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12 Reasons why Latinists are not learning Ancient Greek

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Are all Latin enthusiasts also engaged with learning Ancient Greek, and vice versa? The poll results are in, and while there’s an overlap, there are also big segments that loyally stick to just one of the languages. In this post, I will investigate why not everyone learns both Latin and Ancient Greek, focusing in particular on why a lot of Latinists aren’t touching Greek right now.

To begin with, how big is the overlap in interest between Latin and Ancient Greek?

Classics degrees typically mandate the study of Latin and Ancient Greek together, so it is common for Classics students to do both languages, even if out of compulsion. But how common is it for learners in the wider world to do both languages, including those outside of formal Classics degrees?

I polled my audience on YouTube asking what languages they watch videos in, and these were the results:

Less than half of the YouTube respondents (41%) reported that they watched videos in both languages. The largest segment (50%) were interested only in Latin, while a small number (9%) were interested purely in Ancient Greek. My YouTube audience may not be the most representative sample space for ancient language learners, but it looked like a very large proportion of Latinists (more than half of the total Latinists polled) were not touching Ancient Greek.

I also ran a poll on Twitter to see how Twitter followers would respond. This is what came back after 3 days:

A larger segment (about 60%) were engaged with both Latin and Ancient Greek, but still significant portions of the voters (around 20% each) were in just one of the languages. I have a feeling that the Twitter audience I’m connected to consists of more professional Classicists and Latin/Ancient Greek teachers, whereas the YouTube poll may have consisted of a younger audience of learners with more often a hobbyist background. This greater proportion of professional ancient language specialists may have skewed my Twitter poll results more towards those who had more time and professional interest for learning both languages.

My takeaway is that while many people do have an interest in both Latin and Ancient Greek, a large number only engage with one of the languages, especially if that language is Latin.

If this is true – if a lot of Latin fans are not currently engaging with Ancient Greek – I want to know why! Are they uninterested in learning Ancient Greek? Or are they interested, but certain barriers prevent them from starting Ancient Greek? If so, are those barriers something we as teachers and resource makers can help learners overcome, or are some things outside of our control?

I needed to hear it from the learners.

So I asked the Latin subreddit: If you’re a Latin enthusiast but not currently learning or dabbling in Ancient Greek, I want to hear about why you’re on pure Latin.

The post gathered 92 comments and replies in the first 24 hours. When I read through these comments, a lot of people had very different interests and circumstances, but there were also many repeating themes.

Excluding the reply threads, I gathered the remaining 50 standalone comments from the post at the time and tagged the themes that came up in each comment, such as ‘I’m not interested in Greek’ and ‘It wasn’t offered at my school’. This allows us to summarise all of the themes and compare the relative frequency of each.

Here were the results, consisting of 12 reasons why Latinists weren’t learning Ancient Greek:

The two most common cited reasons for not pursuing Ancient Greek was ‘lack of interest’ and ‘not having enough time to commit to learning another language’.

Tied for third place were three themes: ‘lack of good learning resources for Ancient Greek’; ‘It’s not offered at my school’; and ‘Greek is hard‘. Some of the posts which allude to Greek being hard are simply reporting a feeling of dread as the learner perceives Greek to be a hard language based on what others have said, but others are posts from people who have personally tried to learn Greek but found it too hard to continue.

As for the resource gap, I am very keenly aware that there is a big gaping hole in beginner-friendly comprehensible-input-based resources for learning Ancient Greek. There are remedies for this on the horizon that we are working on. Alpha with Angela is a wonderful Comprehensible Input based video series which teaches Biblical Koine through speech, props, gestures, and TPR. It is currently in development – as of the time of writing, there are 14 lessons – but more videos are being made all the time. It’s completely free and released under Creative Commons, which has allowed me to make dubs of Alpha with Angela in Lucian pronunciation, if you prefer Lucian to Erasmian pronunciation. There is also the Ancient Greek in Action series by Luke Ranieri (Lucian pronunciation) which is designed to ease beginners into Greek and to dovetail into the start of the Athenaze textbook. Luke is also planning a big release of an Ancient Greek learning resource in the next few weeks which I’ll edit into this post when he announces it. I also highly recommend the Ancient Greek courses offered by Seumas Macdonald at The Patrologist – he teaches communicatively with a lot of input-rich resources such as his Lingua Graeca Per Se Illustrata, which is not a direct translation of Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata but develops an independent storyline tailored to the needs of Ancient Greek.

There are certainly resources we can create (and which we are creating) that would make Ancient Greek less daunting to learn.

But it is important to acknowledge that many of the reasons Latinists are not touching Ancient Greek go beyond the resource gap, and can’t all be fixed by us filling the resource gap. This isn’t just a ‘build it and they will come’ situation. A lot of Latinists simply don’t feel any interest, affection or emotional attachment towards Ancient Greece, Greek culture, the Greek language, or the Byzantines. They connect with the Romans a lot, but the Greeks seem foreign. Is it because the Roman Empire holds more interest than Greek civilisation in Western European countries? Is there a more tangible sense of place and historical connection to the Romans? A commenter mentioned seeing Latin inscriptions every day where they lived, and feeling like they were connected to the Latin past, but said they wouldn’t feel the same connection with Ancient Greek culture. As an Australian, I don’t feel any land connection to either the Romans or the Greeks, but even here there is a vague sense in which we inherit the connections to the Romans through the colonial British past, and Roman culture seems more relevant than Greek culture.

A large number of commenters mentioned that they are studying periods or places which used Latin but had comparatively little contact with Ancient Greek, such as the Medieval period, the Early Modern period, North Africa, or the Papacy. It wasn’t just the Ancient Romans who wrote in Latin. Consequently, these Latinists have much less interest in taking up Ancient Greek.

Many commenters also mentioned that learning any language – especially an ancient one – takes an extraordinary commitment of time and effort. When asked ‘why aren’t you learning Ancient Greek?’ they quite understandably objected that they shouldn’t have to justify why they hadn’t chosen Ancient Greek. Some of these people are already learning multiple modern languages, and adding another ancient language to the mix would be overwhelming. Others mentioned that they had their hands full with other important responsbilities in life, and it just wouldn’t be possible to add another language on top of Latin.

Several commenters were waiting for their Latin to reach a higher level before they could feel comfortable starting out in a new language like Ancient Greek. They did not want to spread their time too thinly between languages.

Some were also mentioning that they wanted to learn Modern Greek to a comfortable level of fluency before Ancient Greek. Learning the modern language would help them reach fluency in Ancient Greek faster, and there are more living ways to learn Modern Greek than we have available in Ancient Greek.

A lot of Latinists mentioned the Greek alphabet as a barrier to them learning the language. We need to take this concern seriously. It’s easy for a teacher to forget how long it really takes to adjust to the alphabet. Far too often, Ancient Greek courses throw students into sink-or-swim situations where students are expected to master the alphabet by day 2, and all subsequent materials are silent words printed on paper. Sure, one can memorise individual letters pretty quickly, but it takes a lot longer to be able to fluently read whole words, sentences, and paragraphs rapidly. Many students get left behind from the very start and never fully catch up, simply dropping out of the course.

One commenter mentioned that their teacher’s general approach was to assume that students of Ancient Greek were already gifted linguists. I can’t help but feel that is a toxic attitude which has damaged Ancient Greek pedagogy and restricted success only to the most exceptional language learners. We need to resist this tendency to teach Greek only for the best of the best.

In all, there are some important things we can do to remove barriers to learning Ancient Greek. But we should not assume that all Latinists will automatically have an interest in learning Ancient Greek. While there is a significant overlap between communities learning Latin and those learning Ancient Greek, there is also a significant proportion of learners who only want to learn one of the languages, or only have the time to focus on one. And that is okay!

About Carla Hurt

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child." - Cicero, Ad Brutum. Carla is a secondary school Latin teacher. In 2013, she finished first-class Honours in Classics, writing a thesis on accusations of impiety among philosophers in Greece and Republican Rome. She loves ancient art, ancient history, theology and pretty much anything to do with the Romans.

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