I’ve been attending graduate school during the past few summers. Two summers ago, I had a conversation with a professor about the current “spoken Latin” movement among Latin teachers and enthusiasts. This professor was actually from Europe, and his question was simple: Why would anyone WANT to speak Latin. What was the point? We gleefully swapped anecdotes about stereotypical pedantic neo-Latin conversationalists and writers, and bemoaned a classroom full of aimless Latin chatter, with no grammatical rules to support it or give it direction.
What a wasted class, right? Without knowing the rules, how can you speak anything in any language?
It would just be word salad, right?
How many hours and years of practice would need in order to translate the language quickly enough in your head to actually speak the language?
I shrugged off spoken Latin with smug and dismissive jokes.
Little did I know.
I went back to Georgia and planned my classes for the next school year. This is great! I thought, look at this! I have all my lesson plans, worksheets, tests, quizzes, and PowerPoint presentations from last year! I’m SO organized! [pats self on back] This year will be easy!
I came across ideas like:
Latin is not different. Explicit teaching of grammar does NOT help kids acquire language. Latin textbooks move too quickly for acquisition. Reading is not speed translating. The first step to language learning is comprehensible input. Language cannot be taught explicitly the way other subjects are taught.
It was like an epiphany.
In my experience, every Latin teacher (or language teacher in general) complains to some extent about the disconnect between grammar and reading. Students can rattle off the conjugations and declensions, but really can’t apply that information when they read or translate. Oh, and you can forget about actually writing in Latin (and by that I assume of course the tradition meaning of that idea: translating from Latin to English).
Now I understood.
There is a perceived disconnect between grammar and communication because those two concepts are actually separate things.
My class wasn’t teaching students how to read Latin. I was teaching a Latin-themed philology and linguistics class, focused on decoding texts, translating them into English, and then discussing everything in English. I had students who could translate a passage of Ovid, discuss its themes, discuss details of Ovid’s biography, parse a few tricky points of grammar, identify and explain various rhetorical devices used by the poet, but not to even be able to PRONOUNCE the Latin words.
The prevailing mentality was: why bother reading it in Latin? Just translate it so we can check the accuracy and pick apart the grammar.
I realized that I was a grammar addict. I was so reliant on grammar-based philology to “teach Latin” that I forgot something fundamental about Latin: it’s a language. People use it to communicate messages. Even little Roman children used it.
Okay, I thought, so I want to change. I want teach students how to read the language. I want to give them enough oral and written comprehensible input so that they can acquire the language. I want to keep the class in the target language as much as possible.
Well, I guess I’m going to have speak Latin.
I realized why for years I had felt such revulsion to ideas about comprehensible input and communicative teaching. It was because I felt inadequate. I couldn’t speak Latin, so how I could I train my students to?
POST SCRIPTUM: Since this post is starting to get a bit lengthy, I save the rest of the story for future posts. I’ll address how and why I transformed my classroom from “a grammar-based linguistics class taught in English about Latin” to “a communicative classroom conducted in Latin to aid students in the acquisition of Latin.”