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?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reading Latin

I can almost not believe I’m writing this, it’s so surreal (but not nice, fellow Notting Hill fans).

A brief prologue for full disclosure: I learned Latin for six years in high school. That school was and is considered excellent; the teachers were extremely competent (one of them also taught in university); and in some years, we had as many as six class periods each devoted to both Latin and Greek. My final grades were more than adequate, with particularly good notes for the final exams, especially in Greek.

I remember that, after I finished high school, I was quite disappointed that, despite all those hours and decent grades, I was still utterly unable to read Latin (forget Greek) independently. Many years later, call it chance if you will, I was asked to teach Latin, took on the challenge, and soon started to teach myself Latin with the eminent Lingua Latina per se illustrata series. I finally learned how to actually read (and later also write and speak) Latin.

After teaching Latin in the US and Australia, in schools and universities, to kids and adults for a total of some ten years, I now find myself teaching in my home country. Although that means compromising my teaching style in a many ways, I have also been encouraged to speak Latin in class. So that’s nice.

But of course, not everybody is happy. A colleague who visited a class expressed surprise at my speaking Latin, even though it concerned only reading out loud. “You can not,” said the colleague, as if patiently explaining one of the most basic laws of the universe, “read Latin from left to right.”

Pardon me?

“With the modern languages,” the colleague explains, “it is possible, because the word order is the same.” As in Dutch, it goes without saying.

How to answer? I really don’t know. Do I read Latin from left to right? Why of course I do, how else? I even speak Latin from left to right! What am I supposed to do? Think about the verb first and then save it for last? It may even be that the brain actually works that way, who the heck knows. But even if it does, sorry, when I speak Latin, I just speak Latin. (Of course that does not mean I can not think about a word or a sentence before speaking.)

Of course what’s behind this, let’s say, misunderstanding is a very different way of thinking about Latin. In the eyes of many, Latin is not really a language, merely a (relatively very small) corpus of texts that students translate into Dutch with such grave difficulty that they themselves often don’t understand their own so-called translations. (Evidently translating a text that you don’t understand is impossible, which is why such pieces of Dutch un-prose should not be called translations to begin with, but that’s a different story.)

I have often written stories in Latin and recently published Latin translations of some short stories by legendary Dutch writer Simon Carmiggelt. But why? “Why would you want to write Latin,” the aforementioned colleague opined. “Do you think you can write better than the Romans?” Why? Well, perhaps because it’s fun? And, I mean, Erasmus wrote Latin, didn’t he? And better than many a Roman, I may add. J.S. Bach, on the other hand, not only created the fugue as we know it, he also brought it to Absolute Perfection (note capitals A and P) within a decade or two, spending the rest of his life making clear once and for all that no-one would ever be able to come even remotely close. But that hasn’t stopped generations of composers from trying!

Just imagine the English teacher saying, Look guys, why write English? Do you really think you can do better than a Shakespeare, a Dickens, a J.D. Salinger? And what about the Russian, Chinese, or even Italian teacher who explains you could never read that language from left to right because the word order is different from Dutch? 

Saturday, December 8, 2018


Time flies when you’re having fun. In fact, it also flies if you simply work a lot (even if it is not always fun). I almost can’t believe I’ve been in Europe for well over half a year, and living in Germany (just across the Dutch border) for almost four months.

When I first came to the area, I thought it was great to have all these big cities easily within reach. Ironically, I found there was quite enough to do in town I live in, but tonight, I finally made it to Düsseldorf. I found a hip and very nice little restaurant that specializes in Spätzle (plus it’s organic and everything) and with a bit of asking I managed to find my way to a nice movie place that’s lies a bit hidden in one of those little alleys you only find in old European cities.

Just the other day, this new movie came out about Astrid Lindgren, the great Swedish writer, probably most famous for creating the immortal Pippi Longstocking. Before the doors opened, I had my espresso in the foyer, picked up a brochure about the film (it’s simply, beautifully, and appropriately called Astrid) and, a bit lost in my new environment, glanced at it a bit. A girl who looked like the granddaughter of Pippi walked by. Was she 12, 13? Or even younger but just a very smart cookie? I suspect the latter. “Are you going to see that film,” she asked as if it were the most normal thing for her to talk to a complete stranger, obviously significantly older than her dad, whom I saw smiling behind her.

Once I got over my surprise I said, “Yes, and how about you? Have you seen it already?” “Yes,” she said. “It’s very, very good.” She looked at the brochure in my hand. “That,” she pointed at a beautiful picture, “comes at the very end.” “Ah. That’s good to know,” I said. “Yes,” she said. “It’s really, really good.” “Have you read her books,” I inquired, in an attempt to continue the unusual conversation. Within seconds she gave a complete list of all the Lindgren she had read, in passing explaining to me how one book is called such in Swedish, but so in German. “Perhaps you’ll be a writer yourself one day,” I quipped, somewhat unsuccessfully, although I did see her dad smiling.

Well, what can I say. The girl couldn’t have been more right about the movie. O my goodness. It made you think that not only there’s perhaps hope for your own life, but perhaps, perhaps there is even hope for a world that’s going more insane by the day. If Astrid could do all that barely out of her teens, why then, who’s complaining when life gets a bit funky sometimes?

Alba August, the actress playing the role of young Lindgren (before she became Lindgren, in fact), has received many accolades, and rightly so, it’s in a word marvelous. But how they get the toddler to act as Lindgren’s three-year-old kid is a total mystery to me. Striking. Many other very fine roles, including Lindgren’s mother.

One aspect of the story (at least in the movie, who knows whether this is historically accurate or not) will, I think, make some viewers uncomfortable. In the film, it’s emphatically Lindgren who flirts with her much older boss, the editor of the local newspaper. It’s emphatically Lindgren who seduces him. In fact, only slightly less obvious, one gets the strong impression that it is Lindgren who wants to carry the guy’s child, and not only, I think, out of pity.

The film will undoubtedly, as the saying goes, come to a theater near you. You must go see it. I’m tipping on a handful of Oscars, at very least one for August and one for the film maker, Pernille Fischer Christensen.