Sunday, April 05, 2009

Calling a Spade a Spade

I was listening the other day to a colleague who teaches Spanish. She was talking about the difference between -ar verbs and -er verbs. She mentioned the yo form. Without ever taking Spanish, I knew exactly what she meant, particularly since I had an idea of the origins of these Spanish elements.

I have often thought that I could change the names of the categories of Latin verbs and nouns in order to make the idea of what I'm trying to say clearer for my students. After all, the names are, for the most part, descriptive and help to identify the category or use of the form. When I say something like, "That's an ablative of accompaniment," the students (should) think, "Oh yeah, that noun is the last in that declension thingy and it is being used to show who they're doing the verb with." When I tell my students that the Romans had no idea of what the phrase "ablative of accompaniment" meant, they pause for a moment and demand to know why. I tell them that this is a phrase we, who are not native speakers, have created in order to describe the use of that noun. I also tell them that if they asked the average Latin speaker on the street to decline a noun, he would look at you puzzled and probably run away. At once the students are amazed and confused. I ask them to decline a noun in English. Again they sratch their heads and shrug. I usually give them an example, the best being the declension in English of the pronoun "he" -- I say, "He, his, him, they, their, them." I mention things like subjective, possessive, and objective case. Some of the sharper students eagerly write down this valuable nugget in their notes, others just wave me off and think that I'm crazy. They never learned this in English... why in the world would I be bringing it up in Latin class?

Anyway, I'm drifting off my topic - the names of things. What if, at the beginning of Latin I, when the students are most excited about learning a new language and most impressionable, I called first conjugation verbs "-are verbs"? What if I called third conjugation verbs "short -ere verbs"? The description would go right to the crucial element which determines the conjugation of a verb and, hopefully, this would better enable the student to conjugate it. They might think, "That's an -are verb, I have to keep that -a- in there when I conjugate it." or "Yuck, a short -ere verb... I think something happens to that short e." What does second conjugation really mean to the student other than it is usually taught after the first conjugation?

Taking this idea further, why not change the nomenclature for nouns? Why not have an "-ae declension" or an "-is declension" noun? This name would call attention directly to the genitive singular form. Then the student, looking at puella, puellae would (hopefully) think, "Oh yeah. I need to use those -a, -ae, -ae endings."

Taking this strange idea a step further, why not teach the conjugations and declensions in a different order? With the restraints of "first declension" and "second conjugation" removed, there would be little confusion in reordering the traditional grammar. Having said that, I would probably limit myself to rearranging the introduction of the nouns; I think everyone would agree that teaching the -are and long -ere verbs is easier than teaching those short -ere verbs with all those changes. Declensions are declensions and each requires a different set of endings which must be committed to memory. What Latin teacher hasn't lamented that the students have first and second declensions down cold but they just can't master that pesky third declension? I can't back this up with solid data at the moment, but there are more third declension nouns in the Latin language than any other declension, so why not teach the -is nouns first? Imagine the possibilities of a wider choice of vocabulary words at the beginning of the course. What reinforces the success of understanding -is nouns is what psychologists call the primacy effect -- what is learned first is remembered better than what is learned in the middle.

Before the purists attack me for messing up the natural order of things, I readily admit that I will have to teach my students the tradional nomenclature because all their resources, their textbooks, online help, parents and friends who already know Latin, other teachers, will call an -ire verb "fourth conjugation" and I would not want my students to be confused or lost. I would use my terminology at the beginning and then introduce them to the other names not much later in the course.

This, ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, will be my experiment for the coming school year. It may be a benefit, it may be insignificant, or it may fail... In any case, the world won't be lost.

2 comments:

Ana said...

I think it's a great idea and it has a lot of sense. Why not? If the goal is to let the students use the language, it will be more useful and easier teaching this way. Sometimes we teachers insist on complicating Latin language as if all the students were philologist.

Anonymous said...

I am not a teacher, but I was just musing the other day: Isn't it funny that we teach first declension (-a -ae -ae), then second declension (-us -i -o/-um -i -o), but then, in vocabulary and dictionary paradigms, insist on listing adjectives in second-first-second order?
Why bonus,-a,-um and pulcher,pulchra,-um and not bona,-us,-um and pulchra,pulcher,pulchrum?