Experiments in Communicative Latin


Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by William Short, Classics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005

Latin pedagogy is fundamentally informed by a division between grammar-teaching and reading-teaching. Both as a learner and teacher of Latin, I have experienced that students, exposed to linguistic data in the form of paradigms, vocabulary lists, and enumerated rules of syntax, and trained on texts divorced from any context significant to them, learn that the only referential sphere for grammar, morphology and syntax is the text itself, and do not perceive Latin’s ability to make sense contextually. The result is an almost universal feeling of despair when students are confronted with literary texts both highly-contextualized (culturally) and highly-stylized (rhetorically), since they understand only basically what the language means as a code, but not how language creates functional meaning in context.

Inspired by the” communicative method,” I have created activities that teach students both linguistic competency and how to recognize situated meaning. Their purpose is to demonstrate how, in Halliday’s words, “the situation in which linguistic interaction takes place gives the participants a great deal of information about the meanings that are being exchanged, and the meanings that are likely to be exchanged.” For beginners, these activities encourage meaningful use of language in the “context of situation.” For example, dividing students into pairs to construct simple invectives in the style of professional wrestlers permits them not only to practice the future tense, but to experience Latin as contextually meaningful and as their own. For more advanced students, I designed an activity to teach them — entirely in Latin — to make a grilled cheese sandwich. My “script” was not simplistic or watered down linguistically, but encouraged students to infer the meaning of unknown utterances from the very straightforward and familiar context.

In reading courses, where the focus is on authentic, culturally-situated texts, I have used such activities to train students to synthesize information relevant to their understanding, and to make Hallidean predictions, from the context of culture.[1] As an example, I have used a discussion of “poetic” vocabulary to encourage students to ask not only what a word means, but why particular lexical choices are made, and what stylistic, poetic, and rhythmic effects alternatives may have. (Why, e.g., use sonipes, thundering-foot to mean horse, instead of equus?). Similarly, when reading the speeches of Cicero, discussions of passages of irony have helped students explore how the orator creates ironic meaning with lexical, grammatical and syntactic choices. I have then asked them to compose mini-speeches using the same techniques. Likewise, asking students to look at the transitivity patterns of a passage by Caesar which turns a chaotic battle into a highly structured narrative and then asking them to apply such stylistic features to their own compositions (say, of news stories), encourages them not only to appreciate generic differences but to understand how grammatical and syntactic structures create meaning that extends beyond the linguistic code.

What I have observed in all of these activities, and what has been expressed to me by my students, is that they not only become better users and readers of language, but that they are thrilled with themselves when they recognize their own ability to bring contextual awareness to bear in their understanding of language. There is real and discernible satisfaction when students realize that the linguistic data they have been memorizing can actually be meaningful (and not just have meaning), if they see it used within contexts that are themselves relevant to the students’ own experience. This brings an obvious benefit not just to the student, but to the class, and indeed to the discipline as a whole.

[1] Halliday, M. and Hasan, R., Language, Context and Text: Aspects of Language in a Social-Semiotic Perspective, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1985, 7: “Malinowski introduced the two notions that he called the context of situation and the context of culture: and both of these, he considered, were necessary for the adequate understanding of a text.”