On language learning and the Loeb editions

Here’s a thought-provoking article, really on the use of cribs when studying literature. I freely admit that I turn to a crib when stuck, and I guess most classicists do the same. (I leave to one side the brilliant ones who know it all.)

Didn’t know that Clive James (wonderful broadcaster!) had written about learning Latin. Must get hold of that book …

Btw our founder was one of the original editors of the Loeb texts.


Once hugely popular, an approach to language instruction that made use of a technique called interlineal translation is now dead. The method, championed by a crusading English businessman named James Hamilton in the early 19th century — and exported to America, where it remained popular into the 20th century — was supposed to open the gates of a classical education to the masses.

Hamilton’s innovation was to introduce students immediately to English translations of Greek or Latin works, rather than forcing them to stumble through dictionaries. In his instructional books, lines of English alternated with the classical languages. (Later, as the system took off, he branched into French, Italian, and German: John Stuart Mill learned German this way). In the Hamiltonian System, translations were jerry-rigged so that the English synonym typically stood directly its foreign analogue, for easy comparison.

Hamilton’s ardent view was that the the traditional method of instruction, heavy on vocab drills and syntax memorization, was tiresome, inefficient, and elitist (because it demanded years of schooling, usually private schooling). But in the current American Scholar [article not online], the writer Ernest Blum says Hamilton got both the diagnosis and the solution right, and that the Hamiltonian System should be revived.

Blum cites the dismal performance of students in the United States and elsewhere on foreign-language tests, and pins the blame on reigning pedagogical theories. These hold that students must immerse themselves fully in foreign texts, translating painstakingly on their own, so that they get a straight dose of the new language. But Blum argues that scholarship in linguistics over the past few decades demonstrates that students who follow that course will likely never learn enough words to achieve mastery.

The problem stems from Zipf’s Law, after a Harvard linguist, George Kingsley Zipf, who died in 1950. This law holds, as one summary puts it, that “almost all words are rare.” In the Greek New Testament, for example, a mere 320 words account for about 80 percent of the text. But the remaining 20 percent is made up of a fearsome 5,120 words, many of which appear only once. And that’s only one Greek book. That pattern holds in most languages. Basically, such studies of vocabulary suggest that students need to know many, many more words than they presently do — and more rare words — in order to get through books. They need a massive dose of help on the vocab front. (One scholarly estimate is that a reader must know 95 percent of the words in a book in order to guess the rest by context; few students today come close to that.) Blum says reviving the Hamiltonian system is the answer. “In no other classrooms on campus is basic information systematically withheld as a matter of policy and principle,” he writes. “What is withheld is the information on the meaning of words.”

As it happens, the Loeb Classical Library, those famous red and green books published by Harvard University Press, have the translations on the facing page of the text. For that reason they are usually banned from beginning and intermediate language classes, branded as unhelpful crutches. Blum, to be clear, says the Loebs aren’t the same as Hamiltonian texts — but it would appear that they’re the next best thing, at least for advanced beginners. Might the American Scholar article offer a hook that could get the Loebs into language classes — and, not incidentally, boost sales?

Sadly, Jeffrey Henderson, a professor of Greek at Boston University and the general editor of the Loeb Classical Library, is too scrupulous to seize the opportunity: As it happens, he endorses current language pedagogy. While it’s helpful for students to have vocabulary references on the page they are reading (perhaps in footnotes), he says in an email, exposing them to translations too soon short-circuits language mastery. “[T]ranslations to some extent always misrepresent the way the original language works,” he emails. “It’s best that the learner figure this out directly.” (He does not neglect to add that the books are wonderful choices for more seasoned classicists!)

At least one noted writer and critic dissents from the idea that beginners should steer clear of the Loebs. Clive James, in “Cultural Amnesia” (2007), says adults trying to learn Latin should reject the arguments of “purists”: “[W]hen they warn you off the Loeb Library,” he says, “they are giving you the exact reason you should hold it dear — it’s a painless dictionary.”

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