Thursday, December 15, 2016

The "Mass Reading" Method for Learning Languages

In my final semester (Fall 1987) of undergraduate studies, I had the considerable good fortune to study Medieval Latin with Professor Fannie Lemoine. In the course of that semester we were assigned to read an enormous amount of material. At one point she indicated that even what we were doing was not enough to achieve what she termed the “Mass Reading” Method. Having asked her for details, she explained it as follows. 

She credited the method to some professor with whom she had studied in her youth, but she was my immediate source. The principle is simple. You read (always outloud) some significantly large work. And by read, she means read, not translate. You never stop to look up a word if you run across one you don’t know. 

She explained the benefits as follows. If a word is rare, it isn’t really worth your time to stop and look it up. It will not likely be the item on which a whole sentence hinges anyway. If a word you don’t know is not very rare, it will come up again eventually in your reading. And even though you had this transitory experience with it earlier, you will recall it as being a word you saw but didn’t know. And there will be increasingly good chances that multiple contexts of the unknown word will make the meaning apparent. And a word you come to understand from its context will be a word you truly incorporate into your active knowledge. (Which would not likely happen by looking it up to understand one single sentence better.) 

The benefits of the Mass Reading Method are many. One deeply internalizes the most fundamental structures of the language through the sheer volume of data encountered. Every word you read that you know is, as it were, reviewed and mastered with every increasing intensity. Perhaps most importantly, one can relax and actually enjoy experiencing the language, without the chore of seeing it always as a translation project. 

Having finished the semester, I applied the method immediately by reading in its entirety the New Testament in the Vulgate Translation. I followed that up with Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Among Classical writers, I have plodded through Tacitus' Annales.

And I also used the method with my other languages of Ancient Greek and Biblical Hebrew, reading all of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in their originals. 

I credit the method with giving me a level of competence I would never have achieved with traditional translation based study. It enabled me to acquire Arabic to such a degree that I served as an Arabic linguist at the National Security Agency after 9/11 for four years (at which point I resigned that position assume the quieter life of high school Latin instruction). 

Fannie Lemoine reposed in 1998 after a lengthy battle with leukemia. I had the blessing to help serve at her Funeral Mass. And I speak words to her deeply internalized in me by years of regular Mass Reading of Latin biblical, liturgical, and other texts: 

Gratias tibi ago pro instructione tua quae me duxit in sapientiam et scientiam Linguae Latinae, Fidei, et Vitae. Requiescas in pace, Doctrix LeMoine.

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