Learning Languages in Reverse Chronological Order

Once again, this follows on from a discussion on another thread. According to this guy on Youtube How to read and speak Ancient Greek fluently - YouTube (who is, I understand, a Princeton Classics PhD and therefore someone who should certainly know what he is talking about) it is often better and quicker to approach ancient languages by firstly learning their modern daughter languages.

I wonder whether anyone has ever attempted this kind of planned sequential learning, and if so whether they would concur with his advice?

He makes a quite compelling case for Greek - his argument being that one would end up being able to read Ancient Greek fluently in a shorter overall time, and would also have knowledge of Modern Greek to boot!

Likewise, I can see how a native speaker of English would find it easier to approach Anglo-Saxon texts by first learning to read Middle English (which is another example he talks about in the above video.)

How about other mother-daughter language pairs?

I am pretty certain that knowing Modern Hebrew well would bring one to within very close touching distance of being able to read Ancient Hebrew. Ditto a modern dialect of Arabic with regard to reading Classical Arabic, perhaps?

And the same goes, up to a certain point, for Modern Swedish or Norwegian (especially Nynorsk) as a precursor to learning to read Old Norse.

I myself don’t very know much about the Indian languages, but it’s not too hard to imagine that a knowledge of Modern Hindi would make Sanskrit significantly easier - at the very least in terms of lexical transparency.

But I’m more sceptical in the case of Latin. I can see how a knowledge of Modern Spanish or Portuguese or Italian might help a little bit - but I’m not sure that it would really save a significant amount of time. Of course there is a whole host of reasons why someone would want to learn one or more Modern Romance languages, but doing so specifically as a means of approaching Latin reading…? Hm, I’m really not so sure that one would save a significant amount of time by doing this?

Hmmm… I never thought about it before that sounds like a good idea. Thanks for the post, Prinz_Skjegg!

I have never planned anything that systematic and I’m not very convinced about its virtues. However, more haphazardly, I’ve gone through some ancestor-descendant languages. My mother tongue is Spanish, I learned French as my first foreign language. Later on I began studying Latin, first at school (to a very low level) but I took it up again later on. Only much later did I begin reading old French. So it wasn’t a real reverse chronological sequence.
In Greek I went completely the opposite way. Beginning with classical and moving on to modern later on

“…Your example of learning French/Spanish/Italian to help with Latin was spot on. Total time dump unless you want to know French/Spanish/Italian. Better to just start with Latin and dive in…”

Yes, I’ve been thinking about Latin. I think the problem is that there are too many missing intermediate stages (Vulgar Latin? Medieval Latin?) between full-blown Classical Latin and, let’s say, modern Spanish. If an intermediate stage were still live and one could learn it, then I guess that might just be a helpful staging post?

“…If someone has no interest in a modern Scandinavian language or Modern Greek, I would jump right into Ancient Greek or Old Norse and just forget about the modern langs. I don’t think it’s a secret hack or time saver for the ultimate goal…”

There is an interesting point made by ftornay on another thread: in the case of Greek one could potentially activate the Modern Greek, and then approach the Ancient language in a strictly passive way. I mean, there may be some people who want to use Ancient Greek actively, but I’m guessing I’m probably not alone in just wanting to gain a reading knowledge of it :slight_smile:

I was planning to do something like this for Modern and Ancient Greek, but faute de mieux. My first plan was to learn Ancient Greek (would have had the chance to learn it at school but had taken French instead), but I saw finding self-learning material for this language is not that easy. Next thing there was an opportunity to travel to Athens ahead so I had the idea of learning modern Greek first and maybe Ancient Greek afterwards. Of course I instantly fell in love with the modern version so that helped much staying on track for this but it mad it more difficult to switch to the old version.
A possible problem is that modern pronunciation of Greek is so “invasive” that it will be hard to pronounce Ancient Greek differently.
About the Latin → modern Romance languages pathway: I first learned Latin at school, even before English, and that helped a lot learning every other language since including Swedish. No idea how things would have been the other way round.

Old Norse is in my range of interest, too. Would love to understand the sagas without help. But I think if I had a bilingual Edition (Swedish/ON) would be sufficient for me because I understand much of the old text without further preparation. So I think having learned the modern language helps learning the old language in this case, too. Today’s language is just so much more accessible.

“…A possible problem is that modern pronunciation of Greek is so “invasive” that it will be hard to pronounce Ancient Greek differently…”

That’s interesting. My own experience has been quite different - I have found it surprisingly easy to switch between the two.

I first learned the Greek alphabet around 10 years ago - using the modern pronunciation. At that time I worked through the first couple of chapters of the 1968 edition of “Linguaphone Greek” - which teaches Demotiki with a modern Athenian pronunciation. I have several other resources in my library too: a different-content edition of “Linguaphone Greek” from the mid 1980s, the 1960s/70s and the (different) 1990s German editions of “Assimil Griechisch ohne Mühe”; each of these four are extremely good in my estimation - but used together they would pack a thunderous punch! I also have “Teach Yourself Greek” (both old and new) and ‘zu guter Letzt’ an early 1990s copy of “Colloquial Greek”. Ich schweife aber vom Thema ab :smiley:

Anyway, about 7 years ago I started tinkering around with Koine Greek using the Classical pronunciation rules. I’ve been dabbling on-and-off ever since. I guess you could say I have become more familiar with this pronunciation.

However, as I said, I do find that I don’t seem to have any problem switching back mentally to the modern pronunciation when I look at the Modern Greek resources…

BTW I think there are some serious arguments for using the Modern Greek pronunciation for Ancient Greek - notwithstanding that we lose the distinction between some grammatical endings if we do this. According to some people these phonetic changes were already well underway by the later Hellenistic period - and may have actually hastened (or even caused?) decline of the dative case in Modern Greek.

(Zum Vergleich stell dir vor, man würde im heutigen Deutsch das Wort “dem” als “den” aussprechen. Es wäre dem Dative sein Tod, oder?! :-D)

I was initially trained in the reconstructed (Erasmian) pronunciation of ancient Greek. However, I’ve become more and more inclined to use modern pronunciation or maybe, some kind of variation that it’s mostly modern pronunciation with some added differentiations. As Jay has said. It seems that many of the aspects of “modern pronunciation” were already well established by the hellenistic period and more so in the Roman times. I favor a modern pronunciation with the added diferentition of u, oi, ui (pronounced as German ü) vs ei, h (eta), i, etc. (pronounced i). That would make the pronunciation virtually identical to modern Greek (especially to the ears of the native speakers) while keeping the distinction of words such as hmeis/umeis (we/you), etc. This is a historically accurate pronunciation, which would reflect that of the Roman period in many areas and, thus, reflect how many native speakers would pronounce the new testament, Appian’s stories, Lucian’s works, etc.
My reasons for this opinion are as follows:
A) It makes it easier to learn modern and ancient Greek at the same time, as +Diotellavi pointed out
B) It is helpful enough to understand spoken ancient Greek
C) It is historically accurate
D) It is similar to the way ancient works were pronounced mor most of history. Even the namesake of reconstructed pronunciation (Erasmus of Rottterdam) didn’t espouse its use as a reading system.
E) Typical reconstructed pronunciation is not as historically accurate as it seems because it only reflects the pronunciation in a limited time frame an anyway and not perfectly because it typically doesn’t use the pitch accent characteristic of the perio, plus there are several not fully understood aspects of that pronunciation [An exception is in the recitation of classical poetry, where a closer pronunciation to the one meant by the author, including pitch accent, is warranted]
F) My main reason, by far: In practice, reconstructed pronunciation seems to me to encourage a completely artificial and un-Greek way of intonation and phonotactics (taken from the speaker’s native language) that only respects the general sound value of isolated letters and often not even that (e.g., often American speakers would pronounce “omicron” as American short “o”, which in fact is much more similar to the historical value of “alpha”). In contrast, modern pronunciation is modeled after that of real native speakers and sound more real and much more lively.

“…Even the namesake of reconstructed pronunciation (Erasmus of Rottterdam) didn’t espouse its use as a reading system…”

I believe Joseph Conlon (the maker of the video linked to) also claims that Erasmus first learned the Modern Greek language before the ancient form - and I understand he is basing this on scholarly research…?

Interesting food for thought.

“…My main reason, by far: In practice, reconstructed pronunciation seems to me to encourage a completely artificial and un-Greek way of intonation and phonotactics…”


To be honest, Christophe Rico’s recordings of Koine (one can buy and download his reading of the entire Greek Gospel of John for a small amount from the Polis website) are the only ones that I have heard which sound remotely convincing.

(Well, the recordings for Assimil’s Ancient Greek are also not bad. But they do overdo the tonality a little bit - for my taste anyway.)

As I understand it, he learned the classic language with modern pronunciation and supported native speakers (who used modern pronunciation) for teaching positions

I’ve found this account of the Erasmian invention (which tells a somewhat different story). The article does quote primary sources, so it may be reliable:

It also provides interesting information about the evolution of Greek pronunciation

I’m pretty close to buying this concept - i.e. for Modern Greek → Koine

(It was already always my plan for Hebrew.)

I think that spanish is very useful to learn latin. In the first place, there is a good amount of recognizable vocabulary.

Also the verb conjugation has a good amount of similarities. For example, look at the present indicative of “create”

latin spanish
creō creo
creās creas
creat crea
creāmus creamos
creātis creais
creant crean

Of course, it is not always this similar.

Also, if you see a text written in latin, although you were incapable of understanding it, it seems, somehow, familiar. Is a very different feeling than, for example, the one you get from seeing a text in german, although german seems to me a much easier language to read (I say all this from the perspective of a spanish native speaker).

Alexander Arguelles, who I’m sure is no stranger on this forum, recommended a similar approach to Greek:

“I myself learned Greek pretty much along the historical route, and while it certainly makes sense to study phenomena along the lines of their development, I might actually now recommend at least considering the opposite route for the reason that opened this discussion. I think it is necessary for a language to have a voice of its own for it to come alive in your brain when you are reading it. If you do not have this for Ancient Greek, then though you may dissect and parse and analyze it as you “read,” it, it will appropriately enough appear to you to be a dead language as you subject it to this autopsy. That is how Greek was taught to me, and how I experienced it until I learned enough of Modern Greek that I could use it to read Ancient as well, though of course taking care with all the known differences such as paying attention to rough breathing marks, etc. Although I have never been brave enough to have a stab at the tones, this has sufficed to make reading Ancient Greek much more enjoyable for me.”

The full post, as well as discussion, can be found on the now-moribund How To Learn Any Language Forum:

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I decided to learn Modern Greek after watching that video a few years ago, for the exact reasons he outlines. Here’s my Ancient Greek/Modern Greek story (short version):

I had been working on Ancient Greek on my own from grammar translation materials (namely Hansen and Quinn’s textbook), and had spent a long time trying to convince people to read ancient Greek texts in order to import them into LingQ. You can find many old threads where a group of us tried to make materials in this way. I even floated the idea to Christoph Rico about reading more AG texts for us, but it never materialized.

After a few years of not being able to make real progress in AG, beyond painfully and slowly parsing sentences in Plato and Xenophon, I decided to start with Modern Greek, and managed to dig up enough materials with the help of a few others to get MG supported here on LingQ. (Again, you can go back and search the forums for that development). Luckily there was enough MG material on the web that we could share, and we got things running that way.

Learning Modern Greek has been a real game-changer for me, and has helped my AG immeasurably. Not only in terms of vocabulary and syntax, but also for developing an “ear” for Greek, and above all for forcing my to read and listen to thousands and thousands of Greek sentences, in a way that I couldn’t do with AG. With MG I am able to do all the things that make comprehensible input work so well: find a language partner, read the newspaper, watch TV series, listen to audiobooks, music, etc. While it’s not AG, it’s such a rich and exciting experience that I can’t stop myself from wanting more of it.

So while I understand why most people are skeptical about the idea of doing MG in order to learn AG, if I had to do it over again, I would do it exactly like Dekaglossai says in that video: I’d spend my first two years on LingQ learning MG and then gradually introduce AG through a reading program like Reading Greek from Oxford, plus something like Moss’ First Greek Reader (or Rouse’s Greek Boy, or Alexandros, or whatever). I’m wholly convinced that MG with lots comprehensible input is probably the best way to develop a thorough understanding of the various shades of Ancient Greek (homeric, attic, koine, etc.)

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Ah, I should add that one benefit of learning MG to learn AG is that it finally puts an end to the (sterile, in my opinion) debate about which pronunciation is better. Now I just pronounce everything in Modern Greek and I no longer worry about how it would have sounded to Plato’s ears. (υμεις/ημεις distinction be damned!)

I’ve found that once your ear gets good enough at MG, and your grammar understanding of AG is good, you have no problem understanding spoken AG in whatever flavor: Erasmian, reconstructed, etc.

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Yeah, the ‘family relationship’ with Latin is certainly there to see in all of the Romance languages - and perhaps especially noticeable in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese?

I remember seeing a (slightly jokey) newspaper article by Boris Johnson (Britain’s Foreign Secretary at the moment) saying he was glad he studied Classics at Oxford because it meant he could understand Portuguese newspapers if he got lost in the deepest parts of Brazil! :stuck_out_tongue:

Yes, I thought (although I wasn’t sure) that Prof A was also a supporter of this approach.

I think the crucial point (as mentioned earlier on) is that one needs to activate a language in order to read it fluently. It is considerably easier to achieve this in Modern Greek, obviously, and thus one doesn’t necessarily need to activate the über-complex grammar of Old Greek - it is enough just to be able to recognise it and understand it. (And also learn additional vocabulary.)

“…Not only in terms of vocabulary and syntax, but also for developing an “ear” for Greek, and above all for forcing my to read and listen to thousands and thousands of Greek sentences, in a way that I couldn’t do with AG. With MG…”


I mean, when we start reading in any language it’s generally insane to go for the “big daddy” texts right off. Nobody who wants to read Thomas Mann in German would do this - but in the case off Ancient Greek one is pretty much forced to do so.

By starting with Modern Greek, one can read anything or everything - detective fiction, or whatever.

I agree that +gegf’s system may work very well. Just let me add that if someone is particularly interested in, say, Koine Greek and not so much in becoming fluent in modern Greek in the short term, it is also possible to begin adding ancient Greek much earlier. All you need is a solid understanding of how modern Greek “works” in terms of essential grammar and structure plus some core passive vocabulary. You can learn that in Lingq (adding some grammar explanation from elementary textbooks or online tutorials) or through Assimil, which is where I began learning modern Greek. Just make sure you read and listen everyday, as per usual. I think you’ll only need about three months to get comfortable with the language. After that, keep reading/listening but begin reading about how the ancient language works and start comparing it with the modern version. Use some elementary introduction, for example there are a few tutorials of Biblical Greek online. . Make sure you get lots of examples. You may find it useful to use Anki flashcards containing Mounce New Testament vocabulary; your acquaintance with modern Greek will make it easier to absorb that vocabulary and you’ll have a very solid core vocabulary. All this phase will take you a couple months more. After that you can begin reading, for example, biblical texts online that include clickable vocabulary and parallel translations (e.g. biblewebapp) [edit: or, on paper a “reader’s edition” of the NT]. Alternate that with your modern Greek reading on Lingq and you’ll be learning very fast.