Learning words

To the promoters of the Cambridge Latin Course in its early stages, there was a kind of indecency about getting children to learn lists of words. This surfaced in one of our departmental meetings, when a newly arrived young colleague, who had been taught traditionally as a boy in Yorkshire, asked for suggestions about an efficient routine for vocabulary learning.

There was a moment of silence: the Head of Department passed quickly on to something else.

The young man was taken aside afterwards by a CLC disciple: did he think, he was asked, that such an approach was acceptable nowadays? It was the kind of stuff that had endangered the teaching of Latin and made it an object of distaste and frustration. Furthermore, it promoted elitism by publicly distinguishing those who had good powers of memory from those who had not.

He replied vigorously: did anyone really think you could learn a language without getting to know the words?

The colleague had no answer.  He, in any case, had a problem. He had been taught in the most gerund-grinding fashion by a man who, while impeccable as a Classical scholar, had a sense of humour far to seek, and, deep down, did not really like children—or certainly did not have the gift of communicating with them.

In 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach was appointed to be Kantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig—one of the most important musical posts in Germany.  He soon learned that he was, ex officio, obliged to teach Latin to the pupils. This he flatly refused to do, thereby annoying his employers from the outset. But he showed his wisdom, realising that no person can teach such a challenging subject effectively unless they are able to enjoy the work and enthuse the pupils.

It takes the extremes of teaching skill to get children to learn words. But knowing them is the central part of a language; and the optimistic notions of learning the words—or the language in general—by absorption are fantasy if the children are spending just a couple of hours a week on the subject. So, every device of humour, encouragement and inducement must be employed, and, importantly, modified ad hoc with every group of pupils, to suit their character and the prevailing atmosphere in the classroom.

Some children have better powers of memory than others; but it is worth pointing out to all of them that memory can be trained—and like the muscles of the body, it is trained by use. Admittedly, it is frustrating for the child who has spent an hour learning a vocabulary list to discover that the peer sitting next to him can do it in 10 minutes sitting on the stairs before the lesson. But the teacher must be open about all this—and make it common knowledge in the group which of them are already blessed with a good memory and which have to strive. The children must help one another; and the written test, which is essential both to check on the work and to give incentive for it, must be conducted orally, in a manner that helps. The questions must be asked in a fashion that directs the children to the right answer, with subtle hints when the teacher notes by their body language that some of them can’t get the answer.

And here it may be said that such hints should be on the liberal side, because every time a pupil writes something correctly, he or she is the more likely to remember it.

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