What does a teacher do when they are presented with two classes where only a handful of students speak enough English to express a simple sentence?  To be quite honest, I simply have not felt entirely successful in the classroom with our English language learner population.  I know in the depths of my soul that I need to adopt a new approach to become more effective in communicating content knowledge.  Having limited success implementing both traditional and “innovative” methods into my current practice, I spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on what I considered areas of strength, and conversely pondered areas in need of development. It became evident to myself that my knowledge of both English and of language itself must improve in order to become a more effective teacher.   

Always in search of new unorthodox methods, I considered learning to read the classical Latin language as a way to help me understand language acquisition from a first person perspective.  What I discovered is that Latin is the link between several languages, including our own.  Once the cornerstone of an elementary education, the study of Latin has taken a backseat to other more specialized fields of knowledge.  Indeed, this experience has been one of tremendous personal growth coupled with a vastly improved set of professional practice skills.  Not only has the study of Latin expanded my knowledge of language, but reading classical Latin has unlocked a vast amount of knowledge previously unbeknownst to myself.  The study of reading Latin has given me not only an unexpected insight into the English language itself but also a greater understanding of the language acquisition process itself.  It is this experience of the language acquisition process which has an indelible impact on my practice in the classroom.  

The Experiment

The methodology of this experiment is a simple paradoxical application of using modern digital technology to rediscover an ancient language and its associated literature.  I began this past January with a digital copy of a century old public domain textbook; downloaded from a site called Textkit.com.  The book was aptly termed “Latin for Beginners” by Benjamin D’Ooge.  Each morning I spent one half of one hour reading a particular lesson, learning the vocabulary and completing the exercises.  I learned best when I began with the exercises in the morning and then read the new material later on that day or the next morning.  To learn the material I would take copious notes in a notebook, written in my own handwriting.  The daily time commitment to this project varied depending on the topic.  Very basic parts of the language, such as noun declension endings required simple rote memorization skills. Whereas more complicated topics; such as the translation of subjunctive mood and indirect statements required the full force of my consciousness.  Over the course of this experience I became further and further engrossed in learning the language and would consistently search for deeper meaning and greater understanding.  I would think about the day’s lesson when driving, when out running, and when shopping.  Frequently, I experienced a moment of clarity when I understood a difficult construction.  This understanding most frequently happened at random times and in random situations.  

After using the D’Ooge book I attempted to read some literature written in Classical Latin.  As far as pacing went, it took four months to go through the D’Ooge text.  I did every single reading and every single last exercise in the book.  Furthermore, I conducted every single exercise until I believed I understood the subject at hand.  Overconfident on an intellectual high, I now deemed myself an intermediate Latin scholar and promptly printed off a copy of Cicero’s first oration against Catiline which I downloaded from www.thelatinlibrary.com.  While still full of confidence, my first attempt at reading this was an utter disaster.  I somehow persisted through reading it, but ended up essentially translating at least every other word with a dictionary.  Sometimes, translating every word and still not being able to match the meaning to whichever translation I was using as a “key.”   I soon realized I needed much more instruction.  To rectify this situation I ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin on Amazon.com.  The Wheelock text took about three months to study to my satisfaction, again doing every single exercise until achieving full understanding.  This time however, I wrote my notes in the margins instead of using a notebook.  I found this simple to refer back to when I needed a point of clarification.   

Latin is a highly inflected language quite different in structure than English; the many endings signal whichever part of speech the word belongs to.  Unlike the majority of English nouns, ordinary Latin nouns and adjectives decline, which means their endings changes on their usage. Certain endings are attached to nouns and adjectives after prepositions, other endings indicate their status as indirect or direct objects, and still other endings indicate whether a noun or pronoun is the subject of a clause or sentence.  Verbs are similarly inflected as the endings of the verbs indicate the tense, number and voice.  In short order, the older D’oge text gave me the tools to learn the basic syntax and morphology of the language.  Examples are the many word endings (declensions, verb endings), conjunctions, pronouns, and all of the adjectives.  With a reasonable amount of the rote memorization concluded, the more modern Wheelock text assigned much deeper meanings to the actual Latin passages themselves.  After about eight months I was able to read the Meditations of Augustine and parts of the Latin Vulgate Bible clearly, and with notes Cicero’s treatise on Friendship.  While my reading is not fluent by any measure, I feel my ability to understand Latin is increasing the more I read.  

Who are our students?

Teaching English as a Second Language is a challenging endeavor these days.  Students come to our school speaking many different languages.  Vietnamese, Russian, Cambodian, French, English, Mayan, Lao, Spanish and Portuguese are all spoken in our school.  Common to many schools in America today, a vast majority of our ESL students here at Hope High School speak Spanish, with a smaller percentage speaking French or one of the various dialects of Portuguese.  Apart from linguistic differences, students coming to us have differences in educational levels and experiences; ranging from fluency in their own native languages to little or no formal schooling.  

When I was considering this project, I did initially considered learning Spanish as a tool to become more adept in communicating with my students.  I already knew enough Spanish to give basic commands to the class, and enough to hold a very brief conversation, although my command of the language was and still is at the elementary level.  Through this experience, I have found that my Spanish language skills have greatly improved, along with my ability to meaningfully communicate with my ESL students.  

What is common to all of us in the American classroom is that we must learn to communicate to each other in English.  As teachers, we must learn how to effectively communicate with all students in the classroom.  Since language is the medium that we use to communicate we need to use relevant language in order to convey information.  Non-verbal methods such as body language and tone of voice also convey meaning.  Good ESL teachers know how to employ multiple methods to most effectively communicate with our students.   

Making A Dead Language Live

So, how does all this apply?  To begin with learning Latin has been a window into language acquisition as an adult.  The impact of Latin on both western culture and the English language is undeniably profound and deep.  On a personal level my understanding of English grammar, along with my vocabulary have been, and continue to be greatly enhanced through my brief study of Latin.  I further strongly suspect that the development of written English is heavily influenced by Latin structures. In addition, the English language contains a vast number of Latin cognate words.  Both of these are reasons to spend time learning the Latin language.  For example, a recent re-reading of Jane Austen’s Pride and Predjudice brought to light the value of a Latin based vocabulary to make sense of literature.  When I read the book, prior to exposure to Latin it felt a bit clumsy and archaic to a modern reader. When I browsed it recently I felt that it flowed much more easily and I was able to appreciate this brilliantly written book to a much deeper level than I had been able to before.  

The identification of meaningful cognate words, and derived word elements is the most poignant practical application of this experience.   Vocabulary, and understanding the meanings of vocabulary are critical to language comprehension.  Teaching students cognate and near cognate words can help speed them to fluency.  English indeed contains a vast vocabulary, as the English language is an amalgamation of several different languages.  Having a vocabulary that is available to be instantly recalled is critical to language fluency.   Having a knowledge and implementation of which words are of Latin derivation, and their standing as possible cognate words between French or Spanish speeds both word recognition and comprehension.  Using cognate or near cognate words I believe helps speed language comprehension among ESL learners.  Students are able to more effectively recall, assign meaning to, and understand words which they already have some familiarity with. Teaching students how to identify words that do not have Latin origins is useful as well, as potentially more time and effort will be required of students speaking a Romance language to learn these words.   

Idiomatic speech is common within not only the English language but also in many other languages.  Latin is further complicated by the fact that the idioms often are derived from a context which had become archaic long ago.  For example, in reading Latin prose there are often references to the sitting consul at the time, ancient place names, and the names of unfamiliar deities.  One must stop and research the meaning of these specific nouns in order to make meaning of a passage.  The same goes when encountering idioms, one must stop what they are reading and attempt to ascertain the meaning of the phrase.  As teachers we must understand that students learning English as a second language do the very same thing.  This pause in reading creates stumbling blocks for some students as they must now employ their attention to both assigning and understanding meaning to a set of seemingly unrelated words.  For example, the following statement may present problems for an ESL student.  “Russia and the United States face off over Syria.”  The term “face off” is an idiomatic one referring to ice hockey, a sport which may be somewhat unfamiliar to students entering the United States.  A student unfamiliar with the phrase will have to stop and look through the dictionary for the definition of “face,” disrupting the flow of reading.  Learning to think critically about oral expression and making sure you are speaking to be understood are hallmarks to improving communication skills as an ESL teacher.    

Memorization and the ability to recall information are far more important than we care to admit or realize.  In learning Latin, memorization is crucial to understanding.  Indeed, there is a movement today in the educational community away from memorization and towards an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving.  While the development problem solving and critical thinking skills are vitally important, we must ensure that our students receive the building blocks of knowledge that lead to superior problem solving and critical thinking skills.  Our students need to be able to have a significant amount of immediately recallable information in order to further advance their English language skills.  In my classroom I accomplished this by breaking down a lesson into a manageable vocabulary segment and then a segment on a new English language construction.  The new vocabulary is used in learning the new construction, along with copious amounts of review.   

My first attempts to read Latin were utter failures; in part due to a lack of understanding vocabulary, an unfamiliar context or failure to understand the meanings of constructions.  In the process of looking up words I would frequently forget the both the meaning of the word I was searching for and the meaning of the rest of the sentence.  My mind was overloaded and subconsciously pressed the reset switch.  Quite simply, I was not ready to be reading at that level yet.  As the ability to read becomes easier, I now recognize how the words relate to each other through practice.    

Through this experience it has become clear that relationships between existing concepts are the secret to memorization.  As mentioned earlier, memorization and recall become the building blocks to higher level skills of understanding.  Far too often, we are attempting to jump ahead to develop higher order thinking skills at a time when the lower levels of understanding are incomplete. This is exactly what happened when I tried to read classical Latin for the first time.  The ability to recall and express information quickly and accurately are habits of good students.  For example, Biology is a lot easier when you already know the rudiments of basic vocabulary, no having to process the extra step of defining the words in addition to learning how they function. Our minds can only process so much information at once, and having a vast mental dictionary can assist us in developing new fields of knowledge.

Students can be taught how to memorize; via mnemonic devices, associations of new words with images or creating context with a demonstration of some kind.  The secret is in the relationships assigned to words, and a strong relationship exists between the words found Latin, English and the Romance languages.  Knowing the fundamentals of Latin is akin to having a mental thesaurus where one can think of synonyms by thinking of the word in Latin.  On a final note concerning memorization, I strongly suspect that handwriting has a positive correlation with the ability to memorize.  Typing just doesn’t do the trick.  As educators, we must learn how to develop practices at times employing rote methods to reinforce important concepts.  There are is just some information which must be hard-wired into the brain.  There is considerable space in education for individual memorization of important concepts, although this approach should not dominate our instructional repertoire.  There is no quick, fun and easy way to do this.  No gimmicks.   

In Conclusion

In the classroom this knowledge translates into using the right words, in a context that students can understand, spoken at the right rate and with a minimum of idiomatic expressions.  Learning a language as an adult has given a taste of the struggle of learning a new language.  Experiencing what my students experience at the same time and struggling along with my students.  Some parts of language acquisition come naturally, while other parts require much more effort.   It has been essential to sharpen my memorization skills in order to understand the more difficult constructions.  The study of the Latin language allows myself to connect with my students in a more meaningful way as my understanding continues to grow.   

In conclusion, learning to read Latin is something that has immensely benefited both my educational practice and my own intellectual growth.  Learning the elementary aspects of this language benefitted my instructional practice, greatly enhanced my vocabulary, and my understanding of language in general.  Furthermore, mastery of the language is now a long term goal of mine.  As a history teacher understanding ideas of the classical Latin authors shed much light on the thought processes which led to the foundation of our own nation.  The classical foundations have much to say to us; it is time to rethink our educational curriculums and reintegrate classical languages along with their powerful body of thought and literature.