re-re-thinking online theological education (part 2: What is education?)
re-re-thinking online theological education (part 1)
In this and a series of subsequent posts I’m going to think-out-loud my thoughts on theological colleges, seminaries, and online education. If you’re here usually for mostly classical language pedagogy, feel free to take a short break from reading! But otherwise, we’re going to be thinking about five core questions:
What is theological education for?
Who is theological education for?
What is education?
Who are our communities?
What happens when we go online?
And in today’s post I’m discussing the first two of these questions: what is TE for, and who is it for?
less and less people present as young unmarried persons ready to enter a lifetime of vocational ministry. They are often older, married, with children, and they are less likely to spend a whole ‘career’ in congregational ministry (because our patterns of work, career, vocation, etc., have also changed).
who goes to theological college has also changed, as education more broadly has become more accessible, more piecemeal, and more ‘configurable’. Few colleges offer only a single “here’s the 3-year package, sign up and enlist” model. Much more common are multiple degree programs, wide selection of electives, modular, part-time, etc., etc., which increases the diversity of people entering theological college, and hence changes the intended outcome
Reflections on the practice of reading, GTM vs ComAp, mental translation, and other things
On forgetting languages
What’s it like to forget a language? or two? And what does that mean for acquired vs. ‘learned’ language? In this post I reflect upon my experience with two separate languages, and how different forgetting can be.
I studied Biblical Hebrew in Seminary, for three years way back in 2004-2007. It was all grammar translation (GTM), and I did quite well. I learnt my paradigms, used brute force rote-memorisation to get a lot of vocab in my head, and passed my exams, and took my Old Testament subjects on the Hebrew text rather than English. I didn’t do a fourth year though, and I didn’t really continue on with Hebrew in a significant way. I could use my grammatical knowledge to leverage commentaries, I’d occasionally employ it in sermons, but I didn’t have any ongoing regular use of the language. In 2014 while in Mongolia I ended up teaching a Hebrew exegesis course on Amos, which would not have been my choice! Anyway, I still had enough conceptual knowledge that I could work over a text and parse/analyse to figure out its meaning and how to teach it. This, though, is a long way from an active knowledge, let alone even a passive reading knowledge. These days I recognise that I actually don’t know Hebrew. I’ve begun again with more communicative-based approaches, because I believe only that will stick.
I learnt Mongolian in Mongolia. In 2012 I started, with one-on-one tuition for 4.5 hrs a day, 5x a week. Beyond that we were involved, though not heavily involved, in day to day life with Mongolian speakers, e.g. at our Mongolian church. After the first year I began teaching, while still doing some language specific work, but now I was working/operating in a Mongolian environment. I taught exegesis classes in New Testament, primarily in Mongolian, and then other content-based classes usually with a translator. By our third and final full year in Mongolia, I could happily participate in most conversations, teach in the language, and deliver sermons, but it was still stretching my abilities. Nevertheless, it was an acquired language that I was competently proficient in.
2015 is the last year I spent time in Mongolia. I’ve had a very few occasions to speak it since, but they are uncommon. I made the choice not to spend significant amounts of time maintaining the language, which I could have. That is, I could read/listen/watch and otherwise consume Mongolian content, but I don’t because I’ve chosen to invest my time elsewhere. And yet, the difference in my forgetting of these two languages is marked to me. I literally don’t know any Hebrew, beyond the little I’ve relearned in recent study. I couldn’t produce a paradigm, I read words that are basic and high frequency and don’t recognise them, I can’t get through anything more than a basic sentence. It’s like I never learnt it at all. That’s what it feels like to forget a GTM learned language – you have to start over. Sure, there are bits and pieces of knowledge in my head, which come out and re-activate, but it’s fragmented and it’s not a system. Mongolian is more like… dormant. If I try, I can switch my mind over and formulate complete fluent sentences with good idiomatic, even informal, language. I could probably hold a conversation, but it would be a little slow. I often can’t find a word that I know, but if I then hear it I recognise it with an, “aha, of course”. I’m sure it is becoming more dormant, like a dragon in a long slumber, but I also know that it could be reawakened. Because it’s a complete linguistic system in my mind, and I could functionally operate in Mongolian.
That, for me, is the difference in forgetting a ‘learned’ and an acquired language.
Why the study of the classics? Why humanities? Some thoughts in progress
“Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”
~ Calvin, the Institutes 1.1.1
This may seem an odd place to start a discursive piece reflecting on the place of the classics, but here Calvin divides all knowledge into two parts : the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. Putting aside the question of the knowledge of the rest of creation that is not human, that which is not theology is the humanities. And the humanities are, I would argue, the study of what it is to be human. For those who do not share a belief in God, what else is there to study but what there is to be human? And for those who do, we are inescapably bound by our human condition, whether we reflect upon it or not.
It is because we are interested in the human, that we engage the classics. We read classics because human nature, arguably, does not change. Times and places do, but what is it to be human? We share far more with those of Rome and Greece, than the degree by which we differ from them. We are engaged in a movement from the particular to the common, and back again. So classics is a conversation across centuries. It is a multifaceted conversation. I read Vergil because I am interested in understanding Vergil, and because I am interested in what Vergil says about who we are as humans, yet at the same time I am listening for the differences, the vast gulf of culture and chaos between then and now, between them and me. I am listening for what is the same and what is different, and exploring the spaces in between. At the same time, the very fact that I read Vergil raises other questions – who is not in this conversation? who has been excluded from this conversation? who could I invite to this conversation? and are there times when Vergil should not be invited to the conversation?
We read classics, too, because we are storied creatures. We inhabit narratives. We are the product of time and causality, both real and fictious. Our world, whether we like it or not, is shaped by the histories of antiquity, and we do better to understand this world by understanding the worlds that went before. That, however, is also true of other histories, which also deserve our collective attention. The histories, cultures, and literatures of certain Mediterranean peoples are not intrinsically or inherently more worthy of our attention than others. The history of Europe, its colonialism, imperialism, and thus inordinately large influence on the rest of the world, has been a reason for a historical weight given to its cultures, etc.. That creates almost a paradox. On the one hand, to understand our own world, we are to some degree obliged to engage those histories; on the other, the way those histories are intertwined with the historical injustices that create our present moment, and have silenced other peoples and peoples’, warrants that we turn our attention to minoritised voices.
We also are creatures that tell stories, and the way we tell those stories, what we include and what we exclude, is as important, often more important, than the contents of those stories themselves. That the classics have positioned themselves as the basis of western civilisation is both a given and a contested. Indeed, we ought to wrestle with how and why it is a ‘given’, as well as how it ought to be contested. If we want to understand why the so-called western world has privileged the classics, esp. in a canonical sense, and how this shapes our present, things like contemporary and historical white supremacism, we need to understand how the classics has evolved to situate and tell that story, even at the same time that we can critique that narrative. The stories of European imperialism, colonialism, the emergence of the very concept of Western Civilisation, the construction of whiteness and race, the role of classics as a discipline in evolving an idea of classics that grafts the present onto the past as a legitimising tool of power and oppression – all these are stories that require our critical engagement and analysis, at the same time that we critically read the stories that are their content, and the stories currently being told about them. Stories shape who we are, but they can be reshaped.
We read classics because we are humans are interpreters. We talk, and the only way forward is to talk more. In this sense all discourse is recourse, it builds and responds to what has been said before. Reading outside the canonical construct of the ‘canon’ does not necessarily mean rejecting the canon, but it can mean and should mean de-canonising the canon. Is Homer worth reading? Yes, but perhaps not for the reasons Homer was read before. And not because other things aren’t worth reading. By choosing to read other things, and not choosing to make it compulsory to read Homer, or assuming that everyone has or does, we broaden our conversation. That conversation goes on, because we are talking creatures, and the only alternative is silence. We engage in a conversation that involves the living and the dead, to understand ourselves and each other, and the more parties we bring to that conversation, the greater our learning.
We read classics because in studying the past, we retell the past, and in telling the past, we speak the now and shape the future. How we tell the past reveals who we think we are, and what we think we’ll do.
To return to the start – I think we do humanities precisely because we are human and so we are subject to certain conditions – the finitude of our human existence, the longings of the heart, the capacities of our flesh, the finite certitude of death. And within those bounds we long to understand ourselves and each other, and the primary means of doing so is speech. We learn languages to communicate. Latin, and Greek, due to certain social and historical factors, their intertwined histories as languages of empire not least, open a door to millenia of texts across six continents, from a vast number of speakers. That is a particular reason to learn them and put them to use, but it is not an exclusive one. I do not think Latin or Greek is privileged in that sense, indeed I think there is incredible value in learning other languages and engaging other histories, cultures, literatures, and oral traditions, because we are the poorer when we don’t engage those voices.
At the same time, the very finitude of human existence means we, as individuals shall never learn all languages, engage all cultures, hear all voices, or read all texts. The choice of a particular individual to read particular texts is grounded in finitude. Which means that part of the value of humanities is not the objects, but the nature, of the study itself. Not in the trite and utilitarian sense of “develops cognitive skills, builds close analysis, logic” etc trotted out to convince students of the neo-liberalist pay-off of being better cogs in a capitalism machine. Rather, sustained, critical communication, whether interpretation or expression, makes us better dialogue partners, and thinkers, if the content of our communication drives us back to the central questions of what it means to be human.
Classics as a discipline was born from an inherently privileged context: the notion of the liberal arts, the cultivation of humanitas as what pertains to noble, landed, freeborn, Roman male enslavers. We are not them, nor should we idealise them. And yet, the discipline itself taught us the tools of its own destruction – to closely read texts and ask questions, disturbing and critical questions. It is that questioning that leads us into new spaces, new ways of approaching texts, so that the texts of the past may be asked new questions, even as we ask age-old questions by listening to, and at times privileging, new voices, or neglected and marginalised old ones.
This is why I read classics.
Interview on Biblical languages, Christian Ministry, and Communicative Language Approaches
Projects and Processes
I know, I am notorious for starting new projects, and not necessarily finishing them. Anyway, that’s a personal flaw I’m working on. In this post I’m going to talk about two newish projects I’m working on and a bit about how I’m tackling them.
Both of them are “Readers”, i.e. graded reading texts designed for introductory and intermediate students. In each case I’m specifically keying them to an existing resource, the Greek one μὲν to Athenaze, the Latin one δὲ to LLPSI.
Why key to an existing resource?
Simply, I teach with both these texts, and I quite like them, and don’t think I could currently improve on them (well, LGPSI is a different story, and I am still working on that). I don’t want to replace either of them, but I do want to create new resources that would work alongside those, and expand students’ options and reading material.
What are these readers?
The Greek one is designed to create a narrative that piggy-backs of Athenaze but moves the reader into the world, and the language, of the New Testament. It solves a problem that I have, which is that I prefer to teach NT and Koine students from Athenaze, but if you only read Athenaze you end up with a very atticising Greek, and you don’t have quite the exposure to New Testament vocabulary and idiom that I’d like. A supplementary reader can: (a) broader a students’ reading, (b) build of their Athenaze knowledge, (c) prepare and engage them for NT specific vocabulary, syntax, and content.
I’m calling it Γαλιλίᾱθεν for the moment.
The LLPSI one is designed to mirror and match LLPSI: Familia Romana. FR does an amazing job, despite its flaws, and I have no need nor desire to really replace it. But we could always do with “more reading”. Which, also, the Latin novella industry is doing a nice job of filling. But I want to tell new stories, and I want to tell non-ancient and non-Roman ones. That’s why this book is set in a dystopian cyberpunk future of 2122, with a female protagonist, and no Romans in sight. It exists in a shared universe with my (temporarily halted but not exactly dead) Elena story.
Given that I’m not terribly far along in either of these, this is what my process looks like: for each chapter/section, I look up what new vocabulary and “up to this point” vocabulary the touchstone text has used. I also look over the grammar covered. In the early chapters, some of the content is very similar, simply because the working material is limited. I also look at the length of each sections. For the Latin project, I do a word count on LLPSI and on Colloquia Personarum, and aim to be slightly longer than the CP reading. For Γαλιλίᾱθεν I aim to be around the same length, erring on the shorter side (the Italian edition readings are very long compared to the English edition ones). I try to introduce minimal new grammar, if possible; for vocabulary, my aims are divergent. In Γαλιλίᾱθεν I’m consciously trying to substitute more common Koine words for Attic equivalents, as well as introduce some NT specific vocabulary. For the Latin, I’m trying to gently expand a reader’s vocabulary, to the point where I can tell a full-fledged story in the later half of the book.
Timeline and Release
The good news is that, at least for the present, I have some decent work processes in place that are keeping these (and other projects, including LGPSI!) moving forward at a reasonable pace. I plan to release some sections free to all. Others to my patreon, to moderately reward those backing me there, and once it’s done we’ll see about some kind of publishing. I would very much like to keep up a solid pace of a chapter a week, but that’s probably a little too ambitious.
Learn Ancient Greek from Athenaze with a Stand-Alone Video Course
The best way to learn Ancient Greek is with a live teacher, in person, with lots of contact time, speaking, talking, reading, writing. That’s not possible for everyone, and I don’t have a position that lets me teach like that anyway. It’s why SeumasU exists – to provide a way for people throughout the globe to learn Latin or Ancient Greek online, with live interaction, and to read a variety of texts that rarely get touched in traditional institutions. And if my courses don’t suit, I will happily point you to several other excellent online instructors in Latin and Greek.
And yet there are some people for whom live classes aren’t possible or viable. That’s one reason why I have been developing for quite some time now a stand-alone video course that takes you through Athenaze, with all the instruction you could expect from a teacher or professor. No, it doesn’t replicate live conversational classes. It does do everything else though.
The first part of this course is now complete. That is, all the core content is there and ready for someone to use and guide their own way through Athenaze, while still tackling it as a ‘live’ language. I’m now working to complete the core content for the second part, as well as create a considerable amount of bonus content for part one.
What’s in Part 1?
Part 1 of this course covers Athenaze chapters 1-8. After introductory material on the alphabet and orthography, we move into the main content.
Each module consists of 4 sets of videos.
Vocabulary Pre-Teaching: Introduces some of the key vocabulary for the chapter, with pictures, example sentences, links to English and Latin words. It’s a pre-step to get you ready for reading.
Text and Explanation: For each of the readings in Athenaze, I provide a teaching video where I guide you through the passage, giving English-language explanations of new elements as well as interesting features.
Greek Questions: For each reading I provide a subsequent video that demonstrates and exemplifies Greek questions and answers about the passage, section by section.
Grammar: The grammar videos cover, but do not replicate, the material in the textbook. Instead, you get my own take on the grammatical topics for each chapter, going above and beyond standard introductory explanations, and drawing upon contemporary approaches to Greek linguistics.
Bonus Videos: As the course expands, I’m adding bonus videos that dive into additional readings, as well as cover Greek grammar in Greek.
If you’re looking for an asynchronous online video course to guide you in your ancient Greek learning, this is it.
Ancient Greek 101
A short LGPSI update
I know that everyone is always excited to hear about LGPSI and what’s happening or not happening. I’m pleased to report that some things are happening. I try not to ever make promises about LGPSI progress, because I never want to disappoint you with expectations unfulfilled.
Firstly, I’m doing some revision work on the early chapters, primarily to put them into a more Ørbergised format, with margin notes, and with some ‘placeholder’ illustrations. These are generally stock images I’ve pulled to stick into the margins to give an idea of where I think illustrations should go. Chapters in this format are slowly being released to my handful of loyal patreon supporters.
Secondly, I’m doing some similar editing, marginalia, and proof-reading of chapters from about 10 onwards. Due to adjustments in chapter contents and storyline, some of the chapter-alignments are now out of date as well. As the text of these gets done, I’ll stick them into the repository, and I’ll release the draft Ørberg versions on patreon.
Thirdly, I’ve been running an “LGPSI+” class for several terms now, and we passed the previous point of written material some time ago (It was chapter 19). I have draft notes for new chapters from 17 up until 25, but they need to be written out from the draft material collaborated on in our classes and turned into full chapters. This is the third type of ‘work’ I’m doing. Those chapters will also see a text release on the repository and webpage, and a marginalia/image draft on patreon.
FAQ: When can you expect what? When it’s ready.
Mark Jeong’s Greek Reader: A Review
A Greek Reader: A companion to A Primer of Biblical Greek, by Mark Jeong. Eerdmans 2022
Part 1: A Review
Part 2: Commentary and Errata
Via Latina: A review
Via Latina: De Lingua et Vita Romanorum, by Maria Luisa Aguilar & Jorge Tarrega
This is a new, and much anticipated volume, put out by Cultura Clásica, a Spanish outfit responsible for a good deal of quality Latin and Greek materials, but about whom I confess to know very little.
The preface (written in Latin, like the rest of this entire volume), speaks of their plan, commencing seven years ago, to prepare a new volume for beginner students in Latin. They have three main concerns in mind: (1) That the method should centrally concern itself with the use of the language. That said, Latin is both the object and the means of study. (2) The contents should concern itself with the doings of the Romans, from which cause the bulk of the book follows an outline of Roman history from Larentia to the Gracchi. (3) A vast variety of exercises, which I can attest they have indeed supplied, which will engage learners in the language, with meaning.
The overall structure of the book is a division into 12 chapters, each with three readings. At the end of each chapter, there is a short grammatical explanation section, also done in Latin, and in every second chapter, a ‘culture/history’ essay, also delivered in Latin. By now you have fully realised that the whole book is in Latin, so I will stop saying so.
A reading is about 35 lines (7-ish words to a line, so 245 words or so per reading, 735 words per chapter). There’s margin notes, which give Ørberg style helps, often synonyms, explanations, derivatives, etc.. Sometimes these are to words that don’t appear to have been introduced yet, but which a student might guess/intuit based on cognates. The marginalia are not comprehensive, nor designed to be as they explain in the preface – an instructor is to fill in the gaps.
Illustrations also adorn the margins, as well as larger images which adorn the top third of many pages. These are indeed illustrative – showing the action of the story as it unfolds. That story is a history of Rome, familiar to any reader of Livy, from earliest times onwards.
The Latin reads well. It’s not overly complicated, nor does it feel un-Latinate. There are a few points which are, well, less straightforward. cap 5, l2-3 in oppidō Tarquiniā nātus is quite confusing if you don’t know that Tarquinia is the name of a town, and it is not introduced or noted in the margin. So your putative first reader is confronted with a feminine ablative, clearly related to the name Tarquinius, but with not enough context to figure out what’s going on.
Errors appear few and far between, which is always, always pleasing in a textbook (looking at you, revised editions of Athenaze that introduced more errors than previous editions!). This isn’t one of those reviews that gives you a list though, but there is a spelling error on p25, in margine quarere for quaerere.
A few points of criticism:
Firstly, there is the subject matter, which will please some and deter others. Certainly some teachers feel that a grounding in the Rebus Gestis Romanorum is a sine qua non of foundational Latin learning. My concern is not with that debate, though I long to see more resources that recognise and willingly decentre “Romans” as prototypical Latin speakers. Rather, there are several clear episodes in this history that are uncomfortable reading at any stage. Having to deal with the Rape of the Sabines (Abduction and Sexual Servitude), and the Rape of Lucretia (Sexual Assault), as key elements of the main narrative, is going to make this difficult to implement in some schools or with younger readers. There is also a degree of pro-Roman and pro-Imperialism cheerleading in the text, which derives in part from leaning so heavily on Livy as its source for a narrative through-line.
Inevitably at this point some of you who still read this blog say, “Yes, but we can’t just mollycoddle everyone and live in a fantasy world where these things didn’t happen, or hide them from students.” True, but how we speak about the abduction of women in order to force them into arranged marriages for child-rearing, and when, and to whom, are all questions to be asked and answered by educators. I would not treat that episode the same with a 12 year old, a 20 year old, and a 50 year old learner of Latin. For those thinking of using this text in a school classroom, this will be a real consideration.
Although much is made of starting with Larentia, who features prominently in chapter 1, women throughout the book are confined to their usual places in a Livian history, and it would be hard to maintain that this text does much to reverse the marginalisation (and sexualisation) of women in Roman history, Latin pedagogy, or classics more broadly.
Similarly, the illustrations will cause some to pause. Aesthetic tastes vary (and the style here will not be to everyone’s enjoyment), and there is nothing explicit, but there are certainly things that are going to be on the edge for some readers (or parents). This includes an almost entirely naked Lucretia being assailed by Tarquinius (p122), a small image of a naked man, front-on, on p90 (illustrating the word corpus), several scenes of the aftermath of battles (which most people will not find too gory, if only because people tend to be more upset at sex than violence), and blood seeping out of murdered Tarquinius Priscus (p84).
These two factors, I’m sad to say, are probably enough to stop its widespread use in schools.
I will say, in praise of the illustrations, that there is a considerable effort here to portray a range of skin tones, and so we are spared the whitening of Roman ethno-identity. This is a welcome change from other textbooks.
However, I want to turn now to the question that is inevitable : comparison to Ørberg.
Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata is (mea quidem sententia) not simply the best textbook that exists for Latin, but the best textbook by far. It is not the best textbook imaginable though. Now, Via Latina doesn’t claim to replace LLPSI, or to be doing what Ørberg did, or anything like that. However, in virtue of being a Latine tantum textbook, written in what people now think of as an Ørberg-style (illustrations, marginalia latine, etc), and with some specific Latin-use orientation, it is inevitable that the comparison will be made. Could this replace Ørberg?
I don’t think so. And before I turn to why, that’s neither here nor there – this book doesn’t have to replace Ørberg, doesn’t claim to, and you don’t have to think of it as an Ørberg alternative. The reasons I think so are, I believe, worth considering.
Firstly, there is not enough volume of continuous narrative Latin here. 735 per chapter-unit, over 12 chapters, is approximately 8820. I can tell you that Familia Romana, with 35 chapters, has a chapter length of 680 words in cap 1, up to 1479 in cap 34. That is simply far, far more words to encounter over the course of a text. Secondly, the rate of new information in LLPSI is slower, both structurally and vocabulary. You can see this in VL’s capitulum 1: it echoes LLPSI’s capitulum 1, but with far less repetition, and the introduction of pronouns (is, ea, id). The combination of less repetition, more new information, moves the learner at a more rapid pace with less reinforcement. Thirdly, the more you read Ørberg, the more you become aware of just how much he crafted this over a lifetime to make both macro and micro features “per se illustratae” – the many points at which things are understandable within the text, without recourse to external help. VL does not succeed very well at this, and I am not sure they were trying to (in which case they shouldn’t be faulted for it, but the comparison must be made). VL is not an Ørberg-slayer, and I am unconvinced we will see one for quite a long time. Yet, maybe we don’t need an Ørberg-slayer, maybe we just need more good Latin materials for students – and that is what VL is.
There is one thing that VL does better than Ørberg though, and it should be absolutely praised for this: the exercises. Ørberg has essentially 3 unvarying exercises: cloze endings, cloze words, and simple comprehension questions. VL has a considerable variety of exercises, aimed at facilitating comprehension, meaning-based connections, and familiarity with forms. I could see myself adapting these exercise types for other texts, and some of them would make excellent assessment-type questions as well.
In turning to VL’s positives, this is a very welcome addition to the world of Latin reading material for learners. I’d have no problems recommending this as a text worth adding to one’s collection, and using for various purposes, including as a supplement within a program built around other things. It’s well written, quality Latin, aimed at learners, and introduces a (version of) history of Rome up to the Grachii. The illustrations, with the above caveats, are well done and are more beneficial than not (e.g. plenty of other books have illustrations that either contribute nothing, or in fact detract).
Via Latina, then, is a new textbook worth your attention, even if you don’t end up using it to teach with. It has some significant positives, but some significant flaws as well. What I do hope is that many teachers will take a look at this book, make some use of it in their classrooms, but also consider how we all can create more and better resources in the future.
Why summative assessment is so problematic
Can this learner move on to the next module?
Summative assessment is used to make generalised conclusions about a student’s academic ability.
A terminal assessment of competency.
Catullus 1-9, translations
In my spare time I have been pottering away at some Catullus translations. You can find recordings of these on my soundcloud as well.
Warning: Catullus is fairly liberal in his use of expletives, so if profanity offends you, read no further. He’s also not a very nice person.
Who wants their name in big print, on the
cover of my shiny new book, hot off the press?
You! Cornelius, because you were always on
my case about how this was a waste of time,
when you were single-handedly producing the
world’s longest and most boring “academic”
So take this little book, whatever it’s worth
and, Goddess of Viral Memes,
may it survive to a second printing
Sparrow. my little babe’s delight,
who she toys with, keeps in her lap,
teases with a fingertip
soliciting sharp bites
beaming with lust for me,
it pleases her to make some joke or other
(it settles down the aching,
as then fire subsides)
How I wish I could toy with her as she with it
and take a load off her mind!
… as pleasing to me as the golden apple
was to the fast girl,
which unzipped her long-fastened pants
Read it and weep – all you bitches and hoes,
and any man who has a heart,
dead. my baby’s sparrow is dead,
bird of my bird
who she loved more than her eyeballs;
it was as sweet as honey, and knew her
as well as any girl her mother
never left her lap, jumping
here there and everywhere
sole songbird sang for no other
now it walks the night road
and no one comes back that way
A curse on you, vile darkness
you gulp every good thing down
it’s you that stole my sweet sparrow
badly done, and bad way to go;
but it’s your fault, shadow’d sparrow
that my girl’s eyes bleed a swollen red
See that little slip, my friends?
She sounds off that she’s the fastest of the fleet,
that no ship on the sea can catch her,
not by scull not by sail
swift skimming the silver sea’s surface.
she calls to witness:
The Hadriatic’s all-huff no-puff shore,
the Cyclades, tricky to thread,
righteous Rhodes, hectic Marmara,
the bruising Black Sea, where once a tressed tree, and thereafter a boat.
– none will deny.
Up there on Gideros’ back, whispering wind
from luscious locks. Amasra and Gideros,
sea-shored and boxwood-bearing,
she says, ere and ever, she is known to you
best; that right from the start she stood
straight up on your peak, dipped dripping oars
in your sea, lord laden crossed countless
unrestrained straits, whether the wind
beckoned from port, starboard, or the Sky
Father slapped the ship square from behind:
she didn’t beg not once to seashore saints,
in all her journey from that so far sea to this
but this was all long ago. she’s laid up now,
grown and growing old, dedicated
to the Dioscuri
Let’s live and love, my Lesbia;
I don’t give a rat’s ass about what
suns can rise and suns can set
but, for us? yolo.
a moment in the limelight
and an endless darkness
kiss me. kiss me again.
kiss me again and again.
a hundred, a thousand times
and when we have kissed
a gazillion times, we’ll encrypt that number
no jealous hacker will know the code
and ransomware our love.
Flavi, bro, Flavi bro. you’d tell Catullus
all about your latest sidepiece, you couldn’t
keep your mouth shut, unless she’s ugly as
sin. but truly, i don’t know what little hottie
you’re hot for – you’re ashamed to say.
it’s a crying shame that your bed can’t talk,
because it shouts loudly enough, with its
essential oils and hints of perfume, you don’t
sleep alone. pillows askew, the faintest
impression of a rounder hip, not to mention
that bed creaks, groans, rattles and shakes.
nothing in the world could keep quiet your
dalliances. and why? you wouldn’t be
showing flanks flushed with fucking,
unless you were up to such tricks.
so just tell us, whether she’s hot or not.
And I will lay down a witty rhyme
to immortalise your loves, like mine.
hey Lesbia, you wanna know how many
kisses are enough for me? more than enough?
might as well count Libya’s sands
where once the spice flowed freely
between sweltering Jupiter’s oracle
and old Battus’ sacred tomb;
as countless as stars on a silent night,
that watch people’s furtive fondlings;
for your frenzied Catullus, to kiss you
that much will be enough and more,
so that curious cats will fail in the count
and envious eyes will zip their lips.
Catullus, you sad bro? Don’t be a fool –
can’t you see what’s gone is gone?
Bright days used to shine on you
when you’d go wherever she stringed you –
I’ll never love another lover like her –
There and then, fun times were had aplenty
you were keen and the girl wasn’t coy.
Bright days shined on you true.
Now she’s not so keen; you too, don’t be weak,
don’t chase, let her go, don’t wallow
but swallow your pride and take it on the chin.
cya, girl! Now Catullus is a hard man,
isn’t looking for you, isn’t asking for you
it’s you who’ll suffer, no one knocking down your door.
g-t-f-o you cheater: what life you got now?
who come running? who think you sexy?
who you gunna love? whose you gunna be?
who you gunna kiss? whose little lips you gunna bite so soft, so tender.
stay strong, Catullus my bro, stay strong.
Veranius – bestest of besties
worth more than a million other brothers from another mother
have you come home to your digs
to your brothers, to your old ma?
You have come! o sweet news!
to see you safe and sound
to hear you tell your travel tales
Spain’s people and places, sights and sounds,
as you always do, and I’ll lean over your neck
sweet savour kisses on eyes and mouth.
oh, of all men most happy on earth
who, who is happier than me?
The Road to Latin, Greekified
Recently the twitterverse was aptly reminded by Dr. Marchella Ward of the existence of “The Road to Latin“, a very fine Latin introductory textbook from 1932, not least because it was authored by a Black Woman, Helen Maria Chestnutt.
On the whole, it makes excellent reading material for any beginning (or advanced) Latin student, but I wondered if I couldn’t also adopt/adapt it to Greek. Here is a pdf with the first chapter rendered into Greek, for anyone interested, and I’ll make an effort to work on more chapters. If nothing else, it provides me with a pleasant diversion and you with a new source of easy, readable Greek.
A google-docs version is here: you can leave comments on it freely. This will enable you to keep up to date with any progress I make (I’m not promising any though)
While I’m here, I might as well make a couple of observations. Even in the very first reading, you have to make translation choices. The Latin sticks to first declension nouns ending in -a entirely. To keep the same vocab in Greek, I had to introduce other endings. Similarly, to express ‘stand’, ‘open’, and ‘closed’, required a perfect verb and two perfect participles. Thirdly, to keep Greek style from the very beginning, I introduced a few particles. Fourthly, Greek necessitates introducing the article here. Finally, I made the choice to keep the names and context of the original. All of which make this considerably harder for a student starting from scratch. This is (one set of reasons) why Greek ab initio books can’t simply ape Latin ones, let alone translate them. That said, I mostly intend to keep on in the same vein – a close rendering of the Latin, with whatever Greek seems apt or best. I think that’s the best way to honour the original work here.
The Just City, Greekified
Look, I’m not saying I’m actually going to translate a whole novel into Ancient Greek, but here’s the first page of Jo Walton’s amazing speculative-fiction novel/classical reception, The Just City, rendered into Ancient Greek.
Ἡ πόλις ἡ Δικαίᾱ
Α’ · Ἀπόλλων
μεταβέβληται εἰς δένδρον, τοῦτ᾿ ἦν τὸ μυστήριον, ὃ ἀνάγκη γίγνεσθαι. οὐδὲν γάρ ἄλλο δυνατόν ἦν, μοῦ ἀποροῦντος. τὸ δὴ μὴ συνιέναι κακῶς φέρω. ταῦτα πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἔπαθον τοῦδε ἕνεκα · οὐκ ἔμαθον διὰ οὗ εἰς δένδρον μεταβέβληται, μᾶλλον εἱλάτο γε γίγνεσθαι δένδρον. ὄνομα μὲν οὖν Δάφνη αὐτῆς, οὕτως δὲ καὶ τοῦ δένδρου ὃν γέγονεν, ἐκ τούτου ἐγένετο τὸ δένδρον αὐτό, ἡ δάφνη, ἴδιόν μοι, αἷς στεφανοῦνται οἵ τε ποιηταὶ καὶ οἱ ἐν ἀγῶσιν νενικῶτες.
τὰ οὖν πρῶτα ἠρόμην τὴν ἀδελφήν μου, «τί» ἔφην, «εἰς δένδρον μετέβαλλες τὴν Δάφνην;» ἡ δὲ ὄμμασιν προσέβλεπεν με τῆς σελήνης πληρουμένοις. καίπερ δὲ ἀφελῆς οὔσης ἐκ τοῦ τε πατρός καὶ τῆς μητρός, πολλῷ διαφέρειν οὐ δυνατόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς. ἡ δὲ ψῡχροτέρᾱ, ὀφρῡ́ος ἐπηρμένης μίᾱς, ἐπί γε τοποθεσίᾳ σεληνικῇ ἀνακλεῖται.
«ἐμὲ μὲν ἐδέησε δή, σπουδαίοτερον ἐπιθυμοῦσα, αὐτοθὶ δὲ σύ. τὰ οὖν ἐσχατὰ πράττειν ἐχρῆν.»
«ὅμως ἔσται ἥρως ἢ ἔτι θεὸς ὁ υἱος αὐτῆς.»
«τὴν οὖν παρθενίαν» ἔφην, «δήπου οὐ καταλαμβάνεις» πεταννῦσα τεινοῦσα τε σκέλος ψῡχρόν ὡς κρύσταλλος. μέγιστον γὰρ τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι ἡ παρθενία, οἷον καὶ τόξα, ἡ ἄγρα τε καὶ ἡ σελήνη.
«παρθένος μὲν μενεῖν ουκ ὀμώμοκε, οὐδὲ σοι ἀνακεῖται, οὐδὲ ἱέρεια. ἐγὼ δὲ οὐδέπωποτε…»
«ὅ τι μέγιστον ἔλαθέν σοι γε. εἴη Ἥρᾱ ἂν ᾗ πρέπει σε διαλέγεσθαι.» ἡ δὲ εἶπεν, ὑπὲρ τὸν ὦμον ἀντιβλέπουσα.
Discussing Ancient Greek Linguistics in Ancient Greek
In the last couple of days, occasioned at first by a tweet and corresponding discussions from Steven Runge, I’ve been teasing out in my head and a little bit of dialogue the difficulties of the “advanced discussion of Greek in Greek” question. It’s a question that any living language approach has to answer, one way or another. My position involves a few different angles, so let me lay them out again here.
Firstly, I don’t think you need to develop a meta-linguistic competence to talk about Greek grammar and linguistics in order to become a competent speaker/user of the language.
Secondly, I think it’s best to think of that meta-linguistic knowledge as a separate (but not entirely unrelated!) body of knowledge. Yes, meta-linguistic knowledge can help you become a more competent language user. However, the fact that one can be a highly competent speaker without a meta-linguistic knowledge, or vice versa a competent linguist of a language with very little communicative competence, suggests that these are separate.
Thirdly, meta-linguistic knowledge can be done in any language. It can be done in English, it can be done in Greek, it can be done in something else. There is a practical advantage to doing some of this, especially at the basic level, in Greek.
However, and this is point four, I think when we get to the point where we want to do complex, linguistic, exegetical, philological, discourse, literary, etc., type analyses, we have to reckon with some realities. Firstly, the language competence to, for example, read the New Testament, and the language competence to discuss these things about the New Testament, are fairly distant. The latter requires a level of competence, and domain specificity, and a body of academic knowledge, that are all additional to the former. Secondly, we should respect that not everyone looking for the former, wants to, can, or will, acquire the latter.
To demonstrate what I mean, below are three quotes from some linguisticky things I’ve read in the recent past. I chose things that I thought I’d have a shot at translating, and I’ve given you my (rough, ready, and likely problematic) Greek versions first – do yourself a favour and read the Greek before going down to the English. Can you read and process these sentences quickly, in Greek, with a reasonably clear understanding of what’s going on?
- τὸ ὑποθετικὸν κῶλον τὸ ἐν τῷ ἕκτῳ στίχῳ ἀρχόμενον διδάσκει τὸν ἀναγιγνώσκοντα ὅτι δεῖ τὰ ἑπόμενα κατὰ ταῦτα συνίεσθαι.
- πλεῖστον χρόνον, εἰ μὴ πάντοτε, ἀλλήλοις διαλεγόμεθα τῇ μὲν γλώσσῃ χρώμενοι τὴν δὲ ἐνεργεῖαν αὐτὴν, πολύπλοκον οὖσαν, μὴ περιορῶντες, ᾗπερ κῶλά τε καὶ λέξεις ποικίλας παρὰ λεπτόν παραπλασσόμεθα.
- μεταξύ τόπος· τὸ διαβαλλόμενον κεῖται μεταξὺ δυοῖν ἢ πλειόνων ὅρων. τὸ οὖν ὅρος κεῖται ὁποτέρωθεν τοῦ διαβαλλομένου. ἢ ἀθρόον ὃ διαμερίζεσθαι δύναται ἢ πληθυντικὰ ὄντα ἃ περιίστασθαι δύναται τὸ διαβαλλόμενον. λέγεται οὖν τὸ ὅρος ἐπὶ τῆς γενικῆς πτώσεως.
The English originals are below.
- The conditional clause that begins verse 6 instructs the reader that what follows must be processed in light of this.
- Steven Runge, ‘Interpreting Constituent Order in Koine Greek’ in Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate. eds. David Alan Black and Benjamin L. Merkle.
2. Most of the time, if not all of the time, we communicate with each other using language without considering the complex activity we are undertaking, forming complex words and sentences in a split second.
- Emma L. Pavey. The Structure of Language: An Introduction to Grammatical Analysis (Kindle Locations 114-115). Kindle Edition.
3. μεταξύ : Location : A trajector is physically located in between two or more landmark The landmark is on either side of a trajector. The landmark is either a collective entity that can be split or multiple entities that can surround a trajector. The landmark is expressed in the genitive case.
- Rachel Aubrey, Michael Aubrey, Greek Prepositions in the New Testament: A Cognitive-Functional Description (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020).
Can this all be done in Ancient Greek? Yes. However let’s recognise that not everyone is interested in reading, or writing, complex linguistic content in Ancient Greek (I am, though!).
The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (6): the Johannine literature
Part 6 of our ongoing series (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5)
We turn now to consider the Johannine references, which are five: 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18, and 1 John 4:9. Throughout this section I content that the established meaning of ‘siblingless’ in contexts referring to persons continues to make best sense of these texts, without requiring any particular alteration for this context.
John 1:14, 18
Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας
And the Word became flesh, and set up his tent in our midst, and we have seen his glory, the glory of an only-son from a father, full of grace and truth.
I contend that the primary question for us here, given that the immediate context of the word’s usage is παρὰ πατρός, is what reason would there be to not consider the sense of μονογενής to refer to a siblingless son? Every other attestation to this point, when in the context of persons, and familial relations, works with that meaning. If the author of the gospel wanted to indicate, “unique in kind”, or a philosophical “one and only one instance”, they appear to be writing in the wrong key. Similarly, if their intention were to indicate something about the generative process itself, “only begotten”, a more explicitly generative turn of not merely phrase, but context, appears required. Both, or rather either, of those meanings is possible, in a strict sense of possible. However, a reader of the gospel upon encountering μονογενής in close connection to πατρός, is most likely, most naturally, to understand it as a reference to a single and sole son who lacks siblings. The author establishes that this is how to understand the quality or kind of the δόξα that the λόγος possesses and which the author attests to have seen.
This in turn, establishes how to read the second occurrence of μονογενής a few verses later.
θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.
No-one has ever seen God: God-the-siblingless-son, who is in his father’s bosom, he has made him known.
Two important factors ought to guide our understanding of the term here. First, that the author has just prior used the term in a familial-type context to evoke the way in which an only son bears their father’s glory. Second, that within this same verse it is a familial relationship that is also invoked. This once more suggests that the “unique” reading is lacking in content. Contra Ehrman, there is no need to suppose that the phrase is itself meaningless and therefore must be a later theological correction for μονογενὴς υἱός. Ehrman’s case rests on two bases. The first of these is that external support for μονογενὴς υἱός is strong, beyond the Alexandrian tradition, at least strong enough to argue for its priority. Secondly, that the meaning of μονογενὴς θεός is not understandable within the conceptual world of the Fourth Gospel’s authorship, and only sensible in light of later theological contexts.
I leave aside the textual argument, though the reader should see Kristianto’s paper which walks through the evidence. The theological argument is of more interest here, because Ehrman’s argument is an instance of “lectio difficilior except if it seems too difficult.” Is it not at least likely that a scribe would consider μονογενὴς υἱός a more natural collocation than μονογενὴς θεός and correct it in that direction? Similarly, while we do not need to import 4th century, or even 3rd or 2nd century, christologies into John, nor should we assume that the gospel’s author is incapable of using the term μονογενής to expresses the idea that God (the siblingless son) makes God (the father) known.
John 3:16, 18
The second pair of instances in John occur in swift succession, again in connection to each other.
16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλʼ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλʼ ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος διʼ αὐτοῦ. 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται· ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ.
For God loved the world so, that he gave his only son, that everyone believing in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world be saved through him. The one that believes in him is not condemned; condemned already, however, is the unbelieving person, because they have not believed in the name of God’s siblingless son.
Given the prior usage in John 1, the lack of any significant shift to a philosophical register here, and that both uses here modify υἱός, what reason is there to overturn the significant weight of common usage, and instead find a peculiarly Johannine theological meaning of “uniquely begotten”, except on the supposed basis of John 1? Which basis we have already addressed.
1 John 4:9
ἐν τούτῳ ἐφανερώθη ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν,
ὅτι τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἀπέσταλκεν ὁ θεὸς
εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα ζήσωμεν διʼ αὐτοῦ. 
By this the love of God is made manifest in us,
that God has sent his only son,
into the world, so that we may live through him.
The author of 1 John uses μονογενής in a very Johannine manner, echoing the language of John 3 above. Insofar as there is no significant alteration from the usage in the gospel, neither is there a change in signification here. For this author, Jesus is the μονογενὴς υἱός because there are no other υἱοί of the same kind. For this same reason they reserve the term υἱός for Jesus, employing τέκνα instead to refer to believers.
 Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 1:14.
 Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 1:18.
 To take pains to make this obvious, when the word is taken to indicate “one of a kind” or “unique”, there must be some sense in which the referent is one of a kind. That sense is, for μονογενής, the lack of siblings. Which gives the word more content than the simple “unique” does.
 Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 78-82.
 Kristianto, S. ‘E valuating Bart Ehrman’s Textual Reconstruction: A Test Case on John 1:18’ Asia Journal of Theology, (31)1, (2017): 23-35.
 Without necessarily resolving or pre-empting how the author understands those relations to work.
 Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 3:15–18.
 Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 1 Jn 4:9.
Here, for your ancient Greek pleasure, I present Smashing Pumpkin’s Bullet with Butterfly Wings.
(I sing quite badly. If anyone wants to re-record with a more delightful voice, I’m very happy to assist them to do so)
λαμίᾱ ὁ κόσμος
σὲ πρὸς φλογοῖσι προῦχουσιν
τί μοι τοὔφελος
ὑπὲρ ὀδυνῶν μου;
πόθοι μέν παραδεδόμενοι
ἀγῶνος δὲ μέρος τι
ταῦτα μὴν εἰδώς
τὴν ψῡχὴν ἥσυχον
ὡς πάλαι Ἰώβ
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς
εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς
νῦν γε γυμνός εἰμι
οὐδὲν ἄλλο ἢ θηρίον
μίᾳ ἔτι καὶ θέᾳ
τί γ’ οὖν βούλει σύ
μεταβάλλεσθαι δὴ θέλω
τί σοι κέρδος ἔσται
τὰ αὐτὰ ἔτι ἕξεις;
ταῦτα μὴν εἰδώς
τὴν ψῡχὴν ἥσυχον
ὡς πάλαι Ἰώβ
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς
εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς
εἰπέ με μοῦνον εἶναι
εἰπέ μοι οὐδενὰ ἄλλον
μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ἦ!
εἰπέ μοι τὸν ἐκλεκτὸν ἐμέ
μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ὑπὲρ σοῦ
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς
εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δή …
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δή
ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς
εἰπέ με μοῦνον εἶναι
εἰπέ μοι οὐδενὰ ἄλλον
μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ὑπὲρ σοῦ
ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω
ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω
ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω
ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω
Duolingo, a love/hate story
I have a long and complicated relationship with Duolingo . The hate side, in short, is that I think the way Duolingo models language and thinks/treats language is fundamentally atomistic and inimical to good principles of second language acquisition. The love side is that I actually enjoy and continue to use Duolingo daily, and gain a measurable benefit from it. In this post I want to explore and reflect on these two things in light of recent and long-term experience.
According to my account, I first joined Duo in March 2012, so that’s a long time on the app. For very long periods I have been inactive. I currently have a 636 day streak, which is in large part thanks to the Scottish Gaelic course. It’s the only tree I’ve finished, and it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my actual time.
Recently I was taken by a desire to get “all the achievements”, including probably the most difficult, “Finish #1 in the Diamond League”. Leagues, if you don’t know are randomly assigned groupings of 50 or so users, and the top 10 get promoted. So I had to reactivate leagues, work my way back up to Diamond. And Diamond can get very competitive. For the week I was committed to winning, I activated a trial of Duolingo Plus, and liberally used a few competitive tricks: (i) when you complete a level on the mobile app, you typically get a 15mins double XP boost, (ii) some lesson options give you more XP than others. So I would organise my time to complete a level, and then go flat out on maximal XP options for 15min blocks.
So, the last month and the last week in particular has seen me spend way too much time on Duolingo, and I’ll be scaling back to more normal levels from now on.
What’s bad in Duolingo?
- Despite all the little features here and there, the fundamental building block of Duolingo courses is paired sentences. The core activity is “translate sentence X from L1 to L2 or L2 to L1”. There are tons of variations on this, on how this is accomplished : selecting the words in order, selecting missing words (cloze exercises), selecting correct endings only for targeted grammar, supplying A/B answers in L2 to an L2 prompt, reading into the microphone for a pronunciation check, etc etc.. Some of these, I admit, are not predicated on a paired sentence idea, but lying in the background is that building block. And, also to be fair, well-supported languages will accept a good variation of ‘correct’ translations in either direction for each sentence. It’s not “you must translate sentence A1 with corresponding sentence B1 only”.
- Because this is the fundamental building block though, Duolingo is mainly training you to rapidly translate sentence to sentence. This isn’t really how language works, and it’s not how good language instruction ought to work – there’s no genuine communication here, there’s no context beyond the app, there’s no meaning exchange here. Let’s not lose sight that this is basically drills forever. The best Duolingo gets to a meaningful communication activity are the Stories feature, which presents a short L2 narrative and asks some L2 questions for comprehension as you go. That actually *is* a great feature, for the major languages supported with it.
- The nature of the exercises, especially when they are “chose and rearrange the words”, actually narrows the options so much that it can often be too easy to figure out the meaning of a sentence without processing the L2 information at all, just because of the options you have in the L1.
- Some courses are actually terrible. I’m often asked about the Latin course, or worse yet told by people that that’s what they’re mainly using, and I think the Latin course is dreadful. The audio is poorly executed, the course hasn’t been well-supported enough to demonstrate the syntactical variations Latin allows, and the brevity and simplicity of the course leaves a lot to be desired. For a Latin learner, I would almost certainly say don’t spend time on Duolingo , it’s drawbacks far outweigh the time you’re wasting on it.
- The XP feature, and the league tables, are actually bad for you. As soon as you gamify and numerify something like this, the natural brain reaction is to want to earn more XP. This is even more so if you’re in the leagues. The best way to earn XP is the worst way to use Duolingo – switch off listening and recording exercises, select exercises to active double-XPs, and then do the legendary crowns, presuming you know all that content.
My most completed trees, if you’re wondering, are Gaelic, and French (oddly enough, I have no particular reason to learn much French but I find it easy and appealing). That should help place the following in perspective
- Majority European Languages are among the best supported and developed in Duolingo , not surprisingly as they are incredibly popular and Duolingo has a vested interest in making them better and better. French is a good example, it has (I believe) 210 separate skills making up 10 levels, as well as the stories feature, and more and varied exercise types.
- Scottish Gaelic is, of all the minority languages that I’ve tried, an excellent example of what’s possible. Firstly, the initial core course was put together by a small band of volunteers in an extremely short time, and it was then expanded to a relatively robust course. It has 5 levels, just over 3500 words, and it’s got (a) good idiomatic Gaelic, (b) a thoughtful grammatical sequencing, (c) interesting, culturally appropriate content, (d) an excellent sense of humour, (e) quality native-speaker recordings that are clear.
- Others? I’ve dabbled in the Irish course (has a few problems, from all accounts, and these have never been addressed. A bit of a worry that despite being significantly older that the Scottish Gaelic course, it has not been expanded), German, Italian, Chinese (generally good but has some odd things in it here and there in terms of sequencing), Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Navajo, High Valyrian, and Klingon. The off-beat conlangs are undersupported courses, really. So, often the quality of the course just depends on who is putting time into improving them.
So what does Duolingo do well?
In my opinion and experience, Gaelic Duolingo did not teach me much ‘new’ in the way of grammar. Nor, probably, has it done much to improve my speaking ability. What it has done, though, is (a) introduce me to some new vocabulary that I hadn’t encountered before, (b) given me some explicit grammar practice on structures that I don’t normally use actively, (c) helped my spelling when I force myself to write in Gaelic words, (d) provided more than a few laughs.
That’s personally, and it’s because my Gaelic is beyond the Duolingo level, really. How about French? It’s harder to say, I have dabbled a little in reading French before, I have very strong Latin, and I don’t use French in my life at all. Is my knowledge of French growing? Yes, slowly. Will Duolingo “get me there”? If “there” is conversational fluency, I severely doubt it. But if “there” is “having a reservoir of useful knowledge about French that could be tapped if I wanted to actually learn French”, then I think the answer is yes.
Another good thing about Duolingo , I would put, is that because it’s a low-threshhold entry activity, which has attempted to gamify language learning and build in reward structures (for better or worse), it does “get people in”. Gaelic Duolingo has done that quite well – a large number of people signed up for the course, and while the number who continue is obviously much smaller, and the number still who go on to other learning options smaller yet, that’s all still language awareness and learner growth. Given that Duolingo Gaelic was an unfunded volunteer effort, that is a huge positive for the language.
Should you use Duolingo?
If you think Duolingo is going to get you to some kind of conversational proficiency, then you’re wrong. If you think Duolingo is going to be a bit of fun that you can sandwich into the odd spare moment here and there and get a quick 1-1.5 minute language fix, then yes. Provided you understand the caveats, and granted that some courses are far superior to others. I wouldn’t waste any time on Duolingo Latin, for instance. I would happily pass some time on quite a few languages though. And then I would take that knowledge and go leverage it into something more communicative and ultimately more useful.
How should you use it then?
Having said a qualified, “go for it if you want to”, here’s how I think Duolingo could be best used. Preferably, use it on the desktop. Switch on keyboard-input only so that you’re typing out words and learning to type and spell in the L2. Split your session over just a couple of skills : something old, something new, something in between. Don’t chase XP, and don’t think Duo is the end game, it’s a tool that will get your foot in the door of language learning.