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Something New, Something Old: Latin Pedagogy According to Fr. Paul Distler

Editor’s Note: I found this article on the OLD Texas Classics website and it doesn’t seem to have been moved to the new. It has also been posted on the latinteach website, but the link was broken and the whole site had not been updated since 2008. Thus, I conclude that it is not long for this digital world. To give it the attention it deserves, I thought I’d repost it here for those who teach an “eclectic” pedagogy like mine, emphasizing aural, spoken, and written exposure before insisting on grammatical precision and mastery.

Fr. Paul’s textbooks have fallen into the Public Domain, but I can’t find them anywhere as a single, downloadable .pdf. If I get my hands on a .pdf, I’ll post it here. In the meantime, Bolchazy-Carducci has fairly recently kept his Teach the Latin, I Pray You in print, which would be the next place to go if you find this essay helpful. He makes some observations in that book that are immensely helpful for any Latin teacher at any level.

Something New, Something Old
by Rev. Paul F. Distler, S.J.

Texas Classics in Action, Winter 2000.

(Father Distler gave this paper at the 1969 fall meeting of the Texas Classical Association at The University of Texas at Austin; it was published in Texas Classics in Action in 1970.)

Recognition of the old amid the new is one of the heart-warming experiences that everyone enjoys. The old is there to reassure us and the new is present to delight and perhaps challenge us. The new takes on greater meaning because it is in contrast with the old, yet the old does not cease thereby to be of value. This somewhat philosophical observation is especially true today for teachers of Latin most of whom were trained along so-called traditional lines.

As new theories of language and new methods and new books are thrust upon Latin teachers, many, I am sure, feel a certain inadequacy if not a definite feeling of insecurity. So much seems to challenge that which they knew and with which they have worked for many years. Because the so-called traditional system is so often challenged by enthusiasts of the new, it is good to say a few words in its defense and briefly analyze it in order to be certain that we do not discard things that involve good teaching. And the author hopes that the reader will not be offended if he injects into this discourse some personal experiences.

As we well know, the traditional system relies heavily upon deduction. We present the declensions vertically; we teach the components of the verb, and then proceed to the study of grammar in which we give the students the rule together with some examples. In the initial stages of learning Latin we ask the students to do very little actual reading. We rely very heavily upon the eye and there is some oral drilling when we ask the students to recite the paradigms. We use translations as a definite check on the student’s comprehension of the text.

A thumbnail sketch such as the above is likely to be somewhat inaccurate but those of us who were trained in the traditional system know full well all the elements involved in our training. And over the years we have become expert in the teaching procedures that we learned. We have, too, had the satisfaction of seeing our students progress in their knowledge of Latin.

How shall we evaluate the teaching in the traditional system? Perhaps the best way is to look about us to see what it has accomplished. What wonderful scholars it has produced! Their names are many and their influence in the field of education is considerable. They must have learned the language because otherwise they could not do the wonderful things they do in writing and research. To mention individual names would only run the risk of omitting many who are great in their own right and who have exercised a great influence on those whom they trained. The traditional system must have given them great powers of concentration, an awareness of accuracy and detail, a knowledge of how languages work, and how to translate since many of these are English classics in themselves. A system that can produce men of such caliber is not to be discarded lightly however much we may feel or hear that it is not the ideal system.

Since the traditional system has achieved such success, it might seem imprudent to question its procedures in any way. However, teachers very commendably are always striving to improve themselves and their teaching methods. Therefore, it is worth our while to consider some procedures that are used in this system.

The principle of deduction seems to be efficient, but is it as efficient as we like to think? Could there not possibly be a system that proceeds more slowly in the initial stages of learning only to achieve greater success over a longer period of time? In the teachings of morphology, are we perhaps too concerned with the rote memory of the paradigms and too little bothered with their use? Do we teach the forms, the syntax, and then the vocabulary in a way that is too disparate and compartmentalized? Do we put more emphasis on the knowledge of the rule and less on its functional use? And do we adopt the most efficient ways of learning vocabulary? Do we perhaps defer too much the reading of connected discourse because of our eagerness to have the students learn all the elements of reading first?

Relying on what psychology has taught us about the learning processes, is it better to use the eye alone in the learning of Latin, or should we enlist the aid of the other senses in so far as we can? Have we, perhaps, upon occasion made use of oral Latin in the classroom and found that at first it caused mild laughter on the part of the students since they were hearing “foreign” sounds? And are we satisfied with the translations that the students produce and does this type of translation really indicate the full comprehension of the text?

It was questions such as these that plagued the author and made him somewhat dissatisfied with the traditional system during several years of teaching. Hence he was always duplicating materials and always groping for better techniques. There was that something indefinable which always seemed to escape him when there was an analysis of his teaching procedures. Vaguely he realized that many goals were not attained, and he wondered about the efficiency of the methods. He tried organizing the vocabulary into thought units; for example, those that relate to a soldier’s life or his equipment and actions. He used various methods of underlining and capitalization to show students the “core” of the sentence. He tried to organize the grammar into manageable units for greater comprehension.

After some fifteen years of teaching and groping for ever more effective teaching procedures, the author became acquainted with the “structuralists” and their highly organized presentations about language and the learning of language. These at first seemed to hold very little promise of changes for the better, but as materials were developed and organized, it became apparent that they did have the answers to many of the problems with which the author wrestled in his teaching. During this period of acquaintance and mistrust of the “evangelists” of structural linguistics the author was quite unexpectedly given the opportunity of acquainting himself with their tenets and practices in a full and dynamic way. Needless to say he was definitely prejudiced against them but after some time he found himself in sympathy with much of what they were doing and advocating. They had at least some answers for the problems that plagued the author in his teaching for so many years.

What did the “structuralists” offer? First of all, they used an inductive approach. With this in mind students were taught to analyze for themselves what they saw and heard. They then formulated rules to cover the various situations in the utterances. Experience in the classroom seemed to verify the claim that the students retained such knowledge better. Then there was the matter of structure. Language has structure and this is more or less independent of meaning. This permitted the students to see the elements that are common in what might otherwise have seemed to be a mere haphazard collection of expressions that were mystifying in their multiplicity. The horizontal presentation of the declensions with an emphasis on the similarities had a definite appeal since it clearly made use of association in learning. Again, classroom experience proved that students learned the paradigms more effectively in this presentation.

And in the new system the various senses were enlisted for the learning of the language. The ear was attuned to what was formerly “foreign” sound; the vocal organs were enlisted in the production of the language even from the very earliest classes. And I learned form the psychologists that the motor impulses are some of the strongest we have; witness the fact that we can walk even in our sleep—would that we could so learn Latin! Because the various senses were now enlisted in the cause of the effective learning, I found that Latin was being used in the classroom in such a way that it had real meaning for the students—they were intent on learning what was said in the “foreign” language and comprehending it. And the word “said” since language is primarily oral. The use of English was now restricted and from an analysis of my own experience I found that I no longer spent about fifty percent of the time using English in the classroom. Thus one might say that I gained many hours of instruction in the language itself since I could largely bypass the use of English. That certainly did seem to me to make for efficiency in teaching. Even elementary Latin gave the students more interest in the study of vocabulary. They enjoyed the Latin definitions of things that I gave and imitated me by coining some of their own. For example, a student was writing a story and he was not supposed to consult a dictionary; hence to tell us about the oil that leaked from the car he resorted to densus liquor ater; and another who wished to use Satan in his story referred to him as the angelus pessimus.

In the new scheme of things, I found that instead of learning so many grammar rules and then trying to apply them the grammar became functional. Students readily and correctly interpreted clauses that I used to think had to be classified before they could be understood. Intricate and multiple divisions and subdivisions with their nomenclature gave way to a much simpler analysis. For example, the ablative answered the questions: how? when? where? why? and I found that this was really sufficient for their comprehending the uses of the ablative. Only in the third year of the course was the grammar rather formally treated and put into linguistic functions. Not that this was done only after the students had really learned to read Latin that was adapted to their level of comprehension. Actually, I still wonder whether such formal learning of grammar is really helpful except possibly in those cases where I must translate something from English into Latin.

Drilling took on more meaning for me and for the students. We learned to answer questions in Latin; we learned to supply endings in Latin sentences in the exercises; we learned to change one expression into another; for example, the present subjunctive of command into a formal command in the imperative; and all this was done without the intervention of English. The students learned from the very first classes how to answer structural questions in Latin and so became much more involved with the language. Latin was no longer for them, (for me, too, for that matter) some kind of “language specimen” that was to be dissected and analyzed without ever feeling that it could express anything but what the English in the book indicated was to be translated.

In my text classes I found that the easier Latin version for the classics such as Cicero and Vergil enabled the students to grasp the meaning of the classical Latin through the simpler Latin—thus again we avoided to a great extent the use of English. I must hasten to add, however, that in third and fourth years translation was not neglected. It was attempted in those years only because there had been a good grounding in comprehension through the first two years.

Did I in my seeming enthusiasm abandon the old? By no means. There was much in the old that was still used but now perhaps it had a new name and a new emphasis. Thus the term “morpheme” was used to describe the smallest meaningful unit in the language. But I was familiar with what the new term described and I had used it in my teaching of prefixes, suffixes, tense signals, personal endings, and the like. New names were given to the tenses but they remained the same so far as form was concerned. Vocabulary was learned in the new system mostly through meeting the words in context, but I found that students still like to review the new words in lists. Despite the effectiveness of the horizontal approach to the declensions, I found that there was need for the vertical approach also. This gave students an answer to their questions about how the forms fit together. After the discovery and formulation of a rule of grammar, I found that it was helpful for the students to see and make use of the more crystallized wording from recognized grammars.

My testing of the students still dealt with comprehension but I no longer relied so heavily on English to assure myself that the students did understand what they read. And I still used my favorite mnemonic schemes which had helped me when I was a student; for example “os the mouth, and os the bone, the neuters are in os alone.” I did, of course, watch my pronunciation more carefully now and this took the edge off the scheme since it did not really rhyme so well as it did before when I, for all practical purposes, mispronounced one or the other word.

Despite everything and after a period of time and study I began to feel somewhat at home amid the new even though I had been trained in the old. I suppose it is impossible to completely divorce oneself from his previous training and in my own case I felt that such a lack of separation actually enriched my teaching.

Still later I became aware of transformational grammar and this too had many things to offer in the analysis of the Latin sentence and the care with which grammatical relations are expressed. I learned the branched-tree diagram and the embedding of sentences, the latter helped the students in the troublesome situation where relative pronouns get their gender and number from the antecedent but acquire their case from the clause in which they operate. The application of transformational grammar to Latin is still to be fully developed but I for one am anxiously waiting to see what further helps it can provide for me in effective teaching.

The more I worked with the newer approaches the more I became aware that despite the claims of some “enthusiasts”, these, too, did not have all the answers for the problems I met in the classroom. Students seemed to be somewhat inaccurate in their knowledge of forms, somewhat imprecise in their translations, somewhat careless in their use of grammar—after all they had so little knowledge of formal rules to rely upon. Their range of vocabulary was greater but it seemed to me that here again they lacked a certain preciseness to which I had been accustomed in the traditional system.

After years of teaching and after acquaintance and experimentation with the various systems for the teaching of Latin, I became something of an eclectic. I suppose this was predictable since I could not completely disassociate myself with the traditional training that I had. I ended up using many techniques from all the systems. In view of my training, my personal characteristics, my insights in the language, I came to use those items from each of the systems that appealed to me and which I felt I could readily and effectively use in the classroom.

As a result of my training and my choosing items from the various systems, I feel that I am a more competent teacher. And I should like to encourage all teachers to become acquainted as fully as possible with all the systems. Possibly they too will become eclectics. And I should like to suggest a golden rule for teachers: Use that which you find effective. In doing so you will be a better teacher, a teacher that is more enthusiastic, and one that has escaped the deadening monotony of teaching the same thing over and over again. Please forgive the moralizing!

There are times when classical teachers I am sure feel some discouragement as they read articles which contain statistics indicating that fewer and fewer students are continuing to pursue the study of Latin. I must confess that at times I have had the same feeling. However, when I come into contact with enthusiastic teachers such as those in Texas, I find that any such feelings of discouragement vanish completely and I begin to experience again that exhilaration which comes from an enthusiasm that is contagious. For this I thank you. Because of the enthusiasm that you exhibit there will always be a place for Latin in our curricula and it will continue to fashion our students into the leaders and educators of tomorrow.

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