Essay on Ancient Language Instruction

The goal of sound ancient language instruction is reading proficiency. By “reading proficiency” is meant the ability to efficiently and intuitively complete the instantaneous process of, having visually perceived a text, subsequently “hearing” the corresponding phonemes of the language in the “mind’s ear” (see also), unconsciously disambiguating that non-auditory auditory information on the basis of implicit knowledge, and then finally understanding the communicative message conveyed by that text without reference to any other language. To the degree that you are able to read this without use of a dictionary, attention to morphological or syntactical details, or reference of the hermeneutical categories of some other language, you may be said that degree to have reading proficiency in English – or at least in the “domains” of English relevant to this paragraph.

Translation is often held to be the goal of ancient language instruction. Indeed, while translation is a skill in its own right, someone with reading proficiency in an ancient language ought to be able to translate with reasonable fidelity to the original text should he so choose. He needn’t, however, translate for his private endeavors, for the skill of translation presupposes that the full communicative message conveyed by the text has already been understood. Reading translation is not the skill by which one transcodes the meaning of a previously incomprehensible text in order to understand it oneself, but instead that by which someone who is able to understand a text – who can read it – renders the text comprehensible to someone who is unable to understand it – someone who can’t read it.

The process of transcoding an incomprehensible text for the sake of the comprehension of the transcoder – to which nearly all talk of ancient language “translation” actually refers – is properly referred to as “transverbalization.” Transverbalization depends not on any of the mechanisms required for reading, which depend on implicit knowledge – a “feel” for the language – but instead on the ability to quickly recall explicit knowledge – knowledge about the language, such as how a particular grammar constructions work or which English glosses correspond with a particular vocabulary word. The explicit knowledge on which the process of transverbalization depends is not useless, and is probably even necessary for perfecting the output proficiencies (writing and speaking) of someone who already understands input comprehension (reading and listening) proficiently, but should not therefore be understood as a meaningful developer of input comprehension. We reasonably teach syntax, for example, to sixth-graders, but we nonetheless judge it more important that our three-year-olds understand what the word “dog” means than that they can identify its grammatical case in a particular sentence. In second language acquisition of an ancient language as in native language acquisition, both the efficient instruction in and the efficient use of explicit knowledge about the language requires pre-existing implicit knowledge – a sort of intuitive, communicative baseline.

Reading proficiency in an ancient language requires reading proficiency. Although easily developed once reading proficiency has been developed, the capacity to translate should still be understood as separate from the more primary skill of reading. Further, any transverbalization that chances upon the accuracy of a proper translation – insofar as a substitute for the implicit knowledge necessary for reading was supplied by luck rather than skill – must be regarded as the product of lucky transverbalizer rather than a skilled translator. Properly understood, most “translations” aren’t translations, most ancient language “reading courses” aren’t reading courses, most ancient language teachers have little reading proficiency, and most ancient language instruction is a sham.

While the advocates for the predominate method of ancient language instruction today generally understand themselves as doing something old-fashioned and rigorous, their methods should rather be understood as an innovative failure of progressive education. Indeed, the method for which they advocate has its roots neither in antiquity nor in the medieval university, but instead in the mid-19th century German university. The “Prussian Method,” as it was first called in the United States, amounted to little more than, in the words of the great W. H. D. Rouse, “[knowing] everything about something rather than the thing itself.” It is therefore no surprise that, excepting only Herbert Hoover (born in 1874), all former Presidents of the United States fluent in Latin or Ancient Greek were born prior to 1831.

While interested parties kept Latin alive during the dark ages of ancient language instruction, the same cannot be said of Ancient Greek. Because so few people have learned Ancient Greek to the point of productive proficiency over the last two hundred years, the resources needed to build the implicit knowledge constitutive of reading proficiency have become too scant to form the sole basis for instruction. Communicative methods of instruction must still be used, but transverbalization must now be used selectively to render “comprehensible enough” the communicative messages that will drive the inferential learning of implicit knowledge. Because the right way is still on life support, the wrong way must judiciously employed alongside it. A hybrid method must be employed.

*To be Continued*