Trivium Pursuit

It’s All Greek to Me

Dear Harvey,

How do we teach Latin or Greek to a child when we don’t know the language ourselves? In fact, having attended public school, we feel as if we lack a healthy grasp of the English language!

S. N.

When we first learned English, did we construct sentences based upon a conscious knowledge of subject-verb agreement? No. Such categories of grammar were beyond your understanding. Nevertheless, in a short time, we mastered the art of constructing understandable sentences which were usually grammatically correct. Mastering a language is not the same as mastering its formal grammar. Many persons communicate quite well in English who have never mastered textbook grammar.

Imagine yourself in a classroom where you must at the same time master both the basics of a language and its formal grammar. Not a good idea. Yet that is exactly what is done in seminaries. The seminary student is required to master Greek grammar before he has any familiarity with the Greek language. There are a few sharp and diligent students who can handle this, but most students half-fake their way through it, then promptly forget most of what they temporarily planted in their short-term memory.

Here is a better course to take – one which will work for everyone. First, learn to read and to write the language. Spend a good long time mastering the alphabet and the phonetics. Use an interlinear text and practice reading. (The interlinear will show you what each word means in English.) Memorize portions in Greek (or Latin or Hebrew) and in English. Become familiar with the look and the sound of the language. This way, when you begin studying the grammar, it won’t all be “Greek” to you – even if it actually is Greek!

When it comes to studying a foreign language grammar, it will be to your advantage to know English grammar. If you don’t know English grammar, then you’ll have no choice except to learn it right along with the foreign grammar.

In summary, it’s best not to try to master both the language and its formal grammar at the same time, and one cannot master a foreign grammar without mastering English grammar, so it’s best not to try to master both at the same time. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what most grammar texts require. You’ll probably do much better if you adapt the text to the reality of how we learn – first knowledge (the basics), then understanding (the logical structure), then wisdom (the polished practice).

Harvey

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