As a Latin teacher in the 21st century, there are many challenges that face us each and every day. We are bombarded at every turn with pressures that plague our field and threaten to rob it of its future. Change is needed but not a drastic overhaul that requires a massive paradigm shift but a simple one.
Perhaps, it is more of a restoration than a revolution.
One of the things I have contemplated and grappled with over my years of teaching Latin and building programs is how to make the subject of greater interest and relevance to my students. If I can get them hooked, then I can help secure the future of this noble field of study – the likes of which has been undertaken for quite literally thousands of years. In fact, you could argue, that the earth has not had a moment without Latin spoken since ab urbe condita.
The study of Latin was quite literally a bridge to opportunity. In order to gain entrance into the elite colleges and universities, only dating back about 100 years ago, it was required that applicants knew Latin and Greek. Those days are long gone, but the value of an education grounded in Latin (and even ancient Greek) are still present and growing more so each and every day. Yet, these are not reasons enough to grab student interest. The language itself has to do the “talking” – and that is where I as a teacher have struggled.
For years, I believed that a drastic departure away from a grammar-based method would help grow our field. My initial instinct still holds true – nothing turns students off from learning a language more than declension charts and explanations using “grammarese” concepts like the ablative absolute and the differences between a gerund and a gerundive. So, instead, I embraced a natural methodology, using an intuitive approach. No English allowed – well, as much as we could get away with. Instead of going through vocabulary by matching Latin words with their “barbaric” counterparts in English, we would scrape, claw, and gesture our way towards understanding.
On most days, it worked. Just as there would be a break in the clouds on rainy days to allow the sun to shine through, we would have our own breakthroughs and students would gain insight into the meaning of a new Latin word we were exploring. But it came at great cost. It was slow and arduous to glean meaning into Latin words; sure, the students were not relying on English to construct or decode meaning, but the process of learning would test their patience. Relevancy would dissipate, the immediate feedback and payoff of learning how to communicate grew to be a distant objective.
Yet, my draconian notion that we must not ever dip our toes into the pool of English in order to swim in the ocean of Latin described my approach to learning more than it did demonstrate effective results. This is not to say that we failed in our attempts; quite the opposite. As noted earlier, our students succeeded in learning a language and not relying on English to do so. The problem is the cost at which it came and when considering that we are drastically running out of quality Latin language users in our own culture – a culture that was built from a foundation of classical thought – we are facing a future in which we not only become deaf but also mute in service to our common cultural heritage. If we are to make progress, and make it quickly, improved methods are needed – and needed fast.
So, I am making the decision to finally alter my approach. To understand Latin on its own will remain my goal – the process by which we arrive at this destination will change. We need a more expedient path and one that strikes at the heart of language in the first place: communication.
In trying to avoid the use of English in Latin, I realize that I am also denying one of the basic objectives in language learning – establishing meaning. The more I read up on this concept, the more I struggle but I also find more relief in using English as a vehicle to help establish meanings to new words. I recently purchased Blaine Ray’s and Contee Seely’s book Fluency Through TPR Storytelling to help find new methods. I am currently searching far and wide around the Internet to find others who are pioneering similar solutions.
One of the things that keeps coming up is the use of the primary language (English) to help establish meaning. Since I use Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata for our Latin courses, we attempt to explain even grammar using Latin itself. This works, but takes time, as noted above. That said, it remains impossible to explain grammar, at times, using only Latin. Nuances go unnoticed and reconstructing the Roman mind and how they conceptualize action, etc. are definitely foreign to our modern American students – as they ought to be.
Perhaps, this is a way to give myself some slack. To loosen up. I have seen other Latin teachers also use translation to help establish meanings of new words and grammatical structures. (Keith Toda gives a convincing explanation revolving around his choral reading activity.) Perhaps, in creating a small allowance for English in the classroom – on occasion – we can build a stronger foundation to establish meaning for students who will then more quickly, and effectively, gain confidence and comprehensibility in Latin.