**Updated 7.26.2020 with this Cicero quote**
“Hence, if someone does not have a natural faculty of memory, this practice cannot be used to unearth one…”
– Cicero (de Oratore 3.560), trans. James May in How To Win An Argument, 2016
OK fine, the grammar-translation (GT) method has been used for a few hundred years. It’s still the dominant practice for teaching Latin, and widely known. However, what is there to the method, really? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but it turns out the method is quite simple. GT actually consists of presenting students with textbook grammar rules they apply to words in order to understand the target language. As a method, then, teachers present rules, but what is GT—really—for the student?
I posit that the entirety of GT can be reduced to memorizing. This makes it less a method, and more just a process. Students listen to or read about textbook grammar rules, and then recall and apply those rules in order to derive meaning. To be clear, this is a fairly complex way to arrive at step zero—establishing meaning. With GT, students not only must do this for themselves, such as consulting dictionaries and grammar notes, which accounts for a lot of “the work,” but the conscious process requires a decent amount of cognitive demand. Actual interpretive communication, on the other hand, either listening or reading, is an implicit, unconscious process, and effortless. In order to effortlessly apply textbook grammar rules while also recalling word meanings, though, a very good, if not uncanny memory, is required. Memory, then, is both paramount to student success with the GT method, as well as something we have no control over…
A student’s memory is the wildcard of pedagogy. That is, a good memory can overcome bad pedagogy, rendering it almost a complete afterthought. In fact, this is one reason GT has survived and persisted as long as it has. GT students with good memories continue studying Latin because they recall rules easily, and their experience is unaffected. This small group of students with excellent memories has kept GT going for centuries. GT students without good memories, however, get overwhelmed by vocab and textbook rule overload, become frustrated with incomprehension, and find themselves completely OVER that dropping GPA, so they drop Latin. It’s a common outcome. Success within GT, then, excludes students who lack good memories, plain and simple.
Since it’s a wildcard, a good memory can help students under other circumstances. For example, in comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT), students with good memories don’t need as much time to process language because they recall word meanings faster. Thus, they have more immediate access to input, and still stand out among their classmates. Despite this advantage, though, their classmates can still be successful in CCLT without good memories. The difference between CCLT and GT, then, is the expectation and testing of memorizing, as well as what it means to be a successful student.
Expectations & Testing
GT students are often tested on how accurately they recall and apply memorized textbook rules. Accuracy is prioritized over meaning. In fact, students—and teachers—sometimes commit entire passages and poems to memory. Therefore, it’s not even necessary to fully understand or even process a Latin in order to pass many GT tests of accuracy! An accurate translation, whether derived in real time or recalled entirely from memory, has the same result. With GT, there are a lot of textbook rules, and a lot of word meanings, and the more a student memorizes, the faster they’ll produce what’s being tested. Therefore, it all comes down to memory.
We could continue to do more research that keeps yielding similar results study after study. Or, we could just use common sense and save some time. Let’s look at GT from a perspective that doesn’t require research:
- Q: How many successful GT Latin students have bad memories?
- Q: Does “success” mean these students can speak or read Latin?
A: No, not necessarily.
- Q: Are people with bad memories unable to speak or read their native language?
A: No, of course not.
If communication were limited to humans with good memories…well…just think about how many people would be excluded! It’s absurd. Yet all humans—except those with severe and rare communication disorders—acquire their native language, and have the ability to acquire more. Perhaps the same could be said about human potential to improve memorizing. I dunno about that, but building such a skill would require cognitive demand, which is something acquisition does not require. Acquisition is not a skill. All humans are hardwired for it. So, one’s pedagogical choice now becomes more of a philosophical, moral, or ethical one if inclusivity is involved (i.e. pedagogy favoring a skill, or pedagogy based on a universal human trait).
Resisting the presentation, practice, and production (PPP) of textbook rules in this time of the COVID-19 online learning craze is paramount. The temptation is there to assign a YouTube video explaining the pluperfect and worksheet to be completed. Let’s be honest, it’s probably the easiest work to assign online. Don’t do it. That decision would draw a line in the sand favoring a skill students would now be expected to develop on their own, without the support of a teacher in the room. Latin hasn’t had a great track record thus far in terms of being understandable to all who study it, so there’s no reason to suspect online teaching removes any of those obstacles. It won’t.
Considering how far along best practices in teaching Latin have come in the last 5-10 years, the easiest online assignments are quite a departure from contemporary pedagogy that focuses on input. Reading is probably the best thing we can assign, although that level is lower than we think. Reading is based on universal brain processes championed by comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT). GT can’t claim to be universal in any way. Choosing GT now would be turning back the clocks on pedagogical progress. Resist it. CCLT—because it’s based on principles universal to all humans regardless of background and conditions—provides all students a path to succeed. GT—because it’s based on an individual’s memorization ability—places obstacles. But wait. Even though the main process behind GT is memorizing, there are even more obstacles placed on the student in order to succeed with GT. Learning online itself is an obstacle in terms of equity. Even a “low” 10-20% of students without reliable access is too many. Other obstacles might be more obvious in the classroom whenever something like the “old normal” makes a return…
Exclusivity & Potential
What makes GT exclusive doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence, or potential. Instead, GT’s exclusiveness—aside from the good memory wildcard—is made worse by testing measures and assignments that favor privilege. If you could believe it, there have been people calling others racist for pointing out GT’s exclusivity, falsely claiming this suggests less privileged students of color aren’t capable of learning with GT. Cavē! That’s one of the reddest herrings I’ve ever heard. GT’s exclusivity has nothing to do with potential capability. It has everything to do with meeting students where they are and moving forward. When students are disadvantaged from the start of their education, almost always due to poverty, which affects more students of color, they enter the Latin classroom less privileged. Therefore, the testing measures and assignments that favor privilege exclude these students. It’s that simple. This next sentence? Not so simple, but the Ciceronian style seems fitting. So, as long as *every* Latin teacher can recognize that…
- …under certain conditions, using GT and its associated practices favoring privilege…
- …especially in certain communities with students of color…
- …not at all because of intelligence or potential but because of poverty and denied access to high quality education…
- …excludes students with bad memories, even if they happen to be privileged…
…then we’ll be on a better path towards making Latin more comprehensible and accessible to all students.