I Couldn't Read Papers Until I Learned The Greek Alphabet

I’ve always found it incredibly difficult to read papers. For years, I thought they were just written poorly or that academic writing is cryptic, but mostly I just thought I was stupid.

Here’s an example. The author starts out:

Some technologies save lives—new vaccines, new surgical techniques, safer highways.

Which is simple enough, and easy to parse. Then a paragraph later, he hits you with:

The agent is endowed with some initial stock of knowledge that generates a consumption level c and has a utility function u(c) = ū + [c1 – γ / (1 – γ)].

I want to clarify that I don’t have math anxiety. I would actually consider myself pretty decent, and am certainly comfortable with the basic math required to understand an exponential.

But for whatever reason, I just could not parse that formula.

Today, something finally something clicked and I realized it’s not a failure of reading, it’s a failure of over vocalization.

There are different varieties of inner speech and personally, I literally cannot read without sounding the words out loud in my head. It is equivalent to speaking silenty with my lips shut, or almost like whispering very very softly.

The problem is, I don’t know Greek! When I read “u(c) = ū + [c1 – γ / (1 – γ)]”, I can’t sound it out in my head because I don’t know how to pronounce γ.

That’s literally it. That’s the stupid and totally trivial problem behind so many of my failures. It’s unbelievably silly in retrospect, as so much of life is.

So to put it to the test, I downloaded Anki, found some Greek alphabet flash cards, and started learning. And now? It’s dramatically easier. It’s not even that I’m reading 2x faster, it’s that I’m able to read papers I would have previously given up on entirely.

This would all end up being really funny and stupid and embarassing in an “aw shucks” kind of way, except that this totally screwed me for years! I have no idea what else I’m missing, or what other low hanging fruit could be enriching my intellectual life. I also don’t know how many other people are suffering from this same problem, and just think they’re irreparably stupid.

If this describes you, or if you’re not sure and want to give it a try, here Anki, here’s the flash card deck, and best of luck!

[Edit: 03/23/21]: It turns out reading silently was not even normal until a couple hundred years ago, though there’s some debate over exactly when the shift happened, and if reading silently was considered difficitul, or just unusual at various times. Some monks were made to scribe silently in the 9th century. In the 4th century, Augustine of Hippo mentions Ambrose reading silenty, but seems to be surprised by his ability to do so. This Quartz article indicates that reading silently may have been unusual until the 18th century.