The Best Way to Learn Ancient Greek

I have recently arrived at the point where I can more or less read almost anything at mid-level ancient Greek without too much difficulty.  I arrived at this point after many years of labor-the kind of labor I am sure anyone setting out with a grammar book and dictionary is undoubtedly familiar with.  Along the way, I was always thinking that there must be a way to learn ancient Greek that would see me through the labyrinth of forms and grammatical surprises.

One method I tried early on was one that helped me learn French in a much shorter period of time: reading along with  a translation.  The interesting thing is that this was very effective for one author: Aristotle.  I think I can attribute this to the fact that I was very familiar with Aristotle’s text before I started the work of translating it.  I reasoned that the situation might be the same as that with translating the New Testament: because of the familiarity I had with the translation I could almost guess at the Greek text and come out more or less right.  An added factor was I think that the range of vocabulary used in Aristotle’s texts is more or less very regular and predictable in most cases.  The latter was what helped with French.

My method was to look up one word on each line and simply slog through whatever was unclear until I had enough vocabulary to see my way through the text.  I worked well enough so that at the end of one summer I was able to read most of Aristotle’s corpus after spending around 3-4 hours per day on the project.  By building up my vocabulary, I eventually started to get an intuitive feel for the way the language worked.  Over time, I got better and better with it.

The difficulty was that the same method didn’t apply very well to Plato.  It applied somewhat well to the early dialogues, but not at all to the Republic.  The answer was simply that I lacked sufficient vocabulary, but a further problem was that the syntax remained more or less bewildering in ways that I felt should be worked out once I had enough vocabulary. Moreover, the vocabulary suddenly seemed far more difficult to learn.  I spent a long period of time attempting to work through to the same point I achieved with Aristotle, using the same method and telling myself that a tipping point was inevitable.

What finally produced the breakthrough was to finally spend a lot of time, not on vocabulary, but on the grammatical forms.  I don’t feel I actually became comfortable reading mid-level Greek until I knew not just some of the grammatical forms, but just about every list in the first half of Smyth to the point where I could recite them by heart.  It was only when I reached that point that the syntactical mysteries began to disappear and my level of reading reached what I achieved with Aristotle.  Once I did reach that point, using the method I used to read Aristotle helped me to make further progress.

Along the way, I was told that I should not rely on facing translations.  I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, they certainly helped me read easier Greek in a short period of time and being able to read the translation kept the work from being absolute drudgery.  On the other hand, the method kept me far from the shores of mid-level Greek until I finally came home only after a serious dedication to learning every paradigm I could find. Suddenly, too, the vocabulary was far less mysterious.

Was the optimal thing to have begun with the massive effort at learning them from the beginning? That would certainly have smoothed the path to the next level. However practically speaking, when a beginner is confronted with a Greek text, the task of looking up many, many vocabulary words to find to right sense or to ensure that a preposition applies as it should can, if carried out long enough, be nothing short of stunting to the intelligence. One can get lost in a de-motivating maze of forms and mesh of vocabulary words to the point where all other worthwhile ends are finally sacrificed and the investment no longer appears to be worth the reward.

I believe the moral to this story, my own conclusion is that different levels of Greek demand different levels of familiarity with the grammar.  There is simply no way around learning every paradigm to the point where any one of them can be recited if mid-level Greek is to be really and truly attained.  I hope to move up to an advanced level in the near future organically by reading as much Greek as is necessary to feel like my vocabulary base at the mid level is sufficient, and along the way looking into every Grammatical nicety that comes my way.  I think I will have attained that level when I can read mid-level texts without translation.  I have an OCT text of the Republic that has beckoned for many years.

One thought on “The Best Way to Learn Ancient Greek

  1. Congratulations! What a GREAT accomplishment – your persistence and tenacity have rewarded you! Keep it up!

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