Forgetfulness: On Learning Languages

I often tell my Greek Grammar students that I was a bad Greek student when I first started learning the language. The story goes a little like this: “When I started learning the language, I didn’t take memorizing the paradigms seriously. I would wait until the day before the quiz, pull out my Greek Grammar textbook, and review all the paradigms by writing them out one by one. Then, after the quiz I would forget everything. Rinse and repeat for two semesters.”

This story is intended to function as a source of encouragement. When my students encounter new paradigms and struggle through them but make great progress, I like to highlight how well they are doing in comparison to my laissez faire approach to the language. I am, however, coming to realize how fundamentally flawed that comparison is.

Currently, I am learning Latin in a formal setting. (I studied Latin as an independent study during my MDiv but felt I needed to shore up a number of deficiencies.) As I worked through memorizing the paradigms and vocabulary tonight, a sense of deja vu washed over me. And yet, it wasn’t deja vu. It was the memory of a very familiar ritual. I did the same thing throughout Greek Grammar I and II.

It occurred to me that the routine I developed in college was not, in fact, a mad dash to cram for the quiz. It was a necessary routine to drill the paradigms into my thick skull. It was necessary then, and it is necessary now as I try to learn Latin as well as I now know Greek.

The fact is, I had forgotten how hard learning Greek was for me. Now I can rattle off paradigms without a hitch (well, okay, with a few hitches here and there). I can translate rather well when I am familiar with the vocabulary. Working in NT Greek is starting to feel like second nature. But when I was learning Greek, it did not come naturally. It took a lot of work. The same is true of Latin. It is taking a lot more time and effort than I thought. As frustrating as it is at times, it is worth the time and effort.

To my students, I apologize for forgetting how hard it was to learn Greek. I promise I will be more understanding in our future . . . class.

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2 Responses to Forgetfulness: On Learning Languages

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    My early days of Hebrew were no picnic. I would get up at 5 a.m. each weekday to go through my vocabulary flashcards, and the words just didn’t stick in my mind!

    • jacobcerone says:

      Before I had a smartphone, I would write out all my vocabulary on flashcards, hole punch the card, and put the cards on shower rings. I would walk around everywhere with them clicked to a belt buckle. When walking to class, eating meals, or any other downtime, I would review. No picnic indeed. I tend to forget those details at times…

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