Understanding Language: A Guide for Beginning Students of Greek and Latin

FairbairnI recently received an email from Catholic University of America Press featuring a new release by Donald Fairbairn, who teaches Patristics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.

The book, titled Understanding Language: A Guide for Beginning Students of Greek & Latin, aims “to break students out of ‘English mode.’” The description reads:

Why do students today find Greek and Latin so difficult and frustrating to learn? Perhaps the primary barrier preventing us from learning another language successfully is that we often subconsciously believe that English is the standard for the way languages must express ideas, and therefore we unwittingly try to fit the new language into the structure of English.

This book seeks to break students out of “English mode” as soon as possible, at the very beginning of study. Rather than constantly relating Greek and Latin to English, the book starts with a big-picture discussion of what any language must do in order to facilitate communication. It then explains how Indo-European languages in general accomplish the tasks of communication, and how Greek and Latin in particular do so.

That sounds like a noble goal! I don’t think, however, that breaking out of English mode can actually occur while you’re reading a book written in English! The only way to break out of English mode is to immerse in the language and to connect the language (as much as possible) directly to reality and to itself. If in the end, students are still required to translate into English and to analyze Greek or Latin using English grammatical terminology, they will forever be imprisoned in English. There is no shortcut to proficiency. Humans simply don’t acquire fluency in a language by learning about the language and its rules, or even about linguistic theory. They learn only through tons of graded comprehensible input and through use of the language in listening, reading, writing, and speaking.

I applaud CUA and Prof. Fairbairn for taking a bold step and realizing that English is not the final arbiter of meaning. That’s a good conceptual foundation. Now what we need is a pedagogy that reflects that insight!

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11 Responses to Understanding Language: A Guide for Beginning Students of Greek and Latin

  1. Roger says:

    As I was reading, I too considered the irony that it was written in English. This book sounds good, and I would be interested to use it as an introduction. I learned basics of biblical hebrew for about a year and was no where near saying I knew the language. Rather I was amazed at the sheer complexity of it. Will you be posting a review about the book?

  2. Carl W. Conrad says:

    Daniel, I think this is a bad rap. One might just as well insist that you have no business writing your blog entries in English. You’re talking about the PROCESS of learning Greek, while Fairbairn is talking about the PROCESS of learning either Greek or Latin or both. Surely there’s a difference between talking about pedagogy and engaging in it. You’ve been discussing pedagogy for several weeks now, but you haven’t been addressing your readers in Greek. I think it is quite true that grammatical analysis depends on prior understanding of the text or utterance to be analyzed (as Aristotle says that Ethics can be understood only by those who already behave rightly). I think what’s askew here is the difference between using a language as a vehicle of communication and talking about the elements of a language and their function in the process of communication. Here’s where I might agree with the substance of what you’re saying here: we don’t learn a language by learning ABOUT the language but rather by USING it to communicate. Of course we COULD write out our dialogue over pedagogy in Greek, but we aren’t doing that. We do, I think, need to distinguish clearly between using the language and explaining how it works.

    • τήν ἀλήθειαν ὁ Κᾶρλος ἔγραψε. καλὸν γένοιτο τὸ διαλέγεσθαι περὶ τούτων Ἑλληνιστί.

      Κᾶρλε, ἆρα ἤκουσας ὅτι ΛαΡουσα ἀφῆκεν τὴν ἐργασίαν αὐτοῦ?

    • Carl, I agree with you. I’m not at all against writing books in English about Greek or Greek language learning (or Latin). This post was actually intended to be a very positive book notice, since Fairbairn is, I think, pointing us in the right general direction.

      My main point is that giving students an historical-linguistic survey of Indo-European languages is not going to break students out of “English mode”–which is exactly what the book’s ad copy claims it will do. Of course, I want to withhold final judgment on the book, until I actually get to see it (hint, hint, CUA Press!), and I realize that Fairbairn probably wasn’t responsible for writing the ad copy.

  3. Pingback: Greek the Obscure? | καὶ τὰ λοιπά

  4. Don Fairbairn says:

    This is Don Fairbairn. For what it’s worth, I did write the advertising copy for the book, but I think (at least I hope!) I claimed that the book HELPS students to break out of English mode, not that it does so on its own. Daniel, maybe you should directly ask CUAP whether they’ll give you an exam copy of the book. You might find it helpful. So might your students. Mine have found it helpful. In fact, the reason I wrote the book was because my Latin students a few years ago liked this approach and wished they had had a similar one when they took Greek earlier.

    • Hi Don, thanks for commenting! I actually ended up reading the bulk of your book in a local seminary library a couple weeks back. As I’ve already said, I appreciate it very much, and I am hopeful that people will read it and that it will spur them on in their Greek studies. I especially hope that it will move people away from the Greeklish mindset.
      Of course, as you have probably figured out if you have looked at anything else on my sight, I think that proficiency or fluency should be our goal and that this is best accomplished by using the methods similar to modern language pedagogy (i.e. basically communicative). Have you thought about teaching Greek *in Greek*? Do you think that this would help students break out of English mode? (BTW, I can report that my link to your book resulted in at least two sales through Amazon)

      • Don Fairbairn says:


        No, I’ve never thought about teaching Greek in Greek. That would certainly be ideal, but I can’t teach (or learn) a language using modern language pedagogy. I’m more than 90% deaf, and my whole approach to language has to be visual, not auditory. But my hat’s off to you for bringing that kind of approach to the study of Koine Greek.

        By the way, what’s the deal with Mark’s asking Carl whether he had heard about LaRussa’s retirement (in Greek, no less) on THIS blogsite?

  5. Leonard Isaksson says:

    Have Don Fairbairn or Daniel Streett read the review/critique of “Understanding Language” in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review from this year? The reviewer liked the first two chapters, but had some strong criticisms of the remainder of the book. What does Mr. Fairbairn think about the criticisms given in the Bryn Mawr review?

    I am curious about this book now, I am in need of review and progress in my learning of Greek grammar. On Amazon, there are three folks who seem to have found help in the book. It would be nice if there were a library around here in which one could read a book like that.

    • Leonard, I read the review when it came out, some time ago. It primarily critiqued the book for errors in grammatical description or explanation. While that is, of course, a serious shortcoming in a book designed in part to teach grammar, the criticisms I made–admittedly, having read only the publisher’s ad for the book and the TOC–were more fundamental. They have to do with what it means to understand a language, read in the language, know the language, etc.

      I believe that a basic speaking-listening ability in a language is a necessary foundation for learning the language’s grammar (if by learning grammar we mean ability to analyze and label parts of the language in metalinguistic terminology). If you haven’t already, you might take a look at some of my longer posts here on what it means to know and read Greek, as I deal with these topics at length on this blog.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Leonard Isaksson says:

        Thanks for the reply. The reviewer seemed to chafe about the errors in the book, although those folks on Amazon found it helpful, including one teacher.

        When I started elementary Greek many years ago, I got an LP from a libary, which had recording of a classical Greek professor reading some Greek poetry, seeking to sound poetic. The poetry seemed to make music to that fellow who recorded it, however, I felt a bit ill in my stomach. The matter of the rising or fall, or both, in the voice as being the acute or grave or circumflex was something quite strange. Then I encountered Spiros Zodhiates, and I heard a living language, which made a lot more sense to me. Of course, Greek seemed to have rich vowel system, which likely varied somewhat in the different accents. When I read Robertson and Davis, on the apparent simplification of the vowel system, given spellings of words, we seem to find that more vowels were sounding like ‘ee’. Well, it is helpful to be able to speak a language, as Zodhiates would say, you need to read, to write, to speak, and to hear a language to better learn it. As he would also say, “the best you can learn a language without speaking or hearing it is 50%”. But, when I had elementary Greek at seminary, what was taught was the more Erasmian, or American Erasmian accent.

        I have not gone through a CD or course for Randall Buth, which seems an authentic approach, one that can absorb the euphony of the living Greek language, and one that has more variety in the vowel system. I have just been reading in my Greek Bible, which has helped me, however, I have not done much with reading out loud. I do sometimes. Well, perhaps I will see about getting a Buth CD.

        Thanks for the site, interesting site.

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