Teacher-written reading material for Novice & Intermediate language learners is not new, at least for modern languages. TPRS Publishing and TPRS Books frequently add more to their roster, so teachers have their choice of topic. 2015 saw the publication of the first two of these novellas in Latin, [self-]published by Pomegranate Beginnings (i.e. Pluto & Itinera Petri). Since then, there has been a wide range of reception amongst Latin teachers (or Classicists, or Linguists, or Scholars, etc.). The general consensus regarding the positive reception has been something like “this is helping our students feel successful and have a positive experience in Latin class. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it.” Regarding the negative reception, most of it revolves around two buzzwords:
- Classically Attested
This is used to question the use of Latin in a way that doesn’t appear in our extant sources (e.g. we don’t know if someone ever said or wrote mihi magis placet because it doesn’t exist in the literature that has survived).
The “style” of one’s Latin (speaking, writing) in terms of conforming to grammatical norms, which could also include word choice.
These buzzwords matter. For some teachers, less-than-superior style and unattested Latin appear to be a threat to The Classics as an insult to intelligence and knowledge, or the work these teachers themselves put into translating and parsing over the years. For other teachers, less-than-superior style and unattested Latin appear to be a disservice to students who wholeheartedly embrace the canon, take the AP, enroll in college, and then complete the cycle to teach Latin at the secondary level (or remain in Academia holding a variety of positions). The reasoning is understandable—fine, even. I get it. I feel you. I hear this, yet I’ve just moved on.
Latinity: An example
I recently overheard a professor slam Oxford as being “bad Latin.” Wow, really? The same professor claimed that “bad textbook Latin” is the reason students can’t transition to reading authentic texts. This is unsubstantiated. A more probable claim is that students can’t transition to reading authentic texts because most students aren’t READING Latin to begin with (re: reading vs. translating textbook passages), and that they haven’t built mental representation of the language, being held accountable for memorizing far too much vocabulary, and/or grammatical knowledge. There are many types of reading tasks, but fluent reading—the kind of reading when you read for meaning so easily that you’ve finished a passage/chapter/book without realizing how long it was or how long you had been reading—is one of the better, if not best experiences to have as a reader! I never had that experience as a Latin student, and I was exposed to superior Latinity. It’s a miracle I’m still here after struggling with Latin for so long, but this isn’t about me. I’ve seen how most students aren’t willing to endure what I did, and there’s not much glory for the few who do.
Classically Attested: An example
mālō (I prefer) expresses preference, but unfortunately looks like malus (bad), or mālum (apple). That is just one reason not to use mālō. Another might be that I don’t want to add a new verb. The reasons don’t matter as much as the decision. So, lets say I decide that I just don’t want to use mālō. The suggestion to use mihi magis placet (I like __ more) is reasonable. My students already know mihi placet, so this substitution is probably more comprehensible, AND we have the added bonus of sheltering vocabulary to what students know without adding a new verb, mālle. So, I did some research and found that mihi magis placet doesn’t appear in the literature. Ugh, right? Now the choice is to use an attested word (mālō) that might be more difficult to comprehend (adding another verb to the students’ vocabulary), or to use an expression the Romans would probably understand even if it’s not found in the literature, but one that I’m positive that my students would comprehend. The criticism is that if something isn’t used in the literature in the same way, or isn’t found in the literature at all, we shouldn’t bother giving it to students to read. This is valid, but only insofar as those students—all of them—will end up reading the literature at all. Very, very few students continue reading Latin, and those who do tend to become Latin teachers. Furthermore, if my experience is anything like other Latin teachers, I can say confidently that I cannot READ most of Latin literature. Give me a couple hours, a dictionary, and some notes, and I’ll be able to tell you what’s going on, or maybe even translate a passage or two, but neither of those are enjoyable experiences for me. What about our students?
So, the basis for questioning the use of Latin in a way that doesn’t appear in our extant sources breaks down because the reality is that most students’ experience doesn’t match the goals of teachers making this claim. An argument could be made that less-than-superior style and unattested Latin that enables all students to feel successful would actually get more kids interested in The Classics (where there is no dearth of Latinity). It certainly wouldn’t result in fewer kids considering it, right? I cannot imagine a world in which Little Johnny is pissed when he finds out that mihi magis placet is nowhere to be found in his M.A. reading list. I can, however, imagine a world in which Little Johnny doesn’t have to think upon coming across the phrase mihi placet, or just the word magis while he’s fluently reading what his peers are parsing (because they were never given material they could read). In the end, we can’t predict what students will do with Latin, but we can focus on their experience with us. I don’t intend to be dogmatic about this. Just make sure you’re holding true to what it is you want your students’ experience to be.
Language classrooms are filled with tourists—the kids who have dreamed of visiting another country since age 8. There are other types of tourists, too—the kids who take our language course because it seemed cool, their friends are in the class, or they’d rather not take another elective. The argument for using only superior style and attested Latin also breaks down for these students. In fact, it breaks down for just about every student we have (minus those very few students we send to college as Classics majors). When using these buzzwords, we need to recognize our audience, examine the experience of our students, and evaluate whether OUR goals include all, or exclude most. It can be tricky trying to reconcile being true to the literature while also recognizing that most people can’t read the literature they’re given—because that’s all we’ve had to give. This doesn’t absolve the author of including egregious errors, or inventing syntax, but should encourage discretion when creating reading material that positively contributes to the feeling of success, and overall experience in Latin class.