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The role of grammar for the teaching of Latin

The development of linguistics as a scientific discipline is one of the greatest achievements of contemporary thought, as it has led to the discovery of some fundamental principles about the functioning of language. However, most of its recent discoveries have not yet reached the general audience of educated people beyond the specialists. Scholars of classics, in particular, have found it difficult to become involved in the debate, since many recent studies in linguistics have been driven by the necessity to free themselves from the subordination to Latin grammar and have put into question the validity of certain aspects of traditional grammar.

As a consequence, progress made by contemporary linguistics has paradoxically had a negative rather than positive effect on the teaching of Latin. Although traditional grammars are now outdated, a suitable replacement has not yet been offered and a widespread scepticism has forced many to keep relying on old fashioned textbooks.

In order to overcome this undesirable state of affairs, it is desirable to bring Latin grammar back to its original high-level scientific conception, going beyond a prescriptive attitude and restoring the original theoretical tension. Although many branches of contemporary linguistics are potentially suited to fulfil this objective, none of them have been fully exploited in teaching yet. Their advantage over traditional approaches lies in their ability to satisfy the same needs as traditional analytical and philosophical Latin grammar, exploiting – at the same time – new methods, which are suitable to formulate more accurate analyses and theoretical generalizations.

Latin grammar should be presented as an activity which raises the linguistic awareness of its readers, using the most recent tools of modern linguistics. This should not be limited to the traditional Indo-European historical perspective, but includes the comparison of different languages and the attempt to represent the way in which grammar rules are codified in the mind.

Italy-Vaticano by gnuckx. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The hypothesis is that there exists a language faculty underlying all languages, known as Universal Grammar (UG), i.e. a system of variable and invariable factors internalized in the speaker’s mind, which constitutes the basis of the grammar of each language. Understanding the contents of UG amounts to understanding those linguistic phenomena that are common to all languages. In this perspective, it is possible to develop a new method of teaching Latin, which aims at strengthening the cognitive skills of the learner’s mind. This method consists in overcoming the rigidity of a purely normative conception of grammatical rules, in order to make them explicit in a synchronic formal way and thus formulate hypotheses about the mental mechanisms that generate them. This method is an updated enhancement of the old conception of grammatical studies known as progymnasmata, i.e. “gymnastics of the mind,” which introduces the reader to the world of classical scholarship.

On the basis of some recent discoveries made by the neurosciences, it is possible to formulate grammatical rules that represent a better approximation of the implicit and explicit mental operations carried out by the language learner. The desired effect is the activation of the appropriate areas of the brain, i.e. the ones which are naturally devoted to the processing of linguistic information, thus rendering the process of language acquisition faster and more natural. Indeed, a vast number of recent studies have shown that language learning strongly relies on a constant and unconscious comparison between the second language (L2) and the learner’s mother tongue. By comparing linguistic phenomena across distinct languages and by interpreting the results with updated theoretical tools, we intend to underlie the deep similarities among languages rather than their superficial differences. This new teaching perspective represents a fundamental advantage for learners, who can focus their attention on the limits of linguistic variation, making their acquisitional task more feasible. In particular, by overtly reflecting on language and comparing L2 grammars to the structures of the mother tongue, the study of Latin becomes more stimulating and active.

Moreover, as students become aware of the difference between a “mistake”, as banned from the standard language, and linguistic “agrammaticality” (i.e. an option which is disallowed by the deep structure of the language), they become more critical and aware of the level of their written and oral performance in their mother tongue. From this perspective, it is clear that the study of Latin contributes to the overall linguistic education of learners, and not only to the training of those interested in classical studies. Students should no longer learn by heart the obscure rules of school grammars, often rooted on misconceptions, but they should instead explore the discoveries of centuries of classical scholarship in order to actively work out how languages function and change. In particular, they should focus their attention on the aspects of the targeted language they already know, before exploring the points of divergence from their mother tongue. Thanks to this revised methodology, the study of Latin loses any passive connotation and becomes an activity which enhances linguistic awareness, meta-linguistic competence, as well as critical thought.

Recent Comments

  1. Chris Stolz

    The author does not seem aware of the last forty or so yearsnof research into language acquisition. Oniga contends that explicit awareness of linguistic rules will enhance both comprehension and production of language. This is a position which has been thoroughly discredited (Krashen 2013; Lighbrown and Spada 2013) by the research-supported comprehensible input hypothesis, which holds that acquisition occurs by receiving comprehensible input, andnthat conscious learning, grammar practice, etc, are unncessary.

  2. Renato Oniga

    I could reply noting that Chris Stolz does not seem aware of the criticism that has been drawn to Krashen’s theory since the 1980s, e.g. L. White, “Against Comprehensible Input: the Input Hypothesis and the Development of Second-language Competence”, Applied Linguistics 8.2, 1987: 95-110. But I am not interested in discrediting other positions, I prefer to observe that there is not a necessary contrast between my own position and Krashen’s theory: cf. M. Ricucci, “Per un apprendimento linguistico secondo il metodo neo-comparativo: note storico-concettuali”, Lingue antiche e moderne 2, 2013: 55-78. I would like to stress that “metalinguistic awarness” (you may call it “Monitor”), namely the conscious knowledge of how our unconscious language faculty works, provides a useful support to adult learners of a dead language like Latin. My proposal is that learners can benefit from explicit grammatical reflections not only on the language they are learning, but also on their native language, on other languages they know, and on the general properties of the language faculty itself. For example, the concepts of “phrase” and “movement” are useful tools for syntax: they are intuitive to native speakers of every language, they are appropriate for a scientifically advanced theoretical model, and they can be easily applied to language pedagogy.

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