Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.07

Susan C. Shelmerdine, Introduction to Latin. Revised first edition.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing, 2007.  Pp. xii, 351.  ISBN 1-58510-270-9.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Victor, Université de Montréal (
Word count: 1098 words

This textbook of Latin, first published in 2005 and now available in a revised edition,1 is thoughtfully conceived and contains noteworthy innovations. Assessment of it will vary according as certain issues of principle are judged, but even one who prefers a very different approach must recognize its merits.

Introduction to Latin is arranged in 32 chapters, each of which can be covered in three classroom hours. Vocabulary is introduced at slightly more than 20 words per chapter. Appendices include the predictable: morphological tables, alphabetical glossaries and an index of grammatical subjects. Others are less standard: a list of ancient sources cited or adapted, a summary of core vocabulary, a list of verbs whose principal parts do not follow the usual scheme (pres.-pres. inf.-pf. act.- pf. part.). Comparison is introduced late (ch. 25), as are the subjunctives and their uses (ch. 26-32); progression is not otherwise remarkable. Distinction of sentence-types (transitive, intransitive, linking, factitive) and clause-types (nominal, adjectival, adverbial) provide much of the organization.

The book itself is supported by a number of ancillary materials. An answer key to the exercises and a study guide (of which the publisher has kindly shown me three sample chapters) are to be published in the coming months. Supplementary exercises can be had online; Centaur Systems has produced versions of its electronic morphology and vocabulary drills for use with Introduction to Latin; finally, audio recordings of readings can be heard at the audio page.

Each chapter contains explanations of morphology and syntax accompanied by exercises, including translation into English and into Latin. In most there is also a brief narrative reading, usually adapted from an ancient source (and there are in addition some readings standing outside the chapter structure). These give way to unadapted passages in the later chapters. Shelmerdine thus stays for the most part within the tradition known as "grammar-translation". I confess that I am personally dissatisfied with that approach as being out of touch with progress in linguistic pedagogy.2 At the same time I add that mine is a minority position among classicists, and certainly among those classicists who write textbooks.3 In any case, Shelmerdine does make one important break with tradition: her exercises are not exclusively exercises of translation. Many of them consist in identifying cases or other forms underlined in sentences, or in finding the agreements; frequently students are given sentences with an ending left out in each and invited to supply it. Or again, they will be asked to change perfect verb-forms to the pluperfect, and so on. Such tasks are a staple in the teaching of modern languages, where they have proved their worth. They promote an active engagement with mechanisms of the language, and because each individual problem can be worked in an instant they develop a more instinctive sort of skill than does the slow, laborious job of writing a sentence from scratch.

I would have liked to see more of the innovative exercises, and especially of those that require the student to supply Latin endings, words or phrases. The value of filling blanks, responding to stimuli and working simple transformations is to build reflexes in the target language, but reflexes cannot be built by the half-page or so of material found in a chapter of this book. It takes a much greater quantity: several pages for each lesson is normal in teaching living languages. Such volume is feasible because the exercises can be done quickly, much more so than translating or composing entire sentences. The shortage is partly made good by a website with additional exercises (see above); even so, more would be better. The ancillary study guide I have mentioned will apparently not fill this particular lacuna, though it will provide other activities. This study guide, not prepared by Susan Shelmerdine, follows a stricter grammar-translation programme than she does herself: it gives more elaborate explanations of grammatical concepts; its exercises, if the sample I have seen is representative, are limited to recognition of constructions and other features in unseen Latin texts.

Another criticism: Shelmerdine's "made Latin" is not as natural as might be wished, and occasionally it is faulty. P. 41: "Graeci et Troiani bellum longum pugnant" ('bellum pugnare' is poetical and rare even in the poets; normal Latin says 'gerere'). P. 48: "Nautae trans multos pontos errabant" ('pontus', beside being out of place in prose, is exclusively singular). Finally, the sentences used as samples and in exercises would be more effective if their subject-matter were more striking and memorable. Of course, I am aware how much easier that is said than done in a beginner's manual, with its constraints of vocabulary and grammar.

I regard the following as the strengths of this book.

1) Vocabulary is introduced at a sensible pace and well selected, leading by the end of the course to a useful basic lexicon.

2) The innovative exercises set this textbook apart from nearly all others. I have complained that there are not enough of them; even so, they mark an advance over books that require only translation.

3) The grammatical explanations are clear and free of superfluous detail. Though downplayed by more modern approaches, I doubt that grammatical rules and analyses can work any real harm, so long as they do not crowd out other matter.4 Susan Shelmerdine has done a fine job of them. She has a gift for lucidity and concision and above all assumes no prior familiarity with grammar. Sometimes she actually provides exercises to work on a concept in English before taking it up in Latin: so in chapter 17 voice is introduced with examples from English and a half-page English text in which students must distinguish the active verbs from the passive; they must then abstract the rules of passive-formation in English. Shelmerdine has also included instructions (and even exercises) on matters most textbook-writers don't think of: how to read a dictionary-entry, for instance. In all of this one recognizes a teacher of experience, devotion and much innate skill.

On balance, this book is quite a good one. I have seen no other beginner's manual, of any approach whatever, so very friendly to the student. While urging classicists to follow the lead of the modern languages, I understand that few will be ready to abandon wholly the grammar-translation method by which they were themselves taught and for which their techniques are designed. For those who do not take that step, Introduction to Latin is an excellent choice. In fact, I consider it their best choice wherever students lack basic grammatical knowledge, that is to say in all but the most elite institutions.


1.   The revisions concern matters of copy-editing and formatting, not substance.
2.   There is a vast literature on the theory and practice of language teaching, almost entirely ignored by classicists. For those who wish to explore it, two excellent surveys provide an entrée: Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada, How languages are learned, Oxford, 3rd ed. 2006 (on the theory of language acquisition); Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge, 2nd ed. 2001 (on practical classroom techniques). Bibliographical searches, I warn, are more complicated than in classics: Linguistics & Language Behavior Abstracts, ERIC and PsycINFO (as well as other tools) can all be used, though no one of them relied upon exclusively. If one's aim on the other hand is just to sample good recent work, much of it can be turned up by old-fashioned thumbing in: Applied Linguistics, The International Journal of Applied Linguistics, International Review of Applied Linguistics, Language and Education, Language Learning, The Modern Language Journal, Second Language Research, Studies in Second Language Acquisition. The writings of Stephen Krashen deserve mention as having been particularly influential. Note: Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Oxford, 1981; The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, London, 1985; Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, Oxford, 1982.
3.   Of the complete introductions to Latin available at this date in the Anglo-American market, most belong in the grammar-translation camp (Wheelock and Jenney being the most familiar of these). A few others (Cambridge Latin Course, Oxford Latin Course, Ecce Romani) use a more inductive, reading-based approach, which still incorporates only a tiny part of good modern-language practice; methods fully those of the enlightened modern-language class are found only in Lingua Latina per se Illustrata by Hans Orberg. In saying that I leave out of account Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg, Lingua Latina Perennis: an Introductory Course to the Language of the Ages (Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci), since it will not be available until 2008 (Global Books in Print has shown it as already out, an error repeated by the annual survey of textbooks in Classical World). When it does appear it is sure to be unconventional, or rather seem so to classicists.
4.   I am here speaking of the text itself. If the study guide is used, there is a danger that abstract questions of grammar will absorb the student's time and thought.

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