Monday, September 16, 2013

Embracing Latin

Part of my role as a Challenge II director with Classical Conversations is to tutor my
students in Latin. Up until about a year ago, I had never even browsed through a Latin
book. Over the past twelve months, I've dabbled in a bit of Latin. I completed 16 or so
exercises from Henle Latin Book I with my sons as they studied Latin for the first time. I
learned worked on the noun declensions with my Foundation level students last year.
This year however, I am responsible to lead weekly Latin discussions for my students.
Many are new to the course, like me, but several have spent two or more years studying
Latin. I am really not equipped to guide these discussions.

I've struggled with this reality. I've tried to catch up quickly in order to be prepared. Ive
discovered something; learning Latin is not to be rushed, but it should be embraced.

I've spent the past month looking for shortcuts to learning Latin so that I can get ahead
and be able to instruct my students better. Shortcuts aren't helping. During a
conversation with another tutor this week, I heard her mention the memorization she
expects from her level B students. I tucked that thought away for later. I have been
diligently memorizing vocabulary, but I really don't know my noun endings well enough
to complete my exercises without looking at a declension chart. This really slows down
the process of learning. It's not unlike having to look up your multiplication facts while
trying to work Algebra equations, or having a fingering chart nearby while you try to
learn a piece of music. I was missing a core concept; to gain fluency in any new
subject, one must submit to memorization of basic facts. The mind cannot draw from
that which has not been absorbed through memorization.

For the past five days I've put myself through drills on the noun endings - several times
a day. It's tedious. Can I say boring? It requires work to train the brain. Just like it
takes work to train the body. Immediate results are not possible, but discipline over time
yields results. Thankfully, I didn't have to wait weeks and weeks to see the fruit of my
learning labors. In Latin the endings of the words tell you the part of speech it holds.
Knowing the endings, and therefore job of each word, is the key to accurate translation.
I thought I would be able to just pick it up over time. That somehow, by looking up each
ending as I went along, I'd still accomplish the memorization. It's not working. There is
something different that happens in the brain when you are actively attempting
memorization. You are intentionally putting information in storage for the specific
purpose of retrieving it again and again. With my "look it up as I go" method, I was only
solving the immediate problem of answering a specific question in an exercise. There
was no intent to fully engage with the knowledge. To get different results, I had to
change the way I approached the subject. My first change was memorization.

Last night, once again, I sat down to work through another set of Latin I exercises. I first
drilled my noun endings. I still don't have them perfect, but I discovered something
wonderful when I moved into the next lesson. I understood. I was beginning to see the
language and to translate. I could access that noun ending chart from the image of it
stored in my brain. It was there for me to use because I put it there through
memorization. A small victory yes, but one I can continue to build on as I surrender to
the necessary components of learning Latin.

So, what's the point? To what end am I studying Latin? Some people ask me the same
question about running and cycling. Why do you run? Why would you ride 100 miles in
a day? What do you hope to achieve? Part of the answer to each of these questions is
very similar. It's about pushing myself to use my body and mind beyond what I
previously thought possible. I am testing my limits. (It's also about stewardship, which
will be the topic of a future post.)

Running and cycling have taught me the benefits of training my body. They demand the
discipline of consistent physical work over time. This training has also made me aware
of the need to harness my mind. Distance running and cycling require as much mental
effort as physical. Studying Latin is showing me how to challenge my mind in an even
deeper, yet complementary way. I am attempting to stretch the definition of crosstraining
beyond its common meaning. I am training my mind and training my body. I
believe this same mental discipline I exert in Latin will also enhance my workouts. I
know that the physical work of endurance sports sharpens my mind.

This is only a partial answer to why I am studying Latin. I'll save the rest of the answer
for another time. Suffice it to say, the benefits outweigh the work; and it is work. The
effort is like the intentional time required to grow in any other activity or to develop a
relationship. I cannot gain all there is to be gained from this study unless I respect the
work required. To this end, I embrace the Latin.