So far in this series I have introduced my story about how I came to understand the importance of learning vocab, even though I was not really taught it. After that, I laid out the following main points:
- Reading Comprehension requires extensive vocabulary: the magic number is 98%, that is, you need to know 98% of the words on a page to read with comprehension.
- Reading with comprehension requires rich lexical entries in our mental lexicons: rich lexical entries entail phonetic knowledge as well as ability to see a word a read it without having to “sound it out” mentally.
- Massive reading is key to building rich lexical entries: the only way you encounter words in (authentic) meaningful context is by reading, so read up!
Following the unfolding logic of these main points, I’m sure you notice that they are interrelated. Not only are the intimately interrelated, but each point also assumes the other points are in place in order to work effectively: to read with comprehension (1) you need a massive vocabulary (3); to gain a massive vocabulary (1) requires reading extensively (3); to build up rich lexical entries in the mental lexicon (2) requires reading with comprehension (1) and massive reading (3), both of which presuppose that you already know the majority of words on the page in order to comprehend what you are reading (1); and so on.
The logic quickly leads into endless circles. This is the Gordian knot of language learning (at least the one relating to vocabulary learning; everywhere you turn in language learning one is confronted with Gordian knots). Now, if you wanted to learn German, or Spanish, or Chinese, or Hindi, or any number of the major languages used in the world today, there are myriads of resources available that are designed to help cut this Gordian knot. These include books written with minimal vocabulary to facilitate learning the core vocabulary of the language, word lists, language tutors to talk with, and so forth. While it is not easy to get over the core vocab hump in any language, it is easier to find ways to be exposed to that core vocabulary when there are many resources produced for the express purpose of filling this gap.
Ancient Greek does not really have these resources.
The nature of the extant texts
Basically, texts (here meaning anything written down in any form) that have been preserved from Antiquity fall into three main categories:
- Stuff carved into rocks (or inscribed on metals, etc)
- Stuff that accidentally survived (whether on a trash heap, as part of a coffin, buried in a natural disaster, etc.)
- Stuff that was preserved because it was important enough to someone to pay to have people copy it (and then someone else, and so on)
Category three is the category that most people are interested in reading. These are texts that survived because of their cultural importance (and lcuk that the libraries they were in didn’t get burned down at some point). These are texts like the New Testament, the Septuagint, Plato, Thucydides, and so forth.
You may notice that no where on this list is “stuff that was kept around because it was easy for people to learn how to speak and read the language with.” That category of literature has largely not survived (and it probably wasn’t a big category to begin with: people learning how to read in schools seem to have begun their reading career with Homer and the other classical Greek authors, in other words, learners didn’t start with easy stuff). The texts we have (and are interested in reading) are primarily difficult, from the point of view of someone learning a language. They have wide-ranging vocabulary, make complex arguments, and utilize a variety of grammatical constructions that are rare to encounter in texts which, presumably, would have been learned through the on-going process of speaking the language. Though, check out this resource that at least some ancients used for learning Greek!
You need a systematic method for learning vocab
Everything is pointing rather strongly to one conclusion: You need to have a systematic approach for learning vocabulary! If your goal is to read Ancient Greek with comprehension, you have to learn vocab. Unless you have savant capabilities at remember glosses from a lexicon after looking them up once, you will need a systematic way to review the words you look up. Also, you will need a systematic way to keep track of the words you are learning, verses those you have a good handle on, to optimize your learning time. As far as I can tell, there really is no way around systematic vocab learning. The degree that you desire to read Ancient Greek with comprehension is the degree to which you must be devoted to learning vocabulary. Period.
Luckily, there is a tool which fits the bill as a systematic, methodical, yet surprisingly flexible means for vocabulary learning. In the next post (last in the series), I will discuss the value of Anki to facilitate vocab learning.