Past, Present, and Future, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As promised, today we’ll begin a series of posts about the introduction of non-present-tense verbs in the Tres Columnae system. First, though, a word or two about the multiple levels of meaning for the title of this post:

  1. At Tres Columnae, we are consciously taking a past thing (the Latin language, which is linguistically “dead” in that it has no surviving native speaker population) and bringing it into the present and future with new techniques.
  2. At the same time, we are recovering past teaching methods for Latin (the dialogues, extended reading, use of question-and-answer in the language for grammatical analysis, and other techniques used before the rise of the grammar-translation method in the nineteenth century) and mixing them with present and future methods (self-correcting exercises, online content creation, rubrics, self-assessment, and other “cutting edge” educational techniques).
  3. The Tres Columnae project aims to model a future direction for learning and teaching languages (and, perhaps, other academic disciplies) through a Joyful Learning Community. We present our model in the present for a profession that, too often, is mired in the past (We’ve always done it that way! teachers say … even when always just means “since I was in school myself” or “for 100 years or so).
  4. And, of course, Tres Columnae has to deal with verb tenses (what Donatus and the grammaticī call tempora) at some point or other.

As always, we aim to be a bit different – and, we hope, better – in our treatment of tempora. Specifically, and in keeping with our Paideia roots, we aim for the right mixture of Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding of the tempora. We believe that “typical” Latin textbooks, whether they come from a grammar-translation or a reading-method perspective, tend to over-emphasize one or more of these elements, sometimes to the detriment of learners’ progress with the language.

For example, many grammar-translation textbooks move “down the chart,” beginning with present indicative active verbs (a reasonable place to start!) but then presenting tenses in a “chart order” (imperfect, then future, then perfect, etc.) that probably aims for Understanding but actually breeds Confusion. It may look logical on a printed page, but it masks the actual relationships among the tenses.  Learners quickly develop the ability to create synopses and conjugation charts, but they’re often lost and confused when they run into these forms “in the wild” in an actual text.  What should I look up, they ask, when I run into a verb like coēgerat?

By contrast, reading-method textbooks tend to present the tenses in an order that seems “logical” or “more common” to their authors: for example, present, then imperfect and perfect, then pluperfect, saving the futures for much later. Unfortunately, learners often don’t see the relationships among the tenses here, either (But why do perfect tense verbs use a different stem? How can you tell which tenses go with which stems? my own students plaintively ask sometimes), nor do they get a sense of the bigger picture – how the tenses relate to each other. All too often, regardless of the method, that Latin II or III student, faced with the word coēgerat, will complain bitterly that there’s no verb coēgerāre in the back of the book! 😦

So what’s the problem?  In both cases, Understanding was slighted, supposedly in favor of Knowledge or possibly Skill.  Our hypothetical grammar-translation book aimed for Knowledge About how the tenses are formed and Skill At forming them, but learners could not use their Knowledge or Skill when confronted with a connected text.  Our hypothetical reading-method book, by contrast, aimed for Knowledge About how to comprehend verbs and Skill At recognizing them in context, but the learner still fell short.  Why?  Because both approaches failed to build deeper Understanding – the student may have been able to recite a rule about tense formation (“pluperfects are made from the third principal part”) but couldn’t apply the rule productively.

Another issue I have with both approaches is the terminology they use.  For one thing, they tend to have learners talk about Latin … in English, as if English were the source and Latin a way to encode it.  Why not talk about Latin … with Latin?  That way, even a grammatical exercise (quā persōnā est hoc verbum?) becomes a form of communication.  For another, both approaches use terminology that’s foreign to the Romans’ own understanding of their language and to a modern linguistic understanding.  We need not accept everything the Romans thought about their own language (for example, some of the crazy “etymologies” they suggested for words, or the idea of separate modī called coniunctīvus and optātīvus).  But surely, as language teachers, we should listen to the linguists?

While I will certainly not claim to be a linguist, I find the subject fascinating and am working to address my woeful ignorance of the details of modern linguistics. One area that’s intrigued me recently, and that has deeply influenced my thoughts about the “right” order of introduction of verbs in Tres Columnae, is the concept of verbal aspect. Whereas tense has to do with when something happens (or happened or will happen), aspect has to do with your perspective or viewpoint about the action (or, to quote the Wikipedia article, the “temporal flow”). For example, do you conceive of it as an ongoing process (like the Latin imperfect tense) or a single state (like the Greek aorist)? There are many different approaches to aspect in different languages, as a quick perusal of the relevant Wikipedia article will reveal, but the most common in the Romance languages (including Latin) are perfective (for action conceived as a point in time) and imperfective (for action conceived as a continuing process). Of course there’s obviously a relationship between aspect and what we commonly call tense.

It’s interesting that the grammaticī themselves used terminology that implies both tense and aspect, especially for the Latin past tenses. For example, Donatus refers to the praeteritum inperfectum (what we call the imperfect), the praeteritum perfectum (our perfect) and the praeteritum plusquamperfectum. (Of course, we should also note that what most Latin teachers today call the “future perfect indicative” tense, Donatus calls verba coniunctīvō modō tempore futūrō.) There’s clearly a distinction of tempus (when it happened) and what we’d have to call aspectus (though Donatus, of course, doesn’t use the term) in these tense names!

So how might we approach verb tenses through a lens of aspect in the Tres Columnae system? As you can tell, we begin with present tense verbs, partly because they’re simple to form and partly because the Romans themselves used them for both present and past-tense narration. We discover the various modī (indicative and subjunctive) and the idea of passive verbs (the inpersōnālis) before we ever leave present tense forms. Then, when we do make that move in Lectiō XX, we’ll begin by contrasting the present tense (action that’s ongoing, from the perspective of right now) with the perfect (action that’s completed, from the perspective of right now). Only then will we introduce other tenses.

What are we thinking? Actually, we’re thinking about a lot of things:

  • Our learners have gotten used to seeing perfect tense forms (at least the stem) in vocabulary listings and when they look up words at Perseus and at Glossa. Why not explore a form that’s already somewhat familiar (the third principal part of a verb) before diving into something that’s formed in a complicated way (the imperfect)?
  • The perfect tense has a more direct English equivalent (our simple past tense) than the imperfect does. We think it will be easier to grasp for our English-speaking learners.
  • We think a focus on aspect will make the three Latin past tenses clearer and will also help with the tense/aspect of subjunctives, participles, and infinitives.
  • From experience with one of the “big three” reading method textbooks, which introduces the imperfect and perfect tenses in the same chapter, I know that students are often confused by the distinctions when they encounter those two tenses close together. No wonder! Both have to do with the past, but they see the past in different ways – the perfect as simple or completed, the imperfect as a continuing process. Yet no one ever uses the “a-word” (aspect, that is, not the other a-word!) to help learners see the difference.
  • Once we’re familiar with aspect as it applies to present vs. perfect verbs, we think learners will quickly grasp the imperfect vs. pluperfect distinction, since it’s the same idea (ongoing vs. completed action) from the perspective of the past rather than the present.

But how, exactly, will we go about introducing these distinctions? And have we lost our minds completely? You’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s post to find out. In the meantime, though, grātiās maximās omnibus legentibus. And please keep those comments and emails coming! 🙂

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Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 12:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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