Languages – Where I’ve Been

Posted on June 8, 2012

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I don’t have a strong track record in learning languages.

I took French for two years in high school. By the time I graduated, the only thing I remembered was a children’s song and the curious fact that “cabbage” was considered a term of endearment.

I took Spanish for two years in college. I crammed charts and paradigms to pass my tests, but at the end, I had only brushed up against the vague feeling of what it might be like to actually think in a language other than English.

My Masters program in English Lit: I took a course in “French for Reading Knowledge,” which wasn’t all that different than the French and Spanish courses I’d taken before, except that it was more concentrated, and we didn’t do any talking in class. My performance was no better here than previously.

However, maybe the problem was motivation; maybe I just wasn’t interested in French or Spanish. In my Masters program, I discovered a language that was fun, interesting, and had some really fascinating literature: Anglo-Saxon. I took four semesters of it and did my Masters thesis on Beowulf. It was great. But as the semesters passed, I could tell something wasn’t clicking. I was using the dictionary far more than I imagined I ought to. I had a book of important vocabulary, but I had no idea how to put it to good use. As I finished my degree, I was frustrated that I didn’t have the facility in the language I wanted to attain – and I didn’t really have any idea how to go about acquiring that facility.

After my first Masters degree, I started in a new direction and entered seminary. I took classes in Greek and Hebrew. This was my first encounter with Hebrew, but it was not my first encounter with Greek. As an undergraduate, a college professor had offered Greek as a Sunday School class through a local church one summer. I bought the textbook and stayed with it for about a month before I dropped out. At any rate, this time I was learning Greek and Hebrew simultaneously. Although I made “A”s, I knew it was from cramming; I wasn’t internalizing the language like I knew I needed to. I realized things would spiral out of control in the coming semesters, especially with taking two languages at the same time, so after a year, I dropped out.

Fast forward several years. I have a position teaching English at a small college, and I want to go back and finish my seminary degree. I plan things out in advance and make sure I can finish my Greek classes before I start my Hebrew classes, and I start over again with the “101-level” classes. This time I don’t cram. I dutifully study every day, and although it’s hard, I do well. I finish two years of Greek and a year of Hebrew by the time I graduate.

A few weeks after I graduate, I get married. A few months after that, I sit down to “play around” with my Greek. To my horror, I discover that my skill is not just “rusty,” it’s practically non-existant! How could this happen? It had only been about a year since I seriously worked with my Greek. After all the blood, sweat, and tears that I put into learning Greek this time, I resolve that I will not let it all disappear! I pull out my textbooks and, once again, start studying Greek daily. I start at the beginning of my grammar textbook, working through each lesson, taking as long as is necessary to make sure I understand each step. I start working through the Gospel of Mark alongside my textbook to be a practical guage of my improvement.

A year passes. I learn Greek better than I had ever learned it before. My paradigms are burned into my mind, and I summon them in my sleep. I stretch beyond what I learned in class to start exploring the morphology of words. I’m reaching the end of the book of Mark, and I make sure I understand why each word is in the form it’s in before I move on.

And then I time myself. I realize that it’s taking me 45 minutes to parse and translate two verses from Mark. And those aren’t particularly difficult verses; those are just the two verses I happen to be working on when I look at the clock and make the mental connection. Two verses in 45 minutes is not reading. It’s barely even literacy. This realization, combined with some things I’d been reading online about language acquisition, make me guess that I’m going about learning Greek the wrong way.

Next up: Second Language Acquisition and the Grammar-Translation Method

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