You have no idea how many times while in Greece we used that joke ‘oh it’s all Greek to us!’ But fortunately in that environment the joke never gets too old hehe. Over my years at university there is one thing which is a constant issue with new students, the thought of learning ancient languages. DUM DUM DUUUUM!!!! Yes its very scary, new stuff, new ways of learning, yes i understand. But it is the key reason that so many people drop out of the ancient history courses, which is rather a shame because after a while, learning languages can be rather useful and fun.
By my honours year there was only, what, three people left from the original course four years earlier. And thats sad 😦 And the reason was because of the language component. So let me explain to you why it is necessary to keep going, to strive to pass the basics and continue with those pluperfects, infinitives, genitive sandwiches and adjectival clauses. Because when you get down to it, ancient languages are one of the key parts of starting a successfully ‘historic’ career in the area.
So my dear padawans to successfully succeed where others easily give up here is some important things to keep in mind: First of all there is a reason why it is a compulsory component, ancient languages are essential to the study of historical texts, primary sources, ancient attitudes and societies. If you want to be a serious archaeologist or historian, you can’t not do them! That’s the serious stuff. Plus if you have languages, its so much easier to get opportunities working in the area later or just being successful in applying for digs, post-grad and exchanges. I learnt Classical Greek from my second year at Uni and by the end of that year I had been to Greece, dug awesome sites, and was able to converse on a basic level with the natives…well i could order a drink at least, very important stuff. But just the fact that I made an effort to learn their language on some level, whether ancient or modern, made people more friendly and because of this I had a far better experience than otherwise and met some frankly awesome, slightly mad, people. ‘Oh you speak Greek?’ ‘A little’ ‘Good on you! I’m from Cyprus, here’s my life story, I’ll pay for that.’ Its the same in all countries. You make an effort to know the people and culture and it all adds up!
That’s two fabulous points for continuing ancient languages: Academic advantage and progression and cultural familiarity and opportunity.
Still not convinced that learning languages is a good plan? Still think its too hard to be worth the effort? Well I have more! Plus if i don’t convince a few people, one day no one might want to learn and I’m out of job, and we wouldn’t want that now would we! Picking up Greek or Latin or even Hieroglyphs is not actually as hard as it seems, remember that people who give you negative views usually exaggerate more than people with positive views so listen to the positive. You may think that because you found it hard to learn say French at high school that you will find Greek hard at Uni, but that is often that not, not the case. The way vocab and grammar is taught at uni is completely different to school. In fact it doesn’t even compare. Actually I don’t think I even learnt grammar till university and I’d done numerous modern languages at school…
Also learning languages at uni can be fun, after all the academics teaching them are doing so because they love them! They are far more enthusiastic usually. Ok like every subject you will get one lecturer that reads from the book and bores you half to death, but that happens with every subject, and you are only with them for an hour or two a week. The risk is worth the reward. And when you do have a handle on a language you do get a fantastic sense of achievement! You can read a dead language that no one else can read, you can explore texts that you were otherwise blind to. And you know what? That’s pretty cool!
The lost in translation idea is vital to ancient history, archaeology, philology, well almost any subject. Everything changes in translation at least a bit, why do you think there are so many versions of the Bible! By being able to read a text in the original language even a little bit is a HUGE advantage to your work, study or research. If you are doing honours and not have at least some knowledge of the associated language, frankly you are screwed…umm i mean…’thou art highly disadvantaged.’ With the changing of the text comes change in interpretation, if you can’t compare the original to the translations at least you are going to find it very difficult to comprehend the secondary texts.
So yes, learning an ancient language can be a boring and stressful thought. But that is all it is, a thought. If you put your head down and do the work like any other subject you can get it, and there are always people to help you! Its a cliche tosay that there are no such things as stupid questions but its true (as long as you have been listening and making an effort. Asking when lunch is is not usually a valuable question). But when you do get through the basics it can be fun, rewarding and really really useful. I’m bias but I love my languages so shoot me.
Learning Greek was the most useful part of my undergrad. So stick it out! Keep the number of ancient history students up! Its so much cooler to say ‘I have a degree in ancient history’ than ‘I have an arts degree’ (though that’s cool too)!!!
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