I've learned to an intermediate reading level Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Classical Arabic. As a foreign language teacher, I'm well aware of current SLA research and the focus on communication and authentic, real-world applications. But these just don't come up, really, with languages that we have only in writing.

Right now, even after several years with these languages, I still have to use a dictionary and think explicitly about grammar when I read a "difficult" author like, say, Tacitus. By comparison, I can read without a dictionary and without explicitly thinking about grammar in Spanish or German, neither of which are my native language.

Which leads me to my question: How fluent is it possible to get (and how can we measure this properly) in reading-only languages like Latin and Greek? Do, and how do, graduate students and informal experts in the languages gain a fluency such that they do not have to use a dictionary very often and do not stop to puzzle out grammar explicitly?

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    The more you read, the more fluent your reading will become, and I don't think there's any particular limit on that. Personally with Greek I'm at more or less the level described in your last sentence, and I got that way by reading lots (a couple thousand pages, over the years) of Greek. I know people who've gotten further, and they did it the same way.
    – TKR
    Aug 9, 2016 at 0:35
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    Part of the equation for your question rests in the fact that some individuals are simply very gifted in learning languages. Usually such individuals will read a fair deal in different languages as well as speak recite poetry and or sing in such languages. Basically they become second nature to their mother tongue! I have only high school French and I never use a dictionary.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 9, 2016 at 2:02

1 Answer 1


Until fairly recently, pupils in elite schools in European countries began learning Latin and Greek at a very early age, and gained a high level of fluency before going on to university; this included the ability to translate into Latin and Greek (“composition”). At university a large portion of students enrolled for Classics, and a small number of these went on to become professors of Greek and Latin. By this stage they were very fluent indeed. Nowadays this is fairly rare, though I think that the current professors of Classics in places like Cambridge and Oxford still have this kind of background.

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