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February 07, 2006


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I always wanted to learn Latin - I tried to teach myself a little bit of it but never got too far. I studied French most of my childhood starting at the age of 6, was a Junior in College with a French major when I kicked over the traces and started from scratch for nursing.....
Now, I can read and comprehend French, but Spanish is the language I use the most after English. And I learned by listening, for the most part. My Spanish grammar sucks - I can conjugate a few verbs into a basic past tense (the one that means I used to) and one future tense (I am going to). I pretty much have the ser/estar down. Otherwise I punt. But I can do prenatal care, basic diabetic teaching, deliver a baby, and help a mom breastfeed in Spanish. And in a pinch, I can basically communicate with the Brazilian Portugese speaking moms. I think that the experience of learning other languages when I was young was extremely useful and I am delighted that you are teaching your children.
BTW - English also has its nuances of vocabulary that are difficult to translate. Think about the fact that we have different words for some animals depending on whether we are considering them as food or not (veal/calf, pork/pig, beef/steer). The word that is for the food comes from the french, the other word comes from the anglo-saxon or the germanic roots of english.

Oh, Alicia, I'm glad you mentioned wanting to learn Latin. My husband brought home a little book called Learn Latin, by Peter Jones. From what I've read, it looks doable and funny.

Toby absolutely wants Aidan to learn Latin at some point, and I'm totally in agreement. I feel like, because it's a "root language", it will help him with vocabulary in general (correct me if I'm wrong), but also it will help him learn or at least understand other romance languages much more easily. When the time comes, I'll be asking you for help! =)

I read an interesting mystery short story where the main character is taking Latin in college and the professor requires everyone in the class to write a charm or a curse in Latin for the fortune-telling booth at the fair.

I think it would be great if my kids could learn Latin, but neither my husband nor I know anything other than some prayers, and I'm not sure I'm gung-ho about learning it myself. Particularly if we homeschool, I plan to have my mom (a recently retired Spanish teacher) teach them Spanish. She's very pro-public schooling and I think being in charge of their Spanish instruction would be a good way for us to ease the blow of taking the most different possible approach for our children's schooling. Besides, she finds amazing ways to make language learning fun and I know they'd all enjoy it.

I've always wished I'd done latin at school. Comprehensives generally don't in the UK. Private schools and some grammar schools do. (Teaching latin is why grammar schools are called grammar schols isn't it?). I know bits from singing in choirs, but I wish I knew more. It's the linguistic aspect that's fascinating. With a little latin and some knowledge of how different languages work, you can puzzle out most european languages, in their written form at least. Useful for visiting churches and museums, if nothing else.

I took Latin in high school but we didn't do much reading out loud, just translating back and forth. Rebekah's right, though, in that it helps a lot with vocabulary and also, I think, with though processes. Like Jamie said, the verb isn't in what you consider the "right" spot, etc. So it is a bit like a puzzle. That appealed to the math-nerd part of me. :)

As for hearing things, sing it sister (and not SuperGeek either!). My husband speaks Lithuanian fluently; I am taking classes. I can't tell you how many times he's said "No! Not -as, -IS!" To me, they sound pretty much the same. To him, there are two distinct sounds there (aaahhsss, issss). If he slows WAAAAAY down and exaggerates, I can hear it, but otherwise forget it. But it's also neat to learn this language; you do learn more about English grammar, I think, because you (well, I am, being that math-dork) are constantly trying to make connections between the two, in order to make some sense of it. AND I get to use my Latin as well, because I didn't have to relearn declensions of nouns and conjugations of verbs; I already know what those constructions mean and I just have to apply it to this new language (although there are extra declensions in Lithuanian).

Fascinating post, Jamie.

I took 16 years of Spanish (12 from K-12 and then four years in college to get a minor in the language) and I love it. I love being able to speak another language fluently and it definitely helps both english grammar and vocabulary. I also took Hebrew for five years and Latin for six years. I remember a lot of the Latin, probably because of the Spanish, and none of the Hebrew.

I think language instruction is poorly lacking in our country, and I believe it should start in Kindergarten or even earlier. I think it's great that you're teaching your kids German and Latin, and I think those are great languages to teach for this reason: Latin is the base of all the romance languages, so your kids will be able to read and perhaps understand Italian and Spanish, with a smattering of French. German, on the other hand, is a Germanic language from which English is derived, so the more German they learn, the more they'll understand the roots of the language they primarily speak.

Anyway, good job!

My father's an evolutionary linguist, and though I did not learn any languages as a small child, but I was EXPOSED to French, German, Italian and any thing else we'd overhear on the street or see on TV. He'd play around teaching me foreign vowel sounds and getting me to identify which language was being spoken. I think it made a huge difference to my world view and the way my mind works to realize early on that there are whole different systems for communication. I find that I'm faster to understand someone with a tricky accent than my monoglot contemporaries, because I do not have the mental block of "oh, he sounds strange, I can't understand that..."

I'm technically a monoglot, because I don't really have a natural knack for langauges like my sister, and have forgotten most of the Spanish and German I studied in middle and high school, but I plan to at least teach my (future planned) children to count to ten in a couple of languages, and maybe a few little songs, just to stretch their little brains a bit.

The historian is me is going to puzzle over the question of linguistic flexibility for a while now. There's the status problem, for one thing. Folks in the commercial and aristocratic classes would have needed multiple language skills, but well into the eighteenth century, whose were still very small parts of the population. What about the rural masses? In most European countries, they rarely went farther than the closest mid-sized market town. What about travelers through those market towns?

This is sort of an interesting historical thought-puzzle. I'm willing to bet that most American Indian people (North and South) would have had to communicate in more than one language, and needed comfort with multiple dialects. I would make a wild guess that the various Asian empires and kingdoms formed coherent bureaucracies early enough to isolate each region's farmers from the market and academic exchanges that would have brought the "upper" classes into multi-linguistic contact. But it's a guess, and rests on very flimsy evidence.

As I'm thinking and writing, I'm finding myself drawn to the idea that stronger central governments led to fewer multilingual residents. But we're far afield from my comfort zone. Hmmmmm.....

(Do you use any curricular support, then, or are you creating your own from year to year?)

I had a whole comment here, but I accidentally clicked "preview" instead of "post" and then closed the browser. Blast.

What I was going to say was something to the effect that I need to learn Greek, that I feel like a reprobate student of the Classical languages for not knowing it, that Vergil's vocabulary frequently brings me to a screeching halt which is not conducive to a poetic temper, that that I took the Latin class from Hell last semester that made me complete Bradley's Arnold Latin Composition in... one semester (if you've ever used that textbook, you know how uttterly insane that is), and that I still remember the first 11 lines of the Aeneid.

Also, I've been toying with the idea of teaching Latin to elementary school children, and I may use your sequencing as a template. It seems to me, in the infinite wisdom brought to me by twenty years and no children whatsoever, that an early education in Latin grammar would form the mind and have long-term effects on a child's mental processes, and give him a much sharper grasp both of grammar in general and of logic or anything else that needs that sort of careful reasoning and piecing together of the parts of the sentence. A word-order based language really doesn't make one think that way at all.

I started Latin when I was 10, and had three years of it; we got through about the first 30 chapters of Wheelock. Though my teacher's approach was totally wrong for my learning style (I need about half and half reading/writing and oral, and all I got was reading/writing), I managed to absorb a fair amount of the vocabulary.

The grammar was extremely difficult for me, because I'd never formally studied English grammar. I couldn't have told you which was the subject and which the object of a sentence until I took one more year of Latin in college, starting over at the beginning. Isn't that sad? But my teachers had never thought to teach me about English grammar, because when I wrote and spoke, my grammar was generally correct (my parents speak well, and I read a lot). But because I couldn't have told you why any of my grammar was correct or not, my ability to learn a foreign language was severly diminshed. My one year of Greek (I remember a few vocabulary words and can recite the Lord's Prayer) suffered terribly, as did my high school French.

My college Latin is better, and certainly better now that I sing lots of chant and motets in Latin and get regular practice. In grad school, I will have to take German and Italian. I'm looking forward to these.

On the subject of pronunciation, my language teachers (two Latin, one Greek, three French, and a German teacher and a native Italian speaker commenting on my pronunication in songs) have universally praised my grasp of vowel and consonant sounds not found in English. I think this is because, as a musician, my ears are trained to pick up fairly subtle sound distinctions. Also, nearly all my friends who are musicians are competent in at least one foreign language. Perhaps the two abilities are related?

By the way, I had very good standardized-test vocab scores, which I think I owe to having studied, however briefly, Latin, Greek, and French: 770 out of 800 on the SAT, and 670 on the GRE, comfortable above the 90th percentile on both. I know standardized tests are awful, and hopefully by the time your children go to college no one will care, but at the moment such things look awfully good to most universities.

Mary Catherine, it looks like Peter Jones (who wrote the Latin book Elwood is using) has also written a Classical greek one that people love:


Oh, and what I wanted to say is that I wish there were podcasts of Latin language lessons. I'd get an Ipod just for that so I could learn Latin while I'm running.

Jody, for Latin I just wing it. For German I use an old textbook as a guide. Please LMK if you turn up anything solid about history and multilingualism -- I'm intrigued.

JaneC, that's a really interesting thought about musicians and language-learning -- would love to know more.

Moxie, if you study Latin AT THE SAME TIME that you are training for a 5K, I will stand back and watch as you float away to some other plane of ultra-virtuous existence.

I took Latin in high school as did my husband. It makes for interesting trivia games. The one thing I remember the best was translating pop songs like Bruce Springsteen's I'm on fire... Oh oh oh Ardeo.

I'm afraid I don't know much more about musicians and language-learning than what I said: the anecdotal evidence that my friends who are musical also tend to be good at languages.

Here are my theories: musicians' ears tend to be pretty sensitive, and this can account for the pronunciation thing--we're just used to listening for subtle distinctions in pitch, duration, etc. For those who have a good memory for vocabulary and grammar, this more sensitive hearing can make understanding a spoken language easier. Also, musicians who can read music (all my friends do) are already accustomed to reading a "language," even an "alphabet," other than their native language. Furthermore, classical musicians at least are simply exposed to more languages than the average person in America--singers, especially, have to deal with Latin, Italian, French, German, English, and Spanish on a regular basis. Even if you don't speak the language, you're used to hearing it, reading it, and forming the sounds in your mouth.

Here's a quote from the "Canadian Geographic" website: "Some scientists believe musicians also tend to use the left half of their brain when analyzing music. The left hemisphere processes language and is used for reasoning tasks, leading scientists to believe musicians process musical information more analytically than those without training." (http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/alacarte/)

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