Reading a second language will never be like reading a first language

This post is in partial reply to one written by Daniel Streett. I should start off by saying that I applaud the efforts of all those attempting to make biblical language instruction better and to train better interpreters of the bible. Changes in biblical language instruction still have a long way to go and have been quite a long time coming.

Against that background, I think there are different paths that we could take to do that. So, I will offer here a differing perspective, which suggests reasons for a more positive role for a first language in the interpretation of a second language. I think this may logically lead to a more positive view of the first language in the instruction of the second language.

The main thrust of this post has to do with one of Streett’s* overarching analogies: We should try to read and understand Greek texts like we read and understand English ones. Perhaps more broadly, we should try to read second language texts like we read first language ones. The analogy comes out most clearly in his second to last and final paragraphs:

So, I find that the question, “what about exegesis?” presupposes that to interpret a text, one must be able to label, diagram and translate it into another language. I disagree with this. When I read and discuss English literature, I do not analyze syntax or diagram sentences. I also do not label each element using linguistic metalanguage. Rather I discuss meaning, themes, characterization. I summarize. I paraphrase. I make connections with other parts of the text. I tease out logical implications. I examine elements of literary artistry. All of this can be done, indeed, is best done, in the language itself.

To summarize, when you can read a language fluently, much of what we call exegesis becomes basically unnecessary.

At this stage, I should say that from an idealistic point of view I agree. In particular, aside from everything else I will say below, I do absolutely agree that much of what we call biblical exegesis is too atomistic. What I’m really dealing with here is the final two sentences in the quotation. From a realistic point of view, my feeling is that the strong form of what he saying is not possible. Reading a second language will never be like reading a first language.

In what follows, I will very briefly state why I think this is the case in hopes that this will point toward a more positive role for a first language in the understanding of a second. First, second languages are not stored in the brain in entirely the same way as first languages. Evidence for this can be found in the phenomenon of paradoxical aphasia. This phenomenon is discussed at length in The Neurobiology of Learning: Perspectives from Second Language Acquisition by Schumann, et al chapter 3 (I think this book is a must read for anyone working in the area of applied linguistics). In paradoxical aphasia, a first and second language are differentially affected by lesions or some other brain insult. This form of aphasia suggests that a first language relies more heavily on procedural memory and a second language a combination of declarative and procedural memory (the author of the chapter goes on to suggest that this along with other findings suggest that Krashen’s strong distinction between learning and acquisition, which is at the heart of many communicative approaches, is wrong and based on a faulty understanding of Chomsky’s concept of Universal Grammar that ignores the concept of critical periods; however, I will perhaps leave that for another time).

Second, we should ask whether the fact that different pathways are used for first and second languages has any psychological effects. Based on at least one line of very recent research that I’ve mentioned on this blog, though in light of the biological factors mentioned above I would predict that you could find others, this does seem to be the case. Some potential psychological effects might result from the second language not being as closely tied in with the emotional pathways in the brain. One particular example of this is that, on the description of the researchers involved in the study I just linked to, people are more “logical” when reading and reasoning about a moral dilemma in a second language than in their first language.

Some readers of this blog may want to brace themselves for one possible implication here if you haven’t already felt it: The irony is that if someone wants to feel more strongly the emotional impact of a biblical text, they might actually be better off reading the text in good translation … I know. I think I just vomited a little in my mouth. We do, indeed, need to place a strong emphasis on students learning biblical languages. I obviously think they are extremely important, else I would not have pursued a PhD in biblical languages. But alas, the biblical languages aren’t magic no matter how well one knows them. From the standpoint of a linguist, I have to be open to the idea that we might actually lose something by only reading and thinking about (I leave aside the whole debate about whether or not we actually think in a natural language) a text in a foreign language (unless you’re a Vulcan and think that more logic always should trump emotion). All meaning is constructed. A different kind of construction texts place when understanding a second language text due to the biological factors at work.

If you’re not quite ready to admit a strong version of what I said in the last paragraph that’s okay. I understand. And, this is a blog, so I’m only citing one study and leaving you to follow that trail out for yourself if you want to (I have a day job and blog very rarely by night). But, I’ll come back to the main point. Is the idea that we should try to understand a second language text by simply reading it just like, or even almost like, we would read a first language text a good analogy? Ideally, I would say yes. But realistically, I think the above suggests that this may not be possible and that statements like “All of this can be done, indeed, is best done, in the language itself” require some rethinking. This might include some rethinking about a more constructive role for a person’s first language in the understanding of a second language text. I think the exact role a first language should play is up for quite a bit of debate, but it’s a role I think is made necessary by the very biology of the learners that we may work with.

* I’m not trying to sound all academic or anything, I just don’t know him and don’t want to presume to call him Daniel.

Postscript: For those interested in information of a more practical sort (though perhaps less scientific since it would be impossible outside of a controlled environment to isolate the individual factors that have lead to its failing), you may be interested in looking into the recent reports about the failings of Rosetta Stone, an instructional software in which all instruction is in the second language. It has not lived up to its claims to such an extent that, to my knowledge, they have begun to lose their government contracts.


  • What are your thoughts about studying Koine Greek in a Living Koine Greek environment? There is a curriculum called that, I believ

    • Hi Joshua, thanks for stopping by. I think it’s an interesting idea, but isn’t really the best route to take in learning a biblical language for a number of reasons. From the outset, I would question what someone means by a “living” Koine environment. It’s not a living language, so the language would have to be reconstructed. It can only be reconstructed from text. And one rare thing that you could find a consensus for in modern linguistics is that “written language is not spoken language written down” (I believe that’s how Michael Halliday said it). So, I think you’d probably get at least some strange results (Mike Aubrey on the Nerdy Language Majors post said you might end up with pidgin-Koine, which is close to what I’m trying to say). In the end, I don’t think anyone is really speaking Koine Greek, no matter what they claim to be doing.

      Not only would the language need to be reconstructed, but it must also be reconstructed from a text itself that needs to be reconstructed (think textual criticism). This in itself would seem to suggest that we can’t just learn Koine like a native speaker and just read the text. There are other tasks involved in exegesis that wouldn’t have crossed an original reader or hearer’s mind, such as looking at text critical notes.

      Those are just basic practical reasons, but there are quite a few more that delve a bit deeper into research in second language acquisition and psychology that would just suggest to me that it’s unnecessary to learn an ancient language in a living environment. For an example, you could see the next post I wrote that deals with the receptive-productive distinction in language.