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.

Reading and Translating, Part II

salvēte iterum, amīcī – et, fortasse, nunc inimīcī!  If you find yourself in the inimīcus or even hostis category after the most recent post, I truly appreciate your continued interest in the project.  It’s hard to keep reading about stuff that you simply detest! 🙂  For those who are still amīcī, we’ll take a closer look in this post at why Tres Columnae won’t use a “pure” grammar-translation approach, even though we’ll certainly learn about Latin grammar (and even learn how to use it!) … and even though some tasks for our participants may well involve some translation.

For early language learners, though, I see two main problems with a grammar-translation approach: the grammatical analysis and the translating.  Both, I’m convinced, are higher-level tasks for which learners need to be prepared.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, analysis is a very high-level task. On Bloom’s taxonomy, it’s near the top of the pyramid; in the Paideia framework, it’s firmly ensconced at the level of Understanding. But a beginning Latin student is often struggling with knowledge and comprehension – the base of Bloom’s pyramid.  It’s one thing to read and comprehend a sentence like these, from early in Cursus Prīmus of Tres Columnae:

Milphiō est servus Valeriī.  servus in faucibus stat et iānuam aperit.  Lollius est cliēns Valeriī, et Valerius est patrōnus Lolliī.  Lollius domum intrat et patrōnum salūtat.

A beginning Latin student could quite easily comprehend these sentences,and could certainly “translate” them if needed.  In fact, the beginning student could easily distinguish the nouns, or even the nominative or genitive nouns.  These are reasonable goals for a beginning Latin student.  But is it really reasonable to assume, as many “hard-core” grammar-translation teachers do, that students should be able to say and understand all this information about a word:

Valeriī, 2nd declension, genitive, singular, masculine, genitive of possession with servus

What if the student accidentally says “partitive genitive” instead?  Does this mean he or she doesn’t “know” Latin?  Now, at some point, it might be perfectly reasonable to ask a learner for all this information – but in Lectiō Tertia of Cursus Primus?  After the equivalent of a week or two of instruction?  I really don’t think so!

As for translation, it’s an even higher-level task than analysis.   Fundamentally, translation is an act of evaluation and creation – the highest level in both Bloom’s revised taxonomy and the Paideia framework. Translation may seem straightforward with a simple sentence like the ones above – and yet, what if the student says “Valerius is Lollius’ patron” rather than what the teacher wanted, which is “Valerius is the patron of Lollius”?  Was the student wrong?

But what about this one, from Eutropius’ Breviarium ab urbe condita VI.21, describing the last battle between Caesar and Pompey:

Pugnatum tamen est ingenti contentione victusque ad postremum Pompeius et castra eius direpta sunt.

How can we faithfully represent that impersonal passive verb pugnatum est?   And how can we deal with the position of tamen?  To translate literally, we’d have to say “it was, however, fought” – but that doesn’t mean, in English, what pugnātum tamen est means Latīnē. “A fight, however, occurred?” “Fighting, however, happened?” “There was, however, a fight?” “But they fought?”   All are possible translations; how to choose between them?

In the end, all translation choices involve aesthetic, artistic questions (which is why no two published, literary translations of anything are exactly the same).  And to make such judgments, the translator requires a high level of comfort and familiarity with both Latin and English – in other words, a high level of ownership of several disparate things: Latin grammar, English grammar, Latin syntax, English syntax, Latin prose style, English prose style, Latin vocabulary ….

And yet this Eutropius passage appears in at least one third-year high-school textbook.  Latin III students are perfectly capable of reading and understanding such a sentence, and they ought to be able to analyze it grammatically.  But is it really appropriate to ask them to “translate literally” something that, by its very nature, can’t be said in English?  Of course, the solution is usually to “have a note about it” or to omit that sentence from the literal-translation part of the test! 🙂  But whenever we do so, aren’t we admitting that “literal translation,” the One Right Way, isn’t always the right way – or even a possible way?

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that as a profession, we Classicists haven’t been clear about our goals, or about the level of understanding that our goals require. That lack of clarity is not unique to Classicists, by any means!   We teachers, as a group, tend to “teach as we were taught.” If we prepared written “literal” translations as Latin II or III students, we’re likely to ask our Latin II or III students to do the same, just as math teachers who completed 35 odd-numbered problems for homework every night are likely to ask the same of their students, or teachers who were made to “outline the chapter” assign that same task to their own students.

In each case, we assume “they’re learning something” – even though we’re not quite sure what that “something” is! In fact, we assume that our students “understand the passage because they can translate it” – or, conversely, that they don’t understand the passage because the can’t translate it to our liking! Yet our wise colleague Dexter Hoyos of the University of Sydney makes it one of his Ten Rules for Reading Latin that

RULE 5: If translating, translate only when you have seen exactly how the sentence works and what it means. Do not translate in order to find out what the sentence means. Understand first, *then* translate.

Another problem with “teaching as we were taught” is that we tend to exclude learners who aren’t like the “us” who do the teaching. In the case of that math teacher, students who quickly develop a conceptual understanding will grow bored and restless with those 35 odd-numbered problems, while those who need real-world applications will probably be lost at problem #1. In the case of the Latin teacher, think of all the students who might feel excluded:

  • those who read and understand quickly, but find written translation tedious
  • those who might understand the passage fairly well, but whose written English is non-standard, or not as developed as the teacher expects
  • those with visual-processing disabilities, or with dysgraphia or other muscle-control issues that make lengthy writing tedious
  • those who decide the task is pointless because they’ve already Googled the text and found a “literal” translation (or more than one, depending on the text. Just try it if you don’t believe me! Yes, the publishers will send a cease-and-desist order if it’s a textbook, but just wait: more “literal translations” will pop up, like mushrooms!  I dare you: Google a textbook title and the word “translation” – do it right now!  And let me know if you don’t get any results back!)

Yet Magister A and Magistra B, overwhelmed with multiple preparations, continue to teach as they were taught, perhaps pausing sometimes to wonder why their upper-level classes are so small – or why, when their students’ homework was “so good” (and so similar), the translation sections of tests are so poor. :-0

While Tres Columnae will not exclude translation as a tool, we think it’s been so overused, especially with beginning and intermediate level learners, that we’ll severely limit its use. From our perspective, there are a lot of ways to demonstrate understanding, on the one hand, and grammatical analysis, on the other. And so we aim to help our participants do one thing at a time, well, rather than many things, poorly, as so often happens when we ask students to “translate the passage.”

At least, that’s what we’ll aim to do. quid tamen respondētis, lēctōrēs cārissimī? If you’re a passionate devotee of translation – or if you feel it really is a superior technique for developing or testing understanding – I’d like to hear from you. For that matter, if you’re a passionate opponent of translation and feel it should be banned forever, I’d like to hear from you, too. I would not, however, like to sit between the two of you at dinner! 🙂

How exactly will Tres Columnae test understanding, on the one hand, and grammatical analysis, on the other, without translation? Ask a modern-language teacher if you know one, or take a look at many, many discussions about this issue on the Latinteach and Latin-BestPractices listservs. You can also find some clues in the previous blog posts where we previewed stories from Cursus Primus and Cursus Secundus. But in tomorrow’s post we’ll take a closer look at another sample story, and we’ll follow the whole process from pre-reading through reading and beyond.  Tune in tomorrow for more!