Building Understanding, III: Nouns and Verbs

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we continue our series about the Understandings that we hope our learners will develop, along with increased Knowledge and Skill, during the first two Lectiōnēs of the Tres Columnae project. (For new readers, this three-fold distinction among Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding is central to the Paideia model of education, and you can learn a lot more about Paideia’s “Three Columns of Instruction” at this link.) We’ll be looking specifically at Understandings about language today, and in particular at the second of our five goals for Lectiō Prīma, that the learner will

distinguish Latin nouns and verbs

At first glance, this may seem like a Knowledge level task (after all, what could be more basic for a language learner than parts of speech) or perhaps, at best, a Skill (since we’re asking our learners to distinguish rather than just recognize or list nouns and verbs). And, in fact, we will certainly be building both Knowledge and Skill when we focus on this goal. But we’re not content to stop with Knowledge or even Skill; we also want our learners to develop some deeper Understandings about the nature of language, and to be able to apply these Understandings not only to Latin, but to their native languages and to other languages they may learn down the road.

So consider the following sequence, which (until now) has never appeared on the Version Alpha Wiki site. It comes right after Fabella Prīma and Fabella Secunda:

quid novī?

You probably noticed that Latin, like other languages, has words for people, places, animals, and things, and that it also has words for actions. So far we’ve seen

People: familia

Places: mōns Vesuvius, Ītalia, urbs Herculāneum

Things: columnae, domus

Actions: est, stant, habitat

You may know that English speakers call the “people, places, animals, and things” words nouns and the “actions” words verbs. The Romans called them nōmen and verbum.

On a scale from 1-5, where 1 is very uncomfortable and 5 is very comfortable, how comfortable do you feel with the concept of nōmen and verbum?

On the same scale, how comfortable do you feel with distinguishing a nōmen from a verbum?

So far, we’ve mainly been building Knowledge (what nouns and verbs are – which we hope, but are no means certain, that our learners already know to some degree). Of course, the self-assessment involves some Skill and a bit of self-understanding … or at least self-awareness! But wait, there’s more:

If your comfort level with distinguishing a nōmen from a verbum is 3 or less, we’ll invite you to follow a link to a further explanation:

quid novī?

At this point in our learning of Latin, it will actually be quite easy to distinguish a nōmen from a verbum, because all the verba we’ll see until Lectiō Quīnta will have something in common! Take a closer look at the three verba we’ve seen so far:

est, stant, habitat

What do they have in common?

They all end with the same letter – a ___

(If “I” or “you” or “we” do the action of a verbum, it will change, but we don’t have to worry about that until Lectiō Quīnta!)

Then everyone goes on to this quid novī? – the one that firmly focuses on Understanding:

It’s actually easier to recognize a Latin verbum than it is to recognize an English verb.

For example, consider these five unfamiliar Latin words, which we’ll come to know well in future Lectiōnēs:

mustēla, plōrat, cēnāculum, īnsula, reddit

Two of them are verba – which two?

(if you answer correctly)

  • certē! Even though you’ve never seen the words before, you could tell that plōrat and reddit had to be verba, because they both ended with -t.

(if you answer incorrectly)

  • vae! heu! You might want to take a closer look at the quid novī? explanation. Check again to see the letter that all verba will end with until at least Lectiō Quīnta, then try the question again!

Now (if you’re a native English speaker) consider the following list of English words. Which ones are definitely verbs and couldn’t be any other part of speech?

drink, swim, fly, run, crawl

You probably noticed that all of them could be verbs, but they could also be something else.

The people drink water (verb) – but you can also have a drink of water (noun)

The boy likes to swim (verb) – but the boy went for a swim (verb)

Birds fly (noun) – but I see a fly on the table (noun), and (in some dialects) you can look fly (adjective).

See if you can generate your own examples for run and crawl, and see if you can come up with some other English words that can be several different parts of speech in different contexts.

Unlike those English words, though, Latin verba will be easy to recognize – at least until Lectiō Quīnta – because they end with -t.

On a scale from 1-5, how comfortable do you feel with recognizing nōmina and verba now?

On the same scale, how comfortable do you feel with some of the differences between Latin and English?

With this quid novī? explanation, we’ve firmly crossed over from Skill (recognizing or classifying words as nouns or verbs) to Understanding, as we focus on a critical difference between Latin and English. Of course we’ll go on to complicate the picture a bit, as we consider some words that can be used as bases for both nouns and verbs (coquus and coquere early on, and labor and labōrāre after a while, among others). But from the very beginning, we want to build not only Knowledge (these words are nouns, these are verbs) and Skill (here’s how you can distinguish a verb from other parts of speech) but also Understandings (languages indicate parts of speech in different ways).

Personally, I think most existing Latin textbooks do a great job with building Knowledge, and in general they’re also pretty good at building Skills – grammar-translation books, for example, build the Skills of producing and analyzing grammatical forms, and reading-method books build Skill at reading comprehension. But I’m far from convinced that most textbooks focus on Understanding … and, of course, textbooks always drive instruction to some degree even when a teacher (or a school district) insists that some curriculum document or set of standards is “much more important” than the textbook. Unfortunately, when we don’t work to build (or at least to assess) Understanding, we can leave our students without the context or basis to apply their developing Knowledge or Skill.

I had a dramatic illustration of that recently, when my Latin I students suddenly started adding noun endings to verbs (and vice versa) in writing exercises. First I was surprised, then I was angry, then I was sad, then I was puzzled – I guess I went through most of the stages of the grief process, come to think of it, though I refused to get to Acceptance of what they were doing! 🙂 Anyway, I eventually discovered that for several of them, the noun-verb distinction just wasn’t clear … and this was in late April, after several months of daily 90-minute classes! We went back, built the missing Understanding (and related ones about which verb stems form which tenses), and saw a big improvement. It’s not surprising … after all, if you don’t have the Understanding of what Skills or Knowledge to apply, it’s like flying or driving while blindfolded: you’re unlikely to get to your destination, and you’re quite likely to crash and, possibly, burn on the way!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • How do you feel about the Knowledge-Skill-Understanding distinction we’ve been using?
  • Do you agree with my claim about building Understanding of language through these quid novī? explanations and exercises?
  • What about my claim that textbooks, in general, prioritize Knowledge and Skill over Understanding?
  • And what about my poor, wayward Latin I students? Was it really that they had a lack of Understanding, or was it (as some teachers might claim, especially at this difficult time of year) just that they were being “bad” or “lazy” or “unmotivated” or something like that?

Tune in next time, when we’ll see how even the study of English (and other language) derivatives from Latin can be made into an exercise for Understanding as well as Skill and Knowledge. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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