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!