Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.22

Jeffrey Lyon, Artes Latinae. Level One. Version 1.1. CD-ROM Edition based upon the text of Waldo E. Sweet. For Microsoft Windows.   Wauconda:  Bolchazy-Carducci, 1998.  ISBN 0-86516-311-1.  $212.00.  



Reviewed by Jeffrey L. Buller, Georgia Southern University (jbuller@gasou.edu)
Word count: 1697 words

The CD-ROM version of Artes Latinae, the familiar series of Latin textbooks and supplementary materials available from Bolchazy-Carducci, allows students to master Latin at their own pace either with or without a teacher. The package requires an IBM-compatible computer with no less than Windows 3.1, a CD-ROM drive, a VGA monitor, and 1 megabyte of hard disk space. Mac users will be able to use the program on a PowerMac with either SoftWindows or Virtual PC. In the "complete package," the CD-ROM replaces the traditional textbook while supplementary materials are still provided in printed form.

The basic content of the program is almost identical to that of the regular Artes Latinae series. The program's approach is largely traditional and its visual aspects are attractive enough, but by no means spectacular. The series includes fairly simple maps and line drawings (all in black-and-white) but no photographs or elaborate graphics. The method of instruction is based upon a limited number of exercises with which students will quickly become familiar. The program also retains the self-paced style that has made the printed version of the series a popular textbook among the "home school" movement and other independent learners.

The advantage of the CD-ROM over the traditional text is that it offers the student instant "feedback" through programmed learning types of exercises. Instruction is done through a series of "frames," with each frame introducing or reviewing one major concept. Students are encouraged to reply in virtually every frame -- although it is possible to advance to the next frame without giving any response whatsoever -- and it is possible to have most responses corrected. Buttons at the top of the screen allow the student to advance to the next frame, return to the previous frame, check an answer, hear a passage spoken, reveal the text of an oral passage, or browse to any other frame or unit in the program. The interface is easy to use but lacks many of the features found in CD-ROMs available for modern language instruction. For instance, the range of student responses is severely limited. The only "correctable" options are multiple-choice answers or fill-in-the-blanks. The latter essentially are cloze exercises and word completions. The program's type of reinforcement is also fairly limited. Incorrect answers are corrected in red. A simple chime rewards correct answers. (This feature may be disconnected and is so annoying that it probably will be "de-selected" at the first opportunity.) There is little about the interface that will excite younger students. The Nintendo generation is likely to weary of the program's limitations in a very short time.

Perhaps the best aspect of the Artes Latinae CD-ROM is the variety of pronunciation options available. Through the menu, students may choose to hear each Latin passage read with the traditional classical pronunciation (called "American scholastic" by Artes Latinae) of Waldo Sweet, the ecclesiastic or Renaissance pronunciation of Nancy Llewellyn and Clarence Miller, and the Restored Classical pronunciation of Robert and Barbara Sonkowsky. This flexibility is a great advantage, allowing students to select the pronunciation that is most appropriate for their particular objectives. Students preparing for religious vocations or for careers in music will best be served by the ecclesiastic pronunciation. Most students will probably prefer the traditional classical pronunciation. The default choice, the Restored Classical pronunciation, is far and away the best feature of Artes Latinae. The Restored pronunciation is an element of instruction all too frequently reserved for advanced college or graduate-level courses. This system of pronunciation, based upon the best current knowledge of how Latin was actually pronounced in the late Republic and early Empire, has several important differences from the pronunciation commonly taught in schools. Long vowels are consistently pronounced as long. Opening or closing the vowel, for instance, does not make the difference between a long and short "o." The vowel is simply held for a longer or shorter period of time. A final "m" after a vowel is not pronounced as the bilabial nasal that the letter "m" is assigned elsewhere. Rather, it causes the preceding vowel itself to become nasal.

Use of the Restored Classical pronunciation early in the study of Latin has several advantages. First, it prepares students from the very beginning of their study for the reading of Latin poetry. Scansion by quantity rather than by stress will become for them an automatic and easily understood feature of the language. Poetic elision of final "m" will no longer seem the inexplicable whim of Roman poets that it does with the traditional classical pronunciation. Second, the restored pronunciation assists students in understanding how modern Romance languages developed out of Latin. The nazalized "u" in the second word of the sentence "Manus manum lavat" ("One hand washes the other") causes this word to sound almost like Spanish word "mano," while the nazalized "e" in the first word of "Hilarem datorem diligit Deus" ("God loves the cheerful giver.") makes that word sound vaguely like Portuguese or French. Since these are among the first sentences a student encounters in Artes Latinae, the CD-ROM develops a student's knowledge of Latin poetry and linguistic history right from the start.

Despite this attractive feature, there are serious drawbacks to the program that will limit its use for many students. To begin with, without a standard textbook, students will lack a glossary until they are able to use the graded reader. Secondly, the program proceeds with agonizing slowness. Unit 1 contains 233 frames that provide little more than instruction about using the program. Unless students learn quickly that they can skip a few frames when they are bored or jump to the next unit, the glacial pace of this introduction is going to cause many of them to abandon the program before they encounter a single word of Latin. Worse yet, at the beginning of Unit 5, there is a ten-frame review of everything encountered in Unit 1. (How did the programmers imagine that students would make it to Unit 5 without knowing the basics of how to operate the program?) Throughout the CD-ROM, programming is done so simplistically that correct answers do not automatically advance the student to more difficult material and incorrect answers do not lead to review of material not yet mastered. The program is designed to take each student in a strict, linear fashion from the beginning of one unit to its end. Slowing progress even more, most lessons begin with a lengthy review of the previous unit. This means that students on both ends of the learning spectrum -- those with short attention spans as well as those bright enough not to require endless repetitions -- will find this slow progress excruciating.

The poor pacing of the program continues throughout the package. By Unit 5, students are exposed only to nominative and accusative singular forms. Moreover, the program adopts the terms used in English Grammar, "Subject and Objective Forms," rather than the designations more common in Latin courses. This approach has both advantages and disadvantages. While it does provide a clearer parallel between the student's Latin and English courses, it also deprives students of a standard terminology they will encounter during the rest of their study of Latin.

At times, the series' explanations seem unnecessarily cumbersome. For instance, to avoid the limitations of the traditional definition of an adjective as "a word that modifies a noun," Artes Latinae introduces modern definitions based upon syntax and morphology. Students thus learn that an adjective is a word that makes sense in sentences like "The _____ man came into the room" and, at the same time, has positive, comparative, and superlative forms. Nevertheless, this forces the series to point out that these criteria do not work very well for Latin because the language has a more flexible word order than English and does not use articles. What is gained, therefore, by mentioning the syntactical criterion in the first place? In an introductory Latin course, traditional definitions are sufficient. Students have enough to learn without confusing them with linguistic details better reserved for later in their study.

One feature sometimes found in programs designed for study of modern languages is an ability to record and replay oral responses. This allows students to compare their pronunciation directly to that of native speakers. Artes Latinae does not permit students to hear their own replies at any point in the program. As a result, students must generate a response, remember what they have said, select the "VOX" button from the menu, and then listen to the "correct" version spoken by the "teacher." This is an awkward and inefficient way for students to check themselves. Several other language programs even display the sound waves generated by student and native speaker for those who wish to have a visual comparison. Any of these additional aids would have been of great value in enhancing the usefulness of Artes Latinae and would have taken advantage of different students' varied learning styles.

The most significant disadvantage of the program is its basic pedagogical method. Most instruction is accomplished simply by having students repeat words, phrases, or sentences. The examinations and exercises accompanying the program repeat this emphasis on rote memorization. Within limits, compelling students to memorize material has its benefits. Too many Latin courses have abandoned the role of memory and attempt to teach students advanced concepts without laying essential groundwork. Even in these days of the Internet and widely available reference works, not everything can be found online or by "looking it up." Unfortunately, the Artes Latinae CD-ROM rarely rises above the level of memorization. Students are given the impression that learning Latin is merely a matter of learning stock sentences and completing drills on forms. The more creative aspects of being able to phrase thoughts in different ways or experiment with Latin's many nuances are largely ignored.

In sum, the CD-ROM version of Artes Latinae seems old-fashioned in terms both of its programming and pedagogy. It may well be possible for students to learn Latin from this program -- it may even be possible for students to learn enough Latin to begin reading basic literature -- but the process is unlikely to be either stimulating or enjoyable for most students.

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