5.0147 Summary: Teaching Classical Languages (1/123)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 18 Jun 91 10:35:02 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0147. Tuesday, 18 Jun 1991.

Date: Sat, 15 Jun 1991 09:57 EET
From: Jouko Lindstedt, University of Helsinki <LINDSTEDT@cc.Helsinki.FI>
Subject: Teachng a classical language: a summary

A month ago, HUMANIST (5.0053) distributed my query about "the most
practicable method of teaching a classical language to a student who
doesn't have the slightest interest in it yet [...]". Although my
problem primarily concerned Old Church Slavonic (OCS), I asked for
advice from all teachers of classical languages, such as Latin and
Greek. I have received lots of valuable answers, both on HUMANIST and

Nobody really defended the old "deductive" method of first learning
all paradigms and then proceeding to authentic texts. Even at the end
of the course, the student need not necessarily know such paradigms
the frequency of which in actual texts is low (Mike MacMahon, writing
about Old Icelandic). But somehow the inductive and deductive methods
should be balanced (David Schaps), a "middle ground" has to be found
(Willard McCarty).

One of the most important things is to choose carefully graded texts
which introduce grammatical structures in an orderly way. (Donald
Webb wrote that such graded readings are important even in teaching
modern languages, despite fashionable "communicative" approaches.)
David A. Hanson told about a course of OCS in which the "theoretical
norm" was introduced to the students, because the main thing is to
help them to see the diachronic links. (To appreciate this
recommendation, you must know that OCS texts have usually been taught
as they appear in manuscripts, with all scribal errors and local
traits, not in a normalized form as is customary with classical Greek
and Latin authors.) Interesting diachronic connections "underline
from the start the reason why you're learning the older language"
(Aldabra Stoddart). Of course the texts should also be interesting in
their own right. Pat Johnston proposed "to expose [the] students to
some of the GLORIOUS hymns in OCS"; unfortunately, what she must have
in mind are really hymns in Russian Church Slavonic -- they are very
beautiful, but the language is too "modern" to be useful for a
philologist (sigh).

Even though students are not supposed to speak a "dead language",
they should be made to READ ALOUD the texts, so that visual and aural
material reinforce each other -- this fine theoretical phrase I
coined by myself, but I think this is more or less what several
contributors seem to think, and I agree. This is also something very
traditional, both in learning texts and paradigms, which does not
mean it's something bad: from my Latin I still remember "fero, tuli,
latum, ferre" and "Odi et amo..." (with a STRONG scansion).

A related question is how a classical language should be pronounced.
I assume the classics teachers in different countries are more and
more going over to the "classical" and "original" pronunciation, with
the Latin "c" pronounced [k] in every position, for instance. This is
very fine for linguistic purposes, but it should be kept in mind that
classical languages still have different ritual uses where other
norms prevail. OCS with an "original" pronunciation -- if such a
thing exists -- sounds very different from the Russian Church
Slavonic my students can here in orthodox churches at Helsinki. As
for myself, being a Roman Catholic I have two pronunciations for
Latin: I've learned the classical "hard" one for pieces such as "Odi
et amo...", with all the vowel lengths, but I couldn't recite the
Credo in it.

There was also some discussion on CALL; it was interesting (once I guessed
what CALL means), but I don't think I am competent to summarize it here.

James O'Donnell (5.0069) mildly accused me of a insincere attitude as
I seemed to want to know "how can we take an authoritarian situation
(you *must* take OCS) and sugar-coat it to make it resemble our ideal
libertarian model of teaching?" [in his wording]. His "own recipe is
to find students who want to learn the language". I think "DEL2"
already answered to this (in 5.0078). I'd like to add that even in
O'Donnell's university, the football team (in Europe we believe that
every U.S. university has one) certainly cannot train in such a way
that for each exercise which the coach proposes, every team member
decides whether he or she wants to participate in it or not. Nobody
is compelled to take Slavonic Philology, but if somebody takes it,
the teachers are supposed to know better what the students need to
master the subject, that's what teachers are paid for. I don't want
to say that course requirements cannot be discussed with the
students; our requirements have recently changed a lot owing to
student proposals (and protests). But as for OCS, they just have to
believe they need it... The goal is making them see it during the
course, not four years afterwards.

As several HUMANIST readers suggested, I acquainted myself with some
newer textbooks of Latin and Greek. Unfortunately I couldn't find all
of the books suggested in our faculty library, and I was too lazy to
go to other libraries, but I found, to mention one of the best,
_Reading_Greek_, by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers'
Greek Course (Cambridge University Press 1978). There is even a
Finnish edition, and presumably other national editions, too. The
first chapter ("The insurance fraud") begins with a real-looking
text, but actually it only makes use of some very basic grammatical
forms and structures; and the student is supposed to read and
understand the text with the help of the vocabulary _before_ the
grammatical explanations are given. Needless to say, there is nothing
comparable in Old Church Slavonic; perhaps I will be able to
normalize and simplify passages from the Vita Constantini in a
similar manner, or write even some short texts of my own.

Finally, several contributors emphasized the teacher's role, the
importance of his or her enthusiasm (and humour). Peg Kershenbaum
wrote a fine contribution (in 5.0120) about how the teacher should
love the subjects and the students, be ready to answer silly
questions without showing they are silly, be able to present the
subject matter as an intellectual challenge, organize system of peer
tutors, and still have time to write own material for the course. It
sounds very idealistic, but I think it's the kind of idealism
academic teachers really need. I think this kind of attitude is
something we in Europe should learn from the universities of
English-speaking countries (but I admit I've never been to an
English-speaking country, let alone their universities). It's also a
question of general mentality: few Finnish university teachers show
any kind of enthusiasm before their students (there are bright
exceptions, of course); few Finnish students ask any questions, silly
or not. But this is changing, I hope.

Jouko Lindstedt
Dept. of Slavonic Languages, University of Helsinki