Plan to Thrive in Latin and Greek
- Friday, February 01, 2013
Even as Latin and Greek are getting tossed out the windows of public schools, home educators are doubling their efforts to invite them in the front door. The benefits are obvious: mastery of a Classical language promotes excellent English grammar, vocabulary, and analytical skills. Classics students tend to be self-directed learners who shine at anything requiring language, logic, or analysis. Advanced students go on to read texts foundational to Western religion, philosophy, and society and become the next generation of well-rounded scholars in law, history, medicine, science, and literature.
Studies conducted by the Educational Testing Service found that “Greek and Latin students consistently outperform all other students on the verbal portion of the SAT based on data from the past decade.” These same studies show that Classics majors tend to have a higher GPA at the college level and have accelerated performance in nearly all other subjects such as math, music, and history. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, students who major in Classics have a better success rate getting into medical school than do students who concentrate solely on science. Classics majors also have the highest success rates of any majors in law school. While learning any new language is good, Classical languages pay the highest dividends.
Armed with this information, many rush to buy curricula and start as early as possible without setting reasonable goals. The results can be disappointing and expensive. They can also make your neighbors doubt your sanity.
Many language curricula are designed for parents who have little experience and no time to gain any. These programs push parents to start students as young as possible. After hours of drills and piles of worksheets, many find their learners are not much closer to reading Latin or Greek than when they started. Things get worse if very young students grow bored or resistant. What went wrong? Isn’t starting language at a young age supposed to be a good thing?
To get the full benefit of Latin or Greek, your learner must internalize vocabulary and complex grammar to allow him to scrutinize words carefully and translate accurately. A more mature student will have the organization and self-motivation needed to pull all these things together without a parent pulling out all her hair. You can expect this blessed event to happen only after he or she has entered the “logic” or “formal operational” stage. Simply put: Save your sanity and wait until your child is at least 12 to 14 years old before you pay serious attention to the mastery of Latin or Greek (though especially gifted students may be ready earlier).
For younger students, have the time of your life building a first-rate foundation for later learning. Done well, this groundwork offers as many rewards as formal language studies. Better still, everyone in the family will enjoy this phase. These early years are ideal for fostering the enthusiasm necessary to fuel accelerated Classical language learning once your child is ready. Explore museums (The Metropolitan Museum of Art or the J. Paul Getty Museum, for example). Tour the monuments of Washington, D.C. or The Parthenon in Nashville. Read Classical literature in translation and find some good historical fiction. Attend a performance of a Greek Tragedy, cook some Classical dishes, or dress in an authentically made toga for your next costume party. Make mosaics for your garden. Learn the Greek alphabet and practice writing it carefully. Find a Greek New Testament and then pronounce the words aloud. Study word roots and then pause to decipher their use in everyday English. Visit Italy, Greece, or Turkey on a family adventure of a lifetime.
When your learner is ready, complete an analytical study of English. Learning the parts of speech is fine, but don’t stop there. Unlike English, Greek and Latin are inflected. Their word forms change to show their use in a sentence and they do not rely on word order for meaning. Students should learn grammatical concepts such as subjects, objects, person, tense, voice, transitive, and intransitive.
One of the best approaches is to try out some good old-fashioned sentence diagramming. The reasons why almost everyone had to diagram thirty or forty years ago are simple. Language students struggle with the transition from our word-order-dependent language to Latin and Greek, which have flexible word order and inflected words. Sentence diagramming asks a student to pull a sentence to pieces and put each word in its proper place according to its usage. This process complements Latin and Greek by stressing the mechanics of language and establishing healthy analytical habits.
When it is time to choose, either Classical Greek or Golden Latin will offer comparable first-rate benefits. More choose Latin since the Greek alphabet can be a little intimidating at first. There are also more opportunities to show off on the National Latin Exam or the AP Latin exam. Greek has as many benefits as Latin, plus students love using the cool alphabet.
Some choose a language program that boasts Biblical Greek or ecclesiastical Latin. Combining language learning with Biblical studies sounds ideal, but before you choose this approach, look at the big picture.
Both languages have had periods of highest excellence followed by centuries of simplification as they became more common among non-native speakers. Modern learners will gain the greatest language benefits from Classical Greek and Latin. By contrast, they will gain fewer benefits from learning the simplified contemporary forms of Latin and Greek.
Classical Greek was used from about 500 to 300 B.C. when authors such as Herodotus, Sophocles, and Aristotle knocked our socks off with really clever writing. After Alexander the Great, the average Joe simplified Greek so that he could communicate with everyone, regardless of his native tongue. In the middle of this Hellenistic Period, the New Testament was written in bright simplicity so that everyone, even Latin speakers, could understand Greek easily. But, just like elementary English readers can’t grasp Shakespeare or Dickens, those who master only Biblical Greek will have a hard time reading anything else.
If you learn Classical Greek you can read the New Testament or any Greek literature with relative ease. Similarly, if you are trained in Classical Latin (Vergil, Cicero, and Caesar), you are set for all of Latin literature, including Ovid, Virgil, the Vulgate, or any ecclesiastical Latin you may choose to read. Plus, if you limit yourself to Late Latin, you will need to start over with the Classical version if you want to take the National Latin Exam or earn a passing score on the AP Latin Exam. It only makes sense to learn the best so you can go on to do the rest.
When the time is right to start Latin or Greek, be strategic about how your child will study to his best advantage. A learner should have a well-planned attack rewarded with lots of feedback and opportunities for success.
The best approach is to find a real teacher with an advanced education in that language. Most students aren’t fortunate enough to have a parent with a degree in Classics, so think outside the box. Options include glorified vocabulary programs, book-based self-tutorials, self-paced chat-room lessons, private tutors, or professional instructor-led courses with plenty of feedback and help. Form a co-op to hire a Classics senior or graduate student as a tutor, but be ready with a backup plan when your tutor graduates or gets too busy to meet. Circulate ads to locate retired Latin or Greek teachers in your community. Go online for a professionally taught live course complete with graded homework and quizzes.
Those who take a vocabulary-based approach or a self-tutorial program will have success for the first couple of months until a lack of motivation and feedback begin to bring progress to a standstill. Chat-room style tutorials may provide some structure and a few graded assignments plus a chance to ask an instructor questions. This will work until the languages get a bit harder. Students will lose their way when they don’t know which questions to ask.
Whatever approach you choose, keep in mind several things. Students must remember the details of these languages and be tested on them. If learners aren’t asked to memorize vocabulary, endings, principal parts, and grammar, find a new method or a new instructor. Students must practice translation weekly if not daily. They must have feedback, ask questions, and have help when questions don’t come easily. Students must be held accountable to maintain a pace that pushes them to read undiluted Latin or Greek in two years or fewer. Too slow a pace can kill enthusiasm and make everyone crazy.
Learning Latin or Greek will not be easy. Students accustomed to hard work will do well. But if you have a student accustomed to things coming easy, he may be surprised by a need to study and prepare. This is the perfect chance to help him persevere in times of difficulty so that you can celebrate times of success with even greater enthusiasm.
Amy Barr is a homeschool mom with an M.A. in Latin. As an archaeologist, she spent a decade excavating in the Mediterranean. Amy is co-founder of The Lukeion Project, providing expert instruction in Classics through live, online classes. She also co-leads tours to the Mediterranean. In 2010, 91% of Lukeion Latin students earned honors on the National Latin Exam as did 82% on the Greek Exam.
Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in Winter 2010-11 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
Publication date: February 1, 2013
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