koine, and Biblical Hebrew with friends. And I’ve also done this as a monologue with family pets.

    Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome is learning to ditch the “dead language” concept altogether and not let it affect your outlook and practice. That, and dropping the translation approach to getting at meaning in the L2. (I have largely done this, but sometimes catch myself doing it when reading. Less so when I use it to communicate.)

    Now I don’t mean to say that I am fluent in the ancient languages when I use them communicatively. I know I make some mistakes, and that I need to review some verb forms (particularly for past tenses and in Greek and yiqtols in Hebrew). And I need to expand my control of vocabulary and idiom for everyday topics. But the important thing is that I am using the languages actively. I communicate what I want to get across. I understand most of what the other person says. And I am having fun along the way.

    Dewayne Dulaney

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    • I would add that the more you use the languages actively, the easier it gets to start thinking (or improve your ability to think) in them. Writing, speaking, listening, and reading aloud all contribute to this. And I’ve also discovered that the more I attempt these approaches, my reading comprehension also improves. I first discovered this after I started listening regularly to the NT in Koine. After listening repeatedly and regularly to passages I then found when I read them understanding improved. I could even start to anticipate what the writer would say next because I heard it first.

      Really this should not surprise us. The same phenomena occur as one is learning a modern language by listening and speaking, then reading and writing. Which is why I’m a big fan of using audio aids in learning ancient languages and texts in them.

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  3. And I also discovered by combining listening with reading that my listening comprehension also improved. When listening to familiar passages in the Greek NT, for example, I usually can understand what is narrated and even anticipate the next phrase/sentence, if I have become familiar with it by reading it several times. Going back to the idea of translation for a moment, with a passage that contains some unfamiliar vocabulary, I strive to avoid translation (although sometimes tempted to because of the way I was first trained). I check the unfamiliar vocabulary in a lexicon and then re-read the passage attempting to understand it on its own terms. That’s not to say I don’t sometimes go over the text in an English translation if available to help check the understanding. Or if there are unfamiliar/forgotten verb forms or there is syntax that I don’t quite understand how it functions, I consult a grammar or parsing tool. But I try to avoid translating the text myself to get at the meaning. Not only does that slow down your progress, it fails to respect the original language and author, in my opinion.

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