Language Learning: German and Latin

This semester at Agnes Scott, I have been lucky enough to take two foreign language classes–German and Latin–and I have been so excited about the ways that they inform and enhance each other. Notate Bene: Excited, not surprised. Learning across different academic disciplines and specializations has characterized my college education. I am a proud proponent and beneficiary of the liberal arts ideal.

But my German and Latin classes have so thoroughly supported each other that I wanted to address it specifically. because I think it sheds light on the different ways we can approach learning languages. A little background–I am only in my second semester of German, but I am in my ninth consecutive year of Latin classes. I don’t consider myself an expert by any means, but I’m only twenty-three years old, so I’ve spent about 40% of my life with the lingua Latina. Whew.

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My background in Latin has helped me so much while learning German, even though the languages are not fundamentally related. Instead, the connection  has everything to do with the way I have been taught Latin over the years. While at some point in my education, I am sure that I memorized tables of word endings, my Latin teachers and professors have always been more concerned that I understood the concepts behind the grammar.

You see, the thing with Latin is that most people don’t actually speak it. I don’t need to have an instant recall of adjective endings (my nemesis in German at the moment) to be able to read and enjoy Latin poetry. If I don’t know which adjective modifies which word, I have all the time in the world to look it up. But if I don’t know what adjectives are, or how they reflect the case of the noun, or that nouns have cases, I’m kind of up a creek without a paddle. It’s another version of every third-grader’s complaint: How can I look it up, if I don’t know how to spell it?

For that reason, my Latin classes, especially in college, have entailed many, many discussions about grammar. Not of the “this noun takes an -e ending in the ablative” variety, but more along the lines of “how does language work?” “What is this grammatical construction actually doing, and why?” Therefore, I went into my German 101 class with a fairly high conceptual knowledge of grammar, and it has helped me immeasurably. I can’t imagine trying to learn to speak German and learn a whole new vocabulary of grammatical terms at the same time. Dative? Genitive? WEAK MASCULINE NOUNS?? 

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But the knowledge goes both ways. I have never in my life been as good at reading Latin as I have been this semester, while also taking my introductory German class. This progress is actually measurable–Latin quizzes that took me four, five, six hours in previous years, I am now finishing in just one or two, and getting a higher grade. Why?

Again, it has to do with the way the languages are taught. The end goal of my German class is not only to be able to read texts, but to speak and communicate. This requires a much higher level of instant recall, which means that my German class requires something my advanced Latin classes generally do not–memorization. When I’m working on German, my mind is constantly moving, looking for patterns, making connections, trying to store all this information, all these words, somewhere in my head.

This way of reading and considering language has crept (without any conscious effort on my part) into how I approach Latin. By looking for patterns, I am more easily able to identify which words “go together,” to put the lines into coherent English word order, and to use grammar to help me better understand content–which is really the whole point, right?

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Now, maybe I should have just memorized the charts Mrs. LeBourg gave me way back in 9th grade Latin class. There are plenty of people who learn Latin that way, memorizing and requiring an instant recall of grammatical details. But for me and the way I use my Latin (reading and interpreting literature) memorization is not the most important thing. Now, there are also people who learn German by translating texts, who just use a  dictionary or grammar book to look up the answers to their questions as they read. Those people probably aren’t moving to Austria in seven months.

My point is, these two approaches to grammar work really well in conjunction with each other. I think you need both a conceptual and practical understanding of grammar–the why and the how–to really internalize a language. By studying Latin and German at the same time, I have been able to make this connection, and it has made me better at both languages. That’s a pretty good argument for learning across disciplines, if you ask me!

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4 comments

  1. Molly,
    I really appreciated your post and your analysis. I’ve been studying Latin for five years, during my Technical High School (called “Liceo Scientifico” in Italy, age 14-19), and I really liked the way it shaped my ability to use languages. Italian at first, but also English. Cicero, in particular, helped me make my sentences clear, understandable and well structured especially with subordinates.
    I’ve never studied Grammar in big details (the same for Italian and for English… I always hated it! I preferred to immerse myself into the language and feel the flow, “recognize the patterns”, as you say, rather then focusing on rules…), and as my school was mainly technical, we only had to translate compositions from Latin to Italian, which worked for me very well with the use of a good vocabulary, and my general understanding of the structure of the sentences.
    When turning to German, 15 years later, I supposed that my basis in Latin would have actually helped me more, as I thought that at least a part the words and verbs would have similar roots, but I was shocked by the fact that they are totally different. My knowledge of English, thanks God, helped me a lot on this, as they both share linguistical roots. Latin, on the other side, worked on “hidden” ways, and made my understanding of cases and conjugations much easier… But so hidden that I’ve been realizing it only much later in my study!
    On your side, for the complexity of the conjugations in German, your ability in Latin is going to be essential, as English has much “easier” forms for verbs and adjectives.

    As for your “nemesis”, take a look at my website, there are great no-brain tricks for getting the right adjective endings! 😉
    (of course there are also linguistical reasons beyond those tricks, but I would personally suggest to focus on fast results now, as your time to “own” the language is limited… and only afterwards getting to the roots…)

    Viel Spaß beim lernen! 😉

    1. Thank YOU so much for your great responses! I think I’m getting a handle on the adjectives…I just want them so come out naturally, and I’m not there yet! Love to hear about your experiences learning languages.

      1. 🙂 For a “natural” flow, it takes time… Pick the tricks, get their logic, and let your thoughts flow, to reach verbal fluidity. IMHO, I suggest not to spend TOO much time on endings, and not even on the gender of names when learning the spoken language, as for both of them German and Austrian people will generally understand you even if those parts of the language are wrong…
        Of course, you’ll have to study them to get great grades in written exercises, but then (when writing) you will have more time to concentrate and recall the right genders and endings 😉

  2. Cool post on Latin! Unfortunately since I saw Eddie Izzard speaking about Latin, this language is not the same anymore for me. I mean…

    Enjoy and hope you’ll have a good laugh! 🙂

    Thanks also for stopping by on my blog!

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