I received this question:
I want to ask you for some guidance with Henle Latin and my (our) student.
She is doing really well at translating Latin into English. However, when we go English to Latin, she consistently gets endings wrong (although she usually has the right word) and the order wrong.
She is enjoying your class, and especially likes to read from the Lingua Latina book.
Can you please advise/recommend how best I can go back and reinforce the proper declensions, and how she should be using them? We are currently working on 1 or 2 exercises a day from Henle, starting back at chapter 1.
Here is my reply:
This is going to get weird. Hang in there with me. Hopefully, it will all make sense.
I have been studying this language for 20 years. I still get the endings wrong. It’s ridiculous.
Here is part of the problem… and, I think it’s a big part of the problem.
Latin has shifted from the language of the people. It was once the language of an empire. Because those native speakers couldn’t keep the endings perfectly organized, we now have French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, and a dozen more beautiful languages. Not a bad development. I am currently studying Italian and I am loving it.
Over time, Latin became the language of pointy-headed, perfectionistic, meticulous academics. Latin students, under their watchful eyes, are under constant pressure to get everything perfectly correct. This is a standard most native speakers couldn’t maintain.
I drive an old, beat up pick-up truck. For some reason, I can’t get the left tail light to work. It’s a good truck. I am a decent driver. I obey all of the traffic laws, even the speed limit laws. I am sure I annoy most of the drivers around me. Most of them seem to ignore the speed limit laws.
Some time ago, I lived in downtown Athens, Greece for a month. I saw the police once or twice. They were only in a hurry when they were going into a bakery. (I am not making this up.) During our month in downtown Athens, my family and I heard emergency sirens once.
I live in one of America’s most boring towns. Seriously. Franklin, Tennessee is a boring, safe place to raise kids. But, you wouldn’t think so if you listened to the emergency sirens. It seems that every six hours there is a major catastrophe in my town.
For some reason, there is a rather heavy police presence in my town. Often, I get pulled over for things like not having a tail-light. For a long time, tired of being pulled over for so many tiny infractions, I left my truck parked. Instead, I rode my bike to work.
What is the point of all of this? I think many teachers in America are like bored traffic cops. We are constantly “pulling kids over” for not producing perfect work.
In Athens, the attitude seemed to be, “Can you drive? Great. Be careful out there. Other, than that… no rules.” The Greeks are the most manic drivers I have ever encountered. And, I saw not accidents during my three months in Greece. Not one.
In Franklin, the attitude seems to be, “Can you drive? Who cares? Have you perfectly checked off every tiny requirement that we have arbitrarily imposed? If not, you will be punished.” I see cars pulled over at least once a day. Usually, more than once a day.
When it comes to languages, my attitude is far more Athenian. Can you read in Latin? No? Doesn’t matter. Let’s start. Let’s read. We will learn the endings, the grammar, and the nuances of the language as we go.
When it comes to languages, the academic world is far more like my over policed town. “Can you read Latin? No. You may not. You may not read Latin until you have learned every single tiny grammar rule. You may not read in Latin until you have learned every single ending. You may not read in Latin until you have mastered all of the complicated spelling rules associated with each and every verb conjugation Once you have learned all of the rules, you may begin reading Latin.”
So, how does this apply to you? I would relax. Read Familia Romana. Read it again and again. Watch the old classes I have on my site. Pay close attention to the grammar instruction. The endings will come. We put too much pressure on students. It took me a long time to learn all of the endings, and (as I mentioned above), I still get them wrong.
Remember why you are studying Latin. Ultimately, it is so you can read interested stuff in Latin. I recommend starting with the Bible. It is full of interesting stories, and the content is familiar. The academics would disagree with me here, too. They want student to start with Caesar. That is why Henle has students translating sentences like, “There were dead bodies floating in the river.” Sigh.
There is nothing wrong with the grammar, and there is nothing wrong with learning the endings. By all means, do it. Use anything necessary to do it. Flash cards, quizlet.com, old classes I have on my site, review, whatever. Use it all.
But, in the end, it is a calm daily approach that is going to yield the greatest results. My strongest recommendation? Read a chapter of Lingua Latina every day. If you don’t understand, look up the words that confuse you. Read the chapter again the next day. Do this every day for a couple of years. Don’t stress. Enjoy the process. The results will blow you away.
One more thing, going back through the Henle book for review will re-inforce what you are reading in Lingua Latina. Good move.
Feel free to contact me again if I have only created more questions for you.
Have a happy Tuesday!