BMCR 2008.03.07

When Dead Tongues Speak. Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin. American Philological Association Classical Resources Series 6

, When dead tongues speak : teaching beginning Greek and Latin. American Philological Association classical resource series ; no. 6. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiii, 238 pages).. ISBN 9780195346572 $24.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

I taught my first Latin course as a graduate student after being given a brand-new copy of Wheelock, a bare-bones syllabus, and the admonition, “Remember, you know more than they do.”1 There may also have been a pat on the back. I no longer recall. When, as a faculty member, I taught my first Greek course, I did it by ordering the book I’d learned from as an undergraduate, walking in, and doing what I had been doing in my Latin courses. I suspect that I am hardly alone with respect to the nature of my preparation as a teacher of classical languages. The inadequacy of the approach is most evident, I would guess, to instructors who end up working in small programs, where fortunes often rise and fall in lockstep with the number of majors, and the number of majors depends directly on the enrollments in beginning language courses—but even more importantly, on the outcomes of those enrollments. Graduate programs too often believe that good teaching is merely a combination of knowledge of the subject and a certain knack for dealing with students. How different, of course, reality is. Gruber-Miller, the editor of and a contributor to the current volume, is “a one-person classics section” (xi) at a small college, and I suspect he knows better than most of us just how different. It is really no surprise, in other words, that this collection of essays devoted to the teaching of the elementary levels of Ancient Greek and Latin had its genesis, as we are told in its brief preface, in a conversation at a meeting at the convention of the American Philological Association devoted to the issues surrounding small classics departments.

This volume is best viewed in some sense as an addendum and update to Rick LaFleur’s Latin for the Twenty-First Century,2 particularly because several of the contributions here directly continue themes treated there.3 Instructors of courses in the methods of Latin teaching will want to add this to their syllabi at the first opportunity, but anyone interested in the teaching of the classical languages will find something useful here. This is at heart a book in which intelligent colleagues thoughtfully discuss important issues, and all those involved ought to be applauded for their efforts. The emphasis here is on college-level teaching, but many of the insights are transferable to the sometimes very different contexts of high school instruction. The authors have on the whole carefully reviewed pedagogical literature and research specific to their concerns, and use these as a jumping-off point for their own thinking. Readers will find plenty of leads to follow for further reading, both in the bibliographies to individual contributions, but also in the useful general bibliography annotated by Gruber-Miller.

Readers may also, like this reviewer, find themselves ultimately frustrated and dissatisfied with the volume’s limitations. I have come to view my own frustration, however, more as the result of our discipline’s rudimentary understanding of what we do in these courses, which is a greater problem than in any other comparable language-based discipline. Gruber-Miller’s collection is, like LaFleur’s before it, absolutely indispensable, but it serves in some sense to highlight our deficiencies rather than always to provide ways to overcome them. The individual articles can give us something to chew on, suggest interesting approaches, share the successful methods of individual instructors, make us uncomfortable with some of our own practices, and push us to sharpen our own day-to-day teaching—and these are all worthwhile outcomes—but they sometimes bring us only a very small way closer to the answers we need. That little bit closer is far better than no closer at all, and I am not sure that anyone is currently in a position to bring us substantially closer to our goal. The criticism I level here is one directed primarily at the discipline more broadly and our professional organizations, not this book, its editor, or its contributors. For instance, the APA, for all its recent good work directed at pedagogy—not least of all the publication under its own aegis of this volume—does not so much as mention educational research and pedagogical publication in its own “Statement on Research.”4 As a discipline we rely particularly on educational research developed for modern language learning and on anecdote. That this volume raises its head above such troubled waters and has so much useful to say should be seen as an achievement in these circumstances.

In the first chapter Gruber-Miller’s nuanced reflections on the ACL standards for classical language learning (reprinted helpfully as part of the front matter on p. xiii), emphasize the teaching of Greek and Latin as communicative systems, that is, as ways of expressing meaning in context. This view resonates in several of the later contributions and elements of it are strongly picked up in Morrell’s chapter. It is really, however, in combination with Deagon’s sketch of learning styles and their interaction with Latin pedagogy that one can most clearly see a refreshing distance from the tiresome and misleading rhetoric that too often divides instructors in our field. One too often hears (or reads in online forums) arguments either that traditional pedagogy is worthless at best and psychologically damaging at worst or, alternatively, that modern language approaches are completely out of place in the learning of a dead language and can lead only to a dumbing down of the curriculum. This balance can also be seen elsewhere, including Saffire’s piece, in which she has greater opportunity to lay out the rationale for and practice of the oral work in the early part of her textbook Ancient Greek Alive but positions this against more traditional concerns.5 The other chapters provide a varying mix of theoretical distillation and practical advice, often informed by telling personal experience. A standout for me was McCaffrey’s chapter, which identifies several reading strategies and discusses the ways in which to teach them. Traditionalists will like its emphasis on reading, but the basis for the strategies in question is rooted in how the Romans themselves communicated (in this case the question of how much ambiguity between nominative/accusative is tolerable where they are morphologically indistinguishable and how it can be resolved), and includes an emphasis on reading “left to right.” Experienced teachers will find nothing astonishing in the basic idea here, but much of interest nonetheless in the specifics of the explication—and the argument is nicely backed up with Latin examples and data derived from prose and poetic authors, moving us beyond mere anecdote and assertion.

This volume is by no means the last word on any of the topics covered, but it contributes in a meaningful way to a worthy conversation. One hopes that through the continuing efforts of scholars such as those found here we will find innovative and proven ways to strengthen undergraduate Classics programs of all sizes as we move further into our new century.

Titles and Contributors:

“Communication, Context, and Community: Integrating the Standards in the Greek and Latin Classroom.” John Gruber-Miller

“Cognitive Style and Learning Strategies in Latin Instruction.” Andrea Deagon

“Latin for Students with Severe Foreign Language Learning Difficulties.” Barbara Hill

“Peer Teaching and Cooperative Learning in the First Year of Latin.” Kathryn Argetsinger

“Is There a Woman in This Textbook? Feminist Pedagogy and Elementary Latin.” Laurie J. Churchill

“Reading Latin Efficiently and the Need for Cognitive Strategies.” Daniel V. McCaffrey

“Language Acquisition and Teaching Ancient Greek: Applying Recent Theories and Technology.” Kenneth Scott Morrell

“Ancient Greek in Classroom Conversation.” Paula Saffire

“Teaching Writing in Beginning Latin and Greek: logos, ethos, and pathos.” John Gruber-Miller.


1. Much more helpful to me was the advice of another of my graduate professors before my first discussion section of Roman Civilization for him: “Remember that students are like dogs: they can smell your fear.”

2. Richard A. LaFleur, ed., Latin for the Twenty-First Century (Glenview, IL: 1998).

3. Most obviously, for instance, Hill’s chapter is an informative treatment that picks up from what A. C. Ashe covered in her “Latin for Special Needs Students: Meeting the Challenge of Students with Learning Disabilities” in the earlier volume.

4. Available at American Philological Association. The resulting placement of pedagogical research outside, and presumably beneath, an implicit hierarchy of value is also shared by scholarly translation, another of our most important activities entirely ignored by the APA’s Statement.

5. Reviewed earlier in BMCR 2000.01.27 by S. K. Torrence.