Finding Your “Why?” for Teaching Latin

Latin is the cornerstone of traditional classical education, so it’s no surprise that modern classical homeschoolers want to teach it to their children. As the author of an elementary Latin program, I’m often asked to weigh in on the merits of various curricula.

Many of the parents who ask for my advice have never studied Latin or any other classical language themselves. They get the idea that they should—or even that they must—teach the language from popular homeschooling guides like The Well-Trained Mind or from the catalogs of Christian classical curriculum providers.

I love Latin, and I love teaching Latin. Still, I often tell parents not to bother. Quidnam?! What on earth?!

The truth is, most parents don’t actually want their children to learn Latin for its own sake. They see it merely as a means to other ends. Guides like The Well-Trained Mind promote the study of Latin to increase students’ English vocabulary and their understanding of grammar, and to provide a stepping-stone to modern Romance languages. Those are important skills that most parents want their children to master, but learning an entire ancient language for those purposes alone is overkill. If you want your child to have a better English vocabulary, give them systematic morphology instruction as part of their reading program, copious reading with plenty of Tier 2 vocabulary in elementary school, and a roots-based vocabulary program in middle school or high school. If you want them to understand English grammar, teach it directly. If you want them to know Spanish or French or Portuguese, teach those languages.

Even if you really do want your child to be able to read Virgil in high school, you may not want to start Latin instruction in 3rd grade, as some neoclassical curriculum providers suggest. To understand why, you need to know a little bit about foreign language teaching methodologies.

Virtually all of the available Latin programs for elementary school children use the grammar-translation method, a parts-to-whole approach in which students memorize grammar rules and vocabulary and then apply them by translating back and forth between their native language and the target language. This is a very traditional way to teach and learn classical languages. However, the argumentum ad antiquitatemthe appeal to traditionis numbered among the logical fallacies for a reason. We’ve learned a lot about language acquisition since Winston Churchill was a boy. 

The fundamental problem with the grammar-translation method is that it treats the Latin sentence like an algebra problem: Instead of “finding X,” you’re “finding the verb.” Despite its emphasis on grammar, the method doesn’t help students internalize the structures of Latin (that is, give them the ability to think in Latin) but instead restricts them to translating in their heads. Mental translation is an unavoidable first step in learning a language, but it shouldn’t be the end point, and this is one reason that the grammar-translation method fell out of favor among language teachers well over 100 years ago. 

The dirty secret among Classics majors—even those who teach Latin or Greek at the university level, in some cases—is that many of them cannot read the languages fluently. They need to deconstruct every sentence and translate it, often with the aid of a dictionary, to get the meaning. They may be able to do so fairly rapidly, but often not to the point that they can simply read and understand a text as any student of French or German or Mandarin is expected to. In other words, they have what in academia is called “reading knowledge,” where more or less heavy use of a dictionary is expected. This is not the same as reading fluency. That’s why there’s a movement within Classics to encourage the use of teaching methods borrowed from the modern languages.

Most contemporary Latin programs written for secondary schools, like Cambridge Latin or Ecce Romani, are designed to give students more practice in reading extended prose passages, since that’s the bulk of what Classics students do. Hans Ørberg’s Lingua latina per se illustrata takes this a step further by teaching Latin completely in Latin—although most teachers do, in practice, teach grammar points in the students’ native language. Ørberg’s method strongly encourages the use of oral Latin in the classroom as a way of immersing students in the language’s syntax and vocabulary. It is sometimes referred to as the Natural Method, as it mimics some aspects of early language acquisition among children: repetition, simplified syntax, and vocabulary encountered in natural contexts.

Increasing numbers of high school and college Latin teachers are adopting the Communicative Method, which has been the dominant teaching method for modern languages for the last 30+ years. (I was trained to teach German with this method, back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; it’s hardly an untried, new-fangled approach.)  Newer classical language programs integrate techniques from the Communicative Method, like Christophe Rico’s Forum and Polis texts, for Latin and Greek, respectively. My own curriculum, I Speak Latin, also uses the Communicative Method and related techniques drawn from modern language teaching, like Total Physical Response.

Traditionalists like to claim that Latin is “logical” and that using the parts-to-whole method trains students in critical thinking, but there is no actual evidence for this claim. (Amusingly, you hear exactly the same arguments from teachers of Sanskrit!) Much of what Christian classical curriculum providers say about Latin is mere puffery.

As Robert Patrick explains in his article of the same name, “Latin Is Not Different.” It’s a natural human language like any other, and can and should be taught just like any other. That means including all four language modalities: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Unlike reading and writing, which are comparatively recent cultural developments, listening and speaking are natural language modes available to every developmentally normal human being. Limiting their use in language learning deprives students of their greatest natural strengths. It’s like asking them to accurately discern colors in a darkened room or to analyze a piece of music heard under water.

In short, if your goal is to have your child be able to read Latin fluently by the end of high school, I’d recommend not using a grammar-translation program. Instead, choose a reading program, ideally one that includes spoken Latin. If you do want to go the grammar-translation route, supplement with a reading-based program like Cambridge or Lingua Latina, and take advantage of the burgeoning market in Latin-language novellas to assure that students are getting plenty of comprehensible input.

You may have noticed that none of the reading-method programs are designed for children under about the age of 12. The major exception, Cambridge’s Minimus, has gone out of print due to lack of demand. Don’t children have to start Latin in elementary school?

In a word, no. All modern Latin programs assume that children need a good grounding in the grammar and vocabulary of their native language(s) before studying a classical language. Most 3rd graders are still learning to decode longer English words, and many have had little or no exposure to formal grammar. You can get a child to memorize grammar charts and some basic vocabulary at younger ages, and that’s exactly what companies selling grammar-translation programs are doing. It’s easy, and parents with no background in Latin can successfully teach these programs. But to what end?

Unfortunately, and pace Dorothy Sayers, being able to chant noun and verb endings does not result in the ability to read Latin. I remember the shock on the faces of a class of formerly homeschooled 9th graders, some of whom had been studying Latin for six years, when they realized that they could not understand the page of dead-easy Latin prose I’d placed before them on the first day of class. I’m not even talking about authentic Latin text; I mean a piece of simple textbook Latin from the fourth chapter of Ørberg, something students might encounter about halfway through their first year of study.

To return to the math analogy, procedural fluency (=knowing your endings) is not the same as conceptual understanding (=understanding how the pieces fit together to create a meaningful utterance). Being able to parse each word in a sentence does not result in understanding the meaning of that sentence. And ultimately, it’s the meaning that matters.

What if you don’t know Latin yourself? How can you teach something like Cambridge or Ørberg? There’s the rub: You can’t. You can either learn the language in advance of your child, or you can outsource the subject.

So where does this leave parents who want their children to learn Latin in the context of a modern classical education? The tl;dr version is this:

  • If you want your child to have good English grammar and vocabulary, teach those subjects explicitly.
  • If you want your child to learn a modern Romance language, teach one.
  • If you want your child to be able to read authentic Latin texts, teach them Latin, beginning in 7th grade, with a reading-method program. (You can give them a leg up in 6th grade with I Speak Latin.) 
  • If you don’t know the language and don’t have the time or inclination to learn, outsource the subject.

Latin remains a valuable part of modern homeschooling, but before you ask “which Latin?” be sure you can answer the question “why Latin?” for yourself.