Friday, May 31, 2019


Just now, I heard a very good line about grammar. It comes (I can’t check the citation at the moment, but I trust my source) from Kató Lomb’s famous book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages.

“You cannot,” says the famous Hungarian poly-polyglot, “You cannot learn language from grammar, but you learn grammar from language.”

What’s there to be added to that marvelous, super-succinct summary of all the misunderstanding about grammar teaching? I’ve written quite a bit about my experience teaching Latin and Greek in The Netherlands this year. What has happened to language teaching in my own country? 

Dutch as a school subject meant literature when I was in school (like, forty years ago). A short story here, a poem there. Medieval Dutch. A highlight of nineteenth-century Dutch literature (Max Havelaar). We famously had one grammar (spelling) lesson a year, followed by a quick test applying a few stupid rules (for those who know Dutch, this was mostly about applying the kofschip rules). It was no big deal. What I hear from students and pick up from a few colleagues now is that Dutch classes have become some horrible thing about grammar, vocabulary (?!), and more torture. What a surprise no high school graduate in The Netherlands wants to read Dutch in university anymore! (It may, by the way, also explain the general disdain of the Dutch for their own language and their embracing silly English expressions where perfectly fine Dutch equivalents are available.) 

The modern languages where taught grammar-based in the 1970s and 1980s, but there were some adventurous teachers who were clearly moving in a different direction, and it was not only about grammar and vocabulary, as it often seems to be today (or so I hear from my poor students--third year French, never read a book).

The Classical languages have been grammar-based for a long time in The Netherlands and despite excellent classicists (such as A.G. de Man in In grammaticis veritas [Groningen: Wolters, 1951]) ringing the alarm bell, very little seems to have changed for the past 80 years, or more likely a century and a half. No, something has. It’s even worse than when I was in school. More grammar (not that the kids actually learn it), less stories, much less learning. (Sorry, but I don’t give a penny for turning Latin and Greek into a kind of ancient history class, it seems to me a horrible sell-out, a cop-out for not learning the language, which indeed they don’t, and teachers seem to think it’s fine.)

So what is it with my Dutch colleagues and their odd belief in grammar? Anybody who speaks a few languages fluently knows s/he did not learn that language by studying grammar. The very best students I see in Latin and Greek read, read, read. I ask them, Do you think of grammar rules when reading? Oh no, sir, they smile, almost apologetically, except they do know I love their answer. We just read. If I don’t get it, one very good student adds, I just read it again. And then I get it. The grammar exercises in the reading book? Oh no, says the student, I skip those. And she is right.

Such students learn grammar from language. They have long understood that it ain’t work the other way around, like I found out, realizing I couldn’t read Latin to save my life after six years (very many hours, plus a very decent final exam) of Latin in high school. 

How come language teachers don’t seem to see that?

Monday, April 8, 2019

Disappointed Already

I asked my seventh-grade (first-year) Latin class this morning what they would like to be able to do with the language after their exam (following six years of Latin).

"Speaking," one boy said without loosing a beat. (I can't help loving that that's the first answer I get! This kid has no prejudice whatsoever about Latin being a d--d language.)

"Writing," his neighbor adds quickly. (OMG, how cool is that, he would like to be able to write stories in Latin, so wonderful!)

"Reading," says a girl in the same corner. "And translating," she adds, as she has already heard from other teachers that translating is the thing about Latin (and possibly also about French, German, maybe even English).

"Well," I said, "you can easily ask the students in twelfth grade how well they speak, write, and read Latin. Or, of course, I can give you the answer."

The class agreed they wanted me to give them the answer.

"Well OK," I went on. "Let's do it in order. Who thinks the twelfth-graders can speak Latin?"

The answer, of course, very sadly, is they can't. Most of the class figured as much, but you could still smell the disappointment. They obviously love it that I can speak Latin with them (yes, with them, because they are already able to give simple short answers in Latin) and would love to be able to do it themselves!

"Writing. Who thinks the twelfth-graders can write Latin kinda like you guys can write English?" (The class is a bilingual high school class, so their English is actually pretty darn good.)

By now, they start to sense that something is very wrong. Indeed, the answer is, of course, in the negative: not one of our twelfth-graders, I bet my bottom dollar, would be able to write a paragraph or even a halfway decent sentence in Latin to save their life.

"Reading, then? Well, no, not if you mean reading reading. I mean, if you have to look up every other word in your dictionary and the other ones in your grammar, do you call that reading?"

Of course they don't. So, case proven. After six years of Latin at a pretty decent high school in The Netherlands, nobody can read, write, or speak Latin.

Oh, translating? I wouldn't call it that myself. The grades need more help every year to make a reasonable amount of students pass their final exams. And the "Dutch" students produce in their so-called translations is famously horrendous.

Of course, all this could easily be different with a more sensible approach to teaching Latin. Erasmus, Grotius, Peerlkamp, and all those other great Dutch Latinists from centuries past are rubbing their skins off as they keep turning in their graves. What can I do? The sad answer is Very Little, but at very least I can make some students aware of the problem. That's a beginning, at least.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Normal and Common in Latin Teaching

I learned many years ago from a very wise man the difference, or presumed difference if you like, between “normal” and “common.” I honestly don’t know any numbers, and I’m not going to waste my time by looking them up, but an example is a “normal” body weight among, say, American children – that would be the “healthy” weight in relation to height, etc. – and the “common” body weight, caused by a diet heavily based on McDonald’s and KFC.

So if you can accept those contrasting definitions of “normal” and “common” for the sake of the argument, I’ve been thinking for a while about what would be “normal” in Latin teaching and what, by contrast, is “common.” So this morning, while sipping my coffee at this friendly German bakery and reading Ugo Enirco Paoli’s marvelous Ciceronis filius (a wonderful yet apparently little-known Latin reading book for, let’s say, advanced-intermediate students), I paused to jot down a few observations.

Normal (I omit the quotation marks from now on): Students learn Latin in order to be able to read Latin. Evidently, what Latin text you can expect them to read after, say, six years of study is open for discussion. But at any rate you’d expect them to be able to read some Latin for fun. Reading, of course, defines as reading, not “translating” at the rate of one sentence per hour with a dictionary and a grammar.
Common: Teachers plainly tell you they don’t expect students ever to read Latin after their HS exam. The point of learning Latin, they say, is to learn to think logically (I once heard a very experienced American HS teacher say that learning languages was a kind of brain gym), or to learn other languages more easily (like driving from Amsterdam to Cologne via Madrid), or to learn grammar in their own language (which by definition has a completely different grammar than Latin).

Normal: Teachers obviously like what they teach, so they read Latin often for their own enjoyment. Because they are able to read Latin with ease, they rarely study a Latin text in translation, because they don’t need to. (Doh! Which English teacher reads Dickens, J.D. Salinger, or Tom Wolfe in translation because the original is so hard?)
Common: Many teachers rarely if ever read anything in Latin at all, except of course the small portions read in “advanced” classes with students. Many teachers frequently refer to translations even when teaching beginning to intermediate classes. (If this seems hard to believe, why do teachers’ manuals print “literal” translations?) Teachers who like ancient history or philosophy read Sallust, Livy, or Cicero in translation.

Normal: Students read roughly the same amount of text in Latin that they would read in an average modern language curriculum. If they read, say, six books of a total of 300 pages in German, they can be expected read a similar amount in Latin.
Common: Students read only a very small amount of Latin texts; to read as much as one complete book from Vergil or Ovid would be highly exceptional. Oh, while talking about Ovid:

Normal: Students love Ovid, because his hexameters are the easiest of all time and the stories are delightful.
Common: Even good Latin teachers consider Ovid just about the most difficult author for students to write an exam about. (In The Netherlands, exams are about different Latin authors each year). Said one colleague: Ovid is really almost too difficult, because one’s grammar has to be so exceptionally good that almost no student can cope.

Normal: In order to make the language part of oneself, students learn to write and, better yet, speak some Latin to at least an extent, even though this is evidently not the primary goal of the Latin course.
Common: Students don’t even read out the mediocre Latin sentences in their beginning textbooks. When the teacher reads out a sentence or two (let alone a whole paragraph!), students don’t listen, because their only task is to “translate” Latin into their own language. Answering even the simplest question in Latin is considered absurdly difficult, speaking Latin something for madmen.

Normal: Students get a fair overview of the Latin literature without explicit or implicit prejudice for an author or a time period.
Common: Students study only a very small amount of texts from a tiny part of Latin literature, rarely older than Cicero or younger than Pliny Minor. Authors like Apuleius, Bede, Erasmus are considered only of interest in translation or for scholarly research at the doctoral level.

Sunday, February 3, 2019


A few weeks after I returned to Europe, last Spring, I had to send my condolences twice. A colleague whom I barely knew very sadly gave birth to a baby that had passed away in the whomb a few days earlier. Maybe a week later one of my famous organ teachers, Piet Kee, passed away at a very high (but not high enough) age, after a very productive life of (in alphabetical order) composing, performing, and teaching (of course, I can’t speak about his personal life).

I told the friend I used to hang out with at the time about this strange coincidence. I got a bit philosophical about it, more, I think, than the friend could deal with.

“I’m obviously not going to say this to the mother of the baby,” I said. “But the thing is, no matter how difficult, to believe that the baby’s life is not worth a penny less than Piet Kee’s.”

My friend tried to avoid a fight, I think.

“Hm,” she said. “Not less valuable, perhaps. But less rich, no?”

I tried to put it differently.

“I mean, for reasons we can obviously not fathom, it was their time to go. For both of them, their life was complete.”

My friend almost got angry, but not quite.

“It was,” I tried one more time, “meant to be that way. For both of them.”

I’ll never forget what she said.

“Well, I just think it was terribly bad luck, for that mother,” she said. (If you know Dutch, the expression my friend used was “domme pech.”)

“You can call it that,” I made one last attempt. “Or Fate. Or God. I like that better than ‘bad luck’. Don’t you?”

She didn’t.

How to measure whether a life is complete? Piet Kee counted on at least another ten years, in the footsteps of his equally famous father. What do we know about the life of an almost-nine-month-old? What do we know about the life that was awaiting him (it was a boy)? But it’s our obligation, I think, to believe that the kiddo’s life was no less meaningful, no less important, no less wonderful than Kee’s. Heck, it’s got to be that way, or the whole universe is a joke.

Why Latin?

A while ago I’ve written on this blog about what the goal of Latin in high school might be. Now that I finally managed to get an answer from a colleague, who, I suppose, may be representative for a generation or two of Dutch classicists, I’m writing this short postscript.

The colleague does not believe much in  extensive reading in Latin or for that matter in reading anything in Latin with ease: the more difficult the better, word-for-word translating, speaking Latin in class complete nonsense, after all, it’s a dead language, the whole megillah.

The purpose, then, of learning Latin in school, according to the colleague, is to learn to look at an entirely different society through the eyes of an intellectual. “Reading a novel from the nineteenth century in French or German would do the same,” I tried. No, that’s not a different enough society, countered the colleague.

Well, when reading Martial, I often think of New York in the 1980s. And not to pooh-pooh Ovid, but I wouldn’t call him the greatest intellectual of all time. I love Sallust, but I can think of twentieth-century historians with equally interesting and possibly less biased views on history.

But what about after the exam? The colleague is very clear and open about it: “I don’t expect them to read any Latin after their exams.”

I knew it was that way. I know it’s like that for so many colleagues. I know that many students look forward to throwing away their Latin grammars and dictionaries.

But I find it so, so sad.

I remember how disappointed I was to realize that all those hours of Latin and Greek (way more than we had for the modern foreign languages — after all, we had to keep up the myth that Latin and Greek were unspeakably difficult, even for the happy few of us who took high school at the gymnasium level) — that all those hours had not taught me to read even a relatively simple text in Latin with some ease. (I’m not even mentioning Greek.)

I was so happy to find my way back to both languages many years later and loved learning to read Latin and even Greek with ease, a journey I’m still continuing after ten years. Not because I have to, but because I love it.

I see the occasional student who understands what I’m saying and starts reading, with unheard-of results. I am so grateful to be able to work with such students from time to time.

Why do so few colleagues in The Netherlands want to see how Latin and Greek can pleasant, enjoyable, fun? What are they so afraid of? Freedom?

Monday, December 17, 2018

What do we want from Latin in high school?

Here is another brief (I hope) piece inspired (if that’s the word) by a recent conversation with a fellow Latin teacher. In an attempt to discuss methodology, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss the presumed end result of five or six years of Latin in high school. Now in The Netherlands there is a centrally coordinated exam, identical for all the students of a given subject in the country, comparable to, but of course different from, the dreaded AP exams in the US. So The Exam is generally considered the most important thing, as a satisfactory result overall gives you access to university (with this particular kind of high school diploma, known in The Netherlands as “vwo”).

But thankfully, some enlightened colleagues do agree that one does not educate students only to pass the exam. My own view is even more liberal: teach the kids a language, Latin for example, properly and the exam shouldn’t be a big deal at all. You do it in passing, so to speak (no pun intended).

So the question is, beyond passing the exam, what does a Latin teacher want for his students after five or six arduous years of study?

“Well,” said this colleague, “it depends. For example, this other colleague hopes that students will become readers.” (Implied, I’m quite sure, is ‘of books in Dutch’.) “I myself,” the colleague continued, “want them to learn to think logically.”

This is no doubt connected to this teacher’s believe in teaching from a grammar point of view, implying that you can not even read a Latin sentence in the order the writer wrote it in (see my recent piece about this on this blog).

I find this so funny, because both views are, to me, so clearly about side effects at best. Hello! Just imagine an English or French or German teacher in The Netherlands saying something similar! Clearly, colleagues in those languages will tell you something like, Well, I’d like my students to be able to follow university classes taught in English (in The Netherlands, for example). Or, I would like them to be able to watch a German police movie without subtitles. Or, Look, I’m quite happy if they can work their way through ordering a meal in a French restaurant. But I mean, something about the actual use of the language.

What should it be in Latin? Being able to translate fifty words of Cicero at a rate of one word per minute? Being able to read a poem by Catullus you’ve studied in class before with a facing translation? Being able to recognize an occasional expression or word from Latin that Dutch has appropriated? In my view, none of these are good enough for five, six years of hard work.

My own take is that being able to read at sight and more or less in real time a passage from, say, the Vulgate or Eutropius would already be something. But, to be honest, I think with a serious change in methodology, the aim can be higher. Reading an average poem or fragment by Ovid at sight, with notes for my part, or perhaps a Latin prose paraphrase. Reading Vergil with the help of a Latin prose paraphrase. A colloquium by Erasmus with some vocabulary help (in Latin).  And how about being able to write a paragraph or two in Latin in response to, say, a Caesar, a Pliny, a Sallust?

In any event, the vast majority (my guess is well over 99 %) of the students who sit for the Latin exam here (and the same is true for the AP exam in the US) never ever look at Latin again in their life. That, it seems to me, is an unacceptable net result of five or six years of study, and that’s putting it mildly.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Motivation v. Method

At one of the schools where I teach a miracle happened. (It’s not at all a miracle, but within the confines of traditional education it darn well is, or should be considered as such.) A student in the fourth year of an “OK” high school type in The Netherlands (“havo,” not bad, but does not grant access to university) is taking a fifth-year Latin class at the highest high school level here (“gymnasium,” roughly comparable to its German counterpart). Note that the kid has not taken any Latin before this fifth year in high school.

How is this possible? The kid learned Latin on his own. No, not with a private teacher. No, not by taking community classes. No Skype lessons either. He Read A Book. Within barely six months he had learned more Latin (very literally) than his now-classmates, who have been sweating on it for three years (Latin starts in the second HS year at this particular school). The colleague who has the kid in class says he translates (a big thing in Latin teaching here in The Netherlands) better than any other student in class.

What would you want to know, I asked some of my friends and colleagues.

What I wanted to know is which book he used.

I asked the teacher whose class he is in. “Oh, some Danish book,” my colleague said. Of course I knew immediately which book the student had been using and everything fell into place as I had expected.

It is true that the student —  who is very eloquent, erudite at his own level, and most of al incredibly nice — had been interested in Latin for a while and had occasionally asked my predecessor a few things about Latin. “But really,” he told me, “that was very occasional.” He wanted to really learn it.

So what he did is in itself remarkable. He looked around on the Internet for the best Latin textbook. And found, surprise surprise, Ørberg’s immortal Lingua Latina per se illustrata, the book of choice of so many of us who believe Latin is a language, not grammatical archeology.

Completely on his own the kid worked through the 35 chapters of Familia Romana, the first part of the Ørberg method, in about six months. In the meantime he had learned that there are very good readers to use along with the last part of the book or after finishing it. So he got them and worked through those books, too.

Now to me the most striking proof that this method obviously works extremely well is that the kid is so good at translating. How did he learn it? Not from the Ørberg book, which is completely in Latin. “But,” says the kid, “I understand what the Latin says.” Yeah, right, and obviously he knows Dutch, so he can translate whatever he reads in Latin into Dutch.

It seems so obvious, but that is not at all how 99.99 % of the Dutch students learn Latin (or Greek). They learn it (or people think they do) by what they call “translating,” but what is really substituting Dutch words for Latin. Any reasonable foreign-language teacher will tell you this is downright impossible, with the exception of most Classicists in The Netherlands, the vast majority of whom still think this is the way to go about things.

Then came the moment that I decided to at least address the student’s success in a departmental meeting. I tried my very best to be diplomatic. “I think,” I lied, “that it may be worth asking how this kid was able to pull this off.”

“Motivation,” my colleague said, without loosing a beat.

To me, that was the end of the conversation. Oh, I tried. Of course he’s motivated. But is it not worth looking at the method he used that taught him so well (and, I thought but did not say, kept him motivated, rather than the opposite, which happens to the vast majority of Latin students in our schools). That discussion was very brief. There is no budget for new textbooks. More importantly, the colleague likes the current book, because it has free tests and other allegedly helpful stuff on the Web.

Most importantly, the colleague thought the Ørberg book would be too difficult for our weaker students. Ironically, from some experimenting, I find the opposite to be true: students tended to prefer the early Ørberg chapters, which can very readily be understood on their own terms (in Latin), over the complicated texts in our current book, which can only be “understood” by substituting a Dutch equivalent (often a bad one) for practically every Latin word with the help of a vocabulary list in the margin.

The bigger problem is that by making motivation the decisive factor in learning, one might as well stop discussing methodology altogether. And so you start to understand why the situation with Classical languages in The Netherlands is the way it is. Wait, did I just hear Erasmus and Grotius (or Hugo de Groot, whose name every third-grader in The Netherlands used to know) turn in their graves?