Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Teaching Yourself Latin and Greek, Part II

Since I created "Teaching Yourself Latin and Greek - Notes of an Autodidact," a number of additional worthwhile resources and observations have come to my attention. I would like to pass these along, with some commentary, in this post.



The seventh edition of Wheelock's Latin is now available. Nothing substantive has changed. It still epitomizes the grammar-first approach, artfully packing the foundational elements of Latin grammar into the same forty chapters. I confess I find rather amusing the statement in the Preface to the new edition, "To encourage active use of the language in the classroom, Latin is employed in the chapter titles and for section heads (Exercitationes instead of 'Practice and Review,' Vocabula for 'Vocabulary,' etc.)."

For those whose goals for learning Latin meet my definition of Serious, its clarity, compactness (though the number of pages grows with each edition), attractive packaging, and wit continue to make Wheelock an understandable and easily justified approach. My own experience, though, ever more argues against a grammar-first approach. For example, you'll know you're in the grammar-first trap if you catch yourself asking, every time you encounter an ablative case in your reading, which of the eight uses of the ablative this is (page 177).

The Wheelock web site has more information about the book and associated materials.

Learn to Read Latin, Yale University Press, by Andrew Keller and Stephanie Russell

Thanks to Mark Dawson - see his comment on this blog - for bringing my attention to Learn to Read Latin (LTRL), from Yale University Press. I'm giving the link here to the publisher's web site rather than to Amazon, because you'll want to explore the hardback, softback, and packaged set options.

With two qualifications, I find LTRL to be a terrific piece of work. First, it's approach is self-admittedly and unapologetically grammar-based. On this blog, I've made my preference clear for a natural-language approach. Second, believing this to be a greater inducement to students to continue their Latin studies, the authors have drawn as much as possible on the ancient authors themselves for LTRL's readings. I'm not a teacher by profession and I can't speak to motivational aspects. For the patient and self-motivated adult autodidact, where by "patient" I mean precisely having the patience to learn the language naturally before fully diving into the classical authors, I still feel made-up prose in the form of a continuous narrative, carefully scaled in complexity, especially when done as well as Ørberg, is a preferable way to internalize the language. But better said, for the patient autodidact not bound to a school curriculum, these different resources are not mutually exclusive.

I can see why Mark finds LTRL superior to Wheelock. It had me with this sentence in its preface: "Respectful of both teachers and students, the book assumes a serious interest in learning Latin well and thoroughly." No dumbing down here. And thorough it is. You can see this, for example, in the Vocabulary Notes, so rich that they have to be squeezed into a smaller font. I suspect they may be a little overwhelming for a young beginner in her first pass through the material, but for me they are a feast. For another example of both thoroughness and respect for the serious student, see the "Introduction to Latin Sentence and Prose Word Order" in chapter II. (By the way, LTRL also introduces poetic meter.) And at a glance, the same thoroughness is revealed in the workbook drills.

And here's some especially good news for the autodidact. The Answer Key (for both the readings in the textbook and the workbook drills) is available. The Web FAQ for the book states, "This answer key is intended for teachers, parents of home schoolers, and individual learners. For access, please contact Yale University Press by emailing [them]." At least one reviewer recounts having struck out when contacting the publisher. But Drew Keller, the co-author, generously and promptly provided me the Answer Key and writes, "anyone who is an independent learner and describes her- or himself as such in a convincing way [RG: a legitimate precaution against high school students, who get graded, getting their hands on and distributing the answers] is welcome to have an answer key."

Thanks Drew and thanks Mark for pointing me to LTRL. (And see under Greek below for the brand new Learning to Read Greek.)

"Antiquated" Adler

In the original post, I described and implicitly recommended the natural-language concoction I used, which I dubbed "Adler + Millner + Ørberg." Adler in that formula is the 1858 work of George J. Adler, "A Practical Grammar Of The Latin Language: With Perpetual Exercises in Speaking And Writing (1858)," available digitally from Google Books and in print from Amazon. A friendly source with valuable opinions has told me he can't recommend Adler - too "antiquated."

Well, if not antiquated, let's at least admit to quaint. You get a whiff of that in the very first exercise. Q: "Have you the table?" A: "Yes, Sir, I have the table." Or, selected somewhat randomly, check out this sequence from exercise fifty-five: Q: "Where is my brother?" A: "He is in the country."  Q: "Do you wish to go into the country?" A: "I do not wish to go there."  Q: "Whither do you desire to go?" A: "I desire to go to the market."  Q: "Is your brother at home?" A: "No; He is at the ball."  Q: "Whither does your son wish to go?" A: "He wishes to go to the great place."  Q: "Does the Englishman go into the country to see the fields?" A: "He does not wish to go into the country to see the fields, but in order to see the forests, the birds, the water, and to drink tea."  Q: "Does the son of the nobleman wish to go anywither?" A: "He does not wish to go anywither; he is tired."  Q: "Whither does the son of the bailiff wish to carry corn?" And here I'll stop and won't provide the answer to the last question, to keep you in suspense.

But I rise to the defense of Adler! True, I realize in retrospect, my implicit recommendation should have come with the caveat that some will be put off by such mid-nineteenth-century language (though I've always liked "four score and seven years ago," and though my wife is currently thoroughly enjoying Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Adler's contemporary and acquaintance). And I wouldn't dare recommend Adler to a high-schooler.

But for a self-motivated adult autodidact, I would say, first, A Practical Grammar is the most effectively reinforcing grammar I know of. If you think about the exercise sequence I just quoted, it is easy to see the grammatical elements it is designed to reinforce (to the point of twisting the English in ways that must have amused Adler too). It's a "practical" grammar and it progresses slowly and methodically, but there's no dumbing down, and after ninety-six chapters you will have absorbed most of the finer points of a reference grammar. The key really is the mutually reinforcing and simultaneous progress of grammatical knowledge and speaking ability, using simple and every-day language. This approach is unique to my knowledge.

That's Adler by itself. But what is there out there to beat Adler + Millner? And for FREE! For more, see Alex Sheremet's review of Adler.

One final point. Thanks to modern technology and a realizable goal of digitizing every book that's ever been published and is still extant, an inestimable wealth of books from earlier centuries is rapidly becoming available to us. If you reject Adler as too antiquated, are you not inferentially rejecting a good deal of this new treasure? I find it liberating not to be reliant solely on contemporary publications and approaches.

But I must now go thither to the forest to drink tea (with my iPod).


Reading Greek (Cambridge) and Athenaze (Oxford)

At the time I wrote the original post, I was about one-third through each of these programs. I have now completed both and only want to reiterate, wow! I can't say enough good things about both, and I recommend both, not one versus the other.

Autodidact, do not let Oxford University Press deprive you of their own wonderful creation. Get through to the owner of the Athenaze series in the marketing department, convince her/him that you are an independent and adult learner, and get them to sell you the Teachers Handbooks and audio CD.

Learn to Read Greek, Yale University Press, by Andrew Keller and Stephanie Russell

Part I of  Learn to Read Greek (LTRG) has just been published (August, 2011). This is Andrew Keller and Stephanie Russell's twin sibling to their Learn to Read Latin (LTRL - see above under Latin). Drew Keller tells me the number of readings "dwarfs" LTRL, and so the authors and publisher have split LTRG into two parts, with two ("pretty big") corresponding workbooks. Part II is expected by December. No Answer Keys yet, but these are in the works.

The authors makes no bones about the approach of either LTRL or LTRG. The Yale Press site states: "Like its Latin predecessor, [LTRG] has a grammar-based approach and is intended for students who have a serious interest in learning the language." Since I've just finished Reading Greek and Athenaze, I'm not myself in need of another grammar at the moment. But I strongly suspect LTRG is going to become my intermediate-stage Greek reader, and based on the value I am getting from the Vocabulary Notes alone in LTRL, I eagerly anticipate dipping into other parts of LTRG as well.

Greek, à la français

In the original post, I observed that for ancient Greek there didn't seem to be a resource equivalent to Adler + Miller, that is, a resource providing extended listening as you learn (the audio CDs that come with Reading Greek and Athenaze are good, but they only cover the early chapters of their respective books). Thanks to Rob McConeghy of the Latin Best Practices site for calling my attention to French Assimil - La méthode intuitive - Le Grec ancien and to Christophe Rico's Pólis - parler le grec ancien comme une langue vivante, both designed around extensive listening (via CDs that can be purchased with the books).

The audio for Le Grec ancien is 100% Greek, reading from Greek text in the book, similarly for Pólis except for a smattering of French, so in theory you could get some value from the recordings even without knowing French. For myself, I'm using these resources to dust off my French (as I have been using the Italian Athenaze for my Italian) as well as to further my Greek. For those interested, here follows a lengthier description of each work, to assist you in a "buy/no buy" decision.

Le Grec ancien

Le Grec ancien is the ancient Greek entry in the "Assimil - La méthode intuitive" series of language "sans peine" books. (I recoil at vendors' claims to have a method that makes learning a language, especially an ancient language, easy. Anyone who believes that is a fool.) Be sure to purchase the 4-CD package (the coffret de 4CD or enregistrements) along with the book.

The book is not a school textbook and is explicitly intended for autodidacts. It is a grammar book, but as a méthode intuitive, it treats the first 49 of its 101 lessons as "passive," the remainder as "active." In the "passive" first half, you are encouraged to concentrate not on memorizing grammar but, through repetitive listening and reading aloud, to immerse yourself in a feeling for the language.

The book is furthermore intended for autodidacts with only so much time in the day, and it recommends a very precise regime. It estimates each lesson should take about 30 minutes (slightly underestimated in my case because of my French). Every six lessons are followed by a seventh Review lesson, so it's designed to do one section a week. Each of the six lessons consists of (1) a handful of Greek sentences, with translations; (2) grammatical information conveyed in footnotes to the sentences, rather than in separate discussions; (3) a handful of fill-in-the-blank exercises, with answers provided; (4) the base vocabulary from the lesson listed out; and, in some of the lessons, (5) a literate and amusing essay on interesting etymologies (very well done). The Review lessons contain a fuller discussion of the grammar, plus exercises. A grammatical appendix has the usual tables of declensions and conjugations.

The sentences in the lessons do not constitute a continuous narrative, but loosely follow a group of characters through their daily visits to school, the palaestra, the barbershop, a banquet, etc.

The book doesn't claim to be an exhaustive treatment. In its own words, it is aimed to satisfy the curious (what my original post non-pejoratively calls a Dabbler) and for the more serious autodidact to provide a solid foundation from which to proceed.

There are a number of things I particularly like about Le Grec ancien. First, I like the physical book itself. It is a paperback, but with a laminate cover and sewn binding that give it both flexibility and durability. Despite being 688 pages, it is so compact you can easily grip it and wave it around in one hand, and it would fit into a purse. In other words, it's portable. I enjoy the goofy cartoon in each lesson, illustrating a phrase or sentence from the lesson, which lends the book a fun, non-stuffy tone. Each lesson is given a Greek title, and the sequential lesson number as well as the page numbers are rendered in Greek - something you'd think would be standard in language books. The introduction gives a guide to the restored classical pronunciation and provides a simple IPA-like representation of pronunciation and accent. This representation is used to give the pronunciation of each sentence in the lessons, so every assist is made to get you reading out loud and with "correct" pronunciation. In short, in every respect Le Grec ancien is très élégant.

And speaking of pronunciation, finally, there are the recordings. The lesson and exercise sentences (and only that) are read for all 101 lessons, at a nice moderate pace and with exquisite precision.


Pólis - parler le grec ancien comme une langue vivante is the relatively recent (2009) work of Christophe Rico, a Frenchman and professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. What's currently available is a relatively slim book with a single accompanying CD, and it is far short of a comprehensive introduction to ancient Greek. Rob McConeghy tells me follow-up volumes are intended, and there's a possible English version in the works, once a succeeding volume or so comes out in French.

I haven't gone through Pólis thoroughly yet, but can point out three pertinent things:

  1. Pólis is an introduction specifically and exclusively to Koine (the language of, among other things, the New Testament), more specifically, to Koine from the first century AD
  2. The instructional method is based on the principle that you should learn Koine (or any other ancient language) as a "living language," as you can see from the subtitle. The lessons are organized around conversations between a teacher (Rico) and pupils. You can read about the "Pólis method," in English, on the Pólis web site
  3. According to Rico, while the Greek text used is in terms of style and vocabulary mostly from the first century AD, the pronunciation used on the recordings is that of Koine in the first century BC (if you've listened to any Erasmian or restored classical pronunciation, you'll immediately think you're hearing something more akin to modern Greek)

In my first post I said the Greek part of this blog is primarily dedicated to resources for learning classical-era Greek, i.e., Attic Greek from the 5th - 4th centuries. Because "ancient Greek" covers more or less a millennium of different dialects and styles and types of writing, the autodidact does need to make some choices based on what her primary interests are. Pólis will be of special interest if your interest is primarily Koine, which for most people means biblical Greek. For those who intend to read classical authors too (and here I use "classical" loosely to include Homer on down), I would like to comment on Rico's stated reasons in his Preface for why he chose Koine.

Rico reasons as follows. The normal way of introducing students to ancient Greek is through an indiscriminate mix of periods and dialects. This is confusing for the student, and so one should pick a specific period and style to begin with. And why should that be 5th - 4th century Attic, especially when that period and style is only represented by about a dozen authors of importance, and that body of work represents less than 5% of extant ancient Greek? By contrast, over 90% of the corpus of antiquity is Koine. Koine is also a better choice for beginners because its grammar is much simpler, and from that foundation the student can easily do the additional learning necessary to read other periods and dialects ("Une fois le koinè maîtrisé, il est facile d'opérer certains transferts de connaissances pour parvenir à lire des textes écrits en attique ou ionien").

I happen to disagree with every step in this reasoning. Granted, if the goal is to learn to truly and comfortably speak ancient Greek, then focus on a single period and dialect, and in particular the simpler Koine, makes sense. But if you intend to read from the classical authors, you're going to have to know its, yes, much more complex grammar anyway, and I suspect it's easier to go from classical to Koine than vice-versa. I just finished Athenaze. While grounded in Attic, Athenaze does an excellent job of introducing you to the distinguishing characteristics of Herodotean (Ionian) and Homeric Greek. Its readings give you a taste of Hesiod, the Greek Lyric Poets (several dialects), etc. Finally, almost every chapter provides a reading from the New Testament. This isn't presented as an indiscriminate mix, and I feel well prepared to make the additional preparations required for some of these other dialects. I certainly didn't struggle with the New Testament readings. (And I must say I find Rico's relegation of Plato, Xenophon, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Lysias, Demosthenes, and Isocrates to a mere 5% of the ancient corpus to be, well, shall I say risible?)