Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Naturalization Method

It’s common knowledge that the best way to teach a language is by the natural method. No one—except grad students learning how to skim German, English or French—should ignore this advice. You can’t properly know a language unless you have plenty of experience hearing and listening to it—and learning it from other people, not mathematical grammatical tables.

It’s controversial, but true, that this goes for Latin too. I’ve seen firsthand that when you teach Latin in Latin, you can get students to learn far faster and far more thoroughly. The usual objections raised to teaching Latin this way—that we don’t know how Latin really sounded, that it ignores rigor, that there’s no point speaking a dead language—can be easily answered.

First, that we don’t know how it sounded. This is nonsense. We have a very good idea of what classical Latin sounded like, which we have from comparative phonology, borrowings from Latin into other ancient languages, and recorded spelling errors. Even without those witnesses, though, there is—believe it or not—a tradition of spoken Latin handed down to us from the Middle Ages. This is what gets referred to as “Church Latin” at urban American parties—but it’s kept up today by modern humanists much more than by the post-Vatican II Catholic church. Anyway, anyone who doubts that Latin can be spoken should visit the Accademia Vivarium Novum in Rome, where it’s the language of everyday life. (Here’s Luigi Miraglia, its director, giving a speech; lamenting, incidentally, the decline of spoken Latin as only he can do.)

Second, it’s objected that the natural method is a sloppy way to teach Latin. In the hands of a shoddy teacher, this is of course true. But shoddy teaching spoils the non-natural method just as much as the natural. Bad teaching is bad teaching—and rigor has far more to do with the quality of a teacher than the methods used. Jiří Čepelák, one of the few truly gifted teachers that I’ve met, is a master of the natural method. And he’s more exacting than any other Latin teacher I’ve come across. Though he conducts his classes exclusively in Latin, he insists that his students master the most maddeningly minor details of the language, to their profit. It’s because of him that I can rattle off mordere-momordisse-morsum like I can tie my shoelaces.

Third, it’s objected that Latin is only read nowadays, not spoken, so there’s no point in training students in a skill that will never serve them. This prophecy fulfills itself so enthusiastically that it barely needs the help of hapless mortals. If students are only taught to read Latin, then of course they will never come across a situation in which it’s helpful to know how to speak it. But if you teach Latin as a spoken language, you’ve given a common language—and thus a common community—to students from France, Finland, Malawi, England. Even without this perk, speaking ability helps reading so much that it’s worth cultivating entirely as a means to an end.

The natural method, in short, is the only sensible way of teaching Latin (and Greek!) properly. But it does not go far enough. As any language-learner knows, there’s only one way to really master a language: to move to the country where it is spoken. What’s more, going to the language’s homeland supplies a point as well as an aid to learning it. Learning Kyrgyz is a wonderful exercise, but you’re better off going on other intellectual adventures if you have no itch to visit Central Asia.

Yuri Gagarin was not, in fact, born in Kyrgyzstan.
To really master a language in both the linguistic and the cultural sense, what you need isn’t natural teaching but naturalization. To lose your accent and the creeping sense that you’re lingering on the outside of things, you need to be a fully adopted subject of your new motherland.

The only rub is that Latin has no sovereign homeland. It has a homeland nevertheless: the res publica litterarum, or “republic of letters.” In other words, the enormous body of literature, poetry, prayers, and philosophy recorded in what used to be Europe’s common tongue. This is an incredibly deep well of human feeling tappable by anyone with a little language training. One learns grammar by reading in Latin, but in the company of historical Latin writers, one also learns the real soul of the language. From antiquity through the eighteenth century, the subtlest and most passionate thoughts of mankind have been recorded in Latin. And we’re eligible ourselves to join this ancient train of sorrow and contemplation. We can be like Machiavelli:

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them. 
(Letter XI to Francesco Vettori, trans. by Harvey Mansfield.)
This is what neo-humanism is for: to allow a new generation—this time women as well as men—to join the fellowship that gave so much peace and delight to Machiavelli. If you’re interested in Latin by the natural method, Hans Ørberg’s Lingua latina per se illustrata is by far the best place to start. If you’re interested in Latin by the naturalization method, your countrymen are waiting for you on library shelves.

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