Latin Study

Nov 21, 2012
I am in the process of a serious reconsideration of how to learn Latin vocabulary. I want to put this out for your consideration and hear what people think. Premise: the human mind thinks in sentences and is incapable of thinking any other way. In other words, we can't think about a subject without giving it a predicate. Premise: Individual words leave the mind restless and unsatisfied. Therefore, when we teach foreign vocabulary it is better to do it in sentence form than in word lists. For example, I can tell a child that equus means horse and drill it into his head through 50 repetitions. However, there is no intrinsic satisfaction in that knowledge for a student. On the other hand, if I teach a child that equus currit means "The horse is running" there is a natural satisfaction in that he has been given a complete thought. His mind can rest in the completeness of the thought. That makes the thought more welcome to him. The thought, being welcome, is more readily accepted and comfortably furnished. It sticks around and enjoys itself in the chat room of the mind. To teach Latin vocabulary through thoughts instead of signs will accelerate Latin retention, make it more pleasant, increase interest, and move the student toward thinking in Latin.
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Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

Your comments reminded me about a similar approach in learning, not Latin, but Japanese. As you probably are aware, the Japanese writing system is complicated, comprising three separate systems, including Kanji, which is similar to Chinese in that a single character represents an entire word or concept. Educated Japanese speakers know, in theory, about 2000 Kanji, although for day-to-day use I’m told that 1200 is sufficient. However, learning the Kanji characters, even 1200, is a long and arduous process for all students, even native speakers. The usual way of teaching Kanji in Japanese schools involves a lot of repetition of individual characters. The Kanji are “graded” – 1st year Kanji, 2nd year, etc. corresponding to the Kanji that students learn in 1st grade, 2nd grade, and so on. Apparently, a few years ago, a teacher in Japan decided that rather than teach individual Kanji, he would instead make up sets of sentences for each grade that included all of the Kanji for that grade, and have his students memorize and reproduce the sentences. My understanding is that his students did significantly better in learning Kanji than students taught in the more traditional way. Unfortunately, I have little additional information, and don’t even know the teacher’s name. I learned about this approach at my children’s Japanese school here in California, but it was a while ago. The point is that I think you are likely correct that learning vocabulary in context will yield better results than memorization of individual words.

Just an observation from teaching my own son, but he enjoys translation the most out of all his study of Latin. He doesn't mind memorizing the paradigms but the vocabulary is the most difficult aspect for him. We used Latin for Children before, and as much fun as that program is, I think it throws too many vocabulary words at a child but doesn't have enough translation to reinforce those vocabulary words. It was an exercise in frustration. Even though he reviews his vocabulary through fun flashcard games he doesn't retain much that way. But now he's doing Wheelock's at an Aquinas Learning Center. The highlight of everything is going into class once a week and translating the Exercitationes in each chapter. He really enjoys that. It just consolidates what he's learning in his mind.

So all this is just to say that I think you are on to something with your observation that words need context in order to stick in our minds.

False dichotomy.

To have a false dichotomy you have to have a dichotomy. What are you suggesting is the dichotomy? That between teaching word lists on the one hand and sentences on the other? I didn't mean to suggest that there was no place for words, only that sentences are better.

You should look at Lingua Latina -- there's a good review of it <a href="" rel="nofollow">here</a>. I think combining a book like that with TPR would be ideal for learning any language.

We're using Cambridge Latin, which teaches all vocabulary in the context of sentences. Before Cambridge, we were using a more grammar-based approach. I thought it was interesting that, after mastering a certain verb and all its conjugations, the kids saw it in a sentence for the first time and didn't recognize it.

Andrew - You should check out Ben Slavic's website. He teaches modern languages (French?) using the TPRS method that emphasizes Comprehensible Input and learning vocabulary through "circling," which includes both giving context as you suggest and repetition. I think seeing his example will help you nuance your own ideas.

Amo= two in one, subject and predicate. Is that what Mr. Cothran means?
Amo is an individual word and a sentence, so it leaves one satisfied. "I love."

Currit is a complete thought also, correct? It doesn't need equus to complete it.
But, without equus, one must use his imagination. Currit = "He runs." S-VI
So the dissatisfaction is with not knowing who, not with the complete thoughtness?

I'm in third grade Latin so I don't know what I am talking about with currit, but I've
always loved Greek because it takes only one word to make a sentence.

I Speak Latin by Andrew Campbell uses TPR to teach Latin. I am just learning Latin myself so I cannot comment on the way it approaches it - but you do learn commands and sentences from the beginning. My son is learning Spanish through TPR methods right now and is really enjoying it. We don't practice it enough at home though! You have to know the language to get the full benefit of TPR though - which is why it might be tough for mom's learning with their kids.

Although not exactly the same Gattegno's Silent Way might also be interesting - although it does focus on fluent speaking which is not the goal of most Latin programs. or here The focus here is on getting the student to speak the target language by using repetition, everyday situations and silence.

I really like the thought about how vocabulary out of context is jarring to the student because we think in full thoughts. Further developing TPR for Latin would be interesting.

This is an interesting discussion. Although I have not learned Latin, I have dabbled in Italian and I'm bilingual in Chinese (and English). I have looked into Andrew Campbell's I Speak Latin and am very impressed by his approach. I've used his TPR ideas here and there when teaching Chinese in my home school. I have also chosen a Chinese curriculum that teaches vocabulary through sentences rather than word lists; out of dozens of curricula, I have only found three which do. Intuitively, I felt that it would be the more effective method, and I'm finding that to be true. I agree with you, Andrew, that whenever we learn isolated words, even using thematic or picture dictionaries, or little topical picture books, it has been far less satisfying than saying those same words in a sentence. The words seem to float around doing nothing, and you can't make them do anything. It's harder to hold on to them when they are not grounded in a thought. I like how you put it, "His mind can rest in the completeness of the thought". I do think that it is more "restful", if you will, to learn vocabulary this way.

Have you heard of Michel Thomas? I love his teaching method. He teaches new words and concepts through sentences too. He gets students to speak in French/ German/ Spanish sentences right from the start.

Dana brought up Cambridge Latin vs. a grammar-based approach. I'd be curious to see how, if one wanted to teach words in context, this would affect one's choice of grammar-based vs. inductive learning curricula. Are a grammar-based approach and a words-in-context approach mutually exclusive? By teaching words in context, are we automatically proposing an inductive method? I see the benefits of a grammar approach, and I wonder if there is a happy combination of both.

I know of a Chinese children's curriculum that teaches primarily through folk stories, rhymes, folk songs and classic poems, but also teaches and expands on grammar points as they are encountered. I LOVE that (and the fact that the progression of texts has been systematically planned to introduce grammar points that build on one another). The vocabulary that has stuck most with my children are what we have learned through songs and rhymes, and they want to repeat them to no end. Then with those sentence structures as a base, they can substitute or insert new vocabulary as they learn it. But I'm rambling now....

What is the name of the Chinese children's curriculum?

I don't think grammar-based or reading (or context)-based approaches have to be mutually exclusive, but different programs do tend to lean one way or the other. I think Cambridge Latin is trying to do both, but it favors context. Latin for Children doesn't use a reading context to teach vocabulary, and it doesn't explain the grammar very well, either. It seems that the whole idea behind Latin for Children is just to expose the student to Latin, not to actually have the students learn the language. After no success with Latin for Children, we did a 6-week crash course in Latin grammar using Peter Jones' Learn Latin. Then we began Cambridge Latin. I (learning Latin myself) would not have been able to keep up in Cambridge without the previous grammar course. The kids, however, actually seem to pick up more inductively than I am able to. I think children are able to learn more inductively than adults are.