Building Understanding, V: More about Derivatives

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we continue with our series about Building Understanding as well as Knowledge and Skill in the Tres Columnae system. This is Day 5 of the overall series, and Day 2 of our focus on English derivatives. We’ll be looking at specific exercises and other tasks today, and I hope you’ll agree that the tasks we focus on are at least as much about Understanding, in the end, as they are about Knowledge and Skill. We addressed some of the problems that arise when Knowledge and Skill are taught without a focus on Understanding in yesterday’s post, and on Sunday I left you with this related thought:

Sadly, many American learners come to the study of Latin after a unit (or several) about “Greek and Latin roots and prefixes” in their English classes … but they’ve never developed the Understanding that languages borrow words from each other, or even the Understanding that languages change over time, or that you can often predict the meaning of a word if you know the meanings of its various components. So, while we’ll also develop some Knowledge of English derivatives and some Skills at working with them along the way, our primary goal is this Understanding

How can it be, we’ve probably all wondered, that students come to our Latin classes after “learning about” Latin and Greek word parts in English class, but yet they still “can’t” (or, at least, don’t) look at an English word like matronly and see any connection with māter or matrōna? How can it be that they “learned about” the chemical symbols of elements like gold and silver in several science classes, yet are surprised (pleasantly surprised, yes, but still surprised) by the connection of Au with aurum or Ag with argentum? And how can it be that they “learned about the Roman Empire” in World History class, but “know nothing” about Roman history?

Part of the problem may be that students come to us with an expectation that different school subjects are inherently disconnected from each other. I can’t be the only one who’s had to counsel – or console – students deeply upset because of “all the math in Chemistry,” can I? (You’d think it would be obvious … but then two of my college roommates were Chemistry majors.) Sadly, for many students, Subject A and Subject B (fill in any subject you’d like as either A or B) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with each other. After all, they’re taught in different class periods, by different teachers! They even have different textbooks, and the state (or national, depending on where you are) exams are different. Factory-model schools, by their very nature, promote this sort of disconnected view of their curricula; but even in such schools, many Latin teachers aim to help our learners synthesize knowledge from different areas. I don’t know that we can have a direct effect on curricular fragmentation, but we can probably have an indirect effect as we encourage our students to make their own connections to areas that are personally meaningful and interesting to them.

But how can we build these types of Understanding with real derivative exercises based on real stories? Let’s take a look at Prima Fabula Longa, the first “long” story in Lectiō Prīma of the project. After our learners have read it, we’ll ask them to work through a sequence of tasks like this:

quid novī?

As you read and heard the story, you probably noticed that a lot of the words were familiar to you while others were unfamiliar or even brand new. Most readers would probably say that these words were familiar:

in, tablīnō, sedet, labōrat, est, Rōmānus, māter, fīlius, fīlia, puella, puer, peristyliō, canis, frāter, et, soror

They’d probably say these words were somewhat familiar:

cīvis, lānam facit, fēmina, quoque, lūdit

And they’d probably say these words were unfamiliar:

summae, doctrīnae, magnae, prūdentiae, bona, benigna, paene, formōsa, lūdus (in lūdō), geminī

Choose two or more words that seemed familiar, one or two that seemed somewhat familiar, and one or two that seemed unfamiliar to you (it’s OK if your categories are different from ours), and click on them. (Obviously the links aren’t clickable yet, but they will be in the exercise!) These links will take you to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a wonderful resource that will show you many, many English words that developed over time from each of these Latin words. When you’ve explored the words you chose, please record some of your observations in your Tres Columnae learning blog. (In an amazing example of serendipity, as our faithful reader Laura G was developing her Vocabulary Blog idea in this totally free online Latin composition course, I was thinking about derivative blogs … and we both had the idea at the same time, I think!)

So far we’ve primarily looked at Knowledge and Skill-building work. Here comes the Understanding piece:

On a scale from 1-5, how much do you think you know about how words from one language turn into words in another language?

If you chose 4 or 5, you’ll continue to another quid novī? (see below). If you chose 1, 2, or 3, we’ll encourage you to look at this sequence:

  1. We’ll show you a paragraph full of English derivatives from the familiar words in our previous list.
  2. When you advance to the next screen, the paragraph will be color-coded, showing the language of origin for each word.
  3. Then we’ll ask, Did you know that a large number of English words – and an even larger number of words in French, Spanish, Italian, and the other “Romance” languages, developed from Latin words over time?

If you choose Yes, we’ll ask, Do you know how this happened?

If you choose No – or if you want our brief history-of-English lecture anyway 🙂 – we’ll then take you on a short summary – focusing on English, since that’s the first language of many of our current subscribers – of

  1. the Roman conquest of Britain
  2. the spread of Christianity, with Latin as the language of education, international communication, and the Church
  3. the Roman withdrawal from Britain and the “fall” of the western Empire
  4. the development of vernacular languages in Europe after the “fall”
  5. the Norman Conquest of England and its huge, but secondary, Latinate effect on English
  6. the “Renaissance” and its “rediscovery” of classical learning
  7. scholarly borrowings of Latin and Greek roots from then through the present day.

Then, in that other quid novī? screen, we’ll ask you to revisit at least one of the Online Etymology Dictionary entries you looked at earlier, and at least one new one. This time, we’ll have you take a closer look at how the words changed and developed over time, and how their meanings are both related to and different from the meanings of the root words. (It’s a big move, for example, from paene to penitent if the folks at the Online Etymology Dictionary are right about that connection!) We’ll invite you to add to your blog post and to participate, if you’d like, in the Continuing Virtual Seminar about word origins and language change.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think about the element of choice in derivative work? It’s very different from what most Latin teachers do, but does it make sense to you?
  • Can you see how our core values of Joy, Learning, Community, and Ownership would impel us to give our learners some choices about vocabulary and derivatives?
  • Do you think we have, in fact, helped our learners build some Understanding as well as Knowledge and Skill? Or have we just confused them with Too Much Information?

Tune in next time, when we’ll begin to examine how we can build Understanding of cultural elements, from products (like houses) and practices (like family structures) to perspectives (like the untranslatable concept of pietās). intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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