Writing for the Novice

Writing texts for the Novice isn’t just about novellas. It’s about making Latin more comprehensible, whether typing up class interests to read, editing a student’s ending to a class story, or creating tiered versions of unadapted ancient texts.

Sheltering vocabulary is the most important step of writing for the Novice. As Bill VanPatten mentioned on Episode 61 of Tea with BVP, the Novice student needs multiple encounters of words/phrases as input that repeat throughout.

Time usually takes care of this, but the typical graduating high school student has very little (~450 hours). You can’t repeat words in the input if there are too many. Facts. The solution, then, is to shelter vocabulary. Sheltering vocabulary also keeps the input manageable because Novice students attend to meaning. The fewer meanings they’re held accountable for results in higher chances of comprehension. This is why unsheltering grammar—the other half of the mantra—is beneficial. A student might not have been exposed to –āvērunenough times to recognized its “pastness” quality, yet if that ending appears as ambulāvērunt, the student who has seen other forms of that word will interpret the meaning as “having something to do with walking,” which is fine, and what we expect.

canem ambulāre
This is a favorite example of mine. When writing for the Novice, sometimes we are faced with making a decision to avoid vocab-overload. Ideally, we won’t be in this position, but practically, it will happen. Although the meaning behind canem ambulāre is clear (i.e. to walk a/the dog), a more native-like use of Latin to express the same message would be something like canem dūcere (i.e. to lead a/the dog). Choosing instead to write the non-native-like canem ambulāre is a matter of sheltering (i.e. limiting) vocabulary. I recognize that the decision to eliminate just one word from a text doesn’t appear to be worth the non-native-like use. This would be true if it were, indeed, the only decision made. In reality, though, it might be the 20th decision while sheltering vocabulary, which means your text now has 20 fewer words. Decisions like these will help—not hurt—the Novice student.

Critics of Latīnitās (i.e. one’s Latinity) take huge issue with something like this, but it’s misplaced. When the Novice reads, she reads for meaning. The student who understands both canem and ambulāre will understand the meaning behind this message, regardless of how that might have been expressed in the past. In this case, canem ambulāre is a non-native-like idiom. What bothers critics, but has little to no impact on the Novice (and probably up to Advanced), is that students just won’t be exposed to canem ambulāre if ever reading ancient texts. That’s it. Unlike what the critics might fear, non-native-like uses of Latin won’t hinder their ability to understand if they ever continue to study/read Latin.

What is almost certain, however, is that students will not continue reading ANY Latin if they don’t have enough confidence and interest in what they’re reading early on.

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3 thoughts on “Writing for the Novice

  1. Lance, thank you for all of your awesome resources! I am on board with the idea of sheltering vocabulary, but really struggle with phrases like “canem ambulāre.” To say that “students just won’t be exposed to canem ambulāre if ever reading ancient texts” seems to skirt over the real issue: ambulāre does not take a direct object in Latin. It calls to mind the example of “put”; it does not sound right to say “I put the book.” Just as “put” requires a prepositional phrase in English, it seems that “ambulāre” cannot take a direct object in Latin.

    This, for me, is problematic. Yes, we know from BVP that fossilization is not “real” (what we call fossilization is not a permanent state but probably just a step along the road of acquisition), but isn’t it our responsibility as educators to provide not only comprehensible input, but rich input? Would a native English speaker teaching English to ELL students ever break her own mental representation of English to make something more comprehensible? I don’t think so. Instead, a skilled teacher is able to simplify her speech so as to be comprehensible without breaking the constraints of the language. Of course, we are not native speakers of Latin, but this motivates me to be a better speaker (knower?) of Latin, so that I can provide richer input to my students.

    Back to “canem ambulare” itself. Though “canem ducere” adds another word, isn’t is still a very common word which could be reinforced through other activities (like TPR)? Couldn’t you also say “cum cane ambulare”? Yes, it adds the word “cum”, but chances are you will use “cum” elsewhere. In the end, I know that we have to make these decisions based on our own context. I just find phrases which break the constraints of language very problematic and want to avoid them when I become aware of them.

    • Paul,

      I understand your struggle. The idea of “caregiver speech” might help with that struggle. Formerly called “motherese,” this phenomenon breaks conventional language “rules” all the time. Also, I’ve added this to the post, which was an important detail to leave out:

      “When writing for the Novice, sometimes we are faced with making a decision to avoid vocab-overload. Ideally, we won’t be in this position, but practically, it will happen.”

      • Lance,

        Thank you for your response. I’ll have to look into and think about “caregiver speech.” Talking about “rules” (and breaking them) feels weird. Some utterances may break proscriptive rules but not sound weird to a native speaker. Other will sound “wrong.” Unfortunately, we’re stuck (as you know), since we don’t have any native Latin speakers, just the texts they left us. I suspect that finding the balance between simplicity and Latinity will be a long-term struggle for most of us who try to teach Latin with CI. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel great about “canem ambulare” but I don’t want to lose the forest for the trees; I appreciate your zeal for sheltering vocabulary and am excited about the novellas you are producing!

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