Students of ancient languages know the feeling of being able to read no more than a paragraph of text in an hour, slogging through a dictionary for nearly every word and then trying to decipher the sentence. But similarly those who have stayed with them know the feeling of being able to speak and read such a language with ease (the easier authors, of course – difficult authors, in any language, require some digestion-time). As I have watched students struggle with their assignments, I have wondered what happens in that crossover. This past year, I read almost no Latin, and then went off to the Rusticatio Virginiana, where I had to speak Latin for a week, in an instructional capacity, no less. And I was fine – somehow the Latin had made a little home in a fold of my brain and it wasn’t going anywhere. (If only we could say the same for my Greek.)
A bit of brain-science which seems to confirm this caught my eye. It’s from a review of book by neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene. As always, Andrew Sullivan spots the most interesting bit:
One of the most intriguing findings of this new science of reading is that the literate brain actually has two distinct pathways for reading. One pathway is direct and efficient, and accounts for the vast majority of reading comprehension — we see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word’s meaning. However, there’s also a second pathway, which we use whenever we encounter a rare and obscure word that isn’t in our mental dictionary. As a result, we’re forced to decipher the sound of the word before we can make a guess about its definition, which requires a second or two of conscious effort.
The task is to get the words, by constant repetition, into that direct pathway. It does happen, but it reminds me of what Reginaldus Foster used to say about learning Latin: “Fourteen years. It takes fourteen years to learn Latin.”