I read with interest today a Twitter thread that started with the following:
Go on over to Twitter for the whole of it, as well as the interesting comments it generated. What interested me was less the question of laptop bans, and more what she reported from her experience of having TAed in an intermediate Greek class in which laptops were allowed: “it quickly became clear that almost all of the students were typing out/finding English translations and reading these out-loud in class rather than engaging directly with the Greek (sometimes not even bringing or looking at their Greek texts to class!)”
I encountered the same quite startling portrait of an ancient language class in Ann Patty’s Living With a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin. This is in many ways a pretty charming book, but several of the college Latin classes she described featured students simply reading off, sometimes from their phones, English translations of the assigned texts. I was gobsmacked. Patty started studying Latin in 2008, so the classroom experiences she describes happened within the decade, as I assume @vergilophile’s did too.
This got me wondering how many professors of intermediate (or even advanced!?) Latin or Greek are still using this pedagogy, of going around the room and having students translate the text into English. I certainly was taught this way when I was an undergraduate long ago in the early 80s. But I don’t teach that way now. I’m going to lay out here what I do, and how I got here; I would very much welcome comments on what other people are doing and why. I think this is a crucial area in which our field doesn’t really have enough honest discussion.
I had grown uncomfortable with this class routine quite early on in my career, and had started experimenting with some supplemental activities, when my colleague (Chico Zimmerman, who was hired the year before me at Carleton) decided to enroll in the introductory German sequence. Faculty and staff here are allowed to take courses, although we rarely have time to, and Chico wanted to brush up on his German.
His experience learning a modern language (and mine, some years later when I started learning Modern Greek), and our discussions about it, catalyzed a transformation that we were both ready for. We started reading around in the SLA (second language acquisition) and cognitive science literature. Neither of us was really convinced that Latin or Greek could be taught exactly the same way modern languages are, but to both of us it seemed bizarre that the goal of any given class preparation and meeting would be to translate a text into English. What intermediate modern language class operated like that? Surely the goal, difficult as it was, should be to read with understanding and appreciation the target language. Yet the emphasis placed on “translation” seemed to throw up an obstacle toward that goal: students would understand that getting to the English was what mattered, not reading the Latin or Greek.
Both of us, separately and in collaboration, have worked to develop alternate models over the years since. Central to our practice is being explicit with students that the fundamental learning goal we are all aiming for is reading, understanding, and appreciating the language, not translating it. In class we generally have the students work through a given passage in pairs or groups. After that we do a number of things: ask for paraphrases of the content in English; work through the syntax: what are the component parts of a given sentence? Parsing is key (why is that verb subjunctive? what sort of dative is that?). Sometimes we’ll break the sentence up and put the Greek or Latin words in English word order, like this; if you start with
Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται, τά τε ἄλλα καὶ δι᾽ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.
you turn it into
ἥδε is the ἀπόδεξις of the ἱστορίης of Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος, [which exists] so that μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων may γένηται ἐξίτηλα because of τῷ χρόνῳ, nor may μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά ἔργα, both the ones ἀποδεχθέντα by the Ἕλλησι and by the βαρβάροισι, γένηται ἀκλεᾶ, both with respect to ἄλλα and δι᾽ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.
Obviously there are some ways in which this is like putting the passage into English. But it avoids the pernicious notion that there is a one-for-one way of making Greek words into English ones, and opens up more interesting discussion of the semantic range of a given word or construction.
There are many many other ways to do this. In comments, @vergilophile mentioned projecting the Latin/Greek text on a screen and then working with students to mark it up (connecting nouns and adjectives, or subordinate and main verbs, etc): this is a great activity. I’ve also experimented with distributing electronic copies of the text, and having students play around with re-formatting them (breaking up a sentence and indenting or color-coding clauses) to reveal the syntactical structure.
High school students with really good Latin (less often Greek) come to us accustomed to writing out English translations of the assignments. So we take time in class or in the office to talk through our goals, and help them find strategies for transitioning from this method to something that helps them engage more directly with the language in class. Reading ancient languages is hard! and if I look at a passage of, say, Thucydides that I haven’t read for a while, I still do, to some extent, put it into English in my head. But then I make myself read it through again, and again, and again, until I feel that I’m really reading the Greek without the intermediate English-ing. Our students can do that too. How do you help yours get there?
PS This reminds me of a wonderful post from Sententiae Antiquae, quoting C.S. Lewis on getting to this goal. I always share this with my Greek students: https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2017/08/20/learning-to-think-in-greek/