Cognate Over Classical & Translation Shaming

High frequency vocab? Yes, of course, although one’s context and goals are important considerations. This posts looks at why we might choose cognates over the kind of vocab more frequently found in unadapted ancient Latin (i.e. Classical Latin), and how that decision can be inhibited by a bit of elitist baggage.

What’s the best reason to use cognates? So the learner who doesn’t read outside of the classroom can understand Latin—in class—more easily. Cognates increase the likelihood of comprehensibility. Even given the range of learner vocabularies in English, the likelihood still increases. That is, there’s more of a chance that a Latin to English cognate will be understood than the chance that a completely unrecognizable Latin word will be understood. Of course, students still misunderstand cognates all the time (re: Mike Peto’s “béisbol” routine), but that’s not the point. The point is to make Latin more comprehensible, and cognates help. N.B. the only cognate-use claim here is a greater likelihood of comprehension. This has a pedagogical impact, to be sure. Choosing cognates over Classical Latin can create a learning environment more like what English-speaking students in Spanish classes experience. Why does this matter? There’s no enrollment problem with Spanish classes—something we cannot say about Latin programs.

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Specialized Vocab vs. High Frequency: “If You Need To Look Up A Word…”

Jim Wooldridge, aka Senor Wooly, once lamented over having to teach a unit on different kinds of fabric. That was his all time low in terms of thematic vocab textbook teaching. Thematic vocab teaching is basically mini units of specialized vocabulary. However, our reality—in a genuine communicative sense—is that people start getting into specialized vocab when they choose to do something…special…beyond common daily needs and experience.

Since archery is my latest thing, let’s use that as an example. There are a lot of specific terms in archery. Of course, if the purpose is to learn about archery in the target language, I’d probably be using that specialized vocabulary. But do I need them all? In a first year class, maybe I wouldn’t have to go quite as deep into the topic, therefore less-specialized vocab could suffice (e.g. “can you teach me how to hold X?” will be more useful to a student than “can you teach me how to string walk after nocking with a finger sling?”). So, not all of that vocab is necessary when exploring a specific topic to learn about the topic. That is, a particular topic explored lightly doesn’t require the use of highly-specialized vocab otherwise needed when exploring it deeply. Think of the kind of learning that goes on in a survey-level undergrad course vs. a very focused grad course. And in terms of vocab, our students are more like kindergartners!

In this post, I’m asking you to consider something, but only consider it…

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Dante’s Circles Of Latin Shaming Hell

Instances of Latin shaming (i.e. causing one to feel ashamed or inadequate regarding their use of Latin) come up every now and then. I last pondered the issue back in August of 2019 in a draft of this post, first started in 2018 after observing some kind of online scuffle. Like clockwork, there have been public discussions once again regarding Latinity (i.e. quality of Latin), whether spoken in the classroom, or appearing in published works. To be clear, I have no interest in participating in those discussions. None. However, I’d like to share a bit about what’s been going on, and give some examples of Latin shaming…

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Lindsay Sears on Tiers!

At CANE’s 2018 Annual Meeting this past weekend, Lindsay Sears gave the rundown on bottom-up and top-down approaches to creating tiered versions of texts. What caught my attention was seeing how just a few messages of unadapted Latin became paragraphs of comprehensible text for the novice. That is, the original 8 lines of poetry (of 46 words; 45 of them occurring 1x) nearly doubled in length with each tiered version. The result is students reading MORE Latin that they understand, especially if they read all tiered versions. Lindsay knows how to tier texts, and she does it well.

Beginning with 8 lines of Ovid that few students could understand without pages of notes and a dictionary, we were shown how to get subsequent versions down to one that ANY novice could read. Her steps were clear and concise; moreso than “make each version simpler.” Here they are as distilled as possible. For bottom-up stories (e.g. text to accompany MovieTalk), reverse the order: 

1st Tier down from original
– begin with a compelling text (already with high frequency words, if possible)
– rearrange order to be clearer & shorten sentences
– break into paragraphs to create white space & supply verbs/subjects

Next Tier
– replace vocab/obscure names with synonyms
– simplify complex constructions (i.e. make meaning clearer, which might mean using the subjunctive!)
– add anything missing

Next Tier
– break up all compound sentences, removing conjunctions
– keep simplifying & remove “flavor text” (i.e. unnecessary) modifiers/adverbs
– replace vocab with high frequency & entire explanatory phrases/sentences!

Next Tier!
– short sentences & basic idea