Apparently we can’t concentrate. We are all suffering from information overload. We have lost the ability to discern high quality information from low quality information and we are no longer scrutinising the information that is being presented to us. What’s the solution? You could turn your phone off or…
You could study ancient languages! Nothing teaches you to concentrate more than studying a language, and this is especially true of ancient languages (which are all the more challenging because of the limitations on spoken discourse). Reading an ancient text brings together so many skills and abilities: a sound knowledge of underlying grammar; the ability to recognise the key components of a sentence and reorganise sentence structure; the skills to analyse forms of words and interpret their meaning; the ability to translate those words in a fluent, not frigid, style; and the attention needed to comprehend the context of that sentence, its sense and intention. All of this requires many years of training the brain, to concentrate, to focus, to remember and to be flexible.
Consistent, concerted effort on language tasks prepares us for analysing information. What does the text actually say? Who wrote it? When was it written? Who is the audience? Why was it written? Is there a difference between the stated and unstated purpose? Why does it say what it does in the way that it does? How does our translation differ from others? Is the information reliable, interesting or valuable in some way? Is it worth remembering and why? These analytical skills are crucial to the analysis of information in any context, ancient or modern.
I am also a firm believer in the importance of writing out texts and translations in longhand. As a teacher of ancient languages, I believe that handwriting improves our memory of the ‘shapes’ of words as well as our understanding of the text and ultimately, our translation. For a language like ancient Greek, which is based on an entirely different alphabet, these skills are essential (not to mention the absolute pleasure of writing out long passages of text in these ancient code-like forms).
Neuroscientists have found that learning handwriting is a key step in the cognitive development of children. Writing letters by hand apparently improves recognition and it improves spelling. Researchers have also found that university students who take lecture notes in longhand are better able to recall the lecture than those who type their notes on a laptop. The reason? Note taking on paper involves a “preliminary process of summarising and comprehension” while those working on a keyboard tend to miss this step and simply make a “literal transcript”.
It’s never too late to train one’s brain. In an age of longer life expectancy, with increased risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s, who wouldn’t want to reap the benefits of working out in a brain gym?
Links to articles:
‘Why do we fall for fake news? It’s because we can’t concentrate, study says’ by medical reporter Sophie Scott:
‘Handwriting vs typing: is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?’ by Anne Chemin: