How Do You Teach Latin and Greek?

I teach Latin in a public school, in a state which officially adopted a certain notorious Latin textbook which largely dispenses with grammatical drilling in favor of what is ostensibly a more learner-friendly and inviting approach. This involves having the students read large chunks of Latin with a special emphasis on using context clues (and a fair amount of “provided” vocabulary) in order to get students reading continuous passages of Latin at a very early stage. This may sound like an excellent way to learn a language, but it comes at a cost: because of this rather non-technical approach, students remain more-or-less wholly ignorant of all of the technical details of the language. Some might argue that developing competence in a language does not require (or is even hindered by) exposure to technical grammatical points early in the learning process. I am inclined to agree that this is true for modern languages learned in something like an immersive environment or something at least resembling a natural language-learning environment, but I have begun to doubt the efficacy of this approach for teaching ancient or primarily non-spoken languages.

I will admit that my bias toward a more exclusively grammar-oriented approach probably stems from my own interest in the technical aspects of grammar (I loved sentence-diagramming as a child) as well as the fact that I learned my Latin and Greek in the best of soulless grammar-school traditions by employing endless amounts of rote memorization and repetition, two things which have largely fallen out of favor among educators and the theorists which influence them. Nevertheless, it worked! I think of rote memorization in much the same way that Dr. Johnson thought of the rod:

Mr. Langton one day asked him how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time; he said, “My master whipt me very well. Without that, Sir, I should have done nothing.” He told Mr. Langton, that while Hunter was flogging his boys unmercifully, he used to say, “And this I do to save you from the gallows.” Johnson, upon all occasions, expressed his approbation of enforcing instruction by means of the rod.

In my own case, reams of notebook paper and hours of hand-cramps took the place of that antiquated instrument of paedagogical terror, but this grammar-grinding paid off: I have for years enjoyed the special delight of being able to read Latin and Greek literature without the aid of an intermediary translator. I have no doubt that a very motivated student would be able to achieve this by using a softened down “reading and context clues” approach as well, but I worry about the rest of the students who have no desire to continue with Latin after their sentence has been served: what are they left with?

I believe in all the old claptrap about ancient languages being great exercises in logical rigor, as well as excellent tools for refining one’s understanding of grammar and vocabulary. Inevitably, people will forget any language once they drop the daily practice, but they still retain certain elements. I know many who once learned Latin or Greek with a more traditional grammar-grinding method, and though they have subsequently forgotten how to read Latin, are still with some prompting able to remember declensions, or explain some finer grammatical points; indeed, they at least found that thinking so hard about the fundamental mechanics of another language brought them to reflect deeply on the structure of their own. What lessons has a student in a strictly “reading-oriented” approach learned? What, specifically, sticks with them?

The approach also strikes me as a-historical. Ancient languages have not been learned naturally for a long time, and I wonder whether we limit our students’ ability to understand literary and historical references to early formative Classical education by keeping them wholly ignorant of the process which has been used for Classical schooling for centuries.

These, at any rate, are my half-formed thoughts as I try to teach using a thoroughly non-grammatical text by supplementing with heavy doses of grammar. I imagine that several readers of this site are teachers of ancient languages or have at any rate studied one of the Classical languages, and I am extremely interested in canvassing opinions on this subject more broadly. How did you learn Latin/Greek? How do you teach it? Do you see any specific advantages to a grammar-heavy or grammar-light approach? (I should make clear that when I refer to a “reading-based” approach, I do not mean to criticize the continuous reading aspects of it, but rather, the avoidance of technical grammar for the first two years of learning.) Post your thoughts in the comments and let me know!

20 thoughts on “How Do You Teach Latin and Greek?

  1. I’ve taught from a few different Latin courses, and the best ones (in my view) are the ones which combine the two approaches intelligently. That is, some (minor) grammatical points are covered inductively, as it were, but the major ones are provided to students in the form of good old paradigms.

    Of the two courses which have basically cornered the very small market here in Australia, the Cambridge Latin Course has enjoyable readings and is especially strong on the historical background (better if you live in England, though, given the focus on Roman Britain) but is a bit too vague with grammar, while the Oxford Latin Course is precisely the opposite. It should be possible to design a course that combines the best elements of the two, but that takes time and money…

    There are always calls from those higher up the bureaucratic ladder to make the classical languages “more engaging”, to treat them like the modern languages, etc., but the people making these requests/demands generally don’t understand (1) the difficulty in learning a highly inflected language in the current communicative fashion, (2) the fact that one learns Latin and Greek in order to read literature, not to order a coffee or ask for directions to the train station.

    Out of interest, which is the notorious textbook in question?

    1. I singled out the Cambridge book as “notorious” because here, at any rate, I have met a number of people who complain about it being an extremely ineffective way to teach the mechanics of the language. It perplexes me that students are expected to go through the entire first book with a firm understanding of only three noun cases.

      I also find that the history/culture component is less effective than it could be, in large part because I find the middle of the 1st Century CE and odd place to start with Roman history. I realize that the decision was strategic, and meant to incorporate much of the knowledge of daily life which can be gleaned from the ruins of Pompeii while simultaneously allowing for an apparently seamless transition to a discussion of early British history. I find, however, that much of the early British history is profoundly uninteresting to American high-school students, who are much more keen to hear about Late Republican political intrigue or some of the tawdry stuff from the Empire.

      As you note, the central aim of Classical language instruction is to teach the students to read literature. I think that perhaps an approach with passages adapted from authors (but more successfully organized than Wheelock) could be helpful.

      I also realize, though, that it is far easier to complain about a textbook than to design one which effectively organizes the material and prepares students for that first plunge into authentic reading.

  2. The book I use now for Greek, Athenaze, follows the same type of method but mixes it by actually talking about grammar. I think I probably use Athenaze poorly by emphasizing this rote aspect of it too much–I really want to teach it the old fashioned way.

    The additional problem with these methods is that they rely on very good work in modern spoken language pedagogy. If you subtract the spoken component, the immersive approach founders a bit.

    Happy second semester!

    1. The old-fashioned way is so fundamentally sound! Even after you have gained a highly-developed proficiency in reading Greek and Latin, you are still bound to come upon a phrase or word which absolutely stumps you; the only solution is to puzzle it out with your understanding of morphology and grammar. I also worry that the reading-heavy “natural method” approach only teaches students to “get the gist” of what they’re reading.

      1. I agree completely that this “get the gist” approach is nonsense for very fundamental reasons–confirmation bias operates so thoroughly in human mental operations that “getting the gist” really amounts to assimilating new passages to already understood passages. If Greek is not really understood, then the student assimilates to English word order etc.

        Any student who eventually succeeds after learning by these methods likely re-learns the old-fashioned way.

  3. I met the same problem with Russian. Difficult grammar was put aside as to be able to speak some sentences about travel or restaurant.

  4. Is the notorious textbook you speak of Latin for Americans? I abhor that swill. I learned Latin and Greek with a grammar-heavy approach, and if I ever taught it I told my student’s to shut that abominable book and learn their declensions. We only read sentences meant to reinforce the grammar lesson taught, and then we read a paragraph at the end of the semester.Each class, of course, raising the bar a bit. By fourth level I was expected to have translated 70 lines of Homer.

    1. It’s not Latin for Americans, though I have heard that LfA ranks as one of history’s worst crimes against Classical learning.

  5. One of the challenges of learning a language in the traditional, grammar-heavy structure, is it loses the interest of many quickly as well as creating a stress when they try to speak. They will be forever questioning: am I structuring this perfectly? rather than feeling comfortable with the language and speaking. This is how children learn. They start speaking by mimicking, repeating what their parent says. Grammar comes later. This is, however, not practical for the adult (or older child in school) as they do not have five years to master mimicking and then learn grammatical structure. I LOVED my Latin course. Four years with Catholic school nuns. Trust me….lots of heavy grammar and yes as was said, it made me understand English sentence structure so much better. I too, enjoyed diagramming sentence structure. It saddens me that it has gone out of fashion. I know that in modern life, even I have lost much of what I learned, especially here in Southern California. Now I hear, some schools do not even care about spelling. Children are allowed to spell a word as they hear it, or use numbers instead: 2 equals TWO or sadly, even TO. We are creating an illiterate population, all the easier to be lead by governments. Very sad indeed. I regret having lost what I learned in those wonderful four years. I took Latin and Spanish back to back. Languages are beautiful. They are more than mere communication. They describe a culture of people and they are music, art and humanity entwined.

  6. I use the CLC — it’s the textbook for our county and sets our curriculum in terms of the order of grammar points introduced, vocab &c. I didn’t care for it much at first, but now I really appreciate all the readings it provides. I focus heavily on grammar but I love to use the texts as huge repositories of grammatical information. I’ll put a passage on our classroom’s smartboard from one of the stories and tell my students, “Find all the subjunctives and determine their tense and what type of clause they’re used in.” Then I can use the same passage and say, “Find all the ablatives and describe their function.” And then at the end we can read a fun story instead of just having translated a lot of various sentences.

  7. I’ve been having a very similar discussion with my colleagues lately and am so happy to see it appearing in several other venues. I also agree with Mike (above) that a combination of a reading-based and grammar-based approach works best in my class (public secondary school in Connecticut). In high school I was taught with a heavy grammar-based curriculum which helped me learn all the rules and ace all the multiple-choice questions, but I struggled to read well until later in life, so I strive to give my own students the resources to develop that reading ability sooner. I also find that as students break out into different ability levels, I change my focus depending on their own goals (which I’m guessing may be controversial to some). The students that are clearly on an Advanced Placement track maintain an interest and need to focus on grammatical structures, without which poetry can be a beast. The students who do not express a desire to read at that level can rely on what grammar they have internalized already (after 2.5 years of study) and focus on reading easier texts for information and discussion. I had never thought of the argument that the learning of fundamental mechanics tends to stick with students far longer than the language itself, but I find that to certainly be true, and compelling.

  8. I only use Wheelock’s Latin and I have for years. My program is thriving, I have more students signing up for Latin than I can handle. The students would not be able to translate authentic Latin texts like Catullus, Ovid, Caesar, etc. in my upper level courses if I used one of those other books that I think, quite frankly, don’t prepare them at all to handle grammar.

  9. When I took Latin at Ohio State many years ago, Wheelock’s Latin was used. Prior to taking Latin, I took a year of German and French. Here in Ohio, Latin and Greek are rarely taught because they are of little value unless entering the priesthood, law, medicine, or classics. The irony is I started out as a classics major then switched to history because time and money was not on my side. To maintain my fix, I use Loeb series and go to the StaatsBibliotek website to look for original Greek and Latin texts published in the 1400-1700s. I’m frustrated that I can only find certain works by Aristotle in the original Greek except texts edited by Sylburg. My understanding of Greek is rather poor compared to my understanding of Latin (even if I only had a single semester!).

    I did and still do substitute teaching and the students try test me by speaking to me in Spanish. I flip an answer back in Latin or German to throw them off without having to think about how to structure the sentences. I’d love to be fluent in Greek and Latin, but I am frustrated that I don’t have the time to become proficient, so I snatch what I can.

    I had some contact with graduate students and don’t normally recommend Loeb because of the claim the translations are bad; but, I find it useful in some of the papers I write as a graduate student myself. Any suggestions for nearly original Greek language texts of or by ancient Greek authors?

  10. I am not a Greek or Latin teacher, but I do tutor both regularly. Also, most of my Latin is self-taught, and I have achieved a high enough degree of proficiency to work on professional translation projects. (I’m an early modern historian.)

    All in all, I favor a more inductive approach. All the grammar has to be learned, but the question is *how* it is to be learned. I think in all language training we’re after the most direct apprehension possible. That is, it’s best if I read a sentence and understand it in Latin in one go. It’s second best if I read a sentence and have to translate it into English to really make sense to me. It’s even worse if I have to stop and parse out the various pieces and look up words I don’t know, etc.

    I think approaches that emphasize quantity of reading and active composition foster this direct apprehension the best. In it, grammar serves understanding; it is not an end in itself. I want grammar to be a scaffolding that can fall away in due time. By the way, I taught myself Latin largely through Latin for Americans and really loved the inductive approach. Every once in a while, though, I did turn to Wheelock’s for some clarity.

    I think the inductive approach also better psychologically prepares students to deal with unfamiliar Latin, which will hit them as soon as they get beyond the shelter of the beginning Latin classroom. Many of the students around Princeton who went through a deductive, heavy-grammar approach fall apart once they get outside their comfort zone. They’re used to knowing everything they need to know before they read; thus they don’t *learn* through they’re reading. I work on a lot of medieval and neo-Latin texts, and I’ve always thought the strengths most needed there are flexibility and improvisation.

    Erasmus, from De Ratione studii: “There is not much difference to detect among contemporary Latin grammarians. Niccolo Perotti seems the most accurate, yet not pedantic. But while I grant that grammatical rules of this sort are necessary, I want them to be as few as possible, provided they are good. I have never approved of the approach found among run of the mill grammarians who spend several years inculcating such rules in their pupils.”

    I end with a caveat, though. I’m not subject to the same kind of external constraints Latin teachers are. With myself or my tutoring students, I can be more flexible.

    1. Thanks for all of this. I love the Erasmus bit. I agree that there is a big leap from the grammar approach to actually reading texts. The problem, as always, is for the lack of time to do both well!

  11. Would you share the textbook you use to teach class and the ones you think are better please? I did a four year study in catholic high school several lifetimes ago and I would like to re study

    I am currently studying Modern Greek. I was fluent in Spanish but that has also filed itself far away in the recesses of my brain

    Thank you
    Thank you

Leave a Reply