book notice: Ad Infinitum: a Biography of Latin

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jan 4 17:25:18 UTC 2008


You're certainly not wrong when you say that students don't have much
metalinguistic knowledge; I taught Tamil for 28 years and saw a
gradual decline in ability to deal with categories such as 'noun,
verb, preposition' to say nothing about 'POSTpositions' which they
needed to know for
Tamil.  I'm not sure whether teaching language communicatively (which
you refer to as 'cutesy') is responsible, but something is.  But I
think teaching it communicatively has advantages; maybe we need a
combination of the two.  I know I learned most of the languages that I
really mastered by being immersed in the cultural context, after I had
learned the basic grammar.  But some of the stuff I learned by rote,
such as the prepositions in German that take the dative only
(aus,bei,mit,nach,seit,von,zu) and those that take both dative and
accusative (an,auf,hinter,in,neben,ueber,unter,vor,zwischen) I can
still call up to remind me of the grammatical stuff I need to
(especially) write a grammatical German sentence.

The return to an 'emphasis on form' is I think an admission that
inattention to grammar can be a detriment and a disadvantage when
using a language.

Hal S.

On Jan 4, 2008 11:18 AM, Ronald Kephart <rkephart at> wrote:
> On 1/4/08 8:30 AM, "Harold Schiffman" <hfsclpp at> wrote (quoting):
> > Those of us who stood before dusty blackboards intoning "amo amas
> > amat" often wondered why we were doing it. What was the point? In my
> > class a favourite declension was bellum - "war" - which we chanted in
> > the nominative, vocative and accusative plural as "bla bla bla". Our
> > teachers assured us that Latin would help us in studying other
> > languages. So why didn't we just study those other languages and have
> > done with it?
> You know, an unmentioned outcome of studying Latin (or maybe classical
> Greek) is that students generally came out of it with some metalinguistic
> concepts and vocabulary, such as: noun, verb, preposition, case, etc. This
> happened I think because these languages were taught using the old
> "grammar-translation" method. This is also how I began learning Spanish in
> high school way back in 1959.
> Nowadays when I teach intro to linguistics I find that I cannot assume that
> my university students know what a pronoun or a preposition is. I think
> there are two reasons for this:
> (1) The apparent uselessness of "language arts" in primary and secondary
> education (and when they try to be useful, they likely as not get it wrong,
> as in calling "the" an "adjective");
> (2) The fact that contemporary spoken languages are now frequently taught
> using all sorts of cutesy, feel-good methods that don't provide the sort of
> analytic knowledge that the older methods did.
> Am I wrong?
> Ron


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at


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