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?