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 to 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.