The 3 Methods of Teaching Latin

3 Methods of Teaching Latin

  1. Grammar forms are presented in a systematic, logical order to aid mastery and memory.
  2. Vocabulary is limited initially in order to focus on memorization of the grammar forms. Vocabulary lists provide similar word groups to aid memory.
  3. Syntax and translation are limited initially in order to focus on memorization of grammar forms.

The grammar-first method is consistent with the trivium stages of learning and is the traditional method used throughout history, although it was completely abandoned in the 20th century. The rationale for this method is three-fold: 1) a simultaneous focus on grammar forms, vocabulary, syntax, and translation overwhelms the beginning student 2) mastery of grammar forms is the essential first step in learning Latin 3) to ensure mastery grammar forms must be introduced in a logical order.

  1. Grammar forms are introduced in an order that facilitates reading and translation, based on their frequency of use rather than their logical place in the grammar. For instance, lessons usually alternate between parts of speech rather than covering one part of speech per unit.
  2. Vocabulary is introduced at an accelerated pace in order to facilitate reading and translation. Vocabulary lists consist of mixed parts of speech rather than similar word groups.
  3. Syntax and translation are introduced early and covered along with the grammar forms.
The grammar-translation method was developed in the early 1900s. The rationale for this method is that the above grammar-first method is boring and that a greater emphasis on translation increases student motivation and learning. The systematic and logical order of the grammar is sacrificed to increase the development of interesting translation exercises and readings.
Example: Wheelock, Jenney, Henle, Latin Prep, Latin for Americans, Latin for Children, Latin Alive, and nearly all homeschool and mainstream Latin texts.
  1. Grammar forms are presented after the reading or conversation, usually through inquiry or discovery methods. Grammar forms are usually fragmented. For instance, the nominative and accusative may be presented without other cases, or two cases from different declensions are presented together.
  2. Vocabulary is chosen to facilitate reading or conversation and is often listed in inflected rather than dictionary form.
  3. Syntax is presented after the reading or conversation, usually through inquiry or discovery learning.

The natural or conversational method of learning modern languages became popular in the 1960s. The rationale for this method is that students should learn a foreign language in the natural way that they learned their native language. Attempting this method with Latin has been very recent.

Example: Lingua Latina by Hans Orberg

The inductive or reading method of learning Latin is similar to the conversational method, though the focus is on reading rather than speaking. It was promoted by Oxford and Cambridge in the 1980s.
Example: Ecce Romani, Oxford Latin, and Artes Latinae

Confused? Here is what we think about the 3 methods:

First let’s briefly consider #3 the natural/conversational/inductive/reading/immersion method which, in all of its permutations, is highly unsystematic and disordered, thus violating the very goal of teaching: to reveal the underlying order of what appears on the surface to be random and disordered. This goal is especially important in languages and mathematics, the two cumulative and difficult subjects in the curriculum. Even in subjects like biology, history, and geography, it is bringing order out of chaos, bringing out the meaning and organization of the subject, that makes them memorable and appealing to the human mind. Man is a rational being. Learning must appeal to the human mind, to reason. For a more detailed explanation of the flawed logic of this method, see “The Natural Method is Not Natural” from the Summer 2012 issue of The Classical Teacher.

Turning to the other two methods, #1 the grammar-first method and #2 the grammar-translation method, why is the former superior to the latter? To begin with, the grammar-first method is the traditional method that was used in the golden age of classical education, from the Renaissance to the dawn of the 20th century. It is only in the last century that the grammar-translation method began to supplant the grammar-first method, a period which coincided with a drastic decline in Latin learning.

The grammar-first method is time-tested and we know it works. Here’s why.

I. Divide and Conquer!

The grammar-first method minimizes syntax, translation, and vocabulary while students are mastering the grammar. Mastery is the key word here.

In contrast, the grammar-translation method employs a simultaneous study of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and translation. In an ancient and highly inflected language like Latin, this approach is simply overwhelming. Students become discouraged at constantly looking up what they have failed to master and soon develop that drowning feeling and want to “drop” Latin. Better to do a few things well and take pleasure in them than many things poorly and give up.

Divide the Latin language into its parts, and conquer each in turn.

II. Order or Disorder?

In addition to the challenge of equal coverage of all aspects of language simultaneously, the grammar-translation method has the added disadvantage of a less orderly presentation. Jumping around between different parts of speech, a declension here, a conjugation there, adjectives here, pronouns there, the grammar-translation method sacrifices the orderly presentation of the grammar for the advantage of early translation. But at what cost? At the cost of understanding and retention. Randomness is the enemy of memory.

The sacrifice of the systematic presentation of the Latin grammar creates a tremendous memory burden for the beginning Latin student, one that is difficult to overcome. Whatever the initial benefit of earlier translation may be, it does not make up for the destruction of the beauty and order of the Latin grammar.

In contrast, the grammar-first method focuses on and delights in the grammar as an interesting subject in itself that does not need to be rushed over in a hurry to get to translation, just as a good mathematics program delights in and focuses on arithmetic rather than something to be endured and rushed over in a hurry to get to algebra. Just as a poor foundation in arithmetic causes most of our students to hit a glass ceiling in mathematics, the grammar-translation method builds on a weak foundation that eventually cracks under the load of memory work it must support. The high towers of a cumulative subject must be built on bedrock.

It is a failure of modern education that lower order skills, such as grammar and arithmetic, are denigrated and sacrificed for the higher order skills of translation and higher math. This is a poor trade-off that ultimately causes most students to reach a plateau in our two difficult and cumulative subjects, languages and mathematics.

There is a reason why non-Western cultures (particularly India, China, Japan) consistently out-perform our students in mathematics. They do not have our bias against memorization, drill, and basics. They reach a higher level because they have the patience to build a strong foundation.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2013 edition.

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