Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Failure + Confusion = Awesome — Day 1

Disclaimer: This is an anomaly. Future posts definitely won't be as long and probably won't be as humorous. 

Today was the first day of real live Latin. Up to this point, we had started our prayers with the Signum Crucis and I may have said an occasional word in Latin for fun, but today it was necessary to announce early on that things were changing. I answered Sic to bathroom requests, commanded Surgite! to ready us for prayer, and queried Petitiones? to gather our prayer intentions. 

Theory break: What is learning a language like for a toddler? Confusion. And how should we describe life when you're immersed into the land of a foreign language? Failure. Likewise the M.O. of any good language class is going to be a lot of confusion and failure...and it is through that struggle that we learn the language. But I think some foreign-language teachers think that means that their job is to hit you on Day 1 with a sonorous wall of alien words and think that somehow that's just going to soak the language into your bones. By contrast, just giving them one-word answers in a foreign tongue is still bewildering, but the difference is that it is a small enough obstacle that you might yet be able to figure out what the word means. Two kids today just nodded and smiled when I gave the strange reply Sic to their bath requests, but when the third one looked very confused and asked, "What?", another kid, not previously involved in the conversation, said, "Go ahead; that must mean yes," because he had seen the others have this conversation. They already had their Latin names, so I just pointed at myself saying Pater enough times (as opposed to saying Iohannes and Paggia when pointing at two other students) that they got my name. Then I grabbed the first of a stack of "Hello, My Name Is" stickers, held it up high and declared Hoc est signum! as I started passing them out. 

The other victim of confusion and failure has to be the teacher. Having mastered spoken Latin enough, or pausing in the moment long enough, to have the book-perfect words to instruct a class is both an invitation to disaster and a false lesson about language. How do you survive in a foreign country? With the present tense, non-agreeing nouns and adjectives, a few prepositions and numbers, and lots of humility. We may laugh at the stereotype of the tourist saying " us, thank you?" but, dagnabit, that scared Asian man just got a bucketful of meaning conveyed in a real English sentence on the streets of New York. So, as the teacher you have to demonstrate proper Normandy Beach language survival technique: move constantly, use hand signals, and don't stop repeating instructions for even half a second: 

[Warning Not a single Latin phrase in the next three minutes as I passed out the name tags was completely accurate and I don't care a lick.]

Signum. Signum. Signum. 

What do we do with this?

<I spin back around and write Pater on mine with a Sharpie and hold it up.> Pater. Pater. 

So, "potter"??

No. Er, non. Nomen. Nomen in signum. 

Nohmum? I don't... 
So you want us to...
No, oh oh, name? Our name?!

Sic, sic! Nomen tuum. 

So, our full name? 

O! Pennas. Quid vultis? 
<Hold up four Sharpie pens, but I realize I've never learned the colors in Latin. Good thing I was nerdy and stared at the "Heraldry" section in the World Book Encyclopedia a lot as a kid and they use same words in bishops' insignia descriptions. No idea what language it is, but whatevs... Anyway, I apologize now to all the Romance Languages for what happened next>

Umm... Vert? Vert. Qui? Qui vultis? Ok, pro te. Next. Azula. Azula? Qui? Sic. Et, uh uh Gules? aut uhh rubio...rubicum? Ok. Bene. Et finalemente... uh umm uhhhh negro yeah neyyygro... Quis? 
<Sure enough, to everyone's laughter, the lone black kid shoots his hand up to claim that pen.> 

So our full names?

Non. Primus. Primus nomen. 

I don't...

Nomen tuum. Iohannes... Iordana... Teresula.... Nomen tuum <point> scripsi <motion> in signo <point>. 

Like this? "Teresula Murifex Maxima"

No...non. Prima. Primum nomen. Solo. 

You mean... 

Primo. Primo. Et magnum. Scribere magnum. Magnus nomen et solo primus. Scribo magnum. MAGNUM. Mahhh-gnum. <Trying to make arms alternately flap "big" and stretch "tall"> 

Ok, first names really big then?


I need another sticker then. 

Bene. Bene. Optime. Ok. 

And then we? 

Imposuit signum cum nomen tuum in pecatore. <thump thump>

Put them on our...
...pectoral muscles!!

Sic sic! Bene. Optime. 

<peel, peel, thump thump> 

<Thinking, "Alrighty let's get this going."> 

Surgite omnes! <big upward hand motions>

Decedite tabalulas!*** <big dividing-the-Red-Sea motions>

Considite omnes! <gentle sit-down motion>

Formate circulum!* <circular arm motions accompanied by a "Was this hard for you in kindergarten too?" look. 

A big dang ugly mess—that's what the last three minutes were. But you know what? We got there. We were in a circle, seated in the floor, with our big clear Patricus and Oeneus and Kæsa tags on our chests. Language is what you can do with it. 

Now, not everybody could say everybody else's name. Heck, not everybody could say their own names well. So I just started off by pointing around the circle with them repeating everyone's names...or close enough. Here was a good time to announce to them the two cardinal rules of learning a language:
1) Nolite timere! As John Paul II taught us all, "Be not afraid!", and as Amy and Sara, two former students who now work as Spanish teachers say to their kids, "No tengas miedo!" They were the ones who showed me you have to beat home a sense of fearless experimentation when teaching a spoken language. You never improve if you're fearful of saying it wrong. Which brings be to...
2) Latinglish happens. And it should. That tourist who is surviving day-by-day isn't speaking pretty Italian. He's cobbling together every bit of any language he's ever heard trying to find out where that next train is heading. Frankly, for most high school or college students, Splatin happens more often than Latinglish. I use Spitalofranglish when I try and speak any Romance Language. 

What we did was actually super simple. I said Pater and threw the ball to someone. They figured out, sometimes after checking their shirts, to say their own name and throw the ball to someone else. After two times around, we changed it to catching the ball and saying Iacobus sum. Next game, the student had to catch it, announce herself like before, and then look at a person and say Susannula es before throwing it to her. The last major variant was for Jordan to throw the ball to Dallas who would explain upon catching it Iordana es; Vallicus sum. The slightly Rosetta Stone™ moment came when I'd have them switch the order of their name and the linking verb: Sum Vallicus. In time, I hope they will intuit that sum and es are just markers to say "this name attaches to me; that one goes with you." 

Results: ten people spoke nothing but Latin to each other for 15+ minutes, practiced pronouncing their own and other's names, and got a little feel for the copula. 

*** 2013 First Prize, Worst False Cognate In A Dead Language

* Yeah, not really how you say "make a circle"

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