“Floor not Ceiling”

I once was told that explicit grammar instruction given in order to develop the skills of conjugating verbs and declining nouns is the “floor, not ceiling” of teaching/learning Latin. What this IS NOT, is true. What this IS, is a common misunderstanding. In fact, it’s an alternative fact. We have no evidence—NO EVIDENCE—to suggest that anyone MUST learn how to conjugate verbs or decline nouns in order to develop proficiency in a language. Wake up, people!

Despite what you might remember from school, or what you might hear from other language classrooms in your hallway at the start of the year, the fundamental building blocks of a second language need not be learned in sequence of micro to macro on a linguistic level. In fact, doing so has negative affects, if only in how little students are compelled to learn about languages, contributing to diminishing class sizes, or exclusive upper-levels, but more likely in inhibiting acquisition because time is spent teaching useless stuff. Yes, I affirm that conjugating verbs and declining nouns is useless when it comes to understanding Latin. Their use—which does exist—is for something other than understanding, but which comes  later.
There’s no reason to explicitly teach the alphabet, for example, since any second language student will simply hear the sounds and connect them with the writing system over time. It’s true that at more advanced proficiency levels one must practice to physically make new sounds in an effort to become more native-like, but those alphabet and pronunciation lessons are unnecessary within the first few years (~500 hours). When pronunciation inhibits understanding, consider using “pop-up pronunciation”—those 15-30 seconds of explicit teaching of how to say words. If it doesn’t, there is actually no problem, so don’t make your student feel bad for not being native-like, and don’t waste their time teaching explicitly what they will pick up implicitly, however much it hurts your ears. Yes, French teachers, I’m talking to you, who seem to have the narrowest threshold for pronunciation!
OK fine, it’s true that conjugating verbs and declining nouns has some benefit, especially for the paradigm-obsessed Classicist who likes to know how Latin works (and likes to prove to others how much they know how Latin works). Yet, there is good enough reason to build those skills after sufficient acquisition has taken place. Interestingly enough, most Classicists have built those skills without acquiring Latin at all. Instead, they process language so quickly that they are exhibiting language-like behavior, but relying mostly on exceptional memory. This is an exclusive group of humans who don’t represent most students in our schools, so don’t expect the same behavior in class.
I maintain, then, that conjugating verbs and declining nouns via explicit grammar instruction more accurately reflects optional skills as the “ceiling,” and NOT prerequisite skills as the “floor” as it was told to me some time ago.

One thought on ““Floor not Ceiling”

  1. Pingback: Ditching the Phrase “Struggling Student” – The Inclusive Latin Classroom

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