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The Chinese Room and the Chess Player: on reading and language proficiency in Classics

Eduardo Engelsing

National and regional standards for learning classical languages are closing the gap between modern and ancient language-learning theories. In Standards for Learning Classical Languages (Glascoyne et alii, 1997), “communication, culture, connections, comparisons, and communities” are in the forefront, and the abilities of speaking, writing, and listening together with reading are seen as conducive to effective language learning (Grueber-Miller, 2006; Abbot et alii, 1998). These five Cs seem to point to domains of “language use” and to a more “communicative” classroom environment. However, promoters of change in the pedagogy of Classics chose to align themselves with research in the area of Second Language Acquisition. Therefore they rely on language-learning models underpinned by hypothesis of what may occur inside the human brain. Second Language Acquisition is primarily concerned with mental processes and programmatically disregards language use (Firth & Wagner, 1997, 2007). It is therefore not surprising that most adopters of Standards for Learning Classical Languages, although they generally defend the use of the four abilities in the classroom (reading, writing, speaking and listening), only use the target language (Latin or Greek) in a very limited way. For these innovators, speaking, writing and listening are not treated as integrative abilities but merely as subsidiary for the development of reading. They speak of adding what they call “oral Latin” to time honored practices, but the foundational understanding of how human beings learn and use languages remains unchanged.

This paper addresses the mentalist (psycholinguistic) shift in Classics by revisiting the conceptions of “reading” and “language proficiency” in the field. In order to look afresh at the constraints of reading Latin and Greek, I make use of John Searle’s thought-experiment, the Chinese Room (1980), and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1953) comparison of the rules of language use with the rules of a chess game. I argue that the analogies of the Chinese Room and the chess player as applied to Classics reveal the predicament of reading and sense-making when the reader does not belong to a community of language users. 

Session/Panel Title:

Poster Session

Session/Paper Number

54.1

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