NEWER METHODS IN THE TEACHING OF LATIN
^ Extracted from an article contributed to Mr. Sadler’s Special Reports.
We are familiar with the watchwords of two opposed camps on the subject of language-teaching. The old-fashioned view that the “declining of nouns and verbs,” to use Dr. Johnson’s phrase, is a necessary preliminary to the reading of any text is nowadays met with the continental cry of “Fort mit der Grammatik!” But we are not really compelled to accept either of these harsh alternatives, as the more moderate adherents of the new German school are now fain to admit. Grammar has its proper place in any systematised method of teaching a language; but that place is not at the beginning but rather at the end of each of the steps into which a well-graduated course must be divided. Speaking of the course as a whole, we may say that the learning of grammar should proceed side by side with the reading of a text. The old view, which is far from extinct at the present day, though it is rarely carried out in all its rigour, was that the pupil must learn the rules of the game before he attempts to play it. The modern view is that just as in whist or hockey one learns the rules by playing the game, so in the study of a language one learns the grammar best by the reading of a simple text. But it is necessary at once to draw a distinction, which marks the difference between the earlier and the more developed form of the new method. The mistake made by the first zealots of the new school was that they plunged the pupil without preparation into the reading of what were called “easy passages,”—passages taken from any ordinary book, and easy perhaps as compared with other passages which might have been selected, but still bristling with a multitude of heterogeneous forms and constructions. This was an “inductive method” with a vengeance; but it soon became evident that to expect a young beginner to work his way through such a jungle to the light of clear grammatical consciousness was to expect too much;
^ A distinguished representative of the Neuere Richtung admitted in conversation with the present writer some years ago that the teaching of French out of his own book was “Hundesarbeit” (horse-work.)
and even for the adult beginner the process is slow and laborious. For what is the object of grammar unless to make the facts of a language accessible and intelligible by presenting them in a simple arrangement? Here as elsewhere science ought surely to step in as an aid, not an obstacle, to understanding. What the advocates of the new school failed to see was that “nature” cannot dispense with “art”; in other words that the text which is to serve as the basis of an inductive study of the language must be specially constructed so as to exhibit those features on which the teacher desires to lay stress at a particular stage of learning.
What is the ordinary English practice at the present day? On this point others are more competent to speak than I; but I imagine I am not far wrong in saying that the first step in learning Latin is to spend a month or two in learning declensions and conjugations by rote—not, let us hope, complete with their irregularities and exceptions, but in outline. The pupil then proceeds to the reading and writing of easy sentences, perhaps in such a book as “Gradatim”; and after say a year or more he will be reading easy selections from a Latin author. All the while he recapitulates his grammar and extends his grammatical horizon. This is, in any case, an immense improvement on the older plan of learning the whole of the old Eton Latin Grammar in its Latin dress without understanding a word of what is meant by its “as in praesenti” and other mysteries. If wisely administered, this method may also avoid the error of “Henry’s First Latin Book,” which taught an intolerable deal of Accidence and Syntax to a half-pennyworth of text; though, on the other hand, Henry’s First Latin Book was an attempt to accompany the learning of grammar with the reading of easy sentences from the very beginning, and in so far was better than the method we are considering. For I must maintain, with all deference to the opinion of others whose experience is wider than my own, that we are as yet far from having drawn the full conclusions of the process of reasoning on which we have entered. There should be no preliminary study of grammar apart from the reading of a text. The declensions and conjugations, learned by rote apart from their applications, cannot be properly assimilated or understood, and often prove a source of error rather than enlightenment in subsequent study. They have to be learned over and over again—always in doses which are too large for digestion, and the pupil has meanwhile been encouraged to form a bad habit of mind. Half knowledge in this case too often leads to the unedifying spectacle of the Sixth Form boy or the University undergraduate who is still so shaky in his accidence that he cannot pass his “Smalls” without a special effort, though in some respects he may be a good scholar. But still more serious is the effect of the false conceptions which are inevitably implanted in the mind by this method of grammar without understanding. The pupil learns mensā, “by or with a table,” agricolā, “by or with a farmer”—both of them impossible Latin for the English in its natural sense; mensae meaning strictly “to a table” is almost impossible in any elementary context. Yet the pupil necessarily supposes that in some context or other they must have those meanings; it is often years before he discovers that he has been the victim of a practical joke. Some boys never see the fun to the bitter end; in other words, they never learn the syntax of the Cases at all. And where are the counterbalancing advantages of this method? The pupil is introduced at an early stage to the reading of selections from Latin authors. But what if the interest and stimulus of reading consecutive passages could be secured without the sacrifice of clearness and grasp which is involved in the method of preliminary grammar? The advantages would seem in that case to be all on one side. Each new grammatical feature of the language would be presented as it is wanted, in an interesting context, and would be firmly grasped by the mind; at convenient points the knowledge acquired would be summed up in a table (the declension of a noun or the forms of a tense). The foundations of grammar would thus be securely laid; there would be no traps for the understanding, because each new feature would be presented in concrete form, that is in a context which explained it. For example, instead of mensā, “by or with a table,” etc., we should have in mensā, “on a table,” cum agricolā, “with a farmer,” ab agricolā, “by a farmer”; ad mensam, “to a table” or sometimes “by (i.e. near) a table;” agricolae dat, but not mensae dat. After one declension had been caught in this way, the others would not need so elaborate a treatment. But still the old rule of “festina lente” would warn the teacher not to impose too great a burden on the young or even the adult beginner; it is no light task to learn simultaneously forms and their meanings, vocabulary, and the fundamental facts of syntax. It must be admitted that the method which I am advocating is a slow one at first; but it is sure, and binds fast. The method of preliminary grammar might be called the railroad method. The traveller by rail travels fast, but he sees little of the country through which he is whirled. The longest way round is often the shortest way home; and my experience has been that the time spent at the start without proceeding beyond the very elements of grammar is time well spent. A fair vocabulary is acquired—without effort—in the course of reading; for the learning of new wdrds, especially if they are chosen so as to present obvious similarities to English words, is a task eminently within the powers of the youthful mind; and all words met with in an interesting context arouse attention and impress themselves on the mind of their own accord. All the while the pupil is forming his feeling for the language and gradually becoming habituated to ordinary ways of saying ordinary things. He gradually loses that sense of strangeness which is the great barrier to anything like mastery.
^ One great advantage of this method, especially for learners who are able to cover the ground at a fair rate of progress, is that it lends itself to acquiring the “art of reading Latin” (as distinct from the art of construing it), to use Prof. W. G. Hale’s phrase—the art of rapid reading.
It is surprising how much can be said in Latin without using more than a single declension of nouns and adjectives and a single conjugation of verbs.
^ There are some 1,000 verbs of the first conjugation in Latin (including compounds).
The habit of reading very easy Latin, thus acquired at an early stage, will prove of the utmost value when the pupil approaches the study of a Latin author. Such a book as I have in mind should therefore do something to bridge over the formidable chasm which at present separates the reading of isolated sentences from the reading of an author.
All Latin authors as they stand, are far too. difficult to serve as a basis of study for beginners: and they are also, I may add, not well adapted in respect of subject matter and sentiment to appeal to the mind of the very young. Caesar may no doubt be made interesting to a boy or girl of twelve by a skilful teacher with the aid of maps and pictures. But, after all, the Gallic War can never be what it was never meant to be, a child’s book. The ideal “Reader,” which should be the centre of instruction during the early stages of a young pupil’s course, should be really interesting; simple and straightforward in regard to its subject matter, modern in setting, and as classical as may be in form—a book which the pupil may regard with benevolent feelings, not with mere “gloomy respect,”
^ Lord Rosebery in his Rectorial Address at Glasgow, 1900.
as worth knowing for its own sake. It should be well illustrated with pictures, diagrams, and maps, provided always that the illustrations are to the point, and such as are really felt to be needed to explain the text and make it live. “Modern in setting,” for otherwise the book will not appeal to the young mind; yet there is much justification for the demand made by many adherents of the newer school that the subject matter of any school book dealing with a foreign language should be closely associated with the history and the manners and customs of the people who spoke or speak the language. Possibly the two demands are not irreconcilable; the subject matter may be historical and national, but the point of view from which it is regarded may be modern. For English pupils learning Latin the reconciliation ought to present little difficulty; but nearly every great nation of Europe has its points of contact with Rome, and therefore its opportunities of constructing Latin Readers which are national in more senses than one. On the modern side they may be patriotic in tone, and inspired by that love of nature which appeals so directly to the youthful mind; on the ancient side they may be historical and instructive in the narrower sense of the term. And the illustrations should also have this two-fold character; they should include subjects both ancient and modern, it being always remembered in regard to the former that their object is not to make the boy or girl an archaeologist, but simply to act as an aid to the imagination and enable it to realise what ancient civilisation was like. A good modern fancy sketch may often be more instructive from this point of view than a cut taken from a dictionary of antiquities.
The method which I advocate is, therefore, on its linguistic side, analogous in some respects to the so-called “natural method” or to the method by which an adult, left to his own resources, usually attempts to master a foreign tongue. He begins by attacking some easy book or newspaper, with the help of a dictionary, and he picks up the grammar as he goes along. The method is in both cases heuretic, in so far as the learner does not try to reconstruct the language out of the grammar, as a palæontologist reconstructs an extinct animal from a study of a few bones. But in the one case the learner works on a text which presents all the variety and complexity of nature; in the other, on a text which has been simplified and systematised by art, so as to lead directly to a clear view of certain fundamental grammatical facts. Granted the premises, I conceive that there will be no great difficulty in accepting the conclusion; for there can hardly be a better method of teaching a language than that which combines the systematic order of the grammar with the interest and life of the story-book. The crux of the situation is to write such a school book; and though it may be long before an ideal book of the kind is produced, the problem ought not to be impossible of solution, if once the necessity of a solution from the teaching point of view is realised. On the one hand the ideal book ought to have a sustained interest, and if possible to form a continuous narrative from beginning to end; otherwise much of the effect is lost; this adds materially to the difficulty of writing. On the other hand there are various considerations which lighten the task. The writer has before him an infinite variety of choice in regard to his subject matter; and though his grammatical order must be systematic, he is under no obligation to confine himself absolutely to the narrowest possible grammatical field at each step. For example adjectives
^ Including Possessive Adjectives and Participles (Verb-adjectives).
may be, as they should be on other grounds, treated side by side with the substantives which they resemble in form, and the easy forms of possum (e.g., pot-es, pot-est, pot-eram) side by side with the corresponding forms of sum. Here we have material for the building of sentences. We may even go further and admit a certain number of forms which anticipate future grammatical lessons, provided they are not too numerous or of such a character as to confuse the grammatical impression which it is the purpose in hand to produce. For example, forms like inquam, inquit might be introduced, if necessary, long before the learning of the defective verbs was reached; they would, of course, be accompanied by their translations and treated as isolated words without any grammatical explanation. Tact in introducing only such forms as are not liable to lead to false inferences is necessary; and, of course, the fewer such anticipations there are the better. A certain latitude must also be conceded in regard to idiom and style. While it is of importance that the pupil should come across nothing which might react disadvantageously on his future composition, it is mere pedantry to insist on any exalted standard of literary excellence. The writer who works under the limitation imposed by the conditions of the problem should not attempt any high style of diction; it is sufficient if his Latin is up to the standard of such isolated sentences as usually form the mental pabulum of the beginner, though it might well be somewhat higher.
I would here anticipate a possible objection. Would not such a book be too easy? Would it provide a sufficient amount of mental gymnastic to serve as a means of training the faculties of reason and judgment? That would depend altogether on the aim which the writer set before himself. There is plenty of room within the limits of the first declension and the first conjugation for the training of the mind in habits of accurate thought and expression; for instance, the sentences may be made as difficult in regard to order of words as you please. But I would urge that they can hardly be made too easy at the beginning. It is sometimes forgotten that mental training is not synonymous with the inculcation of a mass of grammatical forms which only burden the memory, and that the habit of reading with care and fluency is itself a mental discipline of the highest value. What the teacher of any language has to do is not to accustom his pupil to regard each sentence as a nut to crack or a pitfall to beware of; but rather to induce him by the art of “gentle persuasion” to look upon the foreign tongue as a friend to be approached on terms of easy familiarity. Difficulties will accumulate fast enough, and I submit with all deference that it is a mistake to convert the learning of any foreign language into an obstacle race, by deliberately throwing difficulties into the path of the learner. Latin, at any rate, is hard enough in itself. And a habit of thoughtlessness is surely the last thing that will be encouraged by a method such as that sketched above, by which learning is made a matter of observation from the first, and not of unintelligent memorizing.
It goes without saying that the grammar to be taught in such a book should be limited to the necessary and normal. All that is in any way superfluous to the beginner should be rigorously excluded. But so soon as a general view of the whole field of regular accidence and the bare outlines of syntax has been attained by way of the Reader, the time has arrived for taking the pupil over the same ground again, as presented in the systematic form of the grammar. He is now in a position to understand what a grammar really is—not a collection of arbitrary rules, but a catalogue raisonné of the usages of a language based upon observation and simplified by science. Successive recapitulations should take in more and more of what is abnormal, until a fairly comprehensive view of the whole field is obtained. The suggestions of whatever new texts are read should, of course, be utilised in preparing the mind for irregularities and exceptions; but it is no longer perilous to study the grammar apart. Each course of grammar deepens the impression made by those which precede it, and at the same time extends the pupil’s mental horizon, the successive courses being superimposed on one another like a number of concentric circles with ever widening diameters.
I have said nothing about the writing of Latin, because it is obvious at the present day that reading should be accompanied by writing from the first, and, what is even more important, that the sentences to be translated into Latin should be based on the subject matter and vocabulary of the Reader. Learning a language is largely an imitative process, and we must not expect our beginners to make bricks without straw, any more than we expect pupils at a more advanced age to compose in the style of Cicero or Livy without giving them plenty of models to work upon. It is more important to insist here on the importance of training the organs of speech and hearing even in learning a “dead language” like Latin. For a dead language is still a language, and cannot be properly grasped unless it has some contact with living lip and living ear. Let the pupil then become accustomed from the first to reading Latin aloud, and to reading it with intelligence and expression. It is a habit which does not come of itself; but to teach it goes a long way towards making the language live again, and acts as a most valuable support to the memory. Let anyone try learning a little modern Greek, and he will appreciate the difference between remembering the accents by ear and remembering them by the eye alone. So, too, in regard to forms and vocabulary. What we have to familiarise our pupils with is not merely the look of the word and the phrase and the sentence on paper, but still more, the shape of them to the ear.
From the point of view of the University a reform in school procedure, both on the literary and on the grammatical side, would confer great and lasting benefits.
^ Professor Postgate (Classical Review, February, 1901) demands a “thorough revision of the modes and materials of classical and especially elementary classical teaching,” adding, “Though we of the Universities have a serious grievance against the schools in that they send us so many mistaught on elementary points, and, what is worse, emptied of all desire to learn, we must not forget our own deficiencies.”
There must be many University teachers who, like the present writer, feel dissatisfied with the scrappy and haphazard knowledge of the classics commonly presented by students reading for Pass degrees. But the foundations must be laid during the long school course, as the developed flower must be present in the germ. By not hurrying over the initial stages, and by a wise guidance of the later steps, the consummation of a worthy classical culture may be reached in the end.
Christmas, 1900. E. A. Sonnenschein.