LECTURE GIVEN BY HANS H. ORBERG ON VARIOUS OCCASIONS (conferences in Europe and USA)
Lingua Latina per se illustrata
I am very pleased to have this opportunity to inform Latin teachers and students of my rather unorthodox ideas about Latin teaching. It would perhaps be a good idea to begin by giving you an illustrative example of the way we can all agree that Latin should not be taught. I have taken my example from a book by Winston S. Churchill entitled My Early Life. He tells us how, when seven years old, he was taken to a private boarding school to be taught ‘the classics’ by the very best teachers. Here is his report:
I was taken into a Form Room and told to sit at a desk. All the- other boys were out of doors, and I was alone with the Form Master. He produced a thin greeny-brown, covered book filled with words in different types of print.
‘You have never done any Latin before, have you?’ he said.
‘This is a Latin grammar.’ He opened it at a well-thumbed page. ‘You must learn this’, he said, pointing to a number of words in a frame of lines. ‘I will come back in half an hour and see what you know.’
Behold me then on a gloomy evening, with an aching heart, seated in front of the First Declension:
|Mensae||of a table|
|Mensae||to or for a table|
|Mensa||by, with or from a table|
What on earth did it mean? Where was the sense in it? It seemed absolute rigmarole to me. However, there was one thing I could always do: I could learn by heart. And I thereupon proceeded, as far as my private sorrows would allow, to memorise the acrostic-looking task which had been set me.
In due course the Master returned.
‘Have you learned it?’ he asked.
‘I think I can say it, sir’, I replied; and I gabbled it off.
He seemed so satisfied with this that I was emboldened to ask a question.
‘What does it mean, sir?’
‘I means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the First Declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the First Declension.’
‘But’, I repeated, ‘what does it mean?’
‘Mensa means a table’, he answered.
‘The why does mensa also mean O table’, I enquired, ‘and what does O table mean?’
‘Mensa O table is the vocative case’, he replied.
‘But why O table?’ I persisted in genuine curiosity.
’O table, – you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table.’ And then seeing he was not carrying me with him, ‘You would use it in speaking to a table.’
‘But I never do’, I blurted out in honest amazement.
‘If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely’, was his conclusive rejoinder.
Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit. –
After learning the 1st declension, the next task set poor little Churchill would certainly be to parse and translate sentences like
Scriba poeta est. Puella nautas spectat. Filia reginae cenam parat agricolae…
I know that this sort of inane disconnected sentences have long ago been removed from Latin primers, but even in modern textbooks you may still find ridiculous stories in what is often doubtful Latin, and in any case pupils have to begin by learning grammatical forms and looking up every word in a glossary before they can go on to analyse the parts of a sentence and translate word for word – a procedure that can best be described as ‘deciphering’, not reading.
There is no reason why Latin should be taught by methods totally different from those used in the teaching of modern languages. Latin is a foreign language like other foreign languages and should be taught by similar methods.
Foreign language teachers have always taken a great interest in the process by which a young child acquires a second language when placed in new linguistic surroundings. The speed and accuracy with which a child who has been moved to another country picks up the new language spoken by his or her playfellows and classmates is often quite astonishing; in their limited sphere children may become quite fluent in a new language within a few months. It may be rather a depressing experience for a language teacher to watch the rapid progress of such a child in a foreign language which the teacher’s own pupils are very slow in learning. But it must be borne in mind that the teacher is at a great disadvantage being unable to reproduce for the students the ideal situation of the child in a foreign country who is exposed to the foreign language and compelled to communicate in that language from morning to night day in and day out. We have to realize that the “natural” way of learning a foreign language can never be repeated in the classroom.
However, it is worth noticing that there is a great deal of wasted effort especially in the early stages of “natural” language learning, because the learners are exposed to a large number of sentences and words that they do not understand; in fact, at the beginning they do not understand a single word, and only gradually do they begin to make sense of some of the things they hear. There is rather a long passive listening period.
Considering the limited time allowed to the language teacher, something must be done to cut away the passive period and to expose the students from the very start to statements in the foreign language that they understand and no others. One way of doing this is to provide the students with a vocabulary and with rules and explanations about the grammar and structure so as to enable them to translate every sentence into their native language. This is the traditional “grammar-translation” method, by which numerous generations of children have been taught both modern and ancient languages. But this is not nature’s way. Children learning their mother tongue or a second language in a foreign country have nobody to translate or to explain grammatical rules, they have to pick up the meaning of words and phrases and the functioning of grammatical forms and structures from what they hear in actual use, directly from linguistic practice, and this does not prevent them from understanding and learning words and structures precisely.
Another way of rationalizing and accelerating the learning process without departing from the direct method followed by nature, is to make every sentence presented to the students immediately intelligible per se, or self-explanatory, by grading and organizing the introduction of vocabulary and grammar. That means that there is no need to translate or explain grammatical points in the students’ own language, they are enabled to discover for themselves directly the meaning of the words and sentences and the functioning of the grammatical rules. This is the teaching procedure to which the term “nature method” or “naturae ratio” has been applied. It represents a rationalization of what may be called the natural learning process. The “nature method” is, to use the words of Alexander Pope, “Nature still, but Nature methodiz’d”.
The problem is to “methodize” nature in such a way that there is no waste of time over unintelligible words and sentences, so that every minute of the time at the teacher’s disposal is used to teach the students something that they really comprehend and nothing that is beyond them or that they are not supposed to remember. What is needed is an elementary text – in this case a Latin text – that is so organized that the meaning and function of every new word and every new grammatical form or structure, and thus the meaning of every sentence, is made perfectly clear to the students.
How is this possible if nothing is translated or explained in the students’ own language? Here again we can learn form observing nature: if children who have to learn a language secundum naturam are so quick to grasp the meaning of what is said to them, it is because they are helped by the situation or the context. I think the most important lesson a study of “nature” can teach the language teacher is that words and grammatical forms only come to make sense in context and therefore should be learned in context.
As a writer of Latin textbooks my task has been to create a variety of contexts or situations in which the words and structures that are to be learned make sense in such a way that the meaning and function of all new words and grammatical forms appear unambiguously from the context in which they occur, or, if necessary, from illustrations or marginal notes using vocabulary already learned. This demands a very carefully graded text. The progressive introduction of words, inflections, and structures, with due regard to their frequency in Latin writers, should conform to a well defined program which not only ensures immediate comprehension, but also assimilation and consolidation owing to the constant recurrence in new surroundings of words and forms already introduced and understood.
This is a purely inductive method. Through the observation of a large number of practical examples which form part of a continuous text, the students automatically recognize the meaning of words and sentences, and while familiarizing themselves with the living structure and mechanism of the language they are enabled to work out for themselves, that is to induce, the rules of grammar. The text of my Latin course is based on this principle, which might be called the principle of contextual induction.
From the beginning I claimed that the strict observation of this principle need not detract form the readability of the text. In order to hold the attention of the students, to make them benevolos, attentos, dociles, they must be offered a text that gives them some kind of relevant information or tells a story that interests them. In fact, if learning from context is to be really effective, the content of the text must help to stimulate interest and curiosity and make it easy for readers to visualize the scenes and situations described and to identify with the characters. Ideally the elementary text should be a connected narrative the content of which captivates the students to such a degree that they look forward to reading the continuation of the story. At the same time, in a Latin course the reading of the text should serve as an introduction to some important aspects of Roman culture.
In the course Lingva Latina per se illvstrata I have endeavored to provide an elementary Latin text that combines these qualities with the systematic presentation of vocabulary and grammar that enables the students to understand and learn everything per se, from the context alone. This direct method, based on understanding from context, or contextual induction, is, I believe, more efficient and rewarding than the traditional grammar-translation method. The decisive factor is the satisfaction felt by the students when they discover that they can find out the meaning of everything on their own without having to look up words in vocabularies or rules and paradigms in grammars: they can actually understand the Latin passage that is put before them or that the teacher reads aloud to them. This comes as a pleasant surprise to the students, especially if they find that the text really makes sense, that there is an exciting story to follow and that they learn interesting facts about the ancient Romans, not least the fact that they are truly human beings like the students themselves.
The direct understanding from context gives the students self-confidence and stimulates concentration. It sharpens their faculties of observation and reasoning, faculties that will be greatly needed as the sentences grow more complex. Reading in this way they move on step by step towards the ultimate object of Latin teaching: the reading of Latin literature in Latin with real understanding and appreciation.
Hans H. Ørberg