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Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

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Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Jacobus » Sun Feb 22, 2009 8:03 pm

Salvete,

I wonder how we would approach a definition of fluency in Latin or Ancient Greek? Would we define it using different criteria due to the fact that the majority of people who have knowledge in the two languages in question do not actively use the languages in question? I refuse to use the term "dead language" when talking about Latin or Greek... simply because we are here using it now - just a quick look in the Agora is enough proof for me. Even now, almost at the very beginnings of my Latin studies, I have written "salvete" at the beginning and will undoubtedly write "valete" at the end.

To return to the actual topic, do we define fluency for the two languages in question differently from how we would define fluency in French or German? I realise that our definitions of fluency in even French or German would be different. For me, fluency is the ability to read, write, listen and speak the language at a reasonably complex level without undue need to pause for thought. I would define a "reasonably complex level" in reading terms as being able to read a newspaper while understanding the majority of its content.

At this point I hesitate, as I don't know if my definition would be considered sensible with regards to Latin or Ancient Greek. I would very much like to hear your opinions on the matter. Does fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek require a different definition from fluency in French or German? In languages such as French and German it is very easy to listen to the accents of native speakers and attempt to imitate them as much as possible. Although I know of very few people who have studied a second language and attained a degree of fluency equal to their mother tongue, I think it's very much possible. With Latin, though, it's obviously not, as the last native Latin speakers are long gone. Does this hinder our definition of fluency in Latin at all?

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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Rhodopeius » Mon Feb 23, 2009 4:01 am

I think your definition based on reading, writing, speaking, and understanding is pretty reasonable for all languages, contemporary and ancient. With Latin, I'm just very careful in how I describe my level of attainment to others. "I can read classical Latin." To me that's about as accurate as I can express, since I can indeed read Latin to the extent that even if I do not know a given word, I can almost always identify its function in a text, and I can always make reasonable sense out of longer passages. Yet it's not overly ostentatious. I'm not about to tell people I've mastered Latin until I can look at a randomly given text and tell you who wrote it and break it down its style and nuances, translate it literally spontaneously, and compose a written translation that reflects the prose or verse style of the original. Ambitious, but that's why I'm not even close to claiming mastery.

As for speaking it colloquially, I don't do it but there are those who do.
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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Essorant » Mon Feb 23, 2009 6:19 am

Fluency is flowingness. I think this may be likened to modes of getting somewhere well. Consider a man that is able to use every mode (walking, bus, car, airplane, train, etc). He may have more options and convenience, but nevertheless the man that may only have one way may still use it well enough to get places well too. In likewise, a man that only knows how to read the language well still has a fluency of using and experiencing it, even if in a more limited way. It is just as legitimately a manner of fluency in using the language as being able to use it well in every way. Therefore, I would say fluency for any language is any way of using the language well, whether it is using the language through just one manner (reading) or all manners (speaking, reading, writing, listening).
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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Lex » Mon Feb 23, 2009 11:41 am

I think of fluency as being able to think in a language (which means I am very, very far from fluency :( ), so the fact that we may not speak Latin or classical Greek just as the original native speakers did doesn't bother me. To the extent that classical languages tend to be taught as languages for reading only, not for composition or spoken communication, though, I think that does probably hamper fluency.
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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Jacobus » Mon Feb 23, 2009 1:57 pm

Thank you for your opinions. I am years away from fluency in Latin by any definition, Lex, so don't despair!

Essorant, I have ultimately heard your definition of fluency being "flowingness" before; I thank you for it. Your example was interesting. I think that when we generally think of fluency in a language, we think of being competant in all four of the major skills of language. If that were true for any one person, I would consider that fluency, if perhaps not to the extent of the native speaker - which is a level of fluency which very few ever attain in a second language. Now, though, I will paraphrase of my lecturer in Russian literature, who often says that Alexander Pushkin had the ability to read and write French fluently. That would be another definition, I think, although I would consider that only partial fluency, as he was apparently unable to speak a word of it. How can we be absolutely sure how Latin, or to a lesser extent Ancient Greek, were pronounced? Does this hinder a definition? Lex, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think what you were saying at the end of your message is something slightly different?

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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Lex » Mon Feb 23, 2009 2:46 pm

Jacobus wrote:How can we be absolutely sure how Latin, or to a lesser extent Ancient Greek, were pronounced? Does this hinder a definition? Lex, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think what you were saying at the end of your message is something slightly different?


Yes, I was saying something different. I would clarify, but I'm not sure it's pertinent, now that I've re-read it.

Anyway... I do think the term "dead language" is appropriate in describing classical Greek and Latin. I consider a language "dead" when its continuous tradition of native speech is either 1) terminated, or 2) has morphed into (an)other language(s) that would not be comprehensible to the original speakers. In the case of Latin, it has morphed into the Romance languages, and in the case of Greek, it has morphed into modern Greek, which I understand is quite a bit different (I could be wrong here). If Latin were resurrected in the way Hebrew was, with native speakers, I suppose I could consider it alive. But not now.

I don't think pronouncing a language just like a native speaker is all that important in the case of dead languages, for two reasons; 1) there are no native speakers, or it wouldn't be a dead language, and 2) dead languages tend to be used mainly for written communication, not speech. Given your example of Pushkin, let's pretend that French is a dead language. If that were the case, I would consider Pushkin to be fluent in French.
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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Jacobus » Mon Feb 23, 2009 4:21 pm

I agree with your second point - it isn't tremendously important to pronounce a language with native proficiency, however being a perfectionist, this is what I aim to do with the modern languages that I study - particularly German. By your definition of a dead language, yes, Latin and Classical Greek are both dead. I consider languages such as Hittite and Sumerian to be truely dead, as it is impossible to even get a vague idea on pronunciation and they are very far from being widely studied anymore, if at all - I was looking at a thread from last year about "really dead languages" - they are the ones I consider to be truely dead. I presume even their cultures have been replaced by more modern civilisations or peoples. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

I want to agree with your furthering of my example about Pushkin - if French were dead, and he could read and write it fluently, then he would be fluent in French - this obviously being a hypothetical situation. I don't feel I can, though, as I would then have to either completely change my definition of fluency, or I'd have to have two definitions of it - neither of which I want to do. Thanks for your opinions, Lex, and of course, everyone else!

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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Lex » Mon Feb 23, 2009 5:16 pm

Jacobus wrote:By your definition of a dead language, yes, Latin and Classical Greek are both dead.


I checked my old college linguistics book (Fromkin & Rodman), and it agrees with me, more or less. "A language dies when no children learn it." It doesn't say "learn it as a native language", but I think this is implied, or it wouldn't specify children. It lists two ways language death happens; 1) annihilation of the speaking population, or 2) absorption of the speaking population by another culture. It doesn't list language mutation (e.g. Latin mutating into French) as a reason for language death; perhaps they don't consider that the language is dead, but alive in a radically different form?

It doesn't say anything about really dead languages. :P
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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Jacobus » Mon Feb 23, 2009 6:40 pm

Thank you, Lex. Before I say anything more, I want to make it clear that I was not arguing with you because I didn't acknowledge your point of view - only because I find learning others' opinions interesting. Although I acknowledge the definition in your book as the accepted one, that doesn't mean we can't think otherwise, I don't think.

Lex wrote:It doesn't list language mutation (e.g. Latin mutating into French) as a reason for language death; perhaps they don't consider that the language is dead, but alive in a radically different form?


Lex wrote:I do think the term "dead language" is appropriate in describing classical Greek and Latin.


As I understand it, by the definition in your book above, they would not consider Latin dead so much as radically changed. Do you agree with the book's definition, or the one you put forward a few posts back, that Latin is indeed dead? Again, I'm just interested in your opinion, I do not mean to challenge you in a condescending manner. Ultimately what I'm asking is, can we become truely fluent in a language such as Latin? In a language such as Sumerian, I would say certainly not. But that's my opinion, with my own definitions of terms, whether they are accurate to any degree or not.

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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Lex » Mon Feb 23, 2009 9:46 pm

Jacobus wrote:Although I acknowledge the definition in your book as the accepted one, that doesn't mean we can't think otherwise, I don't think.


Quite true. Questioning accepted definitions is done all the time, and is perfectly healthy. I understand that we are now back down to eight planets, because the astronomers decided to finally get around to rigorously defining what a "planet" is, and Pluto didn't pass muster.

Jacobus wrote:
Lex wrote:It doesn't list language mutation (e.g. Latin mutating into French) as a reason for language death; perhaps they don't consider that the language is dead, but alive in a radically different form?


As I understand it, by the definition in your book above, they would not consider Latin dead so much as radically changed. Do you agree with the book's definition, or the one you put forward a few posts back, that Latin is indeed dead?


I would say that Latin is dead, whether that book's authors agree or not. Wikipedia agrees with me, for whatever that's worth.

Jacobus wrote:Again, I'm just interested in your opinion, I do not mean to challenge you in a condescending manner.


You're not being condescending at all. I hope I wasn't being condescending, especially with my jibe about really dead languages. It was just a (very) small attempt at humor, and an attempt to keep an intelligent thread going so I would have something to do today (it's been a slow day). However, since that post, I have noticed that Wikipedia does make a distinction between dead and extinct languages, which is pretty much the same as your dead and really dead languages. :oops:

Jacobus wrote:Ultimately what I'm asking is, can we become truely fluent in a language such as Latin? In a language such as Sumerian, I would say certainly not. But that's my opinion, with my own definitions of terms, whether they are accurate to any degree or not.


I don't know enough about Sumerian to say. If there is no real way to learn what its grammar was for sure, then no.

But with respect to Latin or ancient Greek, by my standard of what constitutes fluency in a dead language, being able to think in it, yes, I think it is possible to become fluent. We have a large corpus of extant texts, from which we have learned the grammars quite well, we have large vocabularies, and have a fairly good idea how they were pronounced, so I'd say thinking in them is certainly possible. But I'm not bothered by a double standard definition of fluency. I think that dead languages are different than live ones, and there is no use holding dead languages up to the standard of live ones. But that's just me.

By your standard, which also includes oral proficiency such that you could be taken for a native speaker by an ancient native speaker (if any existed), I guess that would depend on how well we truly understand the original pronunciation?
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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Jacobus » Tue Feb 24, 2009 10:28 am

Lex wrote:By your standard, which also includes oral proficiency such that you could be taken for a native speaker by an ancient native speaker (if any existed), I guess that would depend on how well we truly understand the original pronunciation?


To my mind, to be truely fluent in a language we should have a respectable degree of proficiency in all the four skills of language, as I suggested before. I would argue that we can never be sure of what Latin really sounded like for sure. Taking anothe example, I have a friend who moved to Germany a few years back, who I consider fluent in German. My German is fairly good, without trying to appear overconfident; I can pick up a newspaper at random and understand about ninety percent of what's being said. I consider my speaking ability to be a little behind that, however. Saying that, my friend's German is far far better than mine, although he neither speaks with a completely native accent, nor puts his ideas across in quite the way a native speaker perhaps would. I would consider him "fluent", although I think there is a difference between fluency and native proficiency, of course.

In order to make your view slightly more clear to me, Lex, would you mind giving me an example like the one I have given above? Do you possess any degree of "fluency" in a foreign language, and if so, how would you compare that to a native speaker of the language in question? I haven't asked about Latin or Greek for a number of reasons - firstly, I don't know which you are studying, if indeed it is just one of the two. Secondly, you mentioned that you wouldn't have anything against two definitions of fluency, I believe - can you give me an example or case from your experience of a modern foreign language? Be it something like German, or even something which is ridiculous from an inflections point of view, like Hungarian or Finnish, if what I've heard about them is correct.

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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Lex » Tue Feb 24, 2009 6:59 pm

Jacobus wrote:
Lex wrote:By your standard, which also includes oral proficiency such that you could be taken for a native speaker by an ancient native speaker (if any existed), I guess that would depend on how well we truly understand the original pronunciation?


To my mind, to be truely fluent in a language we should have a respectable degree of proficiency in all the four skills of language, as I suggested before. I would argue that we can never be sure of what Latin really sounded like for sure. Taking anothe example, I have a friend who moved to Germany a few years back, who I consider fluent in German. My German is fairly good, without trying to appear overconfident; I can pick up a newspaper at random and understand about ninety percent of what's being said. I consider my speaking ability to be a little behind that, however. Saying that, my friend's German is far far better than mine, although he neither speaks with a completely native accent, nor puts his ideas across in quite the way a native speaker perhaps would. I would consider him "fluent", although I think there is a difference between fluency and native proficiency, of course.


OK, I misundertood you. Sorry for putting words in your mouth.

Jacobus wrote:In order to make your view slightly more clear to me, Lex, would you mind giving me an example like the one I have given above? Do you possess any degree of "fluency" in a foreign language, and if so, how would you compare that to a native speaker of the language in question? I haven't asked about Latin or Greek for a number of reasons - firstly, I don't know which you are studying, if indeed it is just one of the two. Secondly, you mentioned that you wouldn't have anything against two definitions of fluency, I believe - can you give me an example or case from your experience of a modern foreign language? Be it something like German, or even something which is ridiculous from an inflections point of view, like Hungarian or Finnish, if what I've heard about them is correct.


I am currently studying Homeric Greek. In the past I've studied Spanish (in high school because I was required to take a language course), and Japanese (I once lived in Japan for about a year). I've never been anywhere close to fluency, I'm afraid. I'm one of those people who just don't have the linguistic gift. I feel mentally retarded on those rare occasions when I'm around linguistically gifted Europeans.

Since I don't have anything close to fluency myself, it's hard for me to give real world examples, since it's difficult for me to judge who has fluency in another language.

My idea of full fluency in a living language would be to have the facility of a native with the language in all four categories of use. So I guess I was projecting my living language standard onto you. I would consider your friend "mostly" fluent in German, but not fully, I guess.

For dead languages, my standard is much lower. I don't consider being able to speak in Latin or ancient Greek to be all that important at all, really. I think that's why I decided to study a classical language rather than a living one; since I don't have time to take classes where I could find others to practice speaking with, I study a language where speech isn't critical. In this case, my standard is that a person be something like Pushkin in French. I am assuming that Pushkin's facility was great enough that he could read and write French with much the same ease that he did Russian. No looking up a word in every sentence, no mentally deciphering the conjugation of verbs, etc.

In either case, I guess I would say that fluency is when it is easy for you.
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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Jacobus » Wed Feb 25, 2009 12:38 am

Lex wrote:My idea of full fluency in a living language would be to have the facility of a native with the language in all four categories of use.


That would be the most logical definition to take, although I fear I will never attain that in German however much I am hellbent on getting it. I can try, though!


Lex wrote:In either case, I guess I would say that fluency is when it is easy for you.


Through that definition, I could say theoretically that I am fluent in German. I communicate and understand almost perfectly 90% of the time. But I would just be lying if I said that I speak German as effortlessly as I speak English or Welsh (which, really, is my birth language)

For defining fluency in an ancient language, then, I think it is reasonable now to accept that only the two skills of reading and writing are necessary for fluency in Latin. Yes, listening would be nice, but not enough people actually speak Latin anymore for you to hear it enough. I suppose that would further my point I made earlier about not being able to know exactly how to pronounce Latin - and due to that, real speaking fluency is, in effect, impossible. So, would you agree with this definition of fluency in an ancient (ahem, dead) language?

"Fluency in one of the Classical languages, Latin or Ancient Greek, is the ability to read and write in the language without the undue need of pause for thought" - Yes, I realise the wording is clumsy, but I'm not after an English language prize :P

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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Lex » Wed Feb 25, 2009 12:50 am

Jacobus wrote:
Lex wrote:My idea of full fluency in a living language would be to have the facility of a native with the language in all four categories of use.


That would be the most logical definition to take, although I fear I will never attain that in German however much I am hellbent on getting it. I can try, though!


I don't prefer that definition because I am a perfectionist, but because it seems less arbitrary than anything else I can think of.

Jacobus wrote:So, would you agree with this definition of fluency in an ancient (ahem, dead) language?

"Fluency in one of the Classical languages, Latin or Ancient Greek, is the ability to read and write in the language without the undue need of pause for thought" - Yes, I realise the wording is clumsy, but I'm not after an English language prize :P


Yes, that seems fair, since the fool-the-native test is an impossible standard in the case of dead languages.

Jacobus wrote:PS - I have failed to compliment you regarding your avatar up to this point. It's a very good one and I think it was borderline genius to have thought of such a picture. :D - I am a fan of Llamas, and yet don't quite know why


Thanks. I thought of it because a lot of boards use "I'm a llama!" as a default avatar "blurb", for some reason. I went to Google pictures, entered "llama", and found a picture that seemed tolerable. You should have seen some of the ones I rejected!
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Re: Defining fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek

Postby Jacobus » Wed Feb 25, 2009 1:42 pm

Thank you for helping me reach a definition, then, Lex. I am most grateful. With regard to your idea of fluency in a living language, logic dictates that I should agree with that also. I will work toward that goal, and will most likely be pleased with what I achieve even if I fall short of your logical but rather intimidating definition. Thanks again.

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