Cards on the table: Why I am so strongly opposed to grammar-translate

I seriously struggled with Latin when I was in high school. I had an absolutely amazing teacher (I realized that both then & now as I go through my teacher training courses), so I know that that definitely wasn’t the problem. I got nearly straight As in the class, so clearly I was doing something right. But when it came time to translate a chunk of Latin, I seriously had no idea what was going on. It was like I was solving a giant puzzle and I had to figure out what setting of all the variables produced a sentence that made some sort of sense – just by itself! Not even in context! I ended up with complete word salad and was  super inventive with rules. I saw Latin as a series of rules I had to manipulate until something vaguely comprehensible emerged – sort of like a proof in Logic. It didn’t occur to me until much later that Latin was a language that people acquired and manipulated with ease and grace—and without needing an advanced degree in linguistics!

The problem was the Grammar-Translate Method (we used Jenny’s Latin): Memorize this chart of endings and when you see them in a sentence, you’ll know to insert ‘subject’, ‘possessive’, ‘indirect object’, ‘direct object’, or ‘prepositiony type thing’ into its meaning. And because you’ve memorized your vocab by staring at flash cards, you’ll recognize those words too and know what declensions they belong to and what their special rules are….multiply all this by 5 declensions, 4 conjugations, 6 tenses, 3 moods, 2 voices, 5(7) cases, etc., etc., and you end up with quite a bank of rules and far too often not enough practice helping your brain make meaningful connections to those rules. This is why, with a Master’s Degree in Classics, I’m still intimidated by Cicero & Martial.

I’m slowly working toward reading Latin more naturally, and I’m tutoring students to earn a few extra bucks on the side (shameless plug – you can find me with Varsity Tutors, WyzAnt, Tutor Select, and Tutor Match). Every single student I have tutored has had the same problem – I can’t memorize all of these charts & I can’t understand a paragraph of simple Latin even though I’ve been studying this for months! I swear I’m a good student! They are all excellent students – attentive and seriously desirous of being able to master this language – or at least pass the class. The problem is that their teachers are committed to the supposed fact that charts are how you learn a language.

I’ll admit – I do love charts. I love seeing what I learned neatly laid out in a chart so that the grammar makes sense. But I can’t go from chart to sentence and I am definitely not alone in this. Grammar rules the Latin classroom though – and many people assume this is why they’re taking Latin: it teaches grammar and analytical skills (you have to look at an ending and sort through all the possibilities that you’ve memorized). A small digression on this point: it does raise linguistic awareness, but the only grammar it teaches is Latin grammar. And we have this philosophy to blame for stupid rules like “never split an infinitive” (because in Latin it’s one word) and “prepositions may never end a sentence” (because they’re prepositions, get it? Think that’s just a cute mnemonic? It’s not. That is literally why you’re not supposed to end a sentence with them). As to the analytical skills? Goat dung (hircus stircus – my favorite expletive to use in Latin). Unless you have a seriously awesome brain, you are going to have difficulty accessing those rules unless you have seen them in meaningful context a whole lot. Not just practice sentences where you’re already primed to be looking for those rules, but actual honest-to-god paragraphs (please note the plural) of continuous Latin. And every single Latin teacher whose student has ever come to me for help has reported that they barely ever use the reading passages in their books – maybe at the end of the chapter if there’s time, regardless of where the textbook positions the reading!

These poor students spend so much time learning grammar, that they barely ever get to practice doing some actual analytical thinking using context clues to figure out the grammar in their sentences. Some of these students are so trained to memorize by rote that they come to me terrified to use their own intuition about language to guess at the grammar because they’ve been taught to look for memorized rules.

Because I clearly don’t promote Orberg’s reading method book (Lingua Latina) enough, I have to say he does an absolutely brilliant job getting students to be intuitive about Language. I spent 20 minutes working with a student on the first reading passage in a more grammar-oriented textbook. We got through a little over a paragraph. In the next 20 minutes, we did 4 pages of Orberg’s Lingua Latina, and she was able to figure out all of the grammar by herself with very little scaffolding from me. (She didn’t know what ‘oppidum’ meant, so I suggested she look at the map Orberg provided and see if she could find some of the oppida she’d just read about. After a brief glance, she said, ‘oh! cities!’. Her brain took a much more active role in learning that word through Orberg’s method than any flash card will ever do.)

I do think that the grammar is one of the expected outcomes of learning Latin, and sure, we’ll call it a benefit (yay linguistics!).  I will, therefore, criticize Orberg for not providing enough grammar. So this is my method (still thoroughly on trial and without an entire semester of education classes or experience in an actual classroom to prove its worth): I work with students through the readings with a “reading guide” – every time there is a new point of grammar, it is highlighted with examples, and students are prompted to figure out for themselves what the new grammar is doing (I supply words like “relative pronoun”, they tell me what’s going on). They do the exercitia for homework, and the next meeting we formalize the grammar in much beloved charts. Then we read from Orberg’s colloquia – for some giggles and to experience the grammar we’ve just learned in a slightly more challenging setting. Sometimes I’ll have them parse some sentences.

So far, so good. My tutees have reported improved confidence, grades, grammar, and reading ability.

NOTE: It is not my intent to offend anyone who supports or uses the grammar-translate method. If you do use it, please respond and let me know your thoughts – What influenced your decision to use that method? What are the benefits? How do your students perform? Have you worked in both methods? I’d love some discussion on this post!


4 comments on “Cards on the table: Why I am so strongly opposed to grammar-translate

  1. Audrey says:

    I am curious as to how you go about putting the “formalized grammar” into charts. I am about to begin using Lingua Latina with my daughter and am planning to do pretty much what you described above (read, exercitia, grammar charts, read colloquia). However, I am puzzling over how to go about making some nifty charts for ourselves. Sure, I can find pre-made charts, but I am not sure how to go about creating them as we go. Any suggestions? Any examples? Thanks.

    • Hi Audrey! Thanks for your comment. My first question is – how much Latin do you know yourself? This is the method I follow:

      1. Student prereads chapter before we meet.
      2. Student and I meet, read chapter together & fill out the corresponding part of the reading guide i’ve created to go along with each chapter at the end of each part. These reading guides pull examples from the text to highlight new grammar, and I ask the student to try to explain what’s going on. Then I give them the formal answer beside the example from the text, often with their help. When we’ve finished the chapter, we’ll do the grammar for that chapter in a more formalized way – filling in the blanks on a chart, defining different prepositions & the case they take, as well as some key words, pronouns, verbs, etc. I think this might make more sense via e-mail. Feel free to send me one (devon dot r dot smith at hotmail dot com) and I will e-mail you some of my worksheets with explanations.

  2. Gavin Wraith says:

    The trouble with grammar books is that students do not realise that the spoken language comes first. The grammar is just a distillation of observations about the sounds made – interesting, but not what comes first. I started Latin at the age of seven, and our teachers always emphasized speaking or even singing aloud. “Read it with feeling, boy!” Mr Poynton would say, chewing on his tie, ” and do the parsing later if you still need it.”

  3. Sophroni says:

    I’ve been doing latin self study for a while.. even though I am still nowhere beyond the basic I can tell that Orberg’s reading did makes sense to me more than let say wheelock.. but I dont think that in an absolute terms.. something the context is unsure for me.. so I need to look up the grammatical explanation in the grammar oriented textbook.. prior to this, Ive been doong some greek, and no matter how much I read any explanation of the grammar, it just stick for a while, just enough to do the sentence exercise.. until I really dig into some of the easiest continuing chapters of the New Testament I realize how far I understand the grammar..


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