Latin in a Week: The Review

A week ago, most of the Latin I knew could be found on the back of a dime.

Okay, that’s a slight understatement. I had the usual collection of Latin expressions that one picks up: carpe diem, cogito ergo sum, quid pro quo, et cetera. I also had several of the slightly more arcane ones that you pick up in an academic setting (id est, ad hominem, post hoc ergo prompter hoc) and in other weird places I hang out (carpe noctem, aut pax aut bellum, nemo me impune lacessit). But that aside, I didn’t know beans about Latin.

Enter Veritas Press, at which one can evidently find staffers crazy enough to think it possible to teach Latin in a single week. I found out about this a week ago Thursday, signed up Friday morning, bought a textbook Friday afternoon, and enjoyed a restful weekend, because the class would start the following Monday. Iacta alea fuit.

We finished yesterday (Friday). It was great.

Everything about it was great: the textbook, the teacher, the online delivery system, and the company I got to keep as a student. The only little, tiny drawback was the fact that the class ran from 8 am to 4 pm, Eastern time. That means 5 am to 1 pm out here, and rolling out of bed at 4:45 am to study Latin was imperfectly blissful. My wife wasn’t a fan of the alarm going off that early, either. (But when I offered to sleep on the couch she gave me a speech about how she was willing to sacrifice a little sleep so that I could learn Latin — what a woman!)

But on with the review. First, the textbook. Written as GIs swelled the ranks of college students after World War II, Wheelock’s Latin was the answer to a desperate need. As the author’s daughters write in the foreword to the present edition,

“Why should a vet, schooled on the battlefields of Europe and Asia, want to study Latin?” asked our father, then a Professor of Classics at Brooklyn College. What could this language say to those who had already seen so much reality? How could a teacher make a dead language become alive, pertinent, valuable?

It’s a good question, one that has plagued classicists for generations, but especially in recent times, as it became impossible for instructors to simply tell their students “Learn it or else.” Frederic Wheelock thought he had the answer. His daughters explain:

When students needed to learn grammar, they read lessons and literature from the great ancient writers who used the grammar in a meaningful context. Our father sought to graft the vital flesh and blood of Roman experience and thinking onto the basic bones of forms, syntax, and vocabulary; he wanted students to transcend mere gerund grinding by giving them literary and philosophical substance on which to sharpen their teeth.

He succeeded, and how! From the very beginning, the student reads passages from Horace, Catullus, Cicero, Martial, Livy — and that’s just the first six chapters. Nor are these selections the standard insipid textbook fare chosen solely for level of difficulty; while the level of linguistic difficulty is appropriate to the student’s knowledge in each chapter, the content of the selections is the kind of material you might find in a Great Books program. Although brief (and somewhat edited), many of these selections would function well as discussion starters for a history, government, or philosophy class.

This book is in its sixth revised edition, and it has the bells and whistles that you would expect: maps, Roman art, tons of extra exercises for students who want more practice, an answer key, a meaty appendix crammed with extra details of grammar, a complete set of paradigms at the back of the book, a student’s dictionary, a useful index — they really have thought of everything. You could buy a copy of this book, and no other resources, and learn Latin from it, along with a good deal of Roman culture.

Which is not to say that other resources are not available. In one form or another, the text has been around for about 50 years, and was well received even in its first edition. In that time, a lot of other people have produced tools and toys to go with it. There’s a workbook, a reader, a set of laminated quick-reference sheets, a book of cumulative vocabulary lists, a CD set — and that’s just some of the stuff you can find on the Wheelock’s website. There’s much more beside, like 38 Latin Stories, a particular favorite of our teacher’s.

Speaking of our teacher, she put in a stunning performance. Folks, I teach Greek for a living, and on a couple of occasions I’ve taught concentrated modules as well as the regular, year-long courses. I know a few things about teaching a language, and let me tell you, crashing through a year’s worth of grammar in a week is quite a feat. It takes a well-designed curriculum, which we had, but it takes more than that: specifically, it takes a fearless and skillful teacher. Joanna Hensley filled that role magnificently. Unfailingly upbeat, uniformly encouraging and at times very funny, Joanna cheerfully escorted us where angels fear to tread.

In order to understand what a job that was, there are a few things you need to know about language classes.

  1. It’s possible to get through a year’s worth of grammar in a week, but there’s no way normal adults with spouses and kids will memorize a year’s worth of vocabulary in a week.
  2. In order to do translation exercises, students have to understand both the grammar and the vocabulary.
  3. One of the most important considerations in a first-year language course is that the students must see success. If they don’t, they become discouraged, and in that state they get overwhelmed by the slightest difficulty.

Bring those three things together, and it causes a huge problem for a concentrated course like this. The teacher has to find a way to let the students do as much of the heavy lifting as they can and slip them the necessary help to get them the rest of the way, preferably without them really noticing. Done right, the net result is that the student finishes the translation exercise and thinks, “Hey! I just translated Cicero!” while only dimly aware that the teacher provided a little help. This takes a very deft touch.

On the other hand, there comes a time, especially late in the week, that the vocabulary deficit is just too much, and the teacher must respectfully and firmly shove the students through the translations, as if dragging them face-first down a buffet table. A good teacher has to be able to do both. Joanna did, and made it look easy. Ave, magistra!

The online environment for the class was Wimba Classroom, and for the most part it did its job invisibly and let me focus on the Latin, which is what an online classroom environment is supposed to do. After 40 hours of using it, I know almost nothing about it, because I didn’t need to find out — high praise for a piece of software.

Lastly, a word about my fellow students. As Joanna said on the first day, one of the rewards of Latin in a Week is that you get to spend a week with the sort of people who do Latin in a Week. Homeschooling students and moms, teachers, and heaven knows what else, they were a great bunch to be with, and I didn’t get to know them half as well as I would have liked.

The close of the class was perhaps the most encouraging part. We translated Genesis 1:1-7, John 1:1-14, the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and the first chapter of Augustine’s Confessions. I can’t speak for all my fellow students, but to me the measure of success was that I could track much of the grammar, translate some whole clauses unassisted, and get a feel for the beauty of Augustine’s writings in the original. Not bad for a week.

On the whole, Latin in a Week is an outstanding jump-start to a lifetime of language study. And now the fun begins.


3 Responses to Latin in a Week: The Review

  1. […] text, into a single week of intensive instruction. And yes, it is possible. Blogger Tim Nichols at Full Contact Christianity took her class and reports on the experience. Please excuse me as I quote his praise of his […]

  2. Thanks for your kind words. Joanna really is remarkable.

  3. […] will be teaching a Latin In-A-Week Online Course this Summer, click here to know more about it and here to read a review of someone who has already taken this course. […]

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