Learning “Classical” Languages – Speaking, Translating or Reading?

I’ve been following an interesting discussion on whether a “conversational” approach should be used for Latin or not.

For modern language courses, the behavioral objectives are fairly obvious. After 2-3 semesters of a language, you want to be able to walk into a cafe or bar, read the menu and order the beverage you want (or figure out how to get the train to Marseilles, or get the latest scoop from ¡Hola! magazine. That is you want a certain level of listening, reading and speaking proficiency with enough writing thrown in to fill out an application or compose a quick thank you note.

These days a conversational approach is advocated so that students learn to communicate in the target language “on their feet”. Exposure to native language speech input is also recommended whenever possible so that leaners can parse audio.

With classical languages like Latin and Greek, the objectives may be different. For instance, Attic Greek (i.e. the language Sophocles spoke) is what you need to read the original Ancient Greek literature. If you’re in Greece, Attic Greek is helpful for reading street signs and monument inscriptions. But if you want to order some ouzo in Athens, you probably need to learn Modern Greek. That is, learning classical languages is usually about being able to read in the target language – not being able to speak it.

Can the conversational approach help here? Interestingly many of the Latin teachers said they DID advocate the conversational approach. Apparently learning Latin without using it conversationally was a little be too “abstract” for students. I’ll admit that my Latin teacher burned in the supine into my brain with “correctives” like horrible dictu (or “Ugh! Horrible Latin!”). Interestlngly Latin has taken on a life of its own as a living language community. You can even get your news (nuntii) in Latin. Clearly, there’s something to this.

It should be noted that traditional Latin pedagogy then focused more on grammar and translation. The idea was that if you understood in detail how the Latin phrase or sentence was bulf, you that you would be able to read Latin by “deconstructing” the combination of words and grammatical endings. In practice though, I would say that the result is that many students can recite a lot of paradigms but end up having troubles reading actual texts from Cicero.

But…even with the conversational approach, I wonder if you hit a wall. I’m glad we have “modernized” Latin, but it can’t be the same as what Cicero wrote. It’s a form of Latin spoken mostly by speakers of modern European languages – none of which much resemble Latin anymore. Even modern Italian has very different syntax than Classical Latin.

What I found was that even with “conversation” and “grammar”, I had great trouble parsing Cicero – I could translate the words, but couldn’t string them together so that they meant anything. There’s a certain pragmatic logic in Latin that is lost in literal translation. After all Qui/Cui bono doesn’t literally mean “Who benefits?” but “Good for whom?”

I would say that I didn’t truly understand how to learn Classical languages until I took Middle Welsh. Although we did learn some grammar, the focus wasn’t being able to speak or even translate anything. Instead we just picked up an actual text with a glossary in the back and plowed through. I took notes in the text, but it was so small that I learned to only translate the key vocabulary words I didn’t get. The more “simple” words I could memorize, the faster the reading went. In other words I was learning to read the syntax directly. I had slight indigestion that I would not be able to order a mead in Middle Welsh, but then again, this is not really possible anyway.

Another benefit to the “learn as you read approach” is that you may not be thrown off by minor inconsistencies. Many medieval languages were “flexible” in terms of grammar and spelling – it really is more important that you be able to recognize a potential irregular past tense rather than that you know exactly what it is.

When I thought about it, I realized this is probably the best approach – after all you are trying to read the language, and sometimes you may need to read an undiscovered document which may contain new verb forms as well as previously unattested vocabulary. Sometimes reading ancient texts is a decoding exercise.

In the end, it’s about the reading and neither the speaking or the translation. There’s just one remaining problem – by the time I had gotten to Middle Welsh, I had Modern Welsh under my belt. If you’re starting from scratch, it really can be an interesting chicken and egg challenge.

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