How To Teach The Infinitive

But first, what’s an example without a non-example, really? When it comes to pedagogy, I’d call that partial information. Maybe you’ll know what to do after learning something, yet maybe it’s not clear what to avoid while also doing that thing. We can’t just stack practices upon practices and expect things to turn out well.

Typical Instruction (i.e. the non-example)
An introduction to the infinitive is usually taught by first focusing on the form “-re” with an incomplete, yet easy-to-test explanation (e.g. “the infinitive means ‘to X'”). Students are shown examples using different verbs (i.e. multiple meanings) in isolation, phrases, and/or short sentences. Then, students practice identifying infinitives, and changing verbs into their infinitive form. That’s basically it. The kids who memorize the “-re” form (while also not confusing it with the other…hundred?…forms that were taught by now) as well as verb meanings (i.e. the kids who have good memorize) are successful. One thing to note here is that the examples and practice sentences tend to lack meaning or purpose within a context. That is, even if there’s some continuity from sentence to sentence, the purpose is still identifying infinitives, not reading to find out what the messages are about. Stop doing all that. Here’s how to teach the infinitive…

Teaching Infinitives

  • Say “volō dormīre” and tell kids what it means in English.
  • Ask “quis dormīre vult?”, turn to the slowest processing kid in class (i.e. your barometer) and ask what that question meant in English.
  • Repeat the question, and watch hands raise, or students respond.
  • Make a statement like “ahh…multī discipulae dormīre volunt, et multī discipulī volunt dormīre quoque.”
  • Turn to one student who does want to sleep, and say “bene, vīs dormīre. sed, quandō vīs dormīre? vīsne dormīre iam…in scholā?!”
  • They’ll probably say yes. If they don’t, make a statement like “tibi nōn crēdō.” then address the whole class “discipulī, X dormīre nōn vult. Quis putat X dormīre nōn velle? Quis putat X esse mendācem?” Turn to the student sitting next to the slowest processing kid in class (i.e. your barometer) and ask what the questions mean in English. Make sure your barometer is following.
  • Go back to whole class, and ask “quis quoque dormīre in scholā iam vult?”
  • Count everyone who does. Make a statement like “bene, decem discipulae dormīre volunt in scholā iam, et trēs discipulī in scholā dormīre volunt.”
  • Turn to a student who doesn’t want to sleep in class right now. Ask them why, but give options, such as “cūr in scholā iam nōn vīs dormīre? habēsne energīam? bibistīne cafēam?!”
  • Restate whatever their reason is.
  • Keep checking comprehension with your barometer student.
  • Restate that you want to sleep, and give your reason (true or a joke).
  • Ask students if they think you’re telling the truth.
  • etc.

Whereas typical instruction includes fewer examples using many different meanings, a simple sequence like the one above includes many examples with much fewer meanings. One textbook I just looked at included one(1) example of the infinitive in a reading passage, a detailed English explanation on the next page with two examples, and then 12 examples in the practice exercise. In total, there were 46 individual word meanings used in 15 messages (i.e. input), which could easily take an entire class period to get through, or maybe half of it if students were assigned the practice exercises on their own (meaning their in-class experience would’ve included just 3 examples, and the majority of time discussing infinitives in English). Compare that to the sequence above that uses almost HALF the individual words, and a message count (i.e. input) over 20, all within a fraction of the time. Were something like that to continue for a total of just 10 minutes, there would likely be double, triple, and possibly quadruple the input containing infinitives—all during class (vs. the majority of practice exercises in typical instruction being done by who-knows-how-few students at home)!

By now, however, the Second Language Acquisition (SLA)-aware reader might note that the sequence I described above isn’t actually teaching the infinitive. That would be correct. Here’s the deal. Do everything above 100s of times—HUNDREDS OF TIMES—throughout the year(s) on different topics in different combinations (e.g. bībere vult, īre potest, habēre vult, rīdēre nōn vult, vidēre potest, iacere vult, etc.). That’s how humans learn acquire a language, and how students will learn acquire the use of the infinitive. This is undisputed. Respect science.

Lets Get Real (a little dark, but real)
I’ve been hearing disturbing things coming from people talking about really good initiatives like getting more, different kinds of learners enrolling in language classes, especially Latin, and how to ensure that they’re successful once in class. However, it’s not just about content, folks. If you think that pedagogy has nothing to do with that, you’re dead wrong. After all, a good teacher using bad pedagogy is only going to have successful students because of what those individuals bring to the classroom. The more privileged, the more success, period. On the other hand, good pedagogy can norm-out privilege and level the playing field. Updating one’s teaching of the infinitive by no longer using sentences like “dominus servum novum habēre vult” (“the master wants to have a new slave”), yet still providing few examples, more time in English than Latin, and assigning practice exercises isn’t gonna cut it. That’s just changing content, not pedagogy. Bad pedagogy—roughly defined as practices that have been failing language students since at least early medieval times—places obstacles. Those need to be removed.

If you really wanna get more diverse students enrolled and sticking with Latin, you gotta also change your pedagogy.

3 thoughts on “How To Teach The Infinitive

  1. I’m intrigued by your sentence, “Bad pedagogy—roughly defined as practices that have been failing language students since at least early medieval times—places obstacles.” Especially the historical background: “since at least early medieval times.” Could you elaborate on that?

    • In the world’s first universities, Latin was the language of instruction. Therefore, speaking Latin was required. In fact, students were fined if found violating the policy. Letters home to parents have confirmed how these young scholars found it difficult to follow the “Latin-only” rule. There were even some students called “wolves” who reported on their peers for not speaking Latin (Musumeci 2009).

      So, we have letters home from elite students complaining to mom and dad that Latin was too difficult to speak.

      Bad pedagogy.

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