Language barriers

Ancient colloquia were one way of learning a new language through line-for-line translation. This 4th-century AD papyrus fragment from Egypt preserves Latin-Greek words and phrases on two columns, both written in Greek (the Latin is transliterated), British Library, Papyrus 481

Sometimes, the best way to overcome a barrier is to build a smaller one, place it close to the first barrier, get on top of it and jump over the first one. For ancient language learners, this often meant turning language barriers into columns of equivalence, and leaping back and forth over them.

One overlooked method of teaching a new language in the ancient world is that of the colloquia, conversational snippets designed to teach basic expressions and with them, keywords in Latin or Greek. As Professor Eleanor Dickey has shown in her extensive research on the topic, colloquia passages are vignettes about daily life in the Roman world’, arranged in line-by-line translations, in two columns of text. Here’s an example for Latin-speaking students learning Greek (the English corresponds to the Greek):

Ante lucemBefore daylight
vigilaviI awoke
de somno;from sleep;
surrexiI got up
de lecto,from the bed,
sedi,I sat down,
accepi,I took
calciavi me.I put on my boots.

Whoever’s learned a language through a textbook as a child will remember this method. The ancients developed it, we still use it. The line-by-line equivalence is a neat way to move from one language to another. Enough crossings and the mind starts making giant leaps into language acquisition and code-switching. Borders and columns are good to dance on.

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