From Ancient Greek to Mandarin to Ancient Greek Again

As a teenager, I studied Ancient Greek as a hobby. This stopped when I began college because I needed to put all of my studying efforts into my coursework. And then I got the notion that I wanted to live in Taiwan for a while, which meant I needed to learn Mandarin. This is how more than ten years passed without me studying any Ancient Greek.

I had the thought of taking up Ancient Greek again in 2017, but I couldn’t find my old Ancient Greek books, so I gave up. Yep, “The Books” mentioned in this blog post were all books I got as a teenager when I was studying Ancient Greek. Last autumn, I did another search of the basement room, and found the remainder of my Ancient Greek books. It was striking, how indifferent I was about most of the books I had as a teenager and had been sitting in the basement for years, but how strong my feelings were about my old books for studying Ancient Greek. This was a strong hint that this was a hobby which meant a lot to me. So I took the hint, and last fall I started studying Ancient Greek seriously again, for the first time since I was a teenager.

My experience studying Ancient Greek as a teenager strongly informed my study of Mandarin, and now my study of Mandarin is informing how I study Ancient Greek now.

It’s been noted that, as one learns more languages, one tends to become a better language learner. A lot of that is someone learning what study methods work for them, since many study methods can transfer across languages. A big takeaway in terms of method I took from studying Ancient Greek when I was studying Mandarin was do not underestimate vocabulary. If your grammar is shaky, but you can recognize all of the vocabulary, you can probably understand the main idea, especially in context. The reverse is not true. To demonstrate my point, I’m going to say something in a) grammatically bad English but with correct vocabulary and b) grammatically perfect English with gibberish vocabulary and c) a sentence which has the vocabulary of (a) and the grammar of (b):

Backyard mine in kitten play the watching fun fun is than internet on funny video cat the watching.

Zatshing teknits ylap in my werknald is more sal than zatshing sally tek mepors on the zumakliu.

Watching kittens play in my backyard is more fun than watching funny cat videos on the internet.

If you’re a fluent English reader, you need the third sentence to really understand what I’m saying, but the first sentence gave you some idea about what I was trying to say, whereas the second sentence, even with its perfect grammar, was useless.

But the most important takeaway wasn’t in technique, but in the confirmation that if I was stubborn enough and put in the effort, I actually would get better at a language.

Also, Mandarin is easier to learn than Ancient Greek. Before, I couldn’t be certain, because I studied Ancient Greek first, when I was less experienced at language learning in general. But now that I’m studying Ancient Greek again after having studied Mandarin, I can see that, yep, Ancient Greek is harder. Yes, even if you consider that Ancient Greek has a much simpler writing system than Mandarin. Yes, even if you consider that learning correct Ancient Greek pronunciation is unimportant and would probably be easier than Mandarin pronunciation is for native English speakers even if it were important. Yes, even if you consider that both English and Ancient Greek are Indo-European languages, whereas Mandarin is not. Yes, even if you consider that there are a lot more cognates between English and Ancient Greek than between English and Mandarin. Ancient Greek is just so hard that it overwhelms these advantages. I’m actually impressed that I had the patience for it as a teenager; if I were starting Ancient Greek completely from scratch now, I’d probably conclude it was too hard.

What makes Ancient Greek so hard? First of all, there is the morphology. ‘Morphology’ is the subset of grammar which is about how words are modified – for example, part of English morphology is that most plurals end in ‘-s’ (such as ‘dogs’) but some might have an ‘-es’ ending (such as ‘dishes’) or have an irregular plural (such as ‘mice’). Mandarin barely has any morphological changes in words. Ancient Greek has tons of them, way more than English. And what is especially unfair is that Ancient Greek verbs can have morphological changes at the beginning of the word (unlike English) whereas dictionary entries are generally in alphabetical order, so it’s sometimes hard to identify where to even look for a word in a dictionary. Honestly, looking up characters by radical is easier (to me, at least), and after learning a few thousand Chinese characters searching by radical is rarely necessary and thus dictionary lookups become fairly straightforward.

But an even bigger difficulty than the morphology is *cough* vocabulary density. Mandarin has relatively low vocabulary density, and once one has a solid grasp of a few thousand characters, figuring out the meanings of new words in context is (usually) easy, at least in written media. Ancient Greek has a really high vocabulary density. In practice, that means one has to know more words on average to understand a text in Ancient Greek than in Mandarin.

Not to mention that there is a lot more in common between how contemporary English speakers and Mandarin speakers see the world … than how contemporary English speakers and Greek people 2000+ years ago saw the world. If you’re an American, and you want to learn a language which will take you to a really different cultural perspective, I would actually recommend Ancient Greek over Mandarin.

The clearest takeaway I took from studying Mandarin to reviving my Ancient Greek is spaced-repetition software (SRS) (I use Anki, but I’m sure other SRS software would also work). SRS is amazing for learning vocabulary, which is possibly the toughest part of learning a new language. I first learned about SRS when I was studying Mandarin, and wow, I wish I had SRS as a teenager when I was learning Ancient Greek the first time!

There are also some major differences between learning a language with many living fluent speakers who use it in everyday life (Mandarin) and a language which no living person uses for everyday life (Ancient Greek). But that is a topic for another post.

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