How Learning Ancient Greek Is Like Learning Russian

This fascinating account in which the author details how he learned ancient Greek sort of reminds me of my first year learning Russian. The author struggled with language learning in high school and freshman year of college:

For instance, I struggled to learn French in Middle School and later in High School. I was not very good at it. While some students got straight A’s, I regularly received Cs and once, even a D. I decided that I simply wasn’t good with languages, and that I really wasn’t good at memorizing.
But then I went to college, where I was required to study Ancient Greek for two years. I determined to not repeat my history with French, by learning Greek really really well. It was a great idea, but it didn’t work.

I studied Greek hard my Freshman year. Yet it was like running into a wall. No matter how hard I tried, I could not translate effectively. This was very frustrating because I so enjoyed reading the English translations of the Ancient Greeks. Yet it was an enormous struggle to read them in Greek. The manual I studied from had been written by some professors at my college. It was supposed to be very well integrated into the curriculum. And yet, as I know in hindsight, it was not a good manual at all!

He ended up doing an intensive summer program in Greek. All day, every day he had Greek classes, learned grammar, studied the language, and by the end, he was actually quite good at it. He returned to school knowing more Greek than his second-year professor and even succeeded in having the curriculum revamped so later generations of freshmen hopefully wouldn’t have as much trouble as he did.

I didn’t do a summer program in Russian, but the intensity he described reminds me of first-year Russian. I got lucky in the fact that I had a very, very good professor–a native speaker who could also teach the language. (And no, not all native speakers can teach their language. I’m sure there are some of you out there who can’t describe how to use participles in English, even though you do use them properly in everyday speech. I certainly don’t know if I could describe them to an English learner!) Even though I had other classes during my first two semesters at university, the Russian program was relentless. I credit this excellent foundation with my high level of Russian today.

Anyway, the entire account is pretty interesting, so go read it. It’s both intimidating and inspiring. Greek sounds incredibly hard—but the author does manage to achieve a rather high level, which means that if you’re willing to put in the time, you can master a tough language.

Advertisements