Having previously covered the why, I would like to now more closely examine how to learn the language. I will be attempting to examine the methods people use to learn modern languages and whether aforesaid methods are applicable to the learning of ancient languages and, of course, especially Ancient Greek. As I have been frequently asked about my approach to learning Ancient Greek, I have decided to include a short article about it on my website so that the question can, in the future, be answered concisely in the form of this article.
Firstly, we should begin by closely examining the different methods people utilise to learn modern languages since that will provide you with a better understanding of my personal approach to learning this ancient language. Most people who study a language at school — and I am not referring to a special language-school whose only purpose it is to teach languages — generally do so by having, at most, a couple of hours of lessons each week, generally filled with learning grammar, doing exercises to improve said grammar and often-times also composition of texts and reading and listening to texts specifically targeted to language learners. After such mandatory lessons and the oft-mandatory homework has been dealt with by the student, he or she generally pays no more attention to the matter until the class, once more, begins.
This, I find, leads many students — and, by extent, the adults they eventually turn into — to believe that learning languages is a chore and that they have always been very bad at it; and I must admit that, under such circumstances, I cannot do anything but agree with them, having had to deal with them myself. Indeed, I was forced by my old school — one of the many I had attended, at least — to learn French for a handful of years and was one of the worst students in class which meant that, after those handful of years had passed, I was struggling to get anything superior to a D. Because of this, then, I had always thought that learning languages was just not something for me.
This might be surprising to those who know that I have, since then, dabbled in numerous languages — indeed so many that, listing them all here, would yield a rather lengthy list — and learnt a small handful of them more seriously; the question, thus, naturally arises: What has changed? The answer to this is manifold, but the biggest reason for my change of heart would, I believe, be the fact that the type of language-learning students are confronted by at school is anything but good language-learning.
Learning a language at school often entails the following: being required to sit in an oft-noisy room filled with other pupils who, mostly, do not want to be there anymore than you do; listening to the often very unengaging teaching of teachers who have been doing the job for a significant amount of time and have, thus, slowly begun hating both the subject they teach and the students; and doing the work I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Is it really surprising, therefore, that most students do not thrive in such an environment and believe themselves to be incapable of learning a language?
The process of learning a language at school is, generally, very slow and tedious and there is frequently barely any progress being made. This can quite easily be proven by examining the ability — or, often, lack thereof — of German students to speak English. Classes are generally taught by someone whose native language is not English which, immediately, brings forth a large variety of disadvantages, amongst which is the fact that pronunciation and proper grammar is often-times a matter dearly missed. You are generally taught a confusing mishmash of both American and British English (the latter often being RP), especially since some teachers prefer one over the other and you often got new teachers every year.
Additionally, you rarely get to consume media which was produced by native speakers for native speakers and are, instead, required to read or listen to tedious
conversations that are made to sound as natural as possible. If the conversations are indeed auditory, the manner in which the speakers speak the language is most unnatural, speaking very slowly and clearly in a way barely any native speaker would.
All of the aforementioned problems would be understandable if it was beginners of the language being exposed to them, but this is frequently not the case; instead, even students who are eighteen years of age are made to endure these unnatural pieces of
literature. This coupled with the fact that Germans are not required to know English well on a day-to-day basis — most content on the Internet is available in German and movies are, by a very large amount of the population, if not the majority, watched in a dubbed version — means that most English learners are not exposed to any actual native content. The implications of this should, therefore, be obvious: people find that they do not know English very well — or, sometimes, at all — despite having studied it for nearly 12 years and, hence, they believe themselves to be incapable of learning a language and stop attempting to consume content in English.
language classes — and I am very hesitant to calling them that — most pupils are exposed to, thus, generally have the effect of discouraging them rather than encouraging them to learn a language and enjoy doing so. Being required to take what we called vocabulary tests wherein you are asked to recall the one German translation of an English word you had previously learnt and not getting any points when you provide a different — but still correct — translation of said word is also a matter which undoubtedly affects students’ will to learn a language significantly.
Indeed, the translation of texts is a matter which I have always found most tedious and unproductive, as it discourages pupils from developing a
natural understanding of the language without having to mentally translate whatever they are exposed to. If wish to work as a translator — either as a hobby or as your actual occupation — then I, of course, recommend studying the art of translation; but pupils whose job it is to actually learn a language should not be required to translate virtually everything which they are being handed.
Another, in my opinion bad, approach often to be found in schools is the rote memorisation of both grammatical concepts — such as declensions and conjugations — or simply vocabulary in general. How is it that the stuffing of one’s brain with out-of-context grammar and vocabulary is seen as an apparently advantageous method of acquiring a language? The learning of grammar is, without a doubt, an important aspect of learning a language, but the fixation of a certain group of people on the pure contextless memorisation of it is something I cannot endorse — at least if the goal of learning the language is to able to speak it rather than analysing its grammar in-depth. But what is to be done instead, then?
As I have frequently made clear on this website, I am a strong advocate of reading things and this is especially true when it comes to acquiring a second-language. It has not always been this way, as I used to be an advocate of the traditional grammar-translation method of learning a language, which — as the name implies — encompasses the things I now quite vehemently advocate against doing when learning a language. The reason for my changing my mind is the fact that all those languages which, I attempted to learn using this method, I have never been able to actually learn. As soon as I began following a different school of language learning — the title of this section — I began to see much more rapid improvements in my reading and even composition ability. But what do ex- and intensive reading entail? And what is the often-called
natural method of learning a language?
Both extensive and intensive reading have the same underlying principle of reading texts in a foreign language, yet they do differ in one significant aspect: the former encourages the reading of large volumes of texts at or just slightly above the learner’s current ability, whereas the latter exposes the learner to texts that are more difficult to read — and I find both methods vital for acquiring a foreign language properly.
Extensive reading is generally, in my mind, advantageous, as it allows the learner to read a text fluently without being required to frequently stop and pause to look up a word or a grammatical concept he has as of yet to learn. It reinforces previously-learnt grammatical concepts and vocabulary whilst allowing the student to enjoy himself — at least somewhat — by reading a story. If an unknown word or grammatical construction is, however, encountered, pupils are encouraged to — instead of looking at a dictionary or grammar – guess the meaning of the unknown entity from context. This promotes fluent reading and the acquisition of vocabulary from context rather than from a translation into one’s native language and can, thus, aid the learning of the language significantly.
However, indefinitely staying on texts that are at just the right level for the learner is, obviously, not a matter of great difficulty and challenge. I, therefore, encourage students to venture out into the world of literature and find a text which is, as of yet, slightly too difficult for them and which requires them to more fully concentrate on the text being read. Nevertheless, I always encourage pupils to attempt to read the text without mentally translating what is in front of them, however difficult a task it may appear to be. If the desired outcome, however, is to be able to speak the language as opposed to being able to
speak it, being able to simply understand a text as it is — as you do in your native language — is of grave import. The earlier this ability is fostered and trained, the easier the journey into fluency will become.
The natural learning method then, it its purest and most undistilled form, does not require the learner to do any rote memorisation of grammatical tables and the sort. Some people even advocate for a method that does not explicitly teach any grammar but which, instead, relies on the learner’s intellect and intuition to extract the grammatical information from sentences being shown to him. This
non-grammar method — as I have termed it — is most commonly used by a program hated by many and whose cost is seldomly justified but whose name I shall not mention herein — those who know about it, know about it. But what exactly is the method I would recommend you use?
Instead of advocating the usage of just one of the above-mentioned methods, I instead advocate for a healthy mixture of all of them, which I have named the Centrist’s version of language learning. The Centrist’s Method’s — and I am fully aware of the silly name I have given to it — approach to learning a language can be laid out thus: —
Firstly I would highly recommend learning the basics of the grammar by going through a text-book’s first few chapters (or more, depending on the intensity of its approach) and copying – by hand! — all the grammatical information it provides including some exemplary sentences. For this, I highly encourage the buying of a small A5-sized notebook whose sole purpose it shall thenceforth be to house your notes.
Secondly, I find that the memorisation of a few, basic words is unavoidable. How basic you wish to keep it is highly dependend on both you and the language you are currently learning; for Greek, however, I learnt roughly 500 words using Anki before I began reading actual texts and stopped actually writing down vocabulary and memorising it on its own. This can, however, be adjusted.
Thirdly, during the memorisation of both grammar and vocabulary, begin by reading very simple texts that you can read without too much trouble. This can, of course, only be achieved once a certain foundational understanding of the language has been attained by the above-mentioned steps. Try to read as fluently as you are able to, attempting to guess unknown grammatical constructions and words as you go along; only if you are unable, even after some thinking, to guess their meaning, consult a dictionary or grammar.
Fourthly, begin with composition as early as you possibly can, even if it entails your merley writing some very rudimentary sentences such as
I drink coffee. Speaking to yourself out aloud in the language you are learning also helps significantly. Whenever you are going somewhere or doing something, attempt to think of a way of expressing this action in the language you are learning and saying it out aloud — though I would recommend against your doing this in public. This not only improves composition but also pronunciation.
Fifthly, listen to and read as much native material as your current level enables you to. If possible, find a book specifically targeted to learners that contains a text not targeted to students specifically, but that provides you with grammatical and vocabulary help for your current level. Re-read passages as often as you can. If reading the same passage over and over again during the same day is tiring, read a a chapter or two over the course of a week and then, once you have finished it, start another chapter the next week, re-reading, in addition, what you have read the previous week. This helps reinforce as of yet unknown vocabulary and grammatical constructions
Sixthly, though I do not do it personally, you may write down all the grammatical concepts and words you did not know whilst reading a new text. I find, however, that the previously mentioned re-reading of texts is enough for me to memorise the meaning of a word, especially when you try to incorporate it into your composition of texts.