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Attic Greek in grade schools (article)

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Attic Greek in grade schools (article)

Postby spiphany » Sun Apr 12, 2009 3:39 am

Came across this article about a group of elementary school students learning classical Greek: http://www.wlu.edu/x31846.xml
IPHIGENIE: Kann uns zum Vaterland die Fremde werden?
ARKAS: Und dir ist fremd das Vaterland geworden.
IPHIGENIE: Das ist's, warum mein blutend Herz nicht heilt.
(Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris)
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Re: Attic Greek in grade schools (article)

Postby thesaurus » Mon Apr 13, 2009 6:26 pm

An interesting throwback from the past. More power to them! I wonder how she's teaching the grammar? Because I don't see it lasting if she's going with the traditional grammar drill approach.

Last semester, Copping started Harry off with the alphabet, putting letters together into words, recognizing words, learning grammar and reading ancient Greek (or Attic Greek, as it’s called) which varies significantly from the Greek spoken today. “Harry got pretty far into the grammar last semester,” said Copping, “and he was understanding concepts that I thought there was no way an eight-year-old could comprehend—concepts like case, number, gender.”


This is such a prevalent misunderstanding of language learning. For various reasons we've come to falsely associate knowing Greek and Latin with being smart, when in fact they are just languages like Spanish or Chinese. Case, number, and gender are concepts that 8 year-olds use constantly and fluently without realizing it. The only thing that makes them difficult is the way we teach them. In fact, if we were to teach our children Ancient Greek as babies they would be fluent, not because they are "genius babies" but because they have the innate ability to learn languages through immersion. Children are still much better at absorbing new languages, which drops off quickly after puberty. Holding off on classical (or any!) languages until people are farther along in their schooling is a good way to ensure that they never really learn them.

I wish we would disassociate Latin and Greek from "being smart," which entirely has to do with the authors that wrote in those languages and the historic European schooling hierarchy that made these languages the domain of those that received advanced schooling.
Horae quidem cedunt et dies et menses et anni, nec praeteritum tempus umquam revertitur nec quid sequatur sciri potest. Quod cuique temporis ad vivendum datur, eo debet esse contentus. --Cicero, De Senectute
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Re: Attic Greek in grade schools (article)

Postby anglicus » Wed Apr 15, 2009 6:47 am

thesaurus wrote:This is such a prevalent misunderstanding of language learning. For various reasons we've come to falsely associate knowing Greek and Latin with being smart, when in fact they are just languages like Spanish or Chinese. Case, number, and gender are concepts that 8 year-olds use constantly and fluently without realizing it. The only thing that makes them difficult is the way we teach them. In fact, if we were to teach our children Ancient Greek as babies they would be fluent, not because they are "genius babies" but because they have the innate ability to learn languages through immersion.


I'm not sure I agree with your analysis. Yes, children use these concepts "without realizing it," but this doesn't mean these concepts are easy; using is not the same as understanding. Perfectly fluent speakers of English (or any language) often struggle to learn the actual grammar of their language. They may be able to say "I sing, I sang, I have sung," but they often have no idea why they say that, and will have trouble explaining what the difference between these forms actually is. The concepts often are difficult to understand, in any language. Those who absorb the usage from birth will not struggle with the usage, but learning the concepts behind them may still require much effort.

In any case, the reality is that there is simply no way anyone except perhaps the child of two brilliant classics professors is going to learn Latin or Greek by immersion from birth. And for most older learners, immersion is not a realistic option for any language, and so these concepts have to be taught to some degree via grammar: learning rules, learning paradigms, learning concepts like "ablative absolute" and "optative." And it happens to be the case that Latin and Greek have much more grammar than typical languages. Though the difficulty of a language is always subjective and depends on the background of the learner, for most people, especially English speakers, Latin and Greek are going to be more difficult than Spanish (though maybe not Chinese). This doesn't mean that someone who knows Latin or Greek is somehow "smarter" than someone who knows Spanish. But I don't think it can be denied that mastering the grammar of Latin or Greek does require more effort.

One more thing. You say this association of "being smart" with Latin and Greek "has to do with the authors that wrote in those languages." Yes, precisely. The versions we have received from antiquity are literary versions of the language, with certainly weren't learned by their babies at home, just as we don't grow up hearing literary English (or whatever language our parents speak). Reading a complex novel, even in your native language, can be difficult if you don't have some additional training beyond what you learned as a baby. So I think it's fair to say that, yes, there is something "smart" about Latin and Greek, simply because the version we must learn is on the whole a literary language. Trying to learn any language would probably be more difficult if the only sources for the language were literary works. Learning modern languages often seems easier, but the version taught is more colloquial... and those who learn them often still struggle to understand literary works in these languages, even after years of schooling...
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Re: Attic Greek in grade schools (article)

Postby thesaurus » Wed Apr 15, 2009 5:47 pm

Well put Anglicus, though I'm not sure we're talking about exactly the same thing. I failed to be specific in my post. I suppose what bothered me about that article is that I got the sense that this teacher is trying to teach children Greek in a formalized fashion.

The concepts of a language of course can be difficult to understand, but all I meant is that they will be easy for a child to understand if explained through usage rather than abstractly or formally. I think it's an error to use a formal approach to teaching a language to children because we need to capitalize on their innate ability to pick up language structures; what's important is that they can read the texts, not that they understand how person/aspect works. I think classical language instruction, especially at early ages, should mimic the teaching of modern languages as much as possible. You see this more nowadays with Latin used colloquially and intuitively. This is what I like about the Lingua Latina series. Emphasizing the concepts of a language may be useful to a certain point, but they are not the key to learning a language well; rather, exposure and usage is the only effective way. The classical languages have an unhealthy and unhelpful emphasis on grammatical terminology because of their connection with philology and historical linguistics.

I agree that it takes intelligence to learn the relatively complex grammars of Greek and Latin, but even dull people can pick up any language given enough exposure and a sensible (non-formal) way of teaching it. I'm concerned about the reputation these languages have built up as the domain of intelligent and cultivated people. As you point out, there are lots of complex languages. People generally don't grant the same amount of respect to someone who has learned Finnish as to someone who can read Greek, because the classical languages are surrounded in an aura of authority that we've inherited. There is of course something inherently intelligent about reading and digesting philosophy and complex speeches, but these are completely incidental to the Greek and Latin languages. Therefore, we make a false connection between philosophy/intellectual writing and the language they are written in. I could hypothetically learn Latin and Greek extremely well, writing and reading it, and have no clue what Aristotle is talking about. Likewise, we grant more prestige to Latin and Greek by making a false connection between the type of people who have traditionally studied these languages and the languages themselves. Suddenly it's not just a sign of intelligence to understand Platonic philosophy, but Greek itself becomes this sign.

I don't think we're really disagreeing on much here, so much as how I phrased my response.
Horae quidem cedunt et dies et menses et anni, nec praeteritum tempus umquam revertitur nec quid sequatur sciri potest. Quod cuique temporis ad vivendum datur, eo debet esse contentus. --Cicero, De Senectute
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Re: Attic Greek in grade schools (article)

Postby anglicus » Wed Apr 15, 2009 6:51 pm

I think you're right, we aren't so much disagreeing as approaching from two different perspectives. When I first learned Latin, I gave myself a crash course in grammar, just enough to get started, and then began reading as much as I could to try to gain some fluency. I had a fair amount of success. When I got to college, I took some Latin courses, and one day a teacher asked "what kind of ablative is this?" I was able to explain the function in my own words, but I didn't know the exact technical term for that specific use of the case. I had just picked up the sense from constant exposure, while neglecting to learn the abstract explanation. I didn't really feel like I needed to learn such detailed grammatical nomenclature either, and I remember feeling a bit depressed wondering if I would have to spend a lot of time pigeonholing the different uses of cases to get through more advanced Latin classes.

I still have a little bit to say about the "reputation" of the languages though... the way I see it, it's not so unusual that they've come to be associated with "intelligent and cultivated people" simply because of the purposes anyone would have in learning them. Someone may choose to learn Spanish in order to read and analyze Cervantes... or just to talk to his neighbors. Someone may learn German in order to delve into Nietzsche... or just to be able to order a beer during Oktoberfest in Bavaria... but why do most people learn Latin and Greek? Almost exclusively for scholarly purposes, since there are no "native" speakers anymore. So naturally the way these languages have been taught, and the "aura" that surrounds them, has become more scholarly, and anyone who learns them is naturally thought to be "intelligent and cultivated" since... why else would they be learning such languages? I'm not saying this is right or good, just that it's quite natural.

The question would be, what can we do about it? Some people are trying to bring the classical languages more down to earth, by encouraging daily use, writing letters to each other, and translating and reading books like Harry Potter in these languages, but I'm not sure that's enough. The fact is, most people will always see these languages as somewhat distant, simply because they see them as so impractical. Typical people (Americans at least) rarely learn second languages to begin with (a few years in school, maybe, but quickly forgotten), and I think most would find the idea of learning Greek or Latin appallingly impractical. I also study German (for no other reason than I like it), and even with that language, I often get very bemused and almost hostile reactions from people when I tell them I'm learning it: "Are you going to move to Germany? No? Then why are you learning it? Who can you talk to? Why don't you learn Spanish? At least you can use that!"

So I just don't see how easy it's going to be to rehabilitate the image of Greek and Latin into friendly languages that everyone should learn, not just scholars and pedants... but I would love for that to happen.
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Re: Attic Greek in grade schools (article)

Postby demetri » Thu Apr 16, 2009 1:22 pm

Thank you so much for posting the link to this article. Washington & Lee is my alma mater and where I first took up Greek many, many years ago. :D
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