Lingua Latīna: LOVE the textbook, but is it right for my students?

No.

Lingua Latīna per sē Illustrāta (LLPSI), the Latin textbook entirely in Latin, has a cult following. I understand the appeal. Personally, I love it, and am currently rereading it for the nth time. Still, I’m wary whenever people suggest LLPSI as the panacea to common pedagogical problems, or assume it’s the most appropriate resource to use when teaching Latin communicatively. Again, I understand, but LLPSI is still a textbook, and comes with every downside of using a textbook to teach communicatively.

The majority of its users hold the series in such high esteem that it’s often the only resource used, and very few teachers use LLPSI along with other materials, probably because its so well self-contained, though I do know some teachers who keep it on hand for Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). Even then, it’s clear that the narrative is part of a textbook designed to teach Latin grammar—not necessarily a compelling story—which is the kind of thing most people don’t read for fun. LLPSI certainly has its moments, but reading a narrative designed to teach over 30 forms of the pronouns quis, quī, is, ille, and hic all in Capitulum VIII gets old real fast.

The success of LLPSI relies on its AMAZING (don’t get me wrong) methodical design, but it tends to only reach a small few, at least in public high school with students of average to high interest in Latin (not absurdly off the scale like most Latin teachers). Why isn’t it suitable for my students? First and foremost, I don’t teach according to a grammatical syllabus. Personally, I find it unethical, at least when teaching for acquisition is the goal. Vocabulary is also a major problem…

The first chapter of LLPSI has 42 words. Since the rest of the book uses many (but not all) of those first 42 words to define and provide context for new words, understanding must be quite high (like 98% high). Chapter 2 has 35 new words, but only repeats 21 from the first chapter (i.e. Rōmānus, est, quoque, et, sunt, nōn, sed, in, parvus, duo, trēs, magnus, multī, ūnus, fluvius, īnsula, prīmus, secundus, tertius, capitulum, vocābulum), and many of those are recycled just once or twice aside from the function words. Chapter 3 unleashes another 36 words. This time, only 8 words from the first chapter are recycled (i.e. est, nōn, sed, in, quid?, et, ubi?, parva) and 4 from chapter 2 (māter, pater, puella, puer). So, by the time students reach chapter 4, they will have been exposed to 113 words, 8 of which they’ve seen most. That’s what we call a vocabulary problem.

I was reading LLPSI at a coffee shop recently, and a random person began talking to me about language pedagogy. When I mentioned that LLPSI is easily the best resource for the autodidact wishing to learn about Latin but that the vocabulary introduced was too much too soon when it comes to acquisition, he said “well that’s the problem with learning languages, right?” My reply was “yeah, so don’t do it. If you don’t use too many words it’s not a problem.” The thought never occurred to him. He honestly thought that learning languages had to involve flash cards and struggle (he might be true re: learning vs. acquiring). 

The key to using LLPSI in high school is straightforward; “just memorize what words mean, study paradigms, and respondē Latīnē.” Easier said than done. LLPSI is an excellent textbook for sponges—the problem is that most people aren’t sponges. LLPSI is also excellent for people who have developed some mental representation of the language ( = acquired), which mostly includes Latin teachers who have been to immersion events, but NOT their students. My advice? Buy LLPSI and read it because it’s awesome, but before you rush out to use the textbook that YOU love so much, ask whether it (or ANY resource, for that matter) is right for your students.

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