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In Jerusalem or online, a language school offers an immersive experience in ancient languages


Polis Institute | Youtube

John Burger - published on 12/19/18

Polis—The Jerusalem Institute for Languages and Humanities is trying to help reconnect society with its Greek, Hebrew and Latin roots.

In the early 21st century, when more and more people are communicating through email, text messages and social media, when memes convey the most profound truths of life, when Google can translate from any language, when artificial intelligence can guess what you want to say or buy next, when there is no confusion or misunderstanding among peoples, and there is no chance of our opinions being manipulated by business or political interests (foreign or domestic) … who but a few scholarly types would want to embark on an endeavor like studying ancient languages?

Plenty of people, says Christophe Rico—enough, he says, to warrant the worldwide expansion of a language school in Jerusalem.

Rico directs Polis—The Jerusalem Institute for Languages and Humanities — an academic institution founded in 2011 by a group of international scholars. The goal of the non-profit institute is the renewal of the Humanities through the revival of ancient languages and the return to the foundational texts of Western civilization: the Bible, ancient playwrights, historians, poets and philosophers, the Fathers of the Church, etc.

Having studied Classics in Aix-en-Provence, France, Rico visited Jerusalem in 1992, as he was about to finish a Ph.D at the Sorbonne.

“While I was here, I found a job in Jerusalem through the University of Strasbourg, which appointed me as an ancient Greek instructor at the Ecole Biblique, with which it had close links,” Rico said in an interview. “I found the Jerusalem experience so interesting as a linguist and as a Christian that I decided to stay here.”

He had also been in discussion with colleagues about starting a school where students could study ancient languages in an immersive method—learning much as a child learns his mother tongue, without getting hung up on the fine points of grammar in the beginning.

“Back in 2011, I had a colleague named Eran Shuali (currently member of the faculty of the University of Strasbourg),” Rico said. “We both taught ancient languages through full immersion: he taught Biblical Hebrew, while I taught ancient Greek. We talked a lot about the project, and he was instrumental in developing the idea of Polis. Another scholar who deeply contributed to the idea was Henri Gourinard, an ancient Near East historian who now teaches historical geography at Polis and manages all the field trips to ancient sites throughout the country. The idea of the Polis method to teach languages was developed together with Stephen Hill, specialist in second language acquisition who lives currently in Virginia and collaborates in Polis summer courses.”

The founders “believed in the idea of renewing all the fields of humanities through a deeper connection to the languages which are at the foundation of our culture,” Rico said.

Starting such a school was an important contribution to reversing a trend in academia, the founders believed: “Due to the loss of teaching of the Greek and Latin languages, most of this invaluable heritage remains inaccessible to the general public,” said Rico. There are important works by Aquinas, Galen and Alcuin, for example, that still have not been translated into English, he said.

“More than half of the writings from ancient and medieval times can be read today only in Greek, Latin, Hebrew or Arabic,” said the Polis director. “Hence, 21st-century man finds himself in front of a dramatic situation: being unable to access his cultural roots, he cannot assimilate his heritage.”

Catherine Crnkovich studied at Polis in order to master ancient Greek, a skill she needs to do graduate work in philosophy and theology.

“You have scholars who … do their scholarly work based on someone else’s translation,” she said in a promotional video. “And then you have scholars who, maybe, want to go deeper and they want to look at the text themselves, and for that you have to know the language.”

Polis teaches Koine (New Testament) Greek, Biblical and Modern Hebrew, Latin, Coptic and Arabic. Traditional learning methods, focusing on declensions, grammar, and vocabulary, can be tiresome and tedious. Polis tries a different approach.

“From the very first day the instructor speaks only in the language being taught, while students are asked to do likewise,” said Rico. “Thus, the ‘dead language’ becomes a live experience: texts no longer look like something alien, detached from any present influence, but become full of vitality.”

A typical approach would be Rico standing in front of class, greeting students with a few typical words and then giving instructions to an assistant, such as “sit down.” Repeating these instructions over and over immediately gives students their first words in the vocabulary and draws them into the mentality of a speaker of the language. Some students may recognize words that have been borrowed into English, such as when Rico tells the assistant to sit down on the chair. The Greek sounds similar to the word cathedra, which Catholic students will recognize from their studies of ecclesiology as the chair of the bishop, which is found in a cathedral.

While Polis receives about 300 students a year in Jerusalem, it is expanding its outreach around the globe. It organizes summer courses every year in the United States and Rome, and now is building an e-learning platform to allow more people to benefit, even if a temporary move to Israel is not possible.

“There is a growing number of people interested in learning the languages that are at the foundation of our culture, who wish to be able to listen directly to the voice of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides or Cicero or to read the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church directly in the original without resorting to a translation,” Rico said.

The institute says that E-Polis will be the first online platform offering courses in four ancient languages and several modern ones through a full immersion method. Rico is trying to raise $150,000 through a GoFundMe page in order to develop the software application that will connect the Institute with e-learners; purchase the hardware for the platform, including computers, cameras, projectors, and audio materials; train the teachers, staff and researchers in order to operate the platform and to maintain it, and to provide a number of master’s degree students with scholarships for their research on language acquisition through distance learning.

Thanks to Polis, languages that were considered “dead” come very much alive for people like Crnkovich, who reflected on her time living in Jerusalem.

“This is a city in which all of the languages I am studying either once were spoken or currently are spoken, so, ancient Greek was spoken here at some point; Biblical Hebrew was spoken here; modern Hebrew is now spoken here; Arabic — I’m learning the dialect of Jerusalem. For instance, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb [of Christ] is just covered in Greek words, I mean, Greek inscriptions everywhere. Actually, sort of all around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I go in there, and everything is in Greek.”

Even for those not in a scholarly field, the study of ancient languages opens new horizons.

“In this world of ours, we get a lot of information, but very little formation,” Rico opined. “By formation, I mean a deep training that allows you to have a capacity of synthesis and also to exert a critical thinking with respect to the huge amount of information we receive every day. Classical and Semitic languages give us a formation which is invaluable. Languages are a way to convey a thought which could be misinterpreted or lost, even lightly, in translation.”

Rico and his colleagues benefit, as well. “Seeing so many of my students overwhelmed with joy after only six months of learning at Polis when they see they can directly read the Gospel of John in the original, and listen to the voice of the Evangelist,” he said, “I feel that our efforts are not fruitless.”

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