Learning Foreign Languages in Antiquity: How Did They Do It?

Eleanor Dickey

The Ancient Greeks were in principle ostentatiously monolingual, unwilling to sully their tongues with any language but Greek. In practice, however, many Greek speakers learned Latin, because the language of their Roman overlords conveyed certain practical advantages. Meanwhile Roman intellectuals, who largely agreed with the Greeks on the relative merits of the two languages, were (mostly) proud of knowing Greek: for example Cicero, Caesar, and Augustus all conspicuously spoke Greek. So there was a good deal of multilingualism in the ancient world, even without counting all the other languages (e.g. Oscan, Etruscan, Gaulish, Aramaic, Egyptian, Phrygian) that Latin and Greek speakers sometimes knew and whose speakers sometimes knew Latin and/or Greek. And as anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language is aware, multilingualism is not that easy to achieve, except for those with the good fortune to grow up in multilingual households. In the absence of apps, computers, recordings and even printed books, how did ancient people without such good fortune learn languages?

Ancient learners seem to have started by reading, memorising and reciting little stories and dialogues that provided basic vocabulary and grammar in naturalistic contexts. These texts (and they seem to have always been coherent texts, never isolated sentences such as modern learners often practise on) covered topics such as getting dressed in the morning (and how to manage the slaves who helped with that task), going to school (and evading punishment for not having been there yesterday), visiting a sick friend (and how to find an individual unit in a Roman apartment block), trading insults (and how to concede a fight gracefully), or getting a new job (a piece of cake if you have studied with me, an ancient teacher assured his students mendaciously). The texts were presented bilingually in two narrow columns, the language you were learning on the left and the one you already knew on the right, with the columns matching line for line: each line was effectively a glossary, while each column was a text. For example (Colloquium Harleianum 18a, with Greek replaced by English):[1]

An excerpt from the Colloquium Harleianum, showing Greek text in the left column and Latin in the right (British Library Harley MS 5642, 9th cent.,31v).

This format allowed beginners to understand the component parts of the texts they memorised, making it easier to use the words and phrases independently in new combinations. Although today we frown on giving beginning language students translations, the practice seems to have been ubiquitous in antiquity, for the simple reason that most texts were normally written without word division (also without punctuation, distinction between upper- and lower-case letters, speaker attributions, etc.). Modern students can use dictionaries to find unfamiliar words, even at a very early stage of language learning, but ancient students could not do that until they had absorbed enough vocabulary to be able to divide up a string of letters for themselves. Therefore a more authentic example of the way the ancient language-learning materials originally looked would be this (Colloquium Harleianum 12a, with Greek replaced by English):[2]

Today we often assume a divide between language learning that starts with grammar and learning that starts with reading or speaking, and therefore people who notice these ancient dialogues often conclude that ancient beginners must not have learned grammar. But in fact they learned rather a lot of grammar, both in the sense of memorising paradigms and in the sense of learning how to use the different forms. Of course, when it came to usage Latin and Greek speakers had a major advantage over us: those two languages have rather similar grammars, and therefore ancient learners moving from one to the other had little difficulty grasping that the nominative should be the subject of the sentence and the accusative its object. But that basic similarity seems to have made things worse when learners encountered points on which Latin and Greek differ: Greek speakers had great trouble understanding the Latin ablative case.

An excerpt of the “Bankes Homer“, a famously well-preserved papyrus from the 2nd cent AD which contains the text of Homer’s Iliad 24.127–804 on a scroll 2.3m long (British Library Pap. 114 (Lond. Lit. 28)).

The early stages of language learning also involved intensive vocabulary building, since reading a monolingual text would not be practical until learners knew enough words to work out where the ones they did not know began and ended. A popular way of increasing vocabulary was to memorise lists of words on different topics, one topic per lesson: gods’ names, goddesses’ names, heavenly bodies, temples, sacrifices, festivals, winds, parts of the body, temperaments, kinship, foods, beverages, plants, fish, birds, animals, etc. These words were presented in simple lists, just the nominative singular and one translation, without genders, genitives, or any of the information on nuances of meaning that might be provided to learners today. Greek speakers learning Latin sometimes used word lists in Greek transliteration, either because they had not yet mastered the Roman alphabet or because they wanted only to speak Latin and had no plans to learn its alphabet at all. For example (corrected version of P.Oxy. 5162 lines 20-31, with English column added):

An excerpt from a thematic Greek-Latin glossary of the 1st/2nd cent. AD (Oxford Sackler Library P.Oxy. 5162).

Learners moved on to monolingual texts as soon as they had absorbed enough grammar and vocabulary to do so. Latin speakers learning Greek often read Homer, and Greek speakers learning Latin Virgil; Cicero, Sallust and Terence were also possibilities. Some learners used short running vocabulary lists glossing the hard words of a particular passage, and others longer dictionaries in alphabetical order. Learners might also have access to commentaries. Students did not necessarily own the books they used: the only ways to acquire books were to copy them out by hand oneself or to pay someone else to copy them, so learners often borrowed books from their teachers. When they did have their own copies, students sometimes marked them up by writing translations over the hard words, by adding punctuation, and (at least when learning Latin) by marking long vowels. The length marks show that students were preparing to read the Latin aloud as well as to translate it, but we never see scansion marks indicating that learners were taught to read Virgil metrically.

Some students also learned to write a foreign language. Numerous Latin speakers have left boasts about how good their Greek composition skills were, though as samples of their efforts rarely survive it is hard to know how many grains of salt we should apply to such assertions. Greek speakers learning Latin seem usually to have had more modest ambitions, but at least some practised translating Greek into Latin. They seem never to have worked on isolated sentences; instead the preferred materials for translation were fables, usually about a paragraph long and in fairly simple language to begin with.

Roman relief of three pupils and a teacher, AD 180s, from Neumagen near Trier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany; photograph of cast in Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia).

How much conversation practice ancient learners did is hard to judge. On the one hand, the ancient descriptions of language classes do not mention exercises in active conversation, but on the other hand it is clear that many learners had the goal of being able to speak their new languages and many achieved that goal. Perhaps language classes were conducted in the language being learned and therefore naturally provided conversation practice as the students answered the teacher’s questions, or perhaps conversation was an extra-curricular activity.

Some ancient teachers were not very proficient in the language they claimed to teach, and (like all other texts with a long transmission history) most ancient learning materials contained numerous errors. Some were so bad that it seems impossible students could have learned from them successfully. And yet there is good evidence that at least some ancient learners achieved a high level of proficiency in their second languages. Perhaps the situation was after all not so different from that today, where the quality of instruction in foreign languages varies tremendously but does manage to work for some people some of the time.

Eleanor Dickey has been taught around a dozen languages via methods ranging from truly terrible to superb and has learned some much better than others. She is now Professor of Classics at the University of Reading, England, and director of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom, where anyone can try ancient language-learning techniques for themselves. She is also the author of various works available here.

Further Reading

E. Dickey, Learning Latin the Ancient Way (Cambridge UP, 2016).

E. Dickey, “Teaching Latin to Greek speakers in antiquity,” in E.P. Archibald, W. Brockliss, & J. Gnoza (eds.), Learning Latin and Greek from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge UP, 2015) 30–51.

E. Dickey, “Greek teaching in Republican Rome: how exactly did they do it?”, in C. Rico & J. Pedicone (eds.), Transmitting a Heritage: The Teaching of Ancient Languages from Antiquity to the 21st Century (Polis Institute Press, Jerusalem).

And you may enjoy this Antigone article, which discusses how Romans learned to read and write.


1 Λοιδορεῖς με, / κακὴ κεφαλή; / σταυρωθείης.