Why do we teach Latin and what role does Grammar play in it?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot over the past year and is one of the main reasons why I have left my MA program at Villanova to obtain my Teaching Cert at Ursinus. To address the first question, I want to teach Latin is because it opens students up to a field that offers a level of interdisciplinary study difficult to find elsewhere. It can add depth and breadth to any student’s interest: Let’s say you’re in 10th grade and like your science classes – not only will studying Latin expose you to some of the history of science and eventually enable you to read the texts in the original version (and yes, you do get a lot more out of a text by reading it in the original) but you can also use science to study the Classics. Here’s a little story to illustrate my point: I had to take a lab science for my BA. I ended up in Geology (we called it ‘Rocks for Jocks’ because it was pretty easy to pass. Rude of us, I know). To be quite frank, the type of rock underneath my house doesn’t really interest me much – I can hire someone to inform me about any problems and then I’m set. So I decided to make it relevant to my own interests – I gave presentations on Vesuvius and the environmental impact of lead mining in Ancient Rome. I didn’t have to do a lot of work for these papers, the research was already out there because there is a niche for people who are interested in that sort of thing.

So maybe my student doesn’t really care about the Latin language, but he might like to do a paper on the process scientists use to determine the age of bones or pottery found at an archaeological site. He may not be able to do that for all his papers, but at least he won’t feel like an alien in the classroom (that’s how I always felt in my science classrooms in high school). The same is true for artists (archaeological illustrations, art history), engineers (how can we excavate this site? how did the Romans build this? can we replicate it?), students interested in computing (can you think of a way to improve Perseus?), linguists (Latin and/or Greek are terrific starting points for both theoretical and historical study), video game enthusiasts (seriously, there is a wealth of juicy material here. Alexander the Great. I would play that video game in a heartbeat. And if the popularity of Assassin’s Creed is anything to go by, there is definitely a market for historical video games), and pretty much anything else you can think of. In an economy that is increasingly flooded with students with practical college degrees, the addition of a degree in Classics can really make a student stand out.

So for me, teaching Latin is not, at it’s heart, really about the language, but rather what you can get out of studying the language. In dreams, I have fifth year students who can read Latin with the same speed as a 5th year student in a modern language. I want it to be the case that by third year we’re doing more of the ‘what you can do with this language’ stuff and less of the ‘this is a 3rd pl pluperfect active subjunctive in a subordinate relative clause in indirect statement, secondary sequence showing action prior to dixit in the head clause’ sort of thing.

Students are rarely able to do grammatical exercises like this in English and the Romans weren’t able to either. Instead, I imagine a Roman’s answer to the question “why did you use that form of the verb?” (lets pretend your average Marcus knew what a verb was) would be something like “because they had already done it when he said it and I used the ‘uncertainty’ form of the verb there because I wouldn’t stake my life on him having observed the situation correctly”. The difference between students and Marcus, of course, is that Latin students are second language learners and they need a way to understand grammatical concepts that exist in Latin and don’t exist in English. To this effect, an extensive apparatus of grammatical terminology was created to describe Latin grammar, and it has stuck around to this day. Is this one of the valuable things that students acquire from learning Latin? If we believe it is valuable, *why* do we believe it is valuable? is it valuable to every student? does it perhaps have different value to different students: one interested in Archaeology, one in Vergil, one in Linguistics? If we believe it is not particularly valuable and the difficulty of the terms themselves inhibits students’ ability to acquire the language, then how do we teach the language without it? Will students lose something in the process? Is it part of the tradition of learning Latin and valuable for that reason alone? Should we be holding on to the traditions that were a part of classical study? Why was there such a strong reaction against them? was the reaction justified?

I posted earlier about the grammar vs. reading methods in teaching Latin. The solution that makes most people happy seems, logically enough, to be one that involves a bit of both. However, the words of a professor keep haunting me, “Those students who were taught using Orberg or Ecce Romani don’t know anything.” I wish I could have asked him what they don’t know – does he mean that when they look at a chunk of Latin they can’t read it? Can they understand it but not translate it? Are they just bad at grammar? I do feel that Orberg’s first book leaves you hanging a bit when it comes to reading Latin that isn’t littered with context clues, and therefore real Latin comes as a bit of a nasty shock. I haven’t used his second book yet, but I’ve heard it is much more difficult. I wonder if it deals with the transition effectively. Would Orberg be more useful if, like Moreland & Fleischer, it gave you some actual Latin to read and some sentences that were just plain weird? (I’m thinking of this sentence: “Nisi laetus esse videberis, aqua urnam non implebo; regina enim monuit ut urnam laeto impleam” (Unless you appear to be happy, I will not fill your urn with water; indeed, the queen advised that I should fill the urn for a happy person.) from the Units 1-4 review.) The ‘wait, seriously? is that really what that sentence means?’ moment encouraged me, at least, to look over the sentence again and really make sure that I had gotten it right.

I guess what I mean by all these ponderings is that I think studying Latin is more about what we can get out of reading it than understanding its grammar perfectly. Of course understanding the grammar with competence is necessary to reading the language, but I think the terminology we use to describe Latin/Greek grammar is unnecessarily complex and intimidating to students (do they really need to be able to memorize and identify every type of ablative?), and really is almost a subject in and of itself. But I do think learning the terminology is a good exercise because it’s the same process students go through when they have to learn technical terminology in any other field, and it gives students a means for understanding their own and other languages better. However, it might also be the reason why students tend struggle with Latin more so than they do French or German or Spanish. If there were a way to teach Latin as quickly and effectively as the standard modern languages are taught but we had to sacrifice the grammar to do it, should we?

I would really like to hear what people think about this. I’m very uncertain myself, if you couldn’t tell by the excess of question marks!



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