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.