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Latin Language Education - Historical Outline of a Method.

A historical perspective on Latin/Greek teaching : Evan der Millner This topic is a very wide ranging one – and a brief essay such as this, can only hope to cover the subject giving the barest of outlines. In this essay, I will mainly concern myself with what could be called the Rudiments of language education. I will also point out that some 'new' methods are actually not new at all. We are fortunate in knowing rather a lot about how the Romans went about teaching their children.

Rome was a bilingual society – so education always involved an element of second language teaching. For contemporary foreign language teachers, the surviving evidence is fascinating. Most of the direct evidence we have for language teaching dates from around the end of the third century, but we have an abundance of indirect evidence as well – fragments of papyri, ostraca and wax tablets, a syllabary inscribed on a tomb wall in Egypt that had been turned into a classroom, and, the most surprising survival of all, that body of texts now known as the hermeneumata.From around the same time period, we have the elementary Latin grammar of Donatus, which was composed for Roman boys who already spoke Latin. My discussion of Latin education will keep returning to the hermeneumata, and Donatus, whose echoes keep reverberating through the curriculum down the centuries, except for a brief hiatus during the 'philological period' of the nineteenth century.

What were the hermeneumata? They were standardised texts,used across the Empire to teach Roman boys Latin or Greek, depending on which end of the Empire they found themselves in. They appeared to serve two purposes – they acted as primers in the child's native language, and were also used to teach a second language. The texts we have are bilingual in Latin and Greek. Most of the examples come from the Western Empire. However, we can see the uniformity of these texts across the Empire, as a Greek-Latin-Coptic example survives, that is almost identical to one of the European versions. Although the earliest surviving text we can date is from September 11 207 AD, the standardised format of the manuscripts would suggest that the methodology – probably originated by Greek pedagogues - was already well established by this time. The hermeneumata contain a number of elements – vocabulary lists for everyday life arranged by theme, vocabulary lists  arranged alphabetically, simple dialogues designed to activate the vocabulary, narratives, and simplified fables. The dialogues aim to relate to a boy's everyday life, while also inculcating the virtues of good citizenship – piety and virtue. We know that authors such as Aphthonius especially wrote simplified versions of fables for inclusion in primary textbooks. (N. Holzberg 2002, The Ancient Fable) These, and short, often humorous dialogues and narratives, were the elementary literature used in the Roman schoolroom. (Anglo-Saxon Conversations, Gwara and Porter. 1997)

Basic education started off with the alphabet, followed by the learning of syllables – extensive tables of syllables were composed. (Bonner,1977, Education in Ancient Rome). Each consonant was in turn combined with the five vowels – ba be bi bo bu, ca ce ci co cu, and so on, through the alphabet. This practice originated, once again, with the Greeks. An excellent reconstruction of a Roman syllable table can be found in the Institutionum Grammaticarum of Aldus Pius, (MDVII, Venice) whose comprehensive table of syllables stretches over five pages – consonants in front of vowel, vowels in front of consonants, two or three consonants in front of vowels, etc. Pius writes” Imitati autem sumus antiquos et graecos et latinos grammaticos. Discant igitur pueri quot syllabarum sint dictiones”.

The primary reader ascribed to Julius Pollux, who was tutor of Commodus, is worth looking at as an example of a Roman lesson book. Written in the late second Century, this text begins as follows: (I have interpolated Comenius' sixteenth Century take on this, to show the direct influence of the Classical model) “Bona Fortuna, Dii Propitii! Praeceptor, Ave! (c.f Comenius: Salve, Lector Amice!) Quoniam volo et valde cupio loqui graece et latine, rogo te, magister, doce me. (c.f C: Quis docebit me hoc?) Ego faciam, si me adtendas. (C: Ego, cum Deo) Adtendo diligentur..... Pollux then lays out his method : “Duo ergo sunt personae quae disputant, ego et tu. Tu es qui interrogas, ego respondeo. Ante omnia, lege clare, diserte” We see the same principle operating in Donatus, whose Ars Minor is constructed as a sort of grammatical dialogue. “Verbum quid est? Pars orationis cum tempore et persona etc” (Gramatici Latini, Keil). Donatus is providing a textbook, and also the suggested outline of a lesson plan for the praeceptor.

This method of teaching continues through the Carolingian period, into the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance, when several hermeneumata texts were 'rediscovered', with so many other Classical texts. (Colloquial and Literary Latin, Dickey and Chahoud, Cambridge 2010).

The influence of these rediscovered texts on Erasmus, Vives and, particularly, Comenius, was immense. A large part of the renaissance educational enterprise was a deliberate attempt to revive the methods of the ancients.  Parsing grammars – more detailed than Donatus, and aimed at second language speakers, had started to appear even earlier, constructed entirely on the dialogic principle – composed in a self conscious effort to imitate  classroom practice in Ancient Rome. (exemplified by Priscian's famous “Partitiones duodecim versuum Aeneidos principalium”).

The Roman method of teaching was lauded by Simon Grynaeus, in a letter included in the 1536 Basil edition of Polluxes Onomasticum, which itself formed the model for Comenius' Janua, and Orbis Pictus. The influence of the Omonasticum and the ideas in Grynaeus' letter, on Comenius, are self evident. “non gravabitur praeceptor, praesentes ipsasque si potest, si non potest, pictas, sculptas, aut quomodocunque seu verbis seu gestibus expressas bene certa cum nomenclatura res, principio puerilibus oculis animisque quam diligentissime subjicere”

In the 1800's there was a move away from this Classical Roman method of teaching, to a newly invented method I would characterize as grammar-translation, with an emphasis on only using texts that were written by the Romans themselves. A Latin sentence not penned by a Roman of the Golden Age, was not Latin worthy of consideration, and no student should set their eyes on, or be corrupted by such a thing. Aesop was rejected, as were parsing grammars, dialogues, and the short narrative stories that had been the stock in trade of second language education in Latin  for over 2000 years.

Teaching Latin came to mean teaching grammar, and reading Latin came to mean translation. The methods that had been used since Roman times, in a more or less unbroken tradition, were largely abandoned. Aesop, who was a staple of the Roman and Renaissance primary classroom, was abandoned, depriving students of a rich source of easily digestible Latin. Aesop's place in the Latrin curriculum is now so unfamiliar, few teachers have any idea of what to do with an Aesop fable, or its pedagogical utility.

Dialogue went the same way. Students were often thrown straight into Caesar,  or some such author, as the primary text, before being rapidly exposed to Virgil, and quite advanced Classical literature. This represented a total break with the Classical tradition.

In the name of 'authenticity', a new and artificial method of Latin pedagogy arose, one that bore little relationship to its Roman predecessor. Perhaps it was felt that, as Latin was no longer required as a spoken idiom, the teaching method should change: As Comenius noted:  “discendae sunt non omnes totae ad perfectionem esse, sed ad necessitatem. Nec enim est opus Graeca et Hebraica tam expedite sonare, ut vernacula, quia homines desunt cum quibus loquamur." Comenius astutely noted , however, “Omnis lingua usu potius discatur quam praeceptis. Id est, audiendo, legendo, relegendo et transcribendo”.

It should not make a practical difference if a language needed to be spoken: the teaching method should not change. Thus we find many modern courses, with their mix of grammar, dialogue and narrative, are far closer to the Classical curriculum than anything we have seen published in over 200 years - however, they only approximate it - we find no modern course, for example, composed with extensive parsing exercises in Latin. Model teacher-student dialogues that provide a template for classroom interaction in Latin, are largely absent, or, in some textbooks, only hinted at. The vast majority of Latin study, is till focussed on grammar and translation.

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