The Wrong Way to Teach Latin

Modern languages are taught by the conversational method. If I understand this method correctly, it involves an emphasis on oral and written conversation in the classroom, supplemented with a secondary focus on grammar.

This conversational instruction is most effectively augmented by travel and an immersion experience with native speakers. It could also be called the “natural method,” in that students are learning the new language in a natural way, rather than the artificial grammar/translation textbook method. The idea is to simulate the way a child naturally learns to speak (or read) his own language, or the way a foreigner learns a new language by immersion. I have used four terms here (modern, natural, immersion, conversational), but I think they all describe approximately the same thing. I will just use the term “natural method” for the rest of this commentary. There are several reasons why Latin should not be taught by the natural method like modern languages often are.

The first is that Latin is not a modern language; it is an ancient language. It is a classical language. Ancient and classical languages are very different from modern languages. Modern languages like French and English have a similar structure and grammar, making it much easier to transition from one language to another. R. W. Livingstone once compared learning a modern language to getting up and moving from one easy chair to another. In contrast, learning a classical language, he said, is like running a marathon.

A second and even more obvious reason is that the goal of Latin instruction is to be able to read the great classics of antiquity, not to speak Latin with the natives.

But there is a third reason that Latin should not be taught like modern languages, and that is that modern languages should not be taught like modern languages. The natural method doesn’t actually work for modern languages, much less for Latin.

There was a tried-and-true method for teaching modern languages before the advent of the natural method: the grammar/translation method. The natural method was introduced in the 1960s, about the same time as all of the other modern educational experiments, like “new math,” “discovery learning,” etc. None of them worked then, and they don’t work now. I know. I was taught by the old methods and began teaching under all of the new methods. And I survived to tell the story.

Both the goals and the methodology of foreign language instruction changed with the introduction of the natural method. Prior to the 1960s, the goal of modern language instruction was to learn to read a modern language, not to speak a modern language. The educational goal was that all educated people would have a passable reading proficiency in some modern language, primarily French, German, or Spanish, and could, if necessary, communicate in writing with their academic or business peers in other countries.

Nothing demonstrates the lowering of academic standards today more than foreign language study. Several years ago, I interviewed a teacher applicant with a degree in French. I asked her exactly what courses were required for her degree, and she said things like French culture, history, literature, conversation, and grammar. I asked her if she had actually read any French literature, and she responded that she had one course in French literature! A degree in French used to mean four years of French literature; no credit was even given for French grammar.

The goal was never to learn to speak a foreign language—which was considered an unrealistic goal in a one-hour-a-day instructional setting—because the natural experience of the child who learns to speak his own language without instruction cannot be duplicated in that limited time. However, by giving the student reading proficiency and the grammar basics of a foreign language, the teacher prepares him to develop speaking proficiency should the opportunity arise. It works beautifully.

But with the natural method, we abandoned the difficult but doable goal of learning to read a modern language for the even more difficult and unrealistic goal of learning to speak a foreign language, with the result that most students today learn to do neither well.

My oldest son had two years of German in a very good private high school, and learned very little by the natural method. His private liberal arts college required a year of foreign language, and so he was excited about finally really learning German, but it was more of the same—the only compensation being that his pretty teacher played the guitar to accompany her German drinking songs. Had he learned the grammar basics in school, he would have had the tools he needed to learn to speak German later, when he traveled abroad as a graduate.

The argument for the natural method is built upon two false premises. The first is that you can duplicate the natural way a child learns to speak his own language in a classroom setting. You can’t. There isn’t enough time. The second false premise is that natural is always better than artificial. It is better with regard to some things, such as food, but is the natural man better than the civilized one?

The natural method is not only contrary to common sense but to the whole premise of formal education, which is to teach by systematic, logical instruction. This is the very opposite of the natural, random, untutored way we learn to speak our own language. The natural method is the same as teaching reading without phonics; it’s the same as so-called “inquiry-based” learning. It is that siren song of progressive education applied to learning languages.

The appropriate way to teach anything is to give systematic, explicit instruction, enabling the student to learn more in less time. Would you take your child to a tennis or golf coach who used the natural method?

The natural method has been a failure with modern languages, so why would we expect it to succeed with Latin?

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