March 2008 Archives

Learning "Classical" Languages - Speaking, Translating or Reading?


I've been following an interesting discussion on whether a "conversational" approach should be used for Latin or not.

For modern language courses, the behavioral objectives are fairly obvious. After 2-3 semesters of a language, you want to be able to walk into a cafe or bar, read the menu and order the beverage you want (or figure out how to get the train to Marseilles, or get the latest scoop from ¬°Hola! magazine. That is you want a certain level of listening, reading and speaking proficiency with enough writing thrown in to fill out an application or compose a quick thank you note.

These days a conversational approach is advocated so that students learn to communicate in the target language "on their feet". Exposure to native language speech input is also recommended whenever possible so that leaners can parse audio.

With classical languages like Latin and Greek, the objectives may be different. For instance, Attic Greek (i.e. the language Sophocles spoke) is what you need to read the original Ancient Greek literature. If you're in Greece, Attic Greek is helpful for reading street signs and monument inscriptions. But if you want to order some ouzo in Athens, you probably need to learn Modern Greek. That is, learning classical languages is usually about being able to read in the target language - not being able to speak it.

Can the conversational approach help here? Interestingly many of the Latin teachers said they DID advocate the conversational approach. Apparently learning Latin without using it conversationally was a little be too "abstract" for students. I'll admit that my Latin teacher burned in the supine into my brain with "correctives" like horrible dictu (or "Ugh! Horrible Latin!"). Interestlngly Latin has taken on a life of its own as a living language community. You can even get your news (nuntii) in Latin. Clearly, there's something to this.

It should be noted that traditional Latin pedagogy then focused more on grammar and translation. The idea was that if you understood in detail how the Latin phrase or sentence was bulf, you that you would be able to read Latin by "deconstructing" the combination of words and grammatical endings. In practice though, I would say that the result is that many students can recite a lot of paradigms but end up having troubles reading actual texts from Cicero.

But...even with the conversational approach, I wonder if you hit a wall. I'm glad we have "modernized" Latin, but it can't be the same as what Cicero wrote. It's a form of Latin spoken mostly by speakers of modern European languages - none of which much resemble Latin anymore. Even modern Italian has very different syntax than Classical Latin.

What I found was that even with "conversation" and "grammar", I had great trouble parsing Cicero - I could translate the words, but couldn't string them together so that they meant anything. There's a certain pragmatic logic in Latin that is lost in literal translation. After all Qui/Cui bono doesn't literally mean "Who benefits?" but "Good for whom?"

I would say that I didn't truly understand how to learn Classical languages until I took Middle Welsh. Although we did learn some grammar, the focus wasn't being able to speak or even translate anything. Instead we just picked up an actual text with a glossary in the back and plowed through. I took notes in the text, but it was so small that I learned to only translate the key vocabulary words I didn't get. The more "simple" words I could memorize, the faster the reading went. In other words I was learning to read the syntax directly. I had slight indigestion that I would not be able to order a mead in Middle Welsh, but then again, this is not really possible anyway.

Another benefit to the "learn as you read approach" is that you may not be thrown off by minor inconsistencies. Many medieval languages were "flexible" in terms of grammar and spelling - it really is more important that you be able to recognize a potential irregular past tense rather than that you know exactly what it is.

When I thought about it, I realized this is probably the best approach - after all you are trying to read the language, and sometimes you may need to read an undiscovered document which may contain new verb forms as well as previously unattested vocabulary. Sometimes reading ancient texts is a decoding exercise.

In the end, it's about the reading and neither the speaking or the translation. There's just one remaining problem - by the time I had gotten to Middle Welsh, I had Modern Welsh under my belt. If you're starting from scratch, it really can be an interesting chicken and egg challenge.

GROW (German Resources on the Web)

If you're a German instructor, you may be interested in GROW (

This one is interesting from a technology point of view because it's a "traditional Web site" which hides a modern interface. Built for both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0!

U Texas Hebrew Computing Resources


I'm always on the lookout for good language teaching resources, so here's one for Hebrew teachers.

They have some interesting instructional resources including videos and audio. I particularly like the verb root Flash demo in which the root consonants are highlighted in the different verb forms.

In Hebrew and related languages (including Arabic), the consonants may be grouped together or separated by vowels depending on the verb form. The closest English parallel would be something like drive ~ drove where the consonants /dr-v/ remain the same, but the internal vowel changes depending on the tense.

Yes, the Samurai Can Laugh


I'm cleaning my desk and ran into an alumni magazine with the provocative headline Did the Samurai Have a Sense of Humor? Gee - I wonder if the answer is "Yes!". Oh look the subtitle is The Phenomenon of 18th-Century Japanese Comic Books - and we all know how silly they are. Hey if you don't believe me, ask Harvard 18th century Japanese expert Adam Kern

The article goes on at great length to explain that not only was there 18th century satirical manga in Japan, but that it was a criticism of modern political and social events. But let's just cut to some compelling dialogue from 1785's Playboy, Roasted à la Edo

Plot: The semi-attractive mercantile son Enjiro asks friends and geisha for advice on obtaining the love of many women proclaiming: "For a lifetime of memories, I'd kill myself."

Best Advice: When placing tattoos representing fake women on your arm, don't forget to remove some later to show that you have "discarded" them.

Kinosuke: (experienced playboy) It'll look suspicious if some tattoos aren't erased, so we'll burn them off later with moxa

Enjiro: (aspiring playboy) Who'd've thought becoming a playboy would hurt so much?

Now that you're done giggling, I do have a point which is that it's still a shock when we discover that an ancient/foreign culture is capable of "sophisticated" humor or irony. Somehow we expect people far outside our culture to either be so serious or so "different" that they could not really understand Western humor or "abstract" concepts like social satire.

For instance, Vikings, Celts and Saxons are portrayed as fierce warriors whose idea of a good idea was binge drinking in the mead hall and that their comedic range was restricted to maybe bad Three Stooges pratfalls with helmets. Yet one of the best "parodies" of the fantasy quest is from the Middle Welsh Mabinogi. When the hero Pwyll, who spends a year chasing the beautiful Rhiannon on horseback, finally catches up with her, she asks him why he didn't just yell out to her to stop in the first place. And you thought Princess Leia's spunk was a modern invention.

So watch the Discovery Channel carefully the next time a Caucasian adventurer wants to experience a more primitive life and see if you don't spot an "indigenous" citizen barely containing snickers at the complete idiocy that only a city slicker can display.