You majored in mathematics in Princeton; what attracted you to Ancient Greek?
In the first place, I should say that I’ve had an independent interest in languages for a good long while,
running parallel to mathematics as systems capable of powerful and bizarre expression,
governed by rules, and therefore needing a good deal of creativity to make the most of them.
Also, working as a math teacher a few years ago, I found myself missing daily interaction with languages
and thought the perfect solution would be to read Euclid’s Elements: I could say that I was doing my work, and I was studying languages at the same time. Reading Euclid, and doing so in the original rather than using a translation, was very helpful for me because it helped revive my Greek and my geometry, which I had not studied since eighth grade. It also opened my eyes to the fact that my way of reckoning certain concepts in mathematics would not have been Euclid’s way; as a twenty-first-century American and not a third-century BC Greek like Euclid, I found myself approaching many of the same theorems as he had from a different language, and therefore a different background and understanding.
Talk about your experience at Polis for the last three months.
I did my best to come with no expectations other than I would hear the languages I wanted to study spoken every day; this has certainly been fulfilled, so much so that I am frequently asked from people back home, “Don’t you ever confuse these languages?” Listening and speaking for many hours every day can push you towards this “point of no return”—and that is wonderful. To reach for a concept or idea and have all of the terms bubble up to you in one language, then pushing it down until they resurface in another language is very surreal; you realize that a new set of connections has begun to grow in your mind and that you are thinking along those connections every day, building them through use as if they were muscles. Because the classes at Polis are entirely in the target language, the connections you build can exist less with respect to another language and stand more upon the world itself. I feel like a very large three-year-old understanding the world again, and that is too good.
What has it been like living in Jerusalem?
Living in Jerusalem has certainly been interesting. Personally, it’s been eye-opening for me as it is by far the longest time I’ve spent outside the United States, and also my first time navigating a multilingual community. In this respect, what I learn in one or another classroom cannot then be shirked or forgotten for the rest of the day: I can’t speak English with everyone in my apartment, let alone with everyone on the street, so the motivation to learn the languages is quite real here. The same goes for the classroom: For the first time I am in classes more international than any I’ve taken before. I believe that in my Hebrew class of seventeen students, we represent fifteen different countries. Jerusalem, and by extension Polis, seems to attract from all corners of the world, so that with the different languages come different minds and quite a few very interesting conversations.
What led you to come here?
I heard about Polis from a friend who informed me, “I don’t want to tell you what to do next year,
but there is a program in Israel called Polis, where they teach languages ancient and extinct, but all as living languages.” As soon as I heard this, I immediately replied, “Thank you for telling me this, and thank you for telling me what I am doing next year,” for the moment I heard about such a program I recognized that it was very rare.
Most of the time in my past classes on extinct languages have been spent translating from target language to English—only translation, and mostly in one direction. One major advantage of translating both ways and in fact thinking in the target language is that, as with children learning a language, these activities tend more directly towards fluency. To become a more fluent thinker in ancient Greek and Biblical Hebrew, something I wanted to do, is a significant undertaking, and Polis offered this rare—if not unique—opportunity.
Anton Fleissner, student of the Master in Ancient Philology, B.A. in Mathematics from Princeton, M.S.Ed from University of Pennsylvania.
From New Jersey, U.S.A.
Michal Kabat, student of the One Year Program in Biblical Languages
From Warsaw, Poland
How did you end up at the Polis Institute?
I've heard about Polis when I was at Univ. I was told that there was this Polis Institute somewhere and that they were organizing summer courses in Rome. I did not know at that time that Polis was an institute located in Jerusalem. I thought then that it was a fairy tale and that it was too far away. I did not think I would go back to Rome or elsewhere just to study Greek. But then my friend sent me an email saying that Polis had scholarships, so I applied for it without any expectation and suddenly it was accepted and that was how I ended up here.
What attracted you to come to our institute?
Mostly the possibility of studying ancient Greek as a living language. Before coming here I studied Classics so I thought that it would be a great opportunity for me to learn Greek better. I’d had difficulties in learning Greek, especially at the end of the year when I was translating. I could not memorize everything so as a result my translation process seemed to me very abstract.
Three months after coming here I can say that I see huge improvements. Yesterday my roommate gave me a Greek text (a dialog about everyday life from the 3rd century) and three months ago I could only have understood two or three words from the whole text, and struggled to even read it. Now I can say what is going on, who is saying what, and in addition to that I can read this text and summarize it. Even at some points I can laugh when I read it, so I think this is a huge improvement in three months only.
Did what you find here meet your expectations?
What I found here was above my expectations on at least three levels:
First, the scientific level because learning here does not mean learning only science. It is mostly a lot of fun. I will always remember that.
The second aspect is the personal level. I have been meeting many people here who have the same problems as I do in learning Greek in a “traditional way” and we are discovering that we can learn Greek as a living language and that is a big discovery for us and a big joy also.
Finally, there is the cultural level because in Jerusalem I am able to experience many things for the first time. One can have all the cultures merging and somehow passing through each other and this gives this perspective: how the world looked like in ancient times, in Hellenistic times, when all the people were just mixing their cultures. And I meet a lot of people from other cultures that are just opening up for me and sharing things that I would have never experienced in another way as well as I could not have known them elsewhere.
How did you end up in the Polis Institute?
I was looking for a place where I could learn Greek and Hebrew and I read about Polis Institute, which claimed to be using a very special method, a unique method of instruction which was different from the methods used in most other places. I realized that many of the people who have graduated from other places that teach ancient languages still do not have a very good proficiency in Greek or Hebrew . So I thought, “why not give Polis a try?” Back then I did not know anything about Polis and I thought it was worth taking a risk to try out.
How did you hear about Polis?
No one recommended Polis to me. I simply found it on the internet. I just searched Google for Hebrew and Greek courses and I found Polis in Jerusalem!
Did what you find here meet your expectations?
It has definitely met my expectations so far.
Stephen Chia, student of the One Year program in Biblical Languages, B.A. in Linguistics and Multilingual Studies from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore
My progress in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek in particular speaks for itself. The way Greek and Hebrew is taught here and the way I am acquiring and picking up grammatical structures and vocabulary is very natural. Because we are immersed daily in the language, most of our time is spent speaking and listening to the language instead of memorizing textbooks. It saves a lot of time.
What would be your best memories in the last three months that you have spent in Polis?
Definitely the Greek classes. Firstly, I appreciate being totally immersed in the language. Since the first day, there were strict rules such as, “no other language is to be used in class”. Though following such a method might sometimes be difficult, it helps a lot because it forces you to follow and pick up what the teacher is saying, even if it means to make wild guesses. This is one of the reasons why the full-time students of Polis Institute are generally much more confident, fluent and knowledgeable in the target language than the other students.
Do you find the fact that Polis is located in Jerusalem attractive?
Well, it is definitely attractive to me because the Holy Land is an important place to me. The sole reason why I am here is to study Greek and Hebrew, but Jerusalem is a very interesting city that is rich in history and I am fortunate to have an opportunity to live here.
How do you feel about the possibility of speaking the ancient languages with the other students?
I have to say that all my classmates, as well as students from the second year, are highly motivated students. I hear them speaking Greek, Hebrew and even Latin among themselves all the time, even during times when I just feel like speaking English. I think I am in a very good environment where I can freely speak Greek and Hebrew any time I want. No one is embarrassed about speaking in an ancient language. In fact, the most embarrassing thing to do is to be caught speaking English.