Consistite! Grammar time!

Come now people.  I’ve been writing this blog for about 3 or 4 months now, and it seems its still not become an indispensable part of anybody’s life.  It’s been about a month since I last posted, and in that time, have I heard a single “Sam, without the colour provided by your insights into the world of ancient Rome, my life is but a grey simulacrum”?  No, I have not.  Still, putting this lack of communication from my legions of followers down to abject despondency, I forgive you.  I’m back from England now, Christmas is over, and There Boy is back.

Today, however, I’m talking about something a little more applied than usual: modern attitudes to learning Latin.  E-strolling through the LatinForum.org, I found a post asking for suggestions on how to go about learning the language.  The poster asked if people felt that grammar or vocabulary was the more important area to concentrate on for a developing student.  Unanimously, the verdict was grammar.  A later strand in the discussion was from the original poster once again and it expressed her slight disappointment as well as her lack of surprise that she would have to head back to the world of ut + subjunctive and so on.

For some students no doubt, a heavy emphasis on grammar is fine.  This person, however, evidently isn’t among them.  One of the hardest things about learning a language is maintaining the initial enthusiasm; focussing almost exclusively on areas which we find frustrating and difficult will not help.

Furthermore, meaning is not conveyed by lexicalised grammar, but grammaticalised lexis.  If somebody must take the bizarre position of so explicitly ranking one of the two language systems above the other, vocabulary should take priority; there’s more of it, and it’s of more use.  Other posters wrote that you could look up a new word in the dictionary when you came to it, but assuming the motivation for learning is for the excitement of reading ancient texts, such a laborious and stilting process will inevitably be counter-productive.

The responses posted were symptomatic of (what I see to be) two central problems with the way that Latin is taught.  The first is the single line exercises that are a part of almost every text book I’ve ever seen.  They focus exclusively on translating a sentence with 100% accuracy and give little or no thought to being interesting.  When students swap the exercises for real and extended texts, they have to learn a different set of skills; it’s more important to get carried away by the Latin than to be translating into accurate English.

The second problem, and bear with me here chaps, is the teachers.  What I mean is that of all the thousands of people who start learning Latin, the small number that manage to sustain their love of the language over a long enough period to reach an appropriate level to begin teaching others are inherently different from the many, many more who give up early.  These people have presumably been taught using techniques with the traditional grammar bias and presumably, they loved it.  In turn then, they’ll go on using the same ideas with their own students and the cycle perpetuates itself.

All that said, the study of Latin grammar is of huge importance and it can’t be neglected.  However, if you get to a stage where you’re not enjoying the way you’re learning the language, just lay off that technique for a while and try something else.

Valete, omnis.

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One Response to “Consistite! Grammar time!”

  1. John Says:

    I remember I used to study Latin with a certain there boy. I definitely enjoyed learning the vocabulary over the grammar. Then again, I didn’t even understand English grammar very well, so I was comparing confusion with confusion.

    I remember the teacher being a trifle hard for the students to be inspired by too… and he looked like a trifle a bit.

    One other thing. Sam, without the colour provided by your insights into the world of ancient Rome, my life is but a grey simulacrum!!!

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