How To Learn Greek And Latin

Every once in a while friends and acquaintances approach me and ask what books they should use to learn Greek or Latin. Oddly not many ask me how to learn the language, which to me misses probably the more important issue. I decided to do something I don’t do anymore, blog, in order to lay out a thorough answer to this question that will be all in one place for convenience. My hope is that these will be useful to anyone wondering about Greek or Latin, whether that’s Classical or Ecclesial/Theological, though I will mostly be addressing students of theology and pastors directly.

I studied Greek and Latin at the University of Minnesota. Before that I did some work in biblical languages at North Central University. In addition I’ve done a semester of German and a summer intensive in theological German. None of which is to say I’m an expert, but it is to say I’ve been taught languages in different ways from different establishments with different books. At North Central I learned Koine through induction with a textbook composed by the professor. At the U of M I learned from Classical scholars educated in traditional methods, which is to say more deductive, yet the textbooks for each language were quite different. While I admit there are a variety of learning styles, as there are merits to different pedagogical approaches, I will say off the bat that I found the systematic and brutal method of the U of M far more effective for retaining what I learned, even to this day when I am not currently as active working in the languages.

For the first two semesters we were in class five days a week and at least two hours of homework were expected of us every night. We learned all the nuts and bolts of fundamental morphology and syntax which was then progressively expanded in later semesters. The third semester jumped right into unaltered primary source texts in prose. In Latin Cicero and Caesar, in Greek Plato and Lysius. Class met three times a week but there was still a great deal of homework expected. Fourth semester was poetry: Virgil and Homer (The Odyssey, thank the gods). Classes after this varied according to the desires of the teachers but were graduate-level. I was lucky enough to have a class reading The Venerable Bede and unlucky enough to have one on Tacitus. Plato’s Republic, pseudo-homeric hymns, and byzantine poetry filled in my major on the Greek side. Classes still met thrice weekly and pretty much only majors and grad students were left at this level.

What did I learn from this?

To learn an ancient language you must take the time, over and again, for several years in order to become proficient at reading.

You’ll always need access to lexicons, especially in Greek, but if you are gonna look at a word and be able to tell that it’s part of an articular infinitive you can’t get by with a semester or two, doing as little homework as possible, and meeting but a couple times a week.

It is for this reason that I am sympathetic with seminaries that struggle with how to teach or if to require, Greek and Hebrew. It’s been my experience that a little bit of knowledge in a language is a dangerous thing, leading to ridiculous and untenable interpretations. For many, therefore, it may be best to stick to a translation and regularly refer to commentaries of many kinds in order to inform their work.

And yet – but first a story. My best friend is a Hebrew Bible Phd student at Harvard. We were recently chatting and he told me about his experience taking a NT course. “It’s interesting to see the differences between the OT and NT students”, he said. “How do you mean?”, I replied. “Well, the NT students don’t really know that much about the NT and barely know the languages. They know plenty about French philosophers but not much about the Bible.”

“Theology” surely is an extraordinarily large umbrella that can include a nearly endless assortment of methods approaching an equally infinite number of topics, but I still believe that Scripture is the primary source from which theologians and pastors ought to draw. If your task is to preach from it every week, or if it’s yours to compose books and essays that draw out its implications, I can’t imagine why the study of its texts should be viewed with such skepticism. And if Scripture is entirely dispensable for your work, then we probably have different views on many things. Though scholars who don’t approach Scripture from faith arguably take the original languages far more seriously than anti-intellectual pastors. Maybe instead of cutting Hebrew, seminaries ought to drop a couple of those four required homiletics courses?

Next post we’ll move to books and specifics.

2014 Music List

Benji, Sun Kil Moon

It has become an annual tradition for me to write up a list of music I liked in a given year. Now I am not one lightly to break with tradition but the truth is I have not been able to keep up as I have in years past, so I was planning on skipping this year. But I’ve had several requests to write it up anyway so here we go. Given the limitations, this year’s list doesn’t push my listening habits very far so forgive me if it’s a bit ‘conservative.’ Let me know what albums I missed or how wrong my choices are. The hierarchy beyond the top 10 is mostly arbitrary, because how can you really compare an R & B record to a punk record? You can’t.

1) Benji, Sun Kil Moon: Profoundly melancholy. Rich storytelling. “I Watched The Film The Song Remained The Same” a top song of the decade

2) Morning Phase, Beck: Earlier praised, later neglected. Slow, majestic, dramatic. Like Sea Change but the minimalism is starker.

3) Atomos, A Winged Victory For The Sullen: More strings and complex arrangements than (also delightful) debut. Ethereal, romantic, sweeping

4) Run The Jewels 2, Run The Jewels: I’m not a reliable reviewer of rap, but this lp was gripping. Aggressive, powerful, big synths

5) Home, Like Noplace I Know, The Hotelier: Tapping into multiple classic emo sounds while avoiding cliches or sounding like high schoolers

6) Shriek, Wye Oak: A strong shift from previous guitar-driven sound. Bass & synth dominate. Bass licks off the chart. Melodic and moody

7) Lost In The Dream, The War on Drugs: Perfecting the ‘dad rock’ sound. A laid back ‘post-punk’, owing more to Springsteen than The Ramones

8) They Want My Soul, Spoon: To make a record this good after being around 20+ shows just how important this band is. Full swagger rock&roll

9) In Conflict, Owen Pallett: Extraordinarily high levels of song writing. Not entirely sure how to classify it. Chamber rock?

10) Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso: Unlikely joint effort of an appalachian folk singer and a dj. Beautiful, airy, with hooks that sink deep

11) Are We There, Sharon Van Etten: A woman, a guitar, a soaring voice, and heartache

12) Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, Sturgill Simpson: All philosophers need to know’s the opening track is “Turtles All The Way Down”

13) Ruins, Grouper: Stunning, ethereal, ambient, piano music. Drifts now in, now out, yet lp goes quickly. Opposite of ‘background’ music

14) LP1, FKA twigs: Thoroughly contemporary art pop by UK singer. Universally praised for good reason.

15) Black Messiah, D’Angelo: Suddenly & unexpectedly released after most lists compiled. Soulful, guitar-centric, r&b frm established artist

16) Built On Glass, Chet Faker: Another progressive r&b record. I’m dreaming of a Faker, Frank Ocean, James Blake team up.

17) Too Bright, Perfume Genius: Significant artistic growth for him. Gay pride; sensitive soul; sweet voiced piano ballads

18) Asleep Versions, Jon Hopkins: Just a small remix EP, yet eloquently, patiently, painstakingly, & expertly done. Moar King Creosote plz!

19) Sea When Absent, Sunny Day in Glasgow: Sometimes a wall of guitar, sometimes a wall of synth, often catchy; a classic shoegaze record

20) In The Lonely Hour, Sam Smith: My bae. The year’s unrequitted love LP. He got popular for a reason

21) Punk lps of the year are a close tie: Say Yes To Love, Perfect Pussy; More Than Any Other Day, Ought; Sunbathing Animal, Parquet Courts; Here And Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings; 1984, Ryan Adams; Courting Strong, Martha; and Eagulls, Eagulls – All worth checking out

22) Guilty of Everything, Nothing: Like last year’s Deafheaven, a combination of shoegaze w/ metal, but less black metal, more nu metal

23) It’s Album Time, Todd Terje: Before it’s cool again, an analog synth lp w/ 80’s influence. But not nostalgic, quite synthetic & creative Let’s add Shrink Dust, Chad VanGaalen to the punk records. Because it’s just as good, sort of belongs, and it’s my list

24) Love Fail, David Lang: Intelligible vocal work in modernist classical tradition, drawing on older sacred styles (seems to me).

25) Wuss rock lps of the year: Heart Murmurs, Jeremy Messersmith: Local boy makes good. Lyrically playful, rich, and inclusive; When I Was Younger, Colony House; Strange Desire, Bleachers; and Youth, Wild Cub

There are plenty of other records worth listening to this year. Some are probably better than those on this list but it’s hard to make one of these without second guessing yourself. You can follow my year lists on Spotify and figure out for yourself which ones you like. My list will undoubtedly expand as I listen to more LPs from this year. Cheers!

A (very) Critical Review of Nicholas Healy(‘s book)

Hauerwas: a (very) critical introduction
by: Nicholas M. Healy
Reviewed by Tony Hunt
My thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy

Why write a very critical review of Nicholas Healy’s very critical introduction to Stanley Hauerwas? In my opinion, Healy’s book has not as yet been subjected to the kind of exacting critical analysis that is appropriate for a supposedly systematic review of an entire life’s corpus. There have been a few good summaries of his main points, with several somewhat critical interjections, true, but none have as yet taken as hard a line as I wish to take.

I should clarify, though, that this is not a review of the entirety of Healy’s book. I only want to get a handle on the book as a whole and assess it as such. I will not discuss even those chapters that are rightly judged to be important or especially insightful, such as the chapter advancing the crude analogy between Hauerwas and Schleiermacher. For one thing, I do not have the expertise to be able to say anything of special interest about such matters. For another, although these are central chapters to his main arguments, I do not think they actually contribute all that much to them. Thus the entirety of chapters 3 and 4 have been left out of the scope of this essay.

Now I do hope that this is not seen as criticism of Healy as a person. From what I’ve been able to gather he is an amiable fellow. I have not met him in person and have purposely gone to some length not to contact him, lest talking to him taint my interpretation of his work. That is the last thing I would want. Clarifications of his arguments, or elaborations of his summary points would only disturb the picture I have of Healy’s book as it stands. I would like here to introduce my first distinction, that between the work and the person. A theologian could be a massive jerk but their work is entirely distinct from this. No character flaws, no hypocrisy, no flagrant disregard for common decency has any bearing on the much clearer and straightforward message of the author’s texts on their own terms.

But before proceeding further I think it is important to understand just what kind of work Healy’s is. To do this I need to elaborate somebody else’s typological scheme at some length, assume its authority, and locate Healy’s work on it. Rowan Williams, in his book “On Christian Theology,” claims that theology operates in three registers: The celebratory, the communicative and the critical. Celebratory theology  is “an attempt to draw out and display connections of thought and image so as to exhibit the fullest possible range of significance in the language used. It is typically the language of hymnody and preaching.” (p.xiii)

Communicative theology, on the other hand, “seeks to persuade or commend, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than once cultural environment, and to display enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thought.” (p.xiv)

Finally, critical theology works in at least two different ways. “The critical impulse may issue in agnosticism, even nihilism;” But it may also dialectically move back toward the celebratory “by hinting at the gratuitous mysteriousness of what theology deals with.” (p.xv)

Why it is necessary to locate Healy on this schema may not be readily apparent but trust me, it’s important enough to dedicate three whole paragraphs and a series of criticisms to it. In fact I’ll probably keep referring back to Williams’ typology for the rest of this review. At any rate Healy can’t be found clearly in any one style and it’s perfectly natural that a work would move between registers anyway. On the other hand, that Healy navigates and sometimes conflates the three categories of theology as organized by Rowan Williams probably is a kind of indictment, because problems arise when the three are conflated. The celebratory ceases to function well when it is admixed with the communicative, etc.

In the next section of my review I will elaborate further what kind of book Healy’s is. We have already seen that it – in my view problematically – does not fall distinctly into one of the three varieties of theology that Rowan Williams describes. Now we will attempt to get at the core of Healy’s style. Introductions to authors traditionally work by what I would like to call an “exegeticocentric” method. That is, for thousands of years when someone wanted to give a systematic presentation of an author’s entire life’s work they discussed at length the actual arguments of the texts, usually situating them in an historical context and relating them to the author’s influences and conversation partners.   Healy takes a different route. His is a “typologicocentric” book, wherein what is important is to elaborate novel and extensive categorical schemata within which an author may be placed. So, for instance, for Healy, Hauerwas’s work is not traditional because it breaks with the “theocentric” strain of theology (I keep looking for this label in historic theological works but have yet to find it) and instead advances the “ecclesiocentric” model typified by at least one old German dude (I also looked, alas, in vain for this word in the works of old German dudes). This problematizes Healy’s entire project because synthetic descriptions of other’s work is most faithful when it is exegeticocentric rather than typologicocentric.

A few examples may be appropriate. If Healy were using the traditional exegeticocentric method, he would have needed to include a discussion about the sizable influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Hauerwas, noting how Wittgenstein’s account of the acquisition of language and its use bears on the relationship between the liturgy, scripture reading, sacraments, and discipleship; a relationship Healy feels Hauerwas gets wrong. Then again, for Healy, Hauerwas may have his unique influences, but we do not need to know them to understand and assess his theological arguments. (Although it may have modified Healy’s argument that MacIntyre lies at the root of Hauerwas‘ understanding of tradition)  Or again, when criticizing Hauerwas for the apparent disparity between the church he proclaims and the empirical church, Healy would have needed to bring in the importance of eschatology for Hauerwas’ work. But with Healy’s typologicocentric method, neither Wittgenstein nor eschatology receive a single mention. Indeed Yoder himself is only brought into the book in passing.

Now if, after reading this far, you have learned very little about the content of Healy’s book; if you’ve found a disproportionate amount of space in this review dedicated to measuring the book by arbitrary organizational schemes; if you’ve been introduced to novel, vague, and misleading neologisms; if you’ve been surprised by the fact that I left out central chapters for consideration; if you feel that systematically introducing a life’s corpus should include locating the works in the context of primary influences and conversation partners – If all of this is bothersome for you, you will be equally frustrated by Healy. Indeed more than a few sentences here have been taken directly from his book.

A person who came to Healy without knowing Hauerwas will learn very little about Hauerwas. This is reason enough to criticize the book. But that it also succumbs to the aforementioned problems, among other more minor quibbles, makes it so that I cannot recommend this book at all.

Favorite Albums of 2013: There Are Many Lists, But This One Is Mine

I am still working through other people’s end of year lists, and so this can only be considered provisional. (Check some out –David CongdonNPR, Pitchfork, Metacritic, MPR)  Nevertheless, here is the next in what is probably my longest running blog series. Links are to exemplary tunes. (* Marks an album especially worth checking out)

Best Albums in the tradition of 90s Awesomeness:
My Bloody Valentine, M.B.V.*
No JoyWait To Pleasure*
Fury Things, Fury Things*
Owel, Owel 
Appleseed Cast, Illumination Ritual

Best Atmospheric: 
Hammock, Oblivion Hymns*
Juliana Barwick, Nepenthe
Olafur Arnalds, For Now I Am Winter

Albums I Wanted To Like:
Deerhunter, Monomaniac
Savages, Silence Yourself

Albums I Did Not Expect to Like But Did:
Kanye West, Yeezus*
Phoenix, Bankrupt!

Best Album By a Former Member of N’Sync:
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience, 1 of 2

Best Electronica – Dance, Pop, Instrumental, w/ Singing, Dark, Mixed, and Otherwise:
Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe*
Polica, Shulamith
Tegan And Sarah, Heartthrob
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories*
Disclosure, Settle*
Gold Panda, Half of Where You Live
Jon Hopkins, Immunity*
Classixx, Hanging Gardens
Daniel Avery, Drone Logic
Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual

Best Mix of Surfy Dream Pop and Black Metal That Reminds Me of Zao’s Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest:
Deafheaven, Sunbather*

Best Old-Timey New Music:
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, The Jazz Age*
– Also winner of sexiest song
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, That’s It!
Mavis Staples, One True Vine
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads
Glen Jones, My Garden State

Best, uuuhhhh, Indie Stuff(?):
Local Natives, Hummingbird
Low, The Invisible Way
Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito
The National, Trouble Will Find Me
Keaton Henson, Birthdays
Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero
Beach Fossils, Clash the Truth
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The                                  More I Love You
Volcano Choir, Repave*
Owen, L’Ami du Peuple
Arcade Fire, Reflektor*
Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold + All The Things That You Broke
Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia
Washed Out, Paracosm
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City*
Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia

Best Sacred:
Caleb Burhans, Evensong
Bifrost Arts, He Will Not Cry Out

Best Album By a Trio of Sisters Rockin Guitars and Harmonies:
Haim, Days Are Gone*

Best Guilty Pleasure:
Lissie, Back To Forever

Best Folk & Country:
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Jason Isbell, Southeastern*
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Mutual BenefitLove’s Crushing Diamond*

Best Hip-Hop, R&B:
Caroline Smith, Half About Being a Woman
Rhye, Woman*
Mayer Hawthorne, Where Does This Door Go
London Grammar, If You Wait
James Blake, Overgrown
Aby Wolf, Wolf Lords
Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe

Most Heartbreaking And Cathartic Album:
Daughter, If You Leave

Most Trailblazing Album For an Established Band:
Sigur Ros, Kveikur*

No Explanation Needed:
Chris Thile, Bach Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. I*

Favorite Record of the Year:

Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse

I’m not under the illusion that this can somehow lay claim, in an objective sense, to the best album of 2013 – it’s far down on most lists if present at all – but there is something about the weirdness of the record, the uncomfortable beauty, the exploration of in-between spaces, that grips me. It’s explicitly a metaphysical record, a making-the-familiar-odd record, and in that sense an analogical record.

On Typology: A Polemic

Tony Sig

A couple months ago, Ben Myers wrote a dandy post against the types of books that force students to read, not the primary sources about which they are supposedly to learn, but books talking about them.

“Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one?”

Spot on. To the “student book” I would like to add another problematic form of writing that does pretty much the same thing, with the results, if anything, being more sinister. This form is common in the same student books but exists outside of them as well: Namely, the organization of theologians and their thought into typologies. Myers again, in a more recent post, lays out a new atonement typology in patristic thought contra Aulen, yet having laid out a more complex scheme says:

“Even from these summaries, one can see that these themes are normally found not as separate ideas but as closely interwoven motifs.”

Myers, I think, sees the work that his typology can do, but in the very act of constructing a new one is able to see the myriad ways his improved scheme falls short of accurately and fully describing the works under discussion.

But it’s not simply that typology cannot accurately represent the works that fall under its sway that riles me up – surely one should be able to accurately summarize a view without it being some kind of betrayal –  it’s that once a theologian or work has been typologized and the scheme imbibed into the academic bloodstream, it becomes unnecessary for the student or pastor to bother with the thinkers who fall into the ‘bad’ category. As with the ‘student book,’ we no longer need bother with primary sources, but not having read them, we can roundly dismiss them!

A classic example of this can be found in the way Anselm is routinely marginalized as a proto-evangelical who (from scratch!) came up with “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Here we see not only the influence of Aulen but also the neo-patristic synthesis of modern Orthodox theologians. (One of David Bentley Hart’s lasting labor may be in his multiple defenses of Anselm and Duns Scotus against such typologies)

Speaking of the Orthodox, we also often see typology being used in service of declension narratives; yet using them this way works as a kind of shortcut past the harder work of constructing a disciplined genealogy. Even in the sustained work of Hans Frei or Karl Barth it’s not hard to feel that something is lost in the anti-liberalism – this despite the post-liberal I am.

The surest way around these problems seems to me to be to adhere to this dictum: Primary sources are for everyone, secondary sources are for specialists.

In Defense of Liberal Theology

Tony Sig

“God has called us to unfold a growing message, and not to rehearse a stereotyped tradition” – B.F. Westcott

I have learned a great deal from Ephraim Radner, mostly having to do with Scripture and with attempting to be an academic theologian in a sentimentalist’s theological world, and I’m deeply indebted to him for this – but lord help me, when he ventures onto First Things I’m never sure what to make of his rather incoherent political ramblings. In a recent piece he seemingly assumes that political conservatism necessarily flows from theological ‘orthodoxy,’ or at least ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics.  Though his piece is purposely vague, Radner is quite clear that ‘liberal’ theology leads to a relativizing of Scripture’s authority, to ‘dogmatic dissolution’, and to a ‘laissez-faire’ view of ‘human relations.’ (Whether this statement is simply about sexuality is unclear. Does this indict conservative laissez-faire’ economics as well?)

The difficulty in engaging an essay like this goes back to language usage. Is all ‘liberal theology’ intrinsically unorthodox? Or is it, perhaps, that only liberal theology that ends in unorthodoxy is ‘genuinely liberal?’ My problem with Radner’s usage is that it needs some historization, something which, as a distinguished historical theologian, he ought to be doing automatically. In rereading the essay several times I think we should understand Radner to be suggesting something like ‘liberal theology is unorthodox, or at least leads to unorthodoxology. If it is still orthodox, it is not liberal.’ Bracketing, for the sake of discussion, the politics of what counts as ‘orthodox’ and what does not, I would like to assert that what has historically counted as ‘liberal theology’ is not often in direct conflict with traditional affirmations of the Christian faith. Indeed it is rather part and parcel of what is required of  theological work attempting to articulate a faithful proclamation of the Church’s witness.

But what is ‘liberal theology?’ Rather than answer this straightforwardly, I think it would be more fruitful to point to theologians who have consistently been called liberal. Classic examples from Germany include von Harnack, Schleiermacher, and Bultmann; in the contemporary anglophone world, J.A.T. Robinson, Raymond Brown, or Marcus Borg. But a great deal more than these have been considered ‘liberal,’ at least by their contemporaries, yet their insights have often been normalized and their reputations vindicated through time. Since Dr. Radner and I are both Episcopalians, I think some Anglican examples are apropos.

Bishop Charles Gore comes to mind, obviously, being considered the father of ‘liberal catholicism;’ So also does the Cambridge trio Westcott, Hort, and Lightfoot, whose work on the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers can hardly be overestimated  (Brown touted the genius of Westcott’s commentary on John in his NT Introduction). We might rightly add the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who, like liberal catholics before him, wasn’t afraid to incorporate historical criticism in his exegesis. With perhaps Gore only excepted (for his creative exploration of kenosis), there is hardly any thought that these scholars are not ‘orthodox,’ and while they may not now be considered ‘liberal’ generally, all wrote works that were controversial in their day using liberal methods. Just think of the stink around the usurpation of the Textus Receptus and the revised translation based on the critical text.

Liberal theology  is responsible for critical editions of the Bible, for advancements in historical work, for experimental integration of science and religion, for feminist theology, and a great many other things that have proved invaluable for Christians. It is doubtful whether conservative theology, left to its own devices, would ever have done as much. That liberals can err is no more remarkable than that conservatives can err, and no more clear evidence that they are fundamentally askew than that all conservatives fall prey to arianesque traditionalism. The continuing task of theology will require renewed pressing at the edges of what is respectable language. The tradition, in other words, should be non-identically repeated.  I don’t think we need liberal parties, or liberal identity policing (what is authentically liberal?), but we need the openness to the strangeness and newness of our encounter with God’s active grace; openness to the possibility that some assumed beliefs have grown wild and must be hacked off; that certain traditions cannot be maintained because they are actively harming people. “Christianity is not an uniform and monotonous tradition, but can be learned only by successive steps of life.” F.J.A. Hort

Language Acquisition & Technology

Tony Sig

As Adam Kotsko has said, learning a language is not hard, it just takes hundreds of hours of work. There’s pretty much no way around that fundamental aspect. Even once you understand the underlying rules of syntax, you still have to memorize morphology, vocab, and exceptions for any new language. This assumes one actually wants to have a reliable working knowledge of a language and not just the foundation for future half-remembered phrases.

To that end teachers have long found creative ways to make learning a language easier and more enjoyable. Take, for instance, the songs and poems that my Latin teacher learned as a boy in English schools. Or the work of Clyde Pharr on Virgil and Homer. But what about contemporary technology? Can it aid in this learning?

I was just introduced by a friend to a phone app called Duolingo. The app is free. They also have a website, so one doesn’t even need a smartphone to use it. I’ve found it so helpful and fun that I’ve inadvertently decided to use this Summer to beef up my German. By working through a “skill tree,” competing against yourself and friends, acquiring points, and advancing levels, the system practically makes you want to learn. That it uses all major language-teaching immersion methods – German to English and English to German translation, hearing German, speaking German, reading German, and so on – makes it effective.

What it has done is allowed me to utilize free time – waiting in line, riding a bus, fooling around at night – as time spent learning the language. That is, it makes me put in the time necessary to learn German. What’s more, this is how we ‘young people’ actually use technology. Ultimately there’s no way around the time, so just creating new technology cannot nor will it ever be a quick fix. But if you can integrate it with how technology is actually intuitively used, I think you might be on the right track.

So the question this has raised for me is can Duolingo or something like it be helpful for the Classical languages? Here’s where I think we might brush up against some problems, given the complexity of Classical syntax. I’m not sure one could “learn Greek” on an app. But I think that if done after the manner of Duolingo, the hard memorization of vocab, morphology, and basic syntax could be aided significantly by such technology, even if it was only supplementary to a course. Perhaps it could be structured to follow along with a classic textbook?