I was alerted to this great section of Thomas Hardy’s classic, Jude the Obscure, by Donald Fairbairn, who refers to it in his new book, Understanding Language (which I discussed briefly here). I think it captures perfectly how disappointed many college and seminary students are when they finish their first semester or year of Greek (or Hebrew or Latin) and realize how unrealistic their original dreams were. They had hoped to be able to read the Bible (or other great ancient texts) in the original language, but instead they find they have just spent months on end memorizing charts and endings, diagramming sentences, cramming English definitions that don’t always apply, and digging through lexicons—not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.
Ever since his ﬁrst ecstasy or vision of Christminster and its possibilities Jude had meditated much and curiously on the probable sort of process that was involved in turning the expressions of one language into those of another. He concluded that a grammar of the required tongue would contain, primarily, a rule, prescription, or clue of the nature of a secret cipher, which, once known, would enable him by merely applying it, to change at will all words of his own speech into those of the foreign one. . . .
He learnt for the ﬁrst time that there was no law of transmutation as in his innocence he had supposed . . . but that every word in both Latin and Greek was to be individually committed to memory at the cost of years of plodding.
Jude ﬂung down the books, lay backward along the broad trunk of the elm, and was an utterly miserable boy for the space of a quarter of an hour. As he had often done before he pulled his hat over his face, and watched the sun peering insidiously at him through the interstices of the straw. This was Latin and Greek, then, was it; this grand delusion! The charm he had supposed in store for him was really a labour like that of Israel in Egypt. What brains they must have in Christminster and the great schools, he presently thought, to learn words one by one up to tens of thousands. There were no brains in his head equal to this business, and as the little sun-rays continued to stream in through his hat at him he wished he had never seen a book, that he might never see another, that he had never been born.
When will language profs realize that the Grammar-Translation method of teaching Greek (notice I do not say “learning” Greek!) truly makes Greek class “a labour like that of Israel in Egypt?” Why work your mental fingers to the bone committing every word to memory when you could immerse yourself and learn virtually effortlessly? Remember all that slaving away you did to acquire your 30000-word English vocabulary? Yeah, me neither! Language learning should be fun! It is necessary that stumbling-blocks come, but woe to the one through whom it comes (οὐαὶ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ δι᾽ οὗ τὸ σκάνδαλον ἔρχεται)! Acquire the language naturally and teach the language naturally, because you just don’t look so hot with a millstone around your neck.