So I was sitting with Melissa and we were commiserating about how to teach our children Spanish -- a language that none of us took in high school or college.
"The problem is basically that I don't think I can teach myself Spanish adequately," I summed up. "With Latin, there's no need to worry about slang or idiom or accent or conversation. It's all on paper. I've always been confident I could teach myself Latin, and because of that I've always been confident I could help the kids learn it. And I have taught myself Latin, and I think I'm doing a pretty good job with the kids. But I can't teach myself Spanish. Or at least I'm not confident that I could do it well enough to pass it on."
All the available Spanish curricula start with basic words and conversation skills. The equivalent of what I learned in beginning French: "Je vais au cinéma avec mes amis." But the conversational approach is exactly what I feel I can't do. I think people should learn to speak a language from a native speaker, or at least an expert speaker.
Now, Latin is different. Nobody is even pretending that we are trying to learn to speak Latin. We are learning to read it and translate it and write it. That's what you do with Latin (and the writing is optional; several older Latin texts that I found in the library contained zero emphasis on turning English into Latin, apparently because teachers didn't think you'd ever want to express yourself in Latin; they must not have listened to any kids, who love to express themselves as many ways as possible). All this requires is for me to stay a few steps ahead of the kids, which is not only doable but fun. And so it was not hard to find a Latin curriculum that I could use to teach myself and teach the kids.
"Maybe," I said hesitatingly, "though, maybe we could just accept that we cannot really teach how to speak Spanish. What if," I went on, gaining momentum as I considered it, "what if we decided to teach writing and reading Spanish, and didn't bother with speaking and listening comprehension except, you know, just what was necessary to discuss the words we were learning?"
Melissa nodded. "That would be better than nothing," she said, "and it could prepare them for taking a real Spanish course later on."
"I guess I would want to teach it just as we taught them Latin," I mused, "very grammar-based. But there definitely aren't any curricula for Spanish that follow the same pattern. That one DVD-based course* was okay, it started with grammar right at the beginning; but it was aimed at much younger children."
As we talked, though, the germ of an idea began to form between the two of us. And at one point, I got out my tablet and started taking notes, so I wouldn't forget anything. Because I realized it was a good idea.
The Memoria Press Latin programs that we are using -- Prima Latina, Latina Christiana, and First Form Latin -- all have a component that examines Latin-derived words in the English language. It has seemed like a bit of a waste of time, sort of an afterthought, and we really haven't used it much at all. But what if instead of learning about Latin-derived words in English, we looked at Latin-derived words in Spanish? What if we studied Spanish as a specimen of late Latin -- very late Latin? What if learning Spanish became an extension of our Latin study?
All the beginner's Spanish programs start from scratch. But we're not starting from scratch: we're starting from a few years of Latin. Why can't we build on what they know already? After all -- a great deal of the effort that English speakers have to make, when they learn their first Romance language -- we've already been through that. Verbs are conjugated. Nouns have gender. Adjectives can come after nouns. Adjectives agree with nouns. And we've already talked about tense, and principal parts, and negation and interrogation... a lot of concepts that take up time grasping for the first time have already been grasped. They just need to know how to do in Spanish what they already know to do in Latin.
We could learn the Spanish equivalents of the Latin words we have already learned, and notice the ones which are cognates and the ones which are not. We could look at the differences in pronunciation of the different letters (and talk about language-development phenomena like consonant shifts and loss of inflection).
Just as we now recite amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant, we could recite amo, amas, ama, amamos, amáis, aman (or maybe it would be amamos, aman, aman -- we want Latin American Spanish, not Castilian. Those of you who took high school Spanish with an emphasis on American Spanish, did you bother with vosotros?).
Spanish nouns don't decline, but we could introduce Spanish prepositions in the context of the Latin cases that encompass their meanings.
And all that time, we could try to make up for our lack of emphasis on speaking and listening by using Spanish-language music, cinema, TV, radio, in our homes. Maybe I'll splurge and get Rosetta Stone at some point.
As for vocabulary, we could start with the same lexicon that we use in Latin -- not colors and days of the week and numbers, but charioteer and soldier and commander and hill and river and eternal and heaven and lamb and law and slave and ally and message and envoy -- that mishmash of military and ecclesiastical terms that you learn when you're aiming to read, not a menu or a bus schedule, but the Pater Noster and the Gallic Wars.
And we could use those words and find out how to make Spanish sentences as well as Latin ones.
But later, when we already have some grammar learned, we could use a "vocabulary-builder" program to begin learning those basic Spanish words. Maybe it will all go faster when we know from the beginning how to put the words into sentences.
And eventually, perhaps we will be able to dispatch our charioteers to the cinema with their friends -- in Latin and Spanish.
*I have found one Spanish curriculum that is grammar-intensive despite being aimed at elementary school kids. That is Spanish for Children sold by Classical Academic Press. Its methodology is very close to Memoria Press's Latin.