Talking About Dead Tongues: A Review of When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin, edited by John Gruber-Miller (2006). American Philological Association Classical Resources Series 6. Oxford: Oxford UP.
For many of us classicists, our first forays into the ancient world as students and later our first time in the spotlight as teachers have occurred in beginning Greek or Latin classrooms. But despite the essentially formative nature of these courses, we as a collective discipline do not spend much time or effort talking about language pedagogy, nor have most of our methods changed much over the past hundred years. Even if we as teachers are aware of the huge body of current second-language acquisition research, it is easy to think that none of it applies to our “dead” languages.
This useful volume, edited by John Gruber-Miller, is an attempt to chip away at the field’s patina of indifference towards pedagogical reflection. It contains nine chapters on different challenges and/or opportunities involved in teaching Latin and ancient Greek at (primarily) the college level. Each chapter includes an overview of the latest research findings, followed by a practical assessment of how these findings apply to the Greek or Latin classroom and concrete strategies for improving teaching and learning based on upon them.
Published in 2006, When Dead Tongues Speak was intended to be the “beginning of a conversation” (p. 3) and a challenge to classicists to think differently about how to reach a wider audience in a changed world. That the book is not owned by any Harvard library might be an indication of the difficulty of sparking such conversation and reflection in our admittedly tradition-philic field, but thanks to a recent meeting of the Classics Teaching Colloquium in the Department of Classics here, the conversation has begun in a meaningful way.
Each of the Colloquium participants––many of them currently teaching Latin for the first time–– chose a chapter of the book to present. This led to fruitful discussions of issues like cognitive styles and learning strategies (Ch. 2), Latin for students with foreign language learning difficulties (Ch. 3), peer teaching and cooperative learning techniques (Ch.4), and teaching writing in beginning Greek and Latin courses (Ch. 9). The participants were often able to identify specific techniques or activities they could immediately try in their own classrooms. These discussions and reflections sparked by When Dead Tongues Speak are continuing in the wider community of our department. As an example of the impact the contributions can have, I will use the rest of this post to give my own personal reaction to one of the chapters.
I presented Chapter 6, “Reading Latin Efficiently and the Need for Cognitive Strategies,” by Daniel V. McCaffrey. It has had a striking effect on my own deeply held conceptualization of Latin learning and teaching. The major take-away point of the chapter for me was that although translation is the tool we most often use in the classroom to measure Latin reading proficiency, we must remember that the actual goal of Latin pedagogy should normally be the ability to read Latin, not to translate Latin. Thus, we need strategies (informed by current psycho-linguistic research) that help students read Latin as Latin, as they would any other language. Reflecting on this chapter made me finally understand the strategy used by our department’s introductory Latin textbook. The authors of the textbook emphasize that Latin is not a puzzle to be picked apart and put back together, and they encourage students to translate extremely literally in Latin word order. Although this technique often leads, in my experience, to nonsense English translations that make it difficult to assess student comprehension, I now understand the psycho-linguistic basis of this strategy as a means toward the long-term goal of reading efficiency.
While I am convinced by McCaffrey’s insistence that Latin is a language to be read like any other, I also vividly remember my own experience in starting to learn Latin. I loved it precisely because it seemed like a puzzle or a math equation to be solved, in contrast to the other (modern) languages I had studied in high school. Most college-level Latin teachers have had a math or computer science major in their class who aces every test. I don’t think we should deny that Latin can be approached like a puzzle in a way that can appeal to computational thinkers, who can be very successful readers. Taken in concert with the overarching goals and message of When Dead Tongues Speak, a multifaceted approach to reading strategies seems most likely to effectively reach and teach a broad audience of learners.