Taking baby steps into Living Latin 1


After a little under a decade of¬†of strict, schoolmarm-ish attention to the old-fashioned grammar-translation method of Latin, last year I had my perceptions realigned by Justin Slocum Bailey’s Eidolon article Teaching Latin to Humans. Specifically, one line cut to my heart;¬†Mr. Slocum Bailey writes that, largely, students educated under the traditional grammar-translation method find themselves¬†“trying to read a language they don‚Äôt know.”
In one short phrase,¬†the truth of every traditional Latin class I’d ever taken was laid bare. I cannot count the number of times a class that was ostensibly about Latin¬†poetry, literature –¬†art¬†–¬†became hung up on some obscure subordinate clause or irregular verb form that derailed an entire session. I can’t count the number of times I was faced with a translation where I had to look up every single word in a Cicero speech and then piece it together like a cryptographic puzzle. That more than a few of my teachers seemed to view Latin as some sort of hilariously perverse punishment rather than an organic language the people spent their entire lives speaking had always felt somehow wrong to me.
I can state for a fact that, for the entirety of my education, I did not in any meaningful sense “know” Latin. And the same was true for the vast majority of my classmates. And yet, until I read that line, I hadn’t bothered to question any of it. Translating complex political speeches without being able to hold a simple conversation in the language, well, that’s just the way Latin¬†is.¬†It isn’t¬†a language; it’s a cipher.
So this year, I resolved to become part of something resembling The Solution. I was no longer going to teach my students to read a language they don’t know; I was going to, quite simply, teach my students a language. I have eliminated declension and conjugation charts from my classroom. I have cut back drastically on homework.¬†I am able to accomplish an enormous amount in class¬†with¬†speaking and listening¬†exercises, choral translations, and circling. Blogs like Keith Toda’s¬†Todally Comprehensible Latin¬†and groups like¬†Teaching Latin for Acquisition have become fixtures for me.
Speaking as someone who’s generally skeptical about¬†whatever the hot education trend¬†of the moment is – Step right up, “grit”! Hello there, “mindfulness”! Take a bow, “growth mindset”! – I feel I cannot overstate the difference¬†this change in approach¬†has made for my classes. None of my students are lost, even the ones who would undoubtedly be struggling in a traditional grammar setting.
While I will not fully discount the benefits of the grammar approach to learning Latin (the old refrain¬†“Latin was the best [or only!] English grammar teacher I ever had” is true for me and for many people I know), I¬†would now very much¬†label myself, in the words of¬†Mr. Toda, “a recovering grammar-translation Latin teacher.” Despite receiving high praise over the years for my “old school”¬†grammar approach to teaching, and having many students who responded positively to it, I know for a fact that a very large number of¬†others¬†ultimately fell out of love with the language. I grieve for¬†these students, and wonder how many of them¬†might still be taking Latin had my approach not been different. I look forward to seeing whether this new approach yields positive outcomes; what I’ve seen so far looks promising.


Leave a comment

One thought on “Taking baby steps into Living Latin