Friday, 28 February 2014


Many years ago when I studied classical Greek as a student, the textbooks used were the set by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT). At first, using them was a combination of ease and yet feeling lost at times. You see, these were nothing like the previous textbooks I had seen and tried to use. An example, which is a good book but perhaps not for beginners, is Primer of Greek Grammar by Abbott and Mansfield. What undoubtedly terrifies someone new to the subject when they flick through the two hundred and twenty pages of this book is that it is mostly tables of grammatical data and small paragraphs of grammatical rules. That style of throwing an avalanche of grammatical data at a student (and little else) is from the age that the book was written in, the nineteenth century. In that century, even the books trying to provide a simple way to learn classical Greek still began with fifty to a hundred pages or so of grammatical tables. That is how it had been done for who knows how long. The latter part of the twentieth century saw many institutions trying new ways of teaching classical languages. One of those was and still is by JACT.

JACT wanted to do things differently. Instead of bombarding a student with a torrent of grammar in the hope that an understanding of the language would sink in via a monumental process of memorisation, and considering much of what was traditionally to be memorised would not even be used at a beginner’s level, they chose a core amount of grammar and vocabulary which could be learned in a different way – so that a beginner could learn to read classical Greek fairly quickly. And that is perhaps the simplest way of summing up the course: Reading Greek – which is also the name of course. The student learns the grammar and vocabulary of classical Greek by reading Greek from the very first lesson onwards. There is no need to learn a whole book of grammatical tables first or metaphorically swallow a dictionary of classical Greek. With each lesson the student is introduced to a small amount of grammar and a handful of Greek words to learn. They then translate a passage of Greek, which clearly illustrates and practises the particular grammar and vocabulary for that lesson. 

Yes, I know this sounds very similar to many language courses available today but that is only because of the brief description I have given. There are significant differences. One is the speed of learning in the sense of how quickly a student can start making use of what they have learned. The course has twenty sections with anywhere from five to ten lessons in each section. By section five, the student is reading extracts from a comedy by Aristophanes whilst learning about Socrates. I have yet to see any equivalent in a modern language course for beginners, French for example, where less than quarter of the way through the course the student is expected to read the original French of one of the plays of Albert Camus whilst learning about the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre.  Usually by one quarter of the way through a course of French the student has only become proficient in how to introduce themselves, order coffee, ask for directions, book a taxi, and so on. 

And that sums up another difference – the course teaches the student about ancient Greek culture and history in order to aid learning the language.  Unlike other language courses, it does not do this in a trivial way; one of the books (The World of Athens) is a history book written especially for the course. 

After I completed my course in my student days, I still kept my copies of Reading Greek although they were superseded by more advanced level books and I referred to them now and then whenever I needed some clarification of points from those more challenging books on the subject. Since then, JACT has produced a second edition which I was told was a significant improvement on the first edition. Over the years my temptation to examine the second edition and compare it to the first edition has come and gone and come again in a sort of circular torment. I finally gave in to that urge recently when the opportunity arose to put the two editions side by side and take a really good look. In one way, nostalgia encouraged me to be biased towards the first edition. In another way, nostalgia had to admit defeat because the second edition is genuinely far better. 

The second edition uses the same methodology as the first but is different in two ways by the revising and redesigning the main books of the course - Reading Greek: Text and VocabularyReading Greek: Grammar and ExercisesAn Independent Study Guide to Reading Greek  – to make using them easier. 

Firstly, the books are bigger and the design of the text has been laid out in a way easier to read and study. It may not sound like much but compared to the first edition it makes a big difference. 

Secondly, the first edition for some reason was designed with a notion that the student had a prior grasp of Latin and therefore some aspects of classical languages were not approached in a gentler way for the beginner; the second edition dispenses with that notion altogether and is written as if the student is learning any foreign language for the first time. Consequently, a lot more space is given at the beginning of the course to acquaint the reader with relevant terminology of grammar (in English) before explaining the equivalent grammar in Greek.     

In line with all this, the opportunity was taken to revise and update the history book, The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture (Reading Greek), into a second edition and for it to be published in a format matching the other books. JACT have also retired their single tape cassette for the course by recording a newer version which is a two CD set, Speaking Greek CD (Reading Greek). 

As a student, when I used the first edition, I was very glad of its existence. Now, having seen the second edition, I wish it had existed when I was student. But it did not; so hard luck on me.  

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