Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How not to read Latin

I found myself sorely bothered today by technology in classics, but before you write me off as a curmudgeon or a snob hear me out. It won't take long.

I was reading about a program that purports to help you read classical Latin by parsing words, highlighting syntactic units, offering speech bubbles filled with grammatical information pointing to words and clauses -- in short, reading the Latin for you.

I know there's always been a drive to keep up with the Joneses, where the Joneses are other academic disciplines, particularly in the sciences. It's been going on longer than I've been alive. (I remember seeing an old movie as a kid and being puzzled about the conflict faced by the humanities professor whose son had turned to the dark side of math, i.e., science, with which his impractical discipline was ever at odds.)

Anyway, that's no reason to dispense with the time-honored tradition of actually learning how to read Latin. I can hear you saying, 'but this software will help students to learn grammar better and to read sooner!' But it won't.

As it is we're already too dependent upon commentaries. This indicates that we produce translators of Greek and Latin rather than readers. And they're not even passable translators. Why would a person fully capable of walking with a little effort choose to rely on so many crutches?

Teach grammar properly and your students won't require linguistic calculators.

On a related note I've been annoyed lately by the number of teachers who write to a certain mailing list with the most inane questions easily answered by reaching for a grammar or a dictionary. These posts are invariably followed up by a half dozen or so well-intentioned guesses by other teachers who haven't thought to look it up elsewhere than thei Dick and Jane textbook of choice.

Of course I'm being unfair, and of course a lot of meaningful discussion takes place. And of course some people do post references to good grammars.

But the numbers are against them, and teachers who've learned Latin poorly will continue to teach it poorly and will fail to impart to their students any deep familiarity with the tools at their disposal.

They'll just keep on sneaking peeks at translations when their commentaries, cd-roms, and pocket dictionaries fail them.

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