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)

Know/Don’t Know: the myth of binary knowledge in language learning.

The other day I was in a conversation and couldn’t for the life of me retrieve the Gàidhlig word for “question”. All I could think of was freagairt, which is “answer”. I had to ask what it was. It’s ceist, of course. Duh. That’s a word I “know”, or “am meant to know.”

But the real question is never ‘do you know this “word/phrase/structure/chunk of language”?’ It’s always, ‘can you comprehend this chunk of language right at this instant, or produce this chunk in a way that effects communication?’

Which means the strongly binary model most of us inherit of language learning, which includes “Teacher taught word X, therefore student learnt word X” (wrong not just for languages, but for instruction in general), and “You memorised word X, therefore you know word X in all circumstances” or even “you once got X right on a multiple choice question, therefore you can actively recall X for communication production”, and so on – these are just wrong.

‘Knowing’ is a lot fuzzier. It’s a huge range of contextualised, circumstantial, bits and pieces that determine whether communication is going to take place in any particular instance, and how well a message is going to go from producer to receiver.

Which is why, at the end of the day, “vocab testing” is mere approximation. It’s testing, “can you on particular occasion X, recall particular word Y (actively? passively?) in particular context/decontext Z which may or may not bear much relation to any genuine language encounter?”

It’s also why we should basically ‘lighten up’ on students. “I taught you this” has no real place in a language teacher’s teaching vocabulary (except maybe as a joke?). Students don’t really need to feel shame/guilt/frustration at not knowing a chunk of language in that moment, they just need the minimum amount of help to make the utterance comprehensible, so they can get on with getting meaning and so acquiring language. And the next time they encounter, or need, “chunk X”, it will hopefully come a little easier. Or the next time. Or the time after that. Or however many times.

Don’t use “means” when you mean “translates as”

I’m trying to cultivate a new habit, and the title is it. Everytime I find myself writing something like, “the word ὑπόστασις means “blah de blah blah'”, I stop and rewrite it to something more like, “the word ὑπόστασις translates as ‘blah’ or ‘blech'”.

The reason is that ‘means’ in these cases tends to perpetuate an implicit approach to language that treats it as mere code or cipher, as if other languages really encode ‘meaning’ that is genuine in English. Which is patently false. ὑπόστασις doesn’t mean “subsistence” or “person” or “being”.

On this issue I’m not trying to be some kind of hardline “no, you can never say X in one language ‘means’ Y in another”, but I do think it would serve our writing better to avoid the construction because of its implicit connotations.

This is particularly a problem with Biblical Exegetes and their tendency to say, “Ah, yes, the Greek word ‘means’…English.” Let’s at least start killing that.

Semi-regular rant on Greek language pedagogy

(I’m mostly in the midst of doing a lot of thesis writing, but thought I could take some time out to ride a hobby horse).

  • Knowing a language isn’t a qualification for teaching a language.

We usually think that knowing something is a pre-requisite for teaching it, and generally that’s true. But it’s also not a sufficient pre-requisite. Plenty of people know skills or competencies which they do not have the ability to teach very well. This is why teachers get trained. So they know (a) how to teach as well as (b) the material they will teach.

Why would you think a language was any different? Monoglots Anglophones are particularly susceptible to this delusion: “Oh, you know Spanish, teach so-an-so.” If you’re a monoglot L1 English speaker, have you tried to teach English? It’s not that easy.

Why then do we think that merely being a successful student of Greek or Latin or X-language turns one into a qualified teacher of the same?

  • Having a PhD in Greek linguistics or in New Testament studies indicates almost nothing about how well you can teach Greek.

Most seminaries use their New Testament faculty to teach Greek, on the theory that they’ve studied a lot of Greek and did PhDs with Greek. But following on from point 1, this is only incidentally related to knowing how to teach Greek. This guarantees that the methodologies used in seminary-based education for Greek will continue to passively reproduce ‘they way I was taught’ from generation to generation. Which is not best-practice in the field at all.

  • Knowing a language and knowing about a language are two fundamentally separate things.

Anyone who gets to the end of a grammar-translation based program ought to realise this. Knowing about a language – whether in the terminology of (traditional) grammars or in the jargon of the discipline of linguistics, is not the same as possessing a communicative ability in the language to read/write/listen/speak directly in the language. They are two separate things, and they are acquired separately. Most speakers of an L1 do not develop any significant ability to speak about the grammar of their own language, unless taught it explicitly and formally. Students whose primarily educational content is a grammatical description of their target language should end up with an ability to analyse and interpret it, but any genuine acquisition of the language is incidental, and sometimes accidental.

  • The cost of pursuing acquisition doesn’t mean surrendering analysis.

One of the arguments I most commonly hear against communicative-based approaches to language acquisition for languages such as Greek is that it means students will not learn to do the kind of linguistic analysis that is currently taught. That would only be true if a program were designed exclusively to provide language acquisition and deliberately avoided any meta-language discussion. There is no intrinsic reason why students could not be taught meta-language skills in addition to actual language acquisition. Nor, if we are honest, would it be that problematic or time-consuming to teach them to do so.

  • The cost of pursuing acquisition doesn’t mean “too long, too slow, too little.”

Another of the objections I commonly hear, is that while communicative-based approaches may be possible, they would take too long and too much time to reach their destination, time which programs and students don’t have. To which I have several replies. Firstly, this is largely untested for classical languages – there are so few programs running full-blown communicative-based pedagogies that evaluating whether it actually takes too long is not seriously possible. Assuming that it would is bad research methodology. Secondly, I suspect this is not a concern at the pedagogy of language level, but at the curriculum design of seminaries level. If students and programs don’t have time to actually teach Greek as a language, that’s a decision at the level of what’s important for seminary graduates, and a wrong one in my view.

  • There is a point to pursuing acquisition.

The third common objection that I hear and feel like rambling about today is that there is simply no point or value in developing a communicative ability in Greek. Honestly, I find this baffling. I would never feel like someone whose English corpus was limited to 20,000 Leagues under the sea, and their ability to understand it was limited to sentence diagramming and word by word glossing, was someone who ‘knew English’ and could reliably understand English-language texts. For every modern language we expect Acquisition, not Grammar-Knowledge. Ancient Languages are not categorically different.

  • We do ourselves and our students a disservice by perpetuating Grammar-Translation

The overwhelming consensus in Second Language Acquisition theory and applied linguistics is that G-T is a poor method, and it produces sub-standard results. It’s not best-practice, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it is. Continuing to teach generations of students Greek, Latin, insert-other-ancient-language-here via Grammar-Translation, when collectively we know better, is a dishonesty, and the cognitive dissonance should cause us mental discomfort. Demand something better from yourself and for your students.

“It depends…” – Some thoughts on translation

As I mature as both a reader of ancient texts and a teacher, I find myself saying a lot more, “It depends…”, as well as “You could translate it that way”, “That’s one way to render it”, and a lot of “it depends on the target audience of your translation.”

 

Most students who study Greek or Latin in a traditional program are taught to translate, and to translate in order to show their knowledge of the underlying grammar. That is, the goal of their translation is not ‘word for word accuracy’ or ‘literal rendering’, but ‘demonstration of grammatical knowledge in the target language’. Later on, they are told, you can use freer translation, but for the beginning stages we want to see that you know grammar like we know grammar.

Which, from that school’s philosophy, makes perfect sense. But we all know (we do all know) that translation is an intricate art and is always betrayal. Translation isn’t even simply a spectrum from ‘literal’ to ‘dynamic’ with some super-holy synthesis in the middle where the HCSB lives.

When we translate we are trying to convey something of the base text to something of the translated text. Usually that is ‘meaning’. But even meaning is a bit nebulous – do we want to preserve the meaning of words, or of phrases, or of clauses, or the gist of the whole passage, or sometimes the socio-communicative function of the text? It’s never simple.

Likewise, our translation can be familiarised, that is we can try and render elements of the socio-cultural context of the base text into immediately understandable analogues in the target language’s culture (for example, what do you do with the Good Shepherd in a culture that doesn’t have and never has had sheep?), or your translation can be alienised, preserving idioms and cultural references that won’t be immediately understandable to the reader and will require them to acquire new information about the base text’s culture, or even defamiliarised, as in taking elements of a text that are comfortable and familiar, say in an already existing translation version, and rendering them in a way that is jarring and dislocating so as to force the reader into a new act of reading.

Personally, the way I try and train readers of ancient texts is to focus as much as possible on getting htem to read what is right in front of them. Read the text “as it is”. When I bring this over to translation, my philosophy is “best represent the text as you can” – if it has ambiguities, try to render them ambiguously, if it has clarity, express that clarity, if it has foreignness, preserve the foreignness. I think of this as fidelity in translation, but I recognise that there are other ways to do that, and that even a single translator (myself!) translates differently for different contexts and purposes.

Poetry is a great place to test translation philosophy. If you accept Jakobson’s functions of language and even some modicum of structuralism, then poetry is a form of language in which the focus is on the actual code, the language used to mean is the focus. Poetry is language highlighting language (but not language talking about language, that’s the metalinguistic function!). Anyway, what do you translate in poetry? If you focus on meaning, you lose poetics, but if you focus on poetics, you must betray meaning! And even if you focus on poetics, you still face the difficult choices.

 

Say we’re translating classical Greek poetry into English. Do we choose an English verse form? Free verse? Alliteration? Metre? Even if you choose metre, you’re doing a ‘disservice’, since Greek metre is quantitative but English metre is stress-based. But doing so is also, and indeed has, created an English metrical traditional. Whereas the further back you go you see a more alliterative tradition in English. But if you translate into a contemporary poetic medium, you might end up with Free verse. And whatever you do, you are in fact creating as well as translating, and inevitably betraying. One could focus on meaning, but then you will betray the poetic function of the text. You have no choice but to fail! And yet translations succeed. That is the amazing thing about translations, that it’s actually possible.

 

What are your thoughts? How do you feel about translation and translation-philosophies?