Learning Ancient Greek with Dyslexia

AnnMarie Patterson |

No One Should Be Afraid To Learn Greek.

Gregory of Nazianus, Orations. Manuscript 34654 of the British Library.
Gregory of Nazianus, Orations. Manuscript 34654 of the British Library.

A while back I wrote a piece about being a Latinist with a language processing disorder and how my dyslexic brain coped, learned, played, and fell in love with the Latin language. If you’re interested in that, it can be found here. Generally, the same tricks I used in learning Latin served me well when I started learning ancient Greek.

However, as many fellow dyslexics have told me since reading that first piece, Greek is a different beast. It’s a different language with a new alphabet and a much more foreign sound. Thinking back on it, Greek created a very different learning experience for me than Latin did. I’ve since been encouraged to talk about the specific challenges posed by learning ancient Greek, and some of my favorite tricks for getting through and enjoying a Greek class with dyslexia.

Learning Greek comes with a few more hitches than Latin does. The new alphabet for instance is unfamiliar and will take time to get used to. Additionally Greek has far more irregularities in verb formation and spelling changes from dialect to dialect, which make it hard to rely on pattern recognition over individually memorized words. There are also fewer resources for leisurely learning in ancient Greek. Latin is by far the more popular language and the plethora of easy-read practice materials or simple listening videos and podcasts are not yet matched by Greek.

Still, just as with Latin, I believe listening and active production make the whole dead language endeavor much easier, but in addition to that here are some of the tools I’ve picked up over the years that are more specific to coping with ancient Greek.

1) Spend time reciting and writing the alphabet.

The first major frustration I encountered when learning Greek should have been obvious to me. The alphabet is different. If you are dyslexic, you might recall it taking your brain took longer to get used to your native English alphabet than it did for the other kids in grade school. Getting a new symbol system into your head can take longer for dyslexics, this makes ancient Greek a little trickier than Latin right out of the gate. When I started taking novice Attic Greek, my class spent all of 20 minutes getting introduced to the Greek alphabet. In comparison with the Latin alphabet, which was constantly sung, spoken, and written for us as children before we started learning to read, this was an almost non-existent introduction. I didn’t spend much time reviewing the Greek alphabet because the other students in my class didn’t seem to need to, and anyway this was an activity for fraternity pledges, not Classics majors. Boy, was I wrong. About a semester into learning Greek, I realized I could read some basic sentences, but was not able to sound out new words. I remedied this by spending a few minutes before class or homework reciting the alphabet to myself, listening to a video of the sung Greek alphabet, and practicing writing the letters. It became a kind of ritualized warm-up and made a huge difference in my ability to read new words. This practice also improved my Greek handwriting, which made my class notes legible for later use.

To get more benefit from writing practice, I also suggest doing your Greek homework, prose comp, or alphabet practice on graph paper. Do you remember in elementary school when your teacher would show you how to form the letters on a three-leveled line, so you had some guidance when sizing out your words? That trick worked. Eventually, your handwriting became your own and it developed into something fast, easy, and (hopefully) legible to other people. Graph paper helped me shape my handwriting in the Greek alphabet the same way. Thankfully I have the motor skills not to need a 3-inch-tall space for each line, but the grid helped me get a sense of where I wanted each letter to start and finish and space them out naturally. This might seem unimportant but spacing out the letters right isn’t the real goal. Making the Greek write like it’s English, making it feel more native to your hand is the goal. If it feels more natural to produce, it feels more natural to read, and you get better at distinguishing letters.

2) Pick your pronunciation system and stick to it.

In the world of ancient Greek learning resources, I have come across a multitude of pronunciation systems, while in Latin almost everything seems to break down into restored pronunciation and ecclesiastical pronunciation, with a few variations. When writing about Latin, I gushed about the use of listening exercises and using your auditory learning skills to help compensate for issues dyslexics tend to have during silent reading. This is harder to do for Greek because the audio tracks and videos have much more variation in their pronunciation systems. It’s difficult to hear the letters and try and see them in your head when a chi sounds like a hard ‘c’ spoken by some people, and a loose guttural “ch” spoken by others. Phi is an “f” sound in one podcast and an aspirated “p” in another, so I might hear it as pi and spell a word wrong in my notes. This creates challenges for someone who tries to learn the Greek alphabet not just as a symbol system, but as a written cue for an auditory language. To combat the confusion induced by so many different pronunciation patterns, I try to keep consistent with my own. When I read Greek aloud, pi is pronounced as a ‘p,’ phi as an ‘f’ and each vowel has a bit of an exaggerated sound to help me keep my omicrons separate from my omegas and my etas from my epsilons. These particular decisions aren’t necessarily key, you can use whatever pronunciation scheme you want, the key is making sure it’s always the same, every time.

I haven’t built my own pronunciation system, but I am careful to hyper-enunciate sounds while reading aloud to better build the association between written word and sound. I don’t worry so much about retaining some kind of historically accurate pronunciation. I’m sure an ancient Athenian would think I sound ridiculous, but by keeping consistent with my pronunciation, I can better read what they wrote, and I see that as progress. To make a new symbol system as simple for me as possible, each letter or grouped diphthong has its own single sound and I won’t be changing them, even if a phi really was pronounced like an aspirated ‘p’.

3) Find a font you like and play with the visuals.

In my piece about Latin, I listed some accessible font options for dyslexics, which easily adapt to Latin texts. Unfortunately for the Greek alphabet, I have not yet found any such fonts. The variety of Greek alphabet fonts that are used in different texts, such as Oxford Green and Yellows, the OCT editions, and open-source websites like Perseus, all use different fonts for this already unfamiliar alphabet. Since dyslexia has a strong effect on the way we see the shapes of the letters, and different fonts will change letter shapes even further, I find that some Greek alphabet fonts were naturally easier for me to read than others. For example, the boxy, cramped, linear font of the Green and Yellows is quite inscrutable, while the slanted, well-spaced letters in a Harvard Loeb are much easier for me. When reading some new piece of Greek, I will typically copy the passage I want to read into Microsoft Word, set it in italics, then make it a few sizes bigger and I have a comfortable and readable piece of Greek. I like to put my Greek in Times New Roman, which is pretty similar to the Loeb font. I suggest you too shop around for a Greek font you like and give yourself a break from those that add unnecessary confusion to an already nonnative alphabet.

4) Choose a touchstone text.

Everyone has a book they can read over and over again and always be as enchanted as the first time they picked it up. Maybe it’s A Tale of Two Cities. Maybe it’s the Percy Jackson series. Whatever it is for you in English, find a book like that in Greek. Find that epic, novel, or philosophical dialogue that you always want to come back to and lean into that impulse. Repetition and compelling content are great for language acquisition, but this practice serves a double purpose. When we read one text and then pick up the same text after a few weeks or months or a year, we have a much better sense of how our language skills have improved. It was difficult to see progress when I read Herodotus one semester and switched to the much harder Thucydides the next. In fact, I felt like I was getting worse at Greek, not better with practice. Keeping a touchstone text to read for pleasure on the side is motivating and encouraging. I have two texts that I come back to whenever I feel discouraged, bored, or downright illiterate when reading Greek. The first is Homer’s Odyssey, a predictable favorite. If I am assigned something like a passage from Demosthenes (who might be a great touchstone for someone else, just not me) I might read a few lines from Homer before I conclude Greek for the day. It keeps my spirits up.

I also keep a prose text on hand: the Gospel of Mark. I find this to be one of the most readable texts I’ve ever encountered in Greek, and there’s nothing wrong with reading a piece that makes me feel better about what I’ve already learned. This practice was suggested to me by a Latin instructor on the Living Latin in Rome program in 2017 and it really helped me overcome the psychological battle I felt I was waging with the Greek language. It was so slow going compared to Latin and I had actually started to believe that dyslexic readers were not capable of achieving high-level Greek reading skills. This is obviously false, but it can feel true after slogging through a Pindar ode that seemed inscrutable and doesn’t catch your interest the way Lucian does. It’s hard to see an improvement that way and seeing improvement inspires us to keep reading. After three years of Greek, I could read Homer at a slow pace. After a fourth I picked up the Odyssey and read it a little faster, after 6 years, I was pretty comfortable with it. Progress was much clearer between two separate readings of the Odyssey than between a selection from Plato and one from Demosthenes.

No matter what pronunciation you like, what font you prefer, or what favorite text you choose, I hope these tools and any of the ones I listed last time I wrote for my fellow dyslexics are useful to you, and that you find what you love about the language despite those Greek-specific hurdles

AnnMarie Patterson


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