When I started Classical Workbooks in 2006 it seemed a good idea, as someone writing books that claimed to teach Latin and Greek, that I really ought to find out how people learn languages.  So I started googling.  Eleven years later (March 2017), I'm still googling.

It's been an exhilarating journey.  From Emmett Betts' work I discovered why none of us ever learns to read Latin: it's because we never acquire enough vocabulary to get beyond Frustration Reading Level.  I read Stephen Krashen and then made the wonderful discovery that most of Latin literature and just enough Greek is available in comprehensible input format in the Hamilton Clark interlinear series.   

Thanks to Google Books you can pick up the writings of the great language teachers for a song - Sweet, Jespersen, Bloomfield, Dodson and so many more, and in particular Harold Palmer, whose every word is gold.     

But it's been a sobering journey too, because all this exciting work on language learning is confined to the world of modern languages (where it is known as SLA - Second Language Acquisition).   Classicists do not participate in these discussions, with the result that the classicists repeatedly make elementary mistakes which the modern languages people pointed out years ago.  

Take, for example, the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC).   With CLC the student is given a slab of Latin, together with some notes and a vocab list, and told to translate it into English.  Now making BEGINNERS translate the Target Language (TL) into the Mother Tongue (MT) is a practice that is universally condemned in modern languages.  (The TL is overwhelmed by the MT, and never manages to establish itself independently in the student's brain.  Modern language teachers try to keep the MT out of their teaching as much as possible).

The Cambridge Latin Course was written in the 1960's, a time of ferment in Classics with the comprehensivisation of schools and Oxford dropping mandatory Latin.  In response the great John Sharwood Smith founded Didaskalos, a journal dedicated to discussing new ideas about Latin and Greek teaching.  

When I read those old copies of Didaskalos and Sharwood Smith's own book The Teaching of Classics I find many references to Chomsky and Transformational Grammar, but no mention of this objection to Translation into the MT.   It is clear that neither Sharwood Smith nor the CLC team were even aware of the objection to Translation into the MT, let alone felt that they had overcome it.  (My guess is that, 50 years later, the CLC team are STILL unaware of the objection to making beginners translate into the MT).

Basically, then, what happened is that Sharwood Smith and the CLC people felt they really ought to consider modern language research into SLA, so they started looking and found everybody talking about the latest theory which was Chomsky (SLA is very fashion-driven), but they missed the Translation into the MT objection which had been around since the 30's and was by now old hat.  

So the world of Classics is just amazingly backward.  We continue to use teaching methods which everybody else abandoned 50 or 100 years ago. And because no-one in Classics ever studies SLA as a technical subject it is impossible even to have a sensible conversation about different methods.


The consequence is that a student taking A Level Latin will attain a proficiency in the language far lower than the proficiency attained by a student taking A Level French or German. 

Is there any chance of our improving our teaching methods?   I don't think so.   Latin has achieved a modest academic prestige alongside Physics and Maths as a "hard" subject.  Being academically prestigious, it will continue to be taught in a highly academic way, as an exercise in puzzle-solving. Unfortunately, the part of the brain that handles puzzle-solving is unrelated to the part of the brain that handles language, but a small number of intellectual high-fliers will still be able to master the language this way, or at least enough to fill the available places at Oxford and Cambridge.

So is everything doom and gloom?   Not at all; in fact, it's all tremendously exciting.  I'll write up this "alternative scenario" shortly.     

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