Inter-Language Connections

salvēte, amīcī et collēgae. This is a day of great meaning for me, and it’s also the first day of Spring Break in my face-to-face teaching world. So I apologize in advance if this is a bit disjointed or unfocused. Also, there won’t be a post tomorrow or on Easter Sunday; we’ll pick up on Monday with a series of posts about exercises and quizzes in the Tres Columnae system, including links to some live, interactive examples. Today, though, we’ll finish our exploration of vocabulary-related issues raised by this story from the Tres Columnae project, in which young Cnaeus and his sisters engage in an all-too-familiar sibling conflict.

In a “typical” Latin textbook, whether it follows the reading method or the grammar-translation approach, this story would occur as part of a “chapter” or “lesson” or “stage,” and at the end of this subdivision, there would be some type of “vocabulary list.” Depending on the book, the words might be listed with their complete lexical information, or in a different way that the authors found more suitable, and each word would have one or more English equivalent. Teachers would expect their students to “learn the words and their meanings” and would probably give some type of “vocabulary quiz” or “vocabulary test” to determine if the words and meanings had, in fact, been “learned.” Along the way, there would be some “exercises about derivatives” – perhaps provided in the textbook, or perhaps prepared by the teacher – and the English (or other language) derivatives would then be “included on the quiz” (or on the test) in some way to make sure that they, also, had been “learned.” If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that I do this myself, to some degree, with my face-to-face Latin students … but you also know that I’m profoundly suspicious of anything that “everybody” does, especially when there’s no discussion of the purpose or goal of the activity.

So, before we look at inter-language vocabulary connections, I want to raise, once again, a couple of disturbing questions that I can’t exactly answer:

  • What’s the purpose of “learning vocabulary” by lists in this manner?
  • If students “learn the vocabulary” by memorizing lists, will they naturally apply their learning when they see the word in context … especially if it’s in a different form from the list?
  • Suppose the word appears in a list with “two meanings” – or more than two. How will the learner know which one is “right” in a particular context?
  • Does an emphasis on lists actually harm students by confirming their unstated assumption that Latin and English (or any other pair of languages) are “exactly alike” – that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between words in the two languages?
  • If so, how can we possibly help students past this misconception?
  • And, more specifically related to our immediate concern, what’s the purpose of “learning derivatives” anyway?
  • Does it help or hurt students’ learning of Latin … and does it help or hurt their English vocabulary?

Actually, I do have an answer to the very last question: it’s intuitively obvious that learning English derivatives must help students’ English vocabularies … at least if they have a chance to take Ownership of the words and actually use them in a meaningful way. To that end, I think it’s probably better if the learners have as much control as possible over the English derivatives they study: for example, they might be asked to find derivatives for a particular root word, or to determine the root word of a particular derivative, or to analyze a given English word to determine its prefix, root, and suffix. I also think that English (and other language) derivatives work best for students – or, at least, for the ones I know best in my face-to-face teaching world – when they’re an exciting, surprising treat (a lagniappe) rather than a drudgery-filled requirement. And if one goal of learning Latin is to use one’s Latin vocabulary to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar English (or other language) words, I think it’s important to test that skill by providing unfamiliar words for the student to work with.

In other words, I’m very suspicious of those pre-generated lists of derivatives to be “learned” and “included on the quiz.” Depending on the age and sophistication of the learner, it can be perfectly appropriate and reasonable to provide some English (or other language) derivatives as examples, and it certainly makes sense to explain how words in one language morph into words in another. But, as much as possible, learners need Ownership of these connections for themselves.

In that context, I had an interesting conversation yesterday with one of my brightest Latin II students, who wondered if there are any “rules” about derivation … for example, if a Latin noun could only create English nouns. In talking with her (she really does ask excellent, deep questions like this every day!), I realized that she has a very inflexible, rule-governed view of language development; the idea that someone could simply decide that a word needed to exist, make it up, and start using it was a big surprise to her. But then I thought about what I know of her education from kindergarten through tenth grade (and from what I understand, it has been a good one, for a factory-model education): when, if ever, did she see any examples of invention or creativity applied to language – or other things – in school? I’m not sure she ever did! And I’m not sure my own children ever did, either … although, in all these cases, the learners in question have had plenty of opportunities to be creative outside of school.

So, if you were looking for pre-set “derivative exercises” to go with the story of Cnaeus, Prima, Secunda, and the Terrible Insult, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. These types of exercises tend to operate at the Knowledge level on the Paideia framework, but that’s not where derivatives are … they’re about Connections and Comparisons in the National Standards model, or Skill and Understanding in the Paideia framework. Instead of closed-ended derivative exercises, we’ll feature open-ended ones like these:

  1. Now that you’ve read the story, think of three or four words that are problematic for you – for example, words that you have to look up repeatedly, or words that look and sound similar to each other (like sūs and suus). Do a search at or or and see how many interesting English (or other language) derivatives you can find for your “problem” words. If you’re a Basic, Standard, or Premium subscriber, you might want to add them to the relevant Adopt-A-Word page.
  2. If you have been struggling with a particular word, see how many English (or other language) derivatives you can find – or make up – for the word by adding the prefixes and suffixes we’ve used so far. Check them out at or and see how many of them are “real” English words. If you have invented a wonderful word, and if you’re a Basic, Standard, or Premium subscriber, you might want to add your new word to the Adopt-A-Word page and see if anyone else starts using it!
  3. If you’re a Standard or Premium subscriber, you might also want to create an exercise or quiz that uses the words you found. Remember to make it wonderful so that others can really benefit from it, and please review the Rubric for Exercises and Quizzes before you upload it.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • This is obviously a long way from the “typical” approach of “learning the word” and “learning the derivative!” But does it make sense to you?
  • Even if you disagree with it for your own face-to-face teaching situation, can you see why it would be appropriate as an option for the Tres Columnae system?
  • Would you, personally, enjoy derivative assignments like these? Do you think your students would enjoy them, either as a supplement or as a replacement to the work you’re doing with derivatives now?
  • And, for you English speakers, what about derivatives in languages other than English? Are they a distraction from your primary goal, or are they a helpful supplement that shows the continuing influence of Latin on all kinds of world languages?
  • How much attention to derivatives seems “right” to you – and is there such a thing as too much attention to them? At what point does a Latin class “about” derivatives cease to be a Latin class and become an English vocabulary development class? And is there anything wrong with that?

I wish you a wonderful and peaceful weekend … and I hope that readers for whom this weekend has profound meaning, as it does for me, will experience both the depths and the heights of the Triduum. grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus. Please keep those comments and emails coming, and don’t forget that there’s still time (and a bit of space) if you’d like to sign up for a Trial Subscription.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. thank you , realy you are helpfull .

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