On Learning Latin

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...Image via WikipediaI once walked into a beginning Latin class at U.C. Berkeley. I hadn’t made up my mind whether I was going to take the class or not. Right off the bat, the teacher had us reciting “amo, amas, amat…” – all 40 of us in unison – in other words, it was going to be one of those classes where rote memorization was the key learning method. I raised my hand and asked why we were chanting verbs and declensions and the instructor said that if we didn’t do that we would be forever tied to a dictionary. I sat listening to the students and wondered how long students have been attempting to learn Latin this way; probably a couple of centuries, but I have some ideas from my reading over the years that that method is fairly Victorian. The tables of verbs and noun declensions fit the mechanistic age of logarithm tables, early assembly lines, and the industrial mills. I figured out that the teacher thought that we had to know grammar in order for us to read Latin. This is ridiculous, of course, because I was talking and reading simple sentences long before I knew what a coordinating conjunction or a transitive verb was. I got up from the desk, walked out of the classroom, willing to resign myself to the possible fate of being shackled to a dictionary for eternity like some lost Jacob Marley.

Why do we still do “drill and kill”? Some of it is educational hazing: I imagine the instructor thinks “I had to go through this misery and now my students have to as well.”  To be fair, that is how the instructors actually learned it. In college, they are not trained in teaching, so they know no other way. Others make the argument that unless a student is thoroughly proficient in the rudiments, they can’t master the subject. And that is my objection, what do we really want to teach? Do these teachers want Latin grammarians or readers of Latin literature and history? I had a teacher ask me once (in a blog posting) – “You wouldn’t give students a Latin text and ask them to figure out the grammatical rules on their own?” Well, maybe I would.

Even what I consider to be the best texts make the mistake of thinking that students are going to find some kind of clarity around lists of verbs. Wheelock’s Latin is a standard text and the thing that actually makes that textbook so useful is all of the examples from actual Latin texts. We used this at Sonoma State in my Latin classes, but the instructor also had us translating texts from day one. My textbook hero is Clyde Pharr – he wrote a textbook on Homeric Greek that has students reading right from Homer within a dozen chapters, and his Vergil’s Aeneid has them reading from Vergil even earlier. Either of these texts could be used as primary textbooks. The sick thing is that Pharr did most of his work in the 1920s and many teachers have not figured all of this out yet. Pharr follows the assumption that children learn grammer by using language; they can learn the grammar in context just as they learn to speak grammatically in context. They are not going to use Latin if it is essentially a boring, tedious plow through inane paradigmatic sentences and tables of verbs. They are going to read if the work they are reading is interesting and engaging – Homer and Vergil are certainly that.

If rote memorization is the main teaching method, the teachers will only have students with a high tolerance for the tedious. If you teach students rote memorization, that is all they will be good at. I am sure we want more from our students than being good test-takers! Being able to jump through the hoops is not the same thing as critical thinking.

Notes 12/04/11:
Learning Latin in Context – This project shows the possibilities and importance of learning in context and in a community. (networked learning – or Connectivism).

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