Story behind the Passage
A few months ago, I went hiking with a former teacher of mine. We talked about education — my favorite topic — and she mentioned how she had chosen a secondary school for her daughter. Or, rather, it was her daughter doing the choosing, of course, but together they looked at schools who offered the classical languages, especially Latin and Old Greek. This was their guideline. And she also mentioned how her daughter always had to justify her decision afterwards. It was not about the particular school she had chosen but rather about the general fact that she had wanted to attend such a “traditional” school instead of one which offered German or French as foreign languages.
And as she talked about this, I took a deep breath.
NOW, I totally understand why this was annoying.
BACK THEN, I would have been one of the people asking her daughter or herself, why they had chosen such a school.
Who needs “Old Languages” in the New (Digital) Age?
At least, these would have been my honest thoughts back then. My parents always said that nobody needs dead languages anymore. And I definitely agreed and saw their point. I love languages but I wanted to study the ones that I could actually use when traveling abroad or when talking to people from foreign countries here. Throughout my entire school career, even during my university studies, I felt reassured. The major argument people had always made in favor of the classical languages was that this knowledge would help me learn other languages, especially French and Spanish. This is because of the grammar rules, joint etymology and so on. The thing was: I never had trouble learning these other languages without knowing a single word of Latin!
Now, I look at these thoughts as sinful and more or less stupid. But I simply did not know it better back then. And I do not regret anything either. It is just that I now see the full value of having this knowledge, especially about Hebrew and Old Greek. It is not instrumental in the sense of knowing it in order to acquire some other knowledge. It is more the awareness now that knowledge of these languages is your entry point, your key, to the past. I compare it to English or Spanish. Yes, I can read the novels in the German translation. But reading the originals or watching movies in the original language is different. The same must apply if you want to read Aristotle or even Augustine. You must gain a lot more meaning from these texts if you read their original word choice; not even talking about actual research.
The knowledge I am talking about is not solely related to the words themselves. It is about traveling to their historical background in your mind. Language shapes culture and your emotional experience in and with this culture. Imagine walking through Italy or Spain and just hearing people speak German or English everywhere. Would this not be weird? Yes, when I say “atmosphere,” it probably goes along with the fact that you hear a language around you in a foreign location which you define as “foreign.” Ergo, if you happen to know Italian or French, the feeling of being in Italy might feel more “normal.” Still, what I am saying is a simple thing: Culture goes along with language and place. Some nations speak really fast and loud, some speak more quietly and in words with only a few syllables.
So, when I say that I understand the full meaning of knowing the classical languages now, it is because I am aware how VALUABLE language skills are in general. They open up an entirely new world to you. And, this is just as important, you are able to open up this world to others if you are not only able to read and understand this ancient, even “dead,” language, you can also open it up to others by translating it. And translation, above all, is the most essential skill in the world of human communication, especially in a time when our nations get more mixed, more intercultural, but with lasting education differences and also language skills. Without some form of shared language, understanding, even in its most elementary forms, is impossible.
And without understanding, there is no peace.
“Caesaria is an antique city which is located near the sea, south of Haifa.” I have chosen this passage and this simple sentence from my Hebrew book because it is so “typical” of all the language books I have ever studied with. The first chapters are all about people and learning personal pronouns. The more advanced chapters, like this one, add places, locations, times, and things to see there. And the last chapters are all about longer stories, told in different tenses. There is hardly any languge textbook that is structured differently. And I guess, no matter how many online learning opportunities are out there now, students will still start learning a new language with “This is Yosi… My name is… How are you… What is the name of your street… Where do you work…?
As a matter of fact, when you learn a language like Hebrew or Arabic, you learn the alphabet pretty quickly. And then you experience rapid progress when it comes to making sense of the letters. The tricky part starts only later when you do not want to learn more grammar anymore. At least, this is always the thing for me. I have become lazy because I know that I get fluent as soon as I use the language regularly, not by studying books. So, I am not that eager to learn theoretically anymore when it comes to languages. But with the classical Old Languages, this is simply not possible anymore. Who on earth speaks Latin or Old Greek? So, you cannot just walk around or watch the news in this language to pick it up.
With Hebrew, it is different, of course. You can go to Israel or Jewish quarters anywhere in the world and there you can listen and practice Hebrew. This does not mean that you know classical Hebrew, but the words and their roots will mostly be the same. And, again, even before I was able to read or speak any Hebrew (I am still more beginner than advanced…), I liked hearing the language and mentally relating it to the places and people I visited. Yes, reading a book like the Torah in German is nice, but whenever I just think Tohra, I think of the Hebrew letters that decorate the scriptures.
A few weeks ago, it was after the hike with my teacher, I met another dear mentor of mine. This person holds the knowledge of the classical languages. And later when we talked about the things we do in our “free” time, especially if we feel that our daily tasks are not that fulfilling anymore. The thing she said then really struck me: “I transcribe Medieval handwriting.” Many years back, as in the the case of my teacher’s story, I would not have given this any thought, neither would I have felt any special appreciation. Nowadays, I see this differently. I think, especially in academia, there is hardly anything more valuable than transcribing formerly lost or unexplored texts. With this, you really contribute new knowledge. Yes, it is nice to digitalize texts. But transforming handwriting into electronic documented is the precondition for everything else. Without it, there is no knowledge even of the existence of the texts and therefore no basis for research.
How stupid and ignorant I was in the past when it comes to the value of the “dead” languages.
And how worried I am now that only very few people will be left to study these languages in the future; given the fact that education nowadays means “sniffing” bits and pieced of practical “hacks.”
But if English continues to rule the world, all our present-day languages will disappear anyway.
Or maybe there will be new languages as well.
In any case, I look forward to exploring new worlds via old languages which are new to me.
And I confess that my ignorance kept me from seeing their value as a gift of intellectual and spiritual growth.
1) Did you study any of the classical languages, e.g., Old Greek or Latin? Why/not? Would you ever do it in the future?
2) What do you remember about the language textbooks you had in school or later in life?
3) Do you agree on the thesis that culture is shaped by language? Why/not?