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Pursuing Knowledge of Christian Theological Languages (with some Miscellanies)

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude towards you for your willingness to provide counsel of this kind: it is greatly appreciated.

I am a 26-year-old Kenyan would-be polyglot but with what you may call a practical, languages-as-means bent, inasmuch as the driving factor behind my interest in acquiring languages is my desire to have access to the primary sources of the most important documents in Christian theology.

I have grown up in Nairobi, but owing to an accidental deficiency in my education, I grew up knowing only English. Coordinate, therefore, to my interest in theology, is a desire to be able to teach it effectively to people within the region, which makes higher-learning-level competency in Swahili a real desideratum.

In keeping with this, my hope is to learn the “theological” languages, primarily if not exclusively, for reading, and to learn Swahili to thorough-going fluency (spoken and written). If the Lord permits me, I would also like to add along the way Kikuyu and Maragoli, which are the two main languages of my ancestors.

At least for my purposes (as a Protestant in the Reformed tradition), I have identified the following as the most significant languages in theology:

– The Biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek
– The languages of Christendom: Latin and Syriac
– The languages of modern theology: English, German, French and Dutch.

Let me now give an overview of my progress in the languages I have invested in learning: Swahili, Latin, and Greek.

I started studying Latin in 2018 using Orberg’s famous LLPSI series. I was not consistent, but finished with the first book in mid 2020. After that I made the over-ambitious mistake of attempting to read Livy, but after a couple of months in discouragement began with the second book in LLPSI, “Roma Aeterna”. I worked through the first five chapters (late 2020) of the same but then became distracted by other matters in my life until late 2021, at which point I re-read through the first-five chapters and concluded that I would need to change my strategies. I have since spent time working through a lot of helpful material to hone my Latin-learning approach, primarily that from Irene Regini’s “Satura Lanx”. I must confess, nonetheless, that I have struggled with consistency, sometimes missing entire weeks.

I began studying Swahili in 2019 and quickly got through the material in several grammars. The structure of Bantu languages is simple, so the main challenge has been in achieving spoken fluency. I would say I have steadily improved in this but still have a long way to go. I am able to read the Bible fairly easily now, although this may be somewhat self-deceptive because I have a very clear knowledge of the text in English.

For Greek, I was following Clyde Pharr’s “Homeric Greek” and had worked myway through all the basic grammar and through to around line 300 of “The Illiad”. This took place mainly in two periods: November-December 2020 and May-June 2021. I have since (to my sadness and shame) neglected the language.

I hope this gives a clear background for the questions that I will ask.

My aim in the next five years is to achieve fluency Swahili, and a reading knowledge of (minimally) Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German and French.

For added context, I should say that my interest in Latin spans the longest period (Cicero to Erasmus and the post-Reformation theologians); my interest in Greek is primarily in the New Testament and patristics, but I want to begin with Homer and then Attic in order to approach Koine from a holistic perspective; my interest in Hebrew is in the Old Testament, which I expect to be fairly achievable because I already know the English text very well; and finally, my interest in German and French is in the modern period (17th century onward).

Because of my history of inconsistency, I have determined to begin by dedicating one-hour a day to language-learning, in the hope that I will be able to build more the discipline to dedicate more time through the faithful discharge of this modest amount.

I am currently dedicating 15 minutes of time to Swahili extensive reading (in the Scriptures first, but I will add more literature soon), and the remaining 45 minutes to Latin. In the former, my sense is that I am making progress—I should also mention that my wife is fluent in both Swahili and French and therefore is of great help to me in practicing spoken Swahili.

In Latin, I seem to make the most progress when I attempt reading some theological text in which I have interest in bilingual mode: I am currently working my way through the Reformation section of Mosheim’s “Institutiones Historiae Ecclesiasticae”. However, I do understand that in order to get a firm grounding in the language there is a need for me to read broadly, especially in the classics (Cicero, Livy, Virgil, Horace et al.) But the challenge is I am currently not yet able to read these texts without much difficulty, unless I do it in bilingual mode.

These considerations lead me to the following questions:

1. If I dedicate the one hour faithfully for, say, the next six months, and gradually expand it to two hours in the following six, would you view that as an adequate investment of time to achieve the goal of reading fluency (in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German and French) within the next five years? By “reading fluency” here I mean the ability to competently read sources without translation and in a reasonable amount of time, in the areas of interest specified above.

2. In connection with (1.), at what stage should I add the other languages, beginning with a return to Greek? My current plan is focusing on Latin and Swahili alone for an extended period to bring them up to high levels without risking spreading my energies too thin.

3. I find reading bilingually to be the most enjoyable of the language-learning exercises I engage in, because it puts me as close to the literature I want to read as I can currently get. How much should I rely on it?—or better, How much can I rely on it to profit? Is it something that I can adapt towards being my primary or even exclusive technique for moving from an intermediate to advanced level? My aim in the long term is to read extensively in each of these languages—but I am not able to do this even in Latin at this stage (i.e. sine auxilio translationis), which is what leads me to adopting this bilingual approach.

4. You have mentioned elsewhere, particularly with reference to learning a language like Latin, that it is advantageous even for those who are pursuing reading knowledge to learn to speak and write. How do you react to my direct pursuit of reading knowledge? Would you consider it unwise or self-defeating to focus on learning to read for these languages without focusing on speaking/writing?

Mwalimu, ninashukuru mno kwa muda wako na shauri lolote utakalonipa.

Mwenyezi-Mungu na akubariki kamwe,

Amisi Kiarie

My reply:

Dear Amisi Kiarie,

Thank you for writing and describing your fascinating language-learning situation so exquisitely well. Your letter is really an ideal model for others to follow in posing their questions to me. Only when I have such details am I able to give the best advice, so I truly apologize for the long delay in answering your query. I will respond to what you wrote me many months ago now, hoping that most of my advice is still appropriate, but if – as is also hopefully the case – you have moved on to a new stage and/or the ability to commit more time, please do respond in a follow-up question and I will update my counsel.

In answer to your four questions:

1) Is an hour a day, faithfully devoted until the habit is established, then expanding to two such hours a day an adequate investment of time to reach reading fluency in three ancient and two modern languages within five years? No, it is not. If you invest two hours a day, each and every single day, you can achieve a great deal, and after you will have acquired more skills and experience in the art and science of language learning, you will be able to achieve even more. Furthermore, when you get this experience, you will probably find that it is easier also to devote more hours to the task. However, if you never expand beyond two hours a day, then I think a more realistic target and tangible tactical goal is to attain reading fluency in two languages within the first five years. Attaining reading fluency is obviously not just a question of learning the mechanics of a language, but necessarily means that you will spend large amounts of time actually reading. Therefore, if you want to do this in five languages, then I would say a more realistic investment of time would be five hours a day, or an hour a day each, each and every single day. Consecrating that amount of time, and finding the stamina to see it through, is something that you should work up to rather than over ambitiously aspiring to all at once. I would encourage you to keep to your plan of gradually expanding the amount of time you can devote to your studies based on how faithfully you are able to keep to what you have currently committed. In other words, work up to spending more and more time on your languages studies, adding small chunks of time at a time until you get to additional hours, and then you can aspire to additional languages as well.

2) At what stage should you begin adding other languages, starting with Greek, to your current two? I think you are very wise to plan on focusing on Latin and Swahili alone for long enough to advance substantially in them before adding another. And therein lies my answer: you ought to add on when you feel that these two languages are able to fly on their own, as it were. Your seem to be most advantageously poised to begin using Swahili in your day to day life, so when and if that happens, you can take the time you were giving to learning it to Greek. However, acquiring a heritage language that one has not acquired until now can sometimes have unexpected social and psychological hurdles of its own. To help you jump over these, in case you are unaware of the resource, I will encourage your to explore the dramatized audio versions of the New Testament available at Faith Comes by Hearing / Bible.is For Kenya, they have these not only in Swahili, but also in your other two languages, Kikuyu and Logooli. Given your particular interest, I think that shadowing these as dramatically as they are presented would be a great way to develop fluidity in speaking your ancestral tongues.

3) How much can you or should you rely upon reading bilingually? You can continue to profitably read with bilingual texts for a very long time. Indeed, I do not think you need ever fear that it will become a crutch that will prevent you from learning to read without a translation by your side. As you advance, you will find yourself needing the translation less and less until a day will come when you will want to read a text for which there is no accompanying translation and you will simply dive in and do it. In the meantime, as you find this to be the most enjoyable exercise you can do, I encourage you to do it extensively for the secret to success in language learning is precisely that, to enjoy the process, to find satisfaction and even have fun in the process. Indeed, I would encourage you to explore adding recording and listening to yourself read bilingual texts aloud to this process. There is something about hearing yourself read a language that makes it resonate longer in your head than hearing someone else read it – it is as if you are already thinking in it – and so after you have listened to a given recording of yourself read a bilingual text aloud, you can re-record it in the target language only, and probably understand most of not all of it on its own thereafter.

4) Is direct pursuit of reading knowledge unwise or self-defeating versus learning to think and speak in them as well? No, it is not. If your only goal is to read, certainly you can focus upon reading first and foremost and possibly to the exclusion of other skills. However, in order to really read fluidly, you need to sub-vocalize the language and it is hard to do that if you cannot “hear” it, i.e., speak and think in it. The point I was trying to make with regard to Latin (and this would apply to Greek and Hebrew as well) is that throughout the decades that I only read it as I was taught to read it (i.e., analytically), “reading” it was a very different, and much less satisfactory, experience from reading living languages. It is only since I finally taught myself to think and speak in it that I can now truly enjoy Latin. I do not believe that learning to think and speak in it necessarily requires more time and effort than focusing only upon reading it, but rather that it can actually facilitate the act of reading. However, it would be going much too far to characterize just learning to read as being unwise or self-defeating. Throughout all of history, most scholars have been able to read far more languages than they could speak.

I apologize again for taking so long to respond to your letter, and I hope that what I have written is helpful to you where your now are on your path. Please feel free to write an update if you have already moved on beyond Swahili and Latin, and I will promise to respond to it most promptly.

With all best wishes for success and fulfillment on your language learning journey,

Alexander Arguelles

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My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

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