Latin through Stories
Latin through Stories is built on three interrelated main pedagogical principles that have their roots in classical pedagogy and are corroborated by current language acquisition research. I briefly outline their relationship below:
- There is no single “classical” language teaching method.
- Language teaching should keep meaningful language use in focus.
- Children deserve age-appropriate and fully human language learning methods.
1. There Is No Single Classical Language Teaching Method
It is often assumed that prior to the 20th century, language teaching was nothing but grammar drills and translation, and that therefore that is the “classical” or traditional way of language teaching. However, language learning methods have never been monolithic. As L.G. Kelly has shown in his monumental study 25 Centuries of Language Teaching, methods have varied greatly. For example, in the classical era, the Renaissance, and the early to mid-20th century, intuitive command of the target language was fostered, and formal knowledge seen as mere reinforcement of practical mastery. By contrast, in the Middle Ages and the 18th and 19th centuries, formal analysis of grammar predominated (p. 7). With Jesuit scholar Claude Pavur we could thus ask: “What times and what methods have produced the greatest number of the most highly accomplished Latinists?” (Upgrading Latin Pedagogy, p. 4), a question which he answers by pointing to the “early modern period and to Renaissance schooling” during which “many, many people learned to read and write Latin with a facility that far surpasses that which is typical of even the best students in our own times.”
He refers to George Ganss’ St. Ignatius’s Idea of a Jesuit University to outline the pedagogy behind this success: “constant practice which begets automatic recall” and “four to six years of constant practice in speaking Latin” at which point the Latin classics “could be appreciated as meaningful works in themselves rather than merely as challenges for one’s translation-powers.” Today, the Paideia Institute offers programs in Living (i.e. spoken) Latin and ancient Greek because “[s]tudents who become fluent speakers of Latin and Greek gain a stronger and more intuitive grasp of the languages’ nuances, making them better readers and more confident translators. But even more importantly, learning to express oneself in these long-dead languages fosters a unique personal connection with the ancient world that is powerful and enduring.”
Similarly, the late Father Reginald Foster who served as Latin secretary to four popes from 1969-2009, dedicated his lifetime to keeping Latin alive in everyday conversation, teaching it as a living, spoken language. “People are not told what Latin is all about,” Foster says. “They are just told to memorize all the forms, the conjugations and declensions. Latin has nothing to do with memorization. Every bum and prostitute in ancient Rome spoke Latin and they didn’t learn it by memorization. Got it?”
2. Language Teaching Should Keep Meaningful Language in Focus
The most important principle this curriculum is built on is the focus on meaningful, contextualized grammar and vocabulary instruction as opposed to isolated words without context. Words and grammar rules are much easier to remember if they are learned and used in a sentence. Sentences, however short, give us visual images and ideas. It is important to help students form mental images which is best done either through actual visual images, or through sentences that convey meaning and produce mental images as hooks. Claude Pavur emphasizes the classical Humanist basis of this claim when he suggests that it would be “helpful to move away from a single-word lexical approach almost completely, toward a consistently phrase-based one in which words and forms are always learned in some sort of verbal context, facilitating the students’ mental acts of “direct” understanding. […] Somehow we must effect a correspondence not between Latin word and English word as much as between the Latin expressions and the sensuous basis of such expressions. This too is a point that follows upon basic Renaissance insights, from humanists like Vives and that pioneer in pedagogical multimedia, Comenius” (Upgrading Latin Pedagogy). Ancient practice confirms this idea. As Eleanor Dickey shows in Learning Latin the Ancient Way: Latin Textbooks from the Ancient World, Greek speakers in the Roman empire “used Latin-learning materials containing authentic, enjoyable vignettes about daily life in the ancient world” that they would have memorized (not translated). Moreover, while there is “some evidence for prose composition,” that is, of a language learner’s retelling of fables in Latin, there is “no evidence for the translation of individual sentences into Latin.” (p. 6)
Providing extensive meaningful language is the idea behind the comprehensible input theory which is today gaining widespread recognition in the Latin teaching world (this blog and Volume 20, Issue 39 of Cambridge UP’s Journal of Classics Teaching are good starting points). Comprehensible input is spoken or written language that is meaningful to a learner without translation. It emphasizes synthetic language acquisition over analytical learning and produces students who can read rather than decode.
As classical educators, we are of course not opposed to teaching grammatical competence and analytical knowledge of language, aspects that are often overlooked or diminished by modern teaching methods. However, these two aspects – analytical, grammatical learning and synthetic acquisition through meaningful, comprehensible input – are not mutually exclusive and work well side by side for older learners. For young children, on the other hand, a synthetic approach is the most developmentally appropriate one.
3. Children Deserve Age-Appropriate and Fully Human Language Learning Methods
Teachers throughout the history of education have recognized that young children require different instructional methods than older children or adults, especially with regard to language learning. Quintilian, for example, emphasizes that it is important to start out by fostering enjoyment of learning: “I am not so careless of age differences as to think that the very young should be forced on prematurely, and that set tasks should be demanded of them. For one of the first things to take care of is that the child who is not yet able to love study, should not come to hate it and retain his fear of the bitter taste he has experienced even beyond his first years.” (1.1. 75). He thus recommends concrete, hands-on materials (e.g. ivory letter shapes) as well as games and competitions for childhood instruction (1.3. 99-101). Similar to Quintilian, the 17th century Czech reformer Johannes Amos Comenius emphasizes the use of material familiar to children and age-appropriate. Throughout his didactic work, he insists that ideas should be taught through objects rather than verbal explanations and that language instruction must start with what is familiar to the child: “the first age should be instructed only in matters that touch the senses” (Analytical Didactic, p. 160). In short, Comenius advocates for content-based rather than grammar-based early language instruction.
Likewise, St. Augustine (354-430) and Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) both favor early language learning by means of natural interaction rather than grammatical drills. When St. Augustine contrasts the agonies of grammar translation in Greek which was “dinned into” him, with the natural and pleasant way in which he acquired Latin, he provides us with an interesting early example of the dissatisfaction with a method that is too grammar-translation heavy too early on and that disregards the natural ability of children to acquire language through meaningful interaction. And not only were “all the elements of Greek” “burdensome and boring” to him, but by extension, Greek literature, too, came to be hateful to him. By contrast, he joyfully recounts how he learned Latin “ by paying attention, without any fear or pain at all, amid the cuddles of my nurses, and teasing and playful, happy laughter […] without the painful pressure of people pestering me, because my own heart prompted me to bring forth its ideas” (Confessions, trans. Boulding pp. 25-27). Thus, while Homer and other Greek authors caused him anguish and distress, he delighted in reading stories by Latin authors.
It is also worth noting that the system of drill and rote learning through chants, so often advocated in Latin programs for children as a pleasant and effective way for children to learn, was odious to the child Augustine. For example, Dorothy L. Sayers, in her famous essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” claims that for young children “the chanting of ‘Amo, amas, amat’ is as ritually agreeable to the feelings as the chanting of ‘eeny, meeny, miney, moe.’” However, this argument misses an important difference: the counting rhyme is used by children for a meaningful purpose, and includes lines that are meaning-bearing, even if somewhat nonsensical – and in fact, nonsense verse derives its humor from a common understanding of meaning. It is pleasant because it is funny, and it is funny because it plays with our expectations of sense and meaning. By contrast, Augustine recounts how “the jingle ‘one and one make two, two and two make four’, was hateful to me”, whereas he delighted in the stories of the siege of Troy. According to George Howie, Augustine here depicts rote memorization as “a mere mockery of education […] consisting in the unthinking, and therefore meaningless, repetition of words” (St. Augustine: On Education, pp. 13-14), which he contrasts with the study of stories and ideas which are meaningful to young minds. Similarly, by memorizing parts of the Aeneid, despite being “forced” to do so, he admits he was moved to “weep over Dido” (Confessions pp. 25-26), again emphasizing that ideas and stories are more effective for educating the whole person than mindless drills. As Fr. Reginald Foster put it, “Foolishly parroting memorized lists of word endings means nothing, because they are outside of a human expression” (Ossa Latinitatis Sola, p. 5), “because the word forms have meaning only in a full human expression” (p. 15). Let us thus once and for all get rid of the idea of a “poll-parrot stage”: we are fully human, created in the image and likeness of God from conception on. Children never simply “poll-parrot,” but desire to and are capable of understanding and expressing ideas in language. This is one of the elements that makes us human.
Renaissance Humanist Erasmus is equally opposed to grammar rules and drilling in early childhood education. To him, “the right method of acquiring grammar rests upon reading and not upon definitions and rules.” (De Ratione Studii 521C-522A). Quite bluntly, he has “no patience with the stupidity of the average teacher of grammar who wastes precious years in hammering rules into children’s heads. For it is not by learning rules that we acquire the power of speaking a language but by daily intercourse with those accustomed to express themselves with exactness and refinement, and by the copious reading of the best authors.” Meaningful interaction as well as copious reading “for vocabulary and style”, not for grammatical analysis, are the mainstays of his early linguistic education program.
Centuries of classical education thus supports the idea that early language education, at least from Kindergarten through around third grade, should not be grammar-driven, and that when we do start to introduce grammar, we must emphasize what things mean and how the language functions, rather than mindlessly poll-parroting endings and rules.
Our ultimate goal is for students to read and enjoy the great authors who have written in Latin in order to gain unmediated, direct access to their thoughts and ideas, and we believe that a student who is trained in a method that emphasizes meaningful and contextualized language use is better equipped to deal with new texts than one who only studies isolated words and grammar rules. In As Dr. Charles G. Kim, Jr., emphasizes, “the only way to be able to enjoy [Latin] as it was meant to be used is by speaking, writing, reading, and communicating in it. Who teaches a child how to swim on land but never jumps into the ocean? Who would ever think we could substitute describing the chemical composition of snow and think that it would suffice for the joy of building a snowman or careening down a snow-covered hill on a toboggan?” Latin is not merely “a set of puzzles to be struggled through, bit by bit,” or a kind of “grammatical algebra” (Pavur, p. 3). Language is a whole that is not equivalent to the sum of its parts.