Learning Latin is like learning English

A latin student of mine asked what it would take to get ready to be ready for AP Latin? And it made me reflect on what it really takes to learn a language and how we learn even our native tongue. I thought I would share my answer and my ponderings.

I think that language is more transformative than we tend to realize. (NB I’m not that great at it, but I’m a little further than my students). Language is part of the building blocks of our mind, how we think, how we live. Words make abstract feelings and experiences communicable. George Orwell was onto something when he wrote 1984 and imagined the government limiting language in order to limit thought.

I told my student that to be ready for AP Latin, you need the latin equivalvent of what it takes to be ready for AP English. Advanced English is more than noun/verb agreement. Reading novels introduces the advanced middle-schooler, for instance, to stylistic language, an expanded vocabulary, building scenes, implications, repeated metaphors and meanings that carry between sentences. To make this linguistic level jump, a student must have the basics of language down, as children do. Children converse with their parents about concrete objects; they listen to songs and watch television in it. The Latin student should likewise have a child’s level of fluency before beginning advanced and abstract and stylistic texts.  Learning Latin is hard because the culture that goes along with it just isn’t around anymore. So we have to make it up through anachronisms such as the video above of a latin professor singing Adele’s Hello.

To get to fluency, the language must become our own, internalized. It isn’t enough to memorize charts of verb conjugations; to learn a language we have to care; it has to be part of us; it has to start to form the shape of our thought. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare on the page and being confused, and watching it played out well–seeing the words in action, embodied by actors who express their reality and about whose fate we are actually concerned.

I’ve heard it said that it takes a relationship to learn a language, a person that we care about enough to make the jump of total communication in that language. I think this is true. I recommended memorizing text, reading in basic Latin and listening to songs in Latin. Middle schoolers listen to songs in English–it’s one of the cultural, subconscious ways they experience language as tied to art and emotion.

That’s it. The question was interesting to me because it made me reflect on the effort it takes to learn and what it takes for us to rise the levels of linguistic experience in our native tongue and how that corresponds with learning another language.

For me and Latin, even though I’m not that good at it, a large part of why I care is because I am Catholic. I wanted to learn Latin to read theology, to access the history of the Church, to pray in Latin. I have Latin prayers memorized, and I sometimes try to read the Bible in Latin–which was recommended to me by a professor. It’s smart because as Christians, the Gospel stories are so familiar to us, that it’s almost impossible not to understand them even in another language if we can pick out just a few words. Then our brains can  make the jump to piecing together all the meaning connections between the words. It’s a funny sort of experience. I like it, and I’m still not the best language student, but I do want to keep working at it.

Have you learned a foreign language? How long did it take? What strategies helped? If you could learn any language, what would it be and why?


Free Edward Snowden: The Smear of Snowden is 1984 made Real

A few weeks ago, as we are now well-acquainted with, government contractor Edward Snowden leaked some information about the government’s surveillance programs which include the seizure and analysis of personal communication data from such companies as Verizon, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and others. Snowden was hiding out in Hong Kong to avoid retribution for his whistle-blower efforts to alert the public to the extent of the federal government’s data collection. He is now on the run.

At first, this made a pretty big stir with newspapers and citizens expressing outrage especially as this came in the wake of revelations of executive seizure of journalists’ phone records.

But then the coverage changed and in a very disturbing way. President Obama and various Congressmen not only defended the programs, but acted as though they were routine, well-established and not newsworthy. Then came the attacks on Snowden’s person that he was low-level, interested in notoriety and had no business fleeing the country. As if any of that would discredit the information revealed. Sadly, these NSA programs are real regardless of the merit of the messengers who pulled the curtain off them. The undermining of Edward Snowden as a noble person is nothing more than a basic ad hominem tactic. Though ad hominems are logical fallacies, they often work with surprising ease and success. That is happening this time.

In the ensuing weeks, national outrage about the unprecedented level of government snooping has quelled. It barely makes headlines. When it is mentioned, Snowden is presented as a traitor.

This is shocking and scary.

Snowden did not reveal any dangerous information that compromised sensitive programs or persons (unlike Julian Asaange’s Wikileaks scandal that outed many undercover agents and lead to their deaths). Snowden only alerted us to government programs that target living, breathing American citizens and thousands (millions?) of people around the globe. And for his trouble, he is being charged with spying! [Note: If there is more to this than I realize, and there was dangerous information involved, I would be willing to reconsider my view.]

The spin regarding the Snowden leaks amounts to 1984-esque suppression of historical facts, manipulation of public opinion, and a troubling induction of amnesia in our collective memory.

I don’t talk politics much because as a trained student of political theory, I am often jaded and have views that fall far away from that of both Republicans and Democrats. But this is important. Here is my analysis of the Snowden coverage and six reasons why the spin amounts to tactics used by the totalitarian regime of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984Continue reading