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October 2017


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If you are going to a SALVI event / Rusticatio this summer or perhaps something with Paideia, I would like to offer some advice from a game teacher but mediocre speaker of Latin.

That is, my true conversational skills have a long ways to go (though my pronunciation is solid).

I have attended, I dunno, 4 or 5 Rusticationes and a couple of Bidua. While I am a bright person, even a creative person, I am not a natural when it comes to languages. Whatever instincts others have to make picking up languages a natural act, I seem to lack.

In fairness, my first several Rusticationes were--to me--a vacation with my intellectual family and away from the emotional turmoil that was my home life. These people *got* me--my obsession with Latin and all that comes with it. While in the sessions, I was totally focused. However, out of the sessions I could and would be alone with my thoughts--my English thoughts. Thus I might well have been in a 24/7 spoken Latin environment, but my brain was not tuned into Latin 24/7. I was cheating and for the first several years I didn't even realize it. And just like when our students cheat, it was impeding my true progress.

I was busy trying to learn techniques and things I could gradually add to my classes which focused on ways to work with literature in the target language. I felt I was making great progress with teaching my students how to truly read Latin in ways that I had never learned. Now I wanted to enhance that with spoken language because I did and do understand that it helps to build that mental representation. However, I didn't really work on small talk. That is, I could manage to say what I needed to say with some thought, but I didn't practice it. I'm not the type to stay up late drinking and chit-chatting, so there were things I also missed out on. I didn't think they were important at the time, but now I see that they were.

This year I made a big push to incorporate significantly more comprehensible input in my classes. Ok, admittedly, the year didn't quite end that way, but I mentally have been building a list of all the things I would do differently with the students, much of which stems from having a clear understanding now of how I inadvertently undermined my precious, limited time at Rusticatio. So here are five specific suggestions that I suggest you take to heart. I am betting your progress will be significantly more substantial than mine if you do.

1) Try never to go off on a walk, etc, alone. If you do, talk to yourself out loud, describing everything around you. Try to incorporate anything that was presented in a session.

I tried doing this at my last Rusticatio and it did prevent me from taking vacation time in my head in English. I enjoy nature watching, and would compose Latin haiku in my head during my walks or make observations aloud and then transform that observation into an indirect statement or indirect question. Sometimes I would then turn it into a conditional clause.

2) Work your small talk. Can you, with the ease of habit, say where you are from, where you live now, where you went to school, how old you are, how many levels of Latin you teach, etc etc? Can you ask those kinds of questions with the same ease?

My problem in great measure is that small talk bores me. I'd rather get into a meaty conversation on an interesting topic or try to tell some really funny story. But the basics are important if you really want to develop that mental representation of the language. There are phrases that I have internalized in Latin that I say with an automatic response--like when someone sneezes--so automatic that I have to think to say such things in English now. But when you ask me where I'm from, I spend too much time thinking through exactly what I want to say. What's important here is not necessarily that you can talk the small talk but that you are developing that mental representation, that automatic response. Plus these can be the building blocks for "same conversation" (see below).

3) Learn how to "hunt" language, and "hunt" every moment you can.

This is a WAYK (Where Are Your Keys) technique, and somehow the first couple of years that the wonderful and marvelous Evan Gardner was at Rusticatio, I missed the session on the full explanation of WAYK, let alone understanding how to "hunt" language. In fact, it wasn't until the Rusticatio Pedagogy camp that I really learned how to hunt, and not until the last day. I remember having the absolute best and most enjoyable and educational lunchtime discussion on lids on drinking cups/bottles. (Did the lid screw on? Just push down? How does it compare to a salt shaker lid? The lid on the coffee thermos?) There's an art to it; part of it involves understanding how "circling" works. And it sure beat a table full of tirones trying to figure out some small talk.

For more on WAYK language hunting, go here: WAYK Language Hunting

4) Practice "same conversation." This is when you take something that you would say every day, for instance, starting with the smallest version possible, and add to it a little bit at a time.

The example I was given was about morning coffee. The conversation started something like this: "Is the coffee ready?" to which each day a little more was added: "Is the coffee ready? Did you prepare it?" "Is the coffee ready? Did you prepare it? Is it French roast?" etc. I'm sure I'm not remembering this quite correctly, but you get the picture.

I learned about the value of this on one of the last days I was at my last Rusticatio. It had never occurred to me before to build upon a conversation in such a way, even though this sounds completely obvious. And in thinking about this now, I realize in my own teaching this year one of the things I missed out on were opportunities to incorporate and build upon "same conversation"--but I intend to target this next year.

For more on WAYK "same conversation," go here: WAYK Same Conversation

5) When you read Latin, read it aloud (or aloud in your head). Don't let your English translator kick in. Shut it down by reading aloud.

If you are a natural language learner, if you already have other spoken languages under your belt, you probably don't need these hints. You probably naturally intuit how to go about activating your Latin. I myself clearly am not a natural linguist, but a good student. And admittedly sometimes I need things spelled out to me, which is ok. It's ok because it helps me to understand and deeply empathize with what so many of my students go through with language learning.

If you are just nervous about all the vocabulary you don't know, there are materials I made for Rusticatio that I believe are still in use which you can find on my website.

I'm not going to an immersion workshop this summer, sadly, but I am thinking of all of these things as I prepare for incorporating more spoken Latin into my classes last year. I hope you find these hints helpful. Please feel free to share with any tiro at a speaking event this summer!
So I've been reading a fair amount of Latin this year.  Fair amount for me.  Pleasure reading. Latin.  NOT A LOEB. Not rereading favorite Catullus poems or Martial epigrams, not rereading favorite passages of Vergil. Harrius Potter et Lapis Philosophi, Winnie Ille Pu, Commentarii de Inepto Puero, etc. Reading QUANTITY.  Reading for FUN.

And yet.... yesterday morning, as I relaxed on my apartment balcony with one cat on my lap and another at my feet plus my copy of Domus Anguli Puensis, I had this thought:  was I truly acquiring language, was I truly benefiting from all of this input I've been so proud of? After all, I have been reading WHOLE BOOKS of Latin, not a chapter here or a chapter there from an ancient work, or only  x number of lines intensively. I have been letting go of needing to know everything even though we Latin teachers/students have always been about every single detail. I've been enjoying the story. But... I had to ask myself to be honest--was I acquiring more language?  I'm not sure.  But I felt that nothing was leaping into my active use from having seen multiple instances in context. <sigh> Once again I'm on the slower learner's track, I thought.

I feel like I'm always on the slow learner's track. I'm at a workshop for my GT/gifted & talented update today and thinking about the difference between gifted & talented versus high achiever. I'm the high achiever that can occasionally be GT. In college, I was a top Latin student, making A's in all of my classes, but no one encouraged me to go to grad school. (Yes, admittedly still a sore spot.) Then again, I myself didn't think I was grad school material. Why?  Because it took me HOURS to prepare my Latin assignments for class.  I didn't know about Dexter Hoyos's Rules for Reading, or metaphrasing, or any of the reading tools that are in my toolbox now. I was decoding; painstakingly considering every word, every case, every item as something that was part of a secret code. I would be surrounded by books--grammars, dictionaries, translations--to help me get through it all. Latin was not for me a language that I could read fluently. It was work. But I was up to the challenge.

All the reading methods I incorporate now have made me a much better reader. A few years ago I audited a Caesar class at UT and I know I was probably the top reader in class, always being fully prepared for our intensive sessions (long reading assignments), scoring well on quizzes and tests, and producing probably the top paper for the class.  By golly, all of my focus on improving my reading skills had truly paid off in an academic setting!

Then earlier this year Justin SB pointed out that using the Rules for Reading and all the rest are nothing more than coping strategies.  I didn't want to hear it, but I knew it is true. These rules still have their place, I truly believe, as they do help you to read texts above your true level of proficiency. And when we are in academic situations that make us force students to leap frog into reading Latin that is way above their comfort zone, we need coping strategies. (Can you say AP Latin?)

So is that part of my problem--that I'm still using coping mechanisms? I don't think so. I don't feel the grammar/structures of what I am reading or even the vocabulary is above my proficiency level except... except I think we have to be VERY CAREFUL on how we identify proficiency levels especially for Latin readers when almost all of their life with Latin has been about HOW TO TRANSLATE IT INTO ENGLISH. That is, there is a difference between something I can, when I read it a time or two, TRANSLATE versus something that I can read and not think twice about. I know for a fact that Latin teachers in general think that our students read at a much higher proficiency level than modern languages--but I think we are dead wrong. No one is reading Vergil in their comfort zone. Taking 15 minutes or more to "read" (translate! decode!) one long sentence of Caesar is not true reading. But I suppose that's another discussion for another time.

HERE'S my problem: I realize that unless I'm really concentrating on hearing the Latin words in my head or reading aloud, my brain is still translating. I'm having a very difficult time turning that off. I think I'm doing fine because I'm reading left to right (not hunting the verb or decoding), and moving along at a comfortable even if slowish rate. But here's what I realized I was doing.  This sentence came up this morning: '"eamus quia Dies Iovis est," dixit.' Before I could hear myself say the words in Latin in my head, my brain already shouted out, '"Let's go because it is Thursday," he said.' I didn't just see the Latin and move on; my brain had to shout out the English.

(I'm also aware that I'm noticing vocabulary, analyzing it, thinking about how it is getting used--why censeo and not puto? why decerno? why ominor? But analyzing isn't the same as acquiring.)

How do I turn off my English translator?

Yes, ok, I think I *have* to start reading everything aloud. But maybe there's some other language learning trick I don't know about. When I tweeted about it, language experts (Krashen! Gaab!) both said it (the reading) just needs to be HIGHLY COMPELLING.  Hey, I'm finding this compelling, I'm engaged, I want to read more... but my English translator won't turn off. Maybe modern language learners do not have this problem to the extent that Latin learners may have (because there are significantly fewer of us teaching using Comprehensible Input), but this may be a problem that is not being addressed, a problem that is slowing down able students in ALL LANGUAGES.

And you know what else I think? This English interference issue is part of the reason why I haven't progressed as much as I would like with spoken Latin. I have attended numerous SALVI immersion events (mainly Rusticatio), but I'm still nervous anytime I see someone from Rusticatio because I struggle with small talk, and always feel like I don't know enough vocabulary to reply satisfactorily. I feel like I'm always starting over, at least to a certain extent. My last summer at Rusticatio I figured out at least one thing I was doing that was detrimental: on breaks I would often go off on walks by myself and my thoughts would be in English. To correct this, I made myself talk aloud to myself when on walks--the things I would see--and sometimes I would practices Rassias style things: papilionem video. quis papillionem videt? ipsa dico me papilionem videre. quis rogat? ipsa rogo quis papilionem videat. Maybe it would have been easier if I had just stopped going for a walk on my own! Maybe there should have been a buddy rule....

So, I don't know what else to say. I think ENGLISH really impedes my Latin learning, and yes I am still learning. I've always thought that this is one thing that makes me a good teacher. Yes, I'm totally enthusiastic about Latin and all the rest. My students respond very positively to my class and I want my high achievers to bypass me on their way to greatness. But I also have deep empathy with the struggler, especially the bright struggler who maybe doesn't get why he/she is lagging behind peers. So I'm not afraid to identify and analyze my weaknesses.  For me, right here and now it is about how to turn off my English translator when I am reading. And I bet some of your students have this problem too.