Caveat Emptor: What to Look for in a Latin Program

With the rise in popularity of classical education, more and more parents are considering adding Latin to their curriculum. But many times parents are too quick to pick up any Latin program that promises easy results or to improve SAT scores. Here are a few considerations in choosing a Latin program for your student.

1. Is the program age appropriate?

On the one hand, there is no need to rush a student’s Latin study. On the other hand, there are advantages to starting early. More important than reading Virgil by age nine is that foundational Latin skills are mastered and that students feel confident enough to continue. Latin’s benefits do not come in crash courses—they are earned through continuity, consistency, and time. Start with a program designed for young students, one that includes sufficient grammar instruction, age-appropriate vocabulary, and plenty of support. Beware of Latin programs that confront the student with an avalanche of information. A good program is discerning about the quantity and sequence of the information presented. And remember this: If students fail in their attempt to learn Latin, it is usually a result of trying to do too much too soon; it is almost never because the approach was too slow or methodical.

2. Does the program utilize a “parts-to-whole” approach?

Be wary of a program that overwhelms a student with the whole picture before he has time to learn and apply the parts. You would never teach a child long division before teaching addition and subtraction, would you? Dissecting a complicated whole is significantly more difficult without first learning and analyzing the smaller parts. Many modern English reading programs throw children into reading and expect them to learn the phonetic rules by osmosis. This approach serves mostly to confuse children. The best way to teach children to read is to introduce them to the letter-sound correspondences first. With the phonics foundation in place, students are considerably better prepared for dealing with the language as a whole later. The approach to teaching Latin should mirror the parts-to-whole approach taken in phonics. Latin is an inflected language, with endings performing almost all grammatical functions. A student should learn one rule or system at a time (a set of declension endings, for example) which can be applied to all nouns of its class—instead of prematurely tackling a complex whole (a sentence, for example) and being required to grammatically parse words. You want to avoid whole-to-parts approaches, which de-emphasize the system of the language and the breadth of service individual skills provide. Beware of programs that introduce advanced ideas prematurely, or stress translation over grammar.

3. Is the program grammar-based as opposed to conversational?

Latina Christiana Complete SetPeople don’t rush off and learn Latin in order to converse with each other. Why, then, use a conversational Latin program that prioritizes the least important thing about Latin study? Don’t get bogged down worrying about pronunciation or conversation. Latin is rigorous, systematic, finite, and cumulative. This is its great worth. It offers a clear, regular opportunity to really study language. Because it heavily influenced English and is the base for all Romance languages—with the grammar, syntax, structure, and all the subtleties—students of Latin become masters of words, precise in spoken and written discourse. A grammar-based Latin program retains these intrinsic rewards. Taught in this way, Latin is the best thinking-skills course a grammar school student can take.

4. Is it a Latin program or a derivatives program?

Many Latin programs stress the relationship between English and Latin vocabulary, and exalt derivatives as the main reason to pursue Latin. In fact, many programs focus exclusively on Latin derivatives. The popularity of this approach is probably due to the mistaken belief that the greatest benefit of Latin is the knowledge of Latin root words. This is one benefit of Latin, to be sure. But the greatest benefits of Latin, as we said before, come from the grammar study that involves an aspect of the language that would be completely missed if a student studied only derivatives. And not only that, but the best way to learn Latin derivatives is a direct study of the language itself. In other words, a child will learn Latin derivatives better if he studies the entire Latin language than if he studies the derivatives independently. This is because he is learning the words in some kind of context, making it easier for him to remember them.

5. Does the program overburden the student with vocabulary?

It is very easy to inundate a child with more words than he can genuinely master. Though it can be exciting for a parent to recognize Latin as a source for new and challenging words, it should be remembered that grammar school students are increasing their vocabularies at every turn, in every course. A limited vocabulary base of 200-400 Latin words (5-10 a week) should serve as the vocabulary spine for the year. Introducing too many words at too fast a pace will take the student’s attention away from the grammar that must be mastered early in order to understand the language properly.

6. Is the program visually appealing?

Aesthetics are not unimportant. When you look at a Latin program, take into account its appearance—does it overwhelm you or your student with a busy page or bright colors? Does it trivialize the subject with trite pictures? Does it provide enough space to write answers? Does it have margins for notes? Does it arrange lesson content in easily accessible styles? Basically, do you want to open this book? Do you like it? Latin itself is challenging—there’s no need to let the organization of the lesson provide unnecessary distractions!

7. Does the program focus on Christian or classical Latin?

This is not necessarily an either/or question. But, one of the things you will want to notice about a program is whether it includes Christian Latin content. Latin was the international language of Christians for over a thousand years. Acknowledging both Latin’s Christian and classical heritage offers the more historically accurate cultural background for the language. In addition, Christian Latin programs usually encourage Christian pronunciation (also called “ecclesiastical”) as opposed to the classical pronunciation. Remember, no culture speaks Latin nowadays, so pronunciation shouldn’t be your priority. While the two pronunciations are similar, Christian Latin pronunciation is closer to English in many ways, and thus a little easier to learn. Furthermore, Christian pronunciation is the pronunciation you will hear in the Latin music sung by great choirs today—to us, a terrific incentive for Christian Latin.

These seven considerations are taken into account in Memoria Press’ Latin programsPrima Latina, Latina Christiana, and the Forms Series.

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