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Why I’ve changed my mind on Comprehensible Input (but still can’t stand LLIPSI)

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I used to seriously question the Comprehensible Input method for learning ancient languages, but now I strongly recommend it as fully authentic and the best method for gaining reading fluency and becoming a lifelong learner of ancient languages.

However, I still cannot bring myself to recommend the Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata textbook (LLIPSI) as a standalone Latin course. I understand that it works. And I am glad that many motivated people have acquired Latin through it. However, I cannot bring myself to like it, even when I try as hard as I can.

Let me start with how I had formerly come to reject Comprehensible Input together with LLIPSI. I learned Latin through a reading method with the Cambridge Latin Course. In practice, my teachers taught me Latin through a mixture of reading pleasurable stories, getting us to orally perform the stories, and drilling our grammar with grammar-translation exercises. I was initially intrigued by LLIPSI because I had heard it was a more intuitive and reading-based course than the one I had learnt from, and I believed reading – any kind of reading – was inherently more enjoyable than grammar-translation.

However, when I read LLIPSI myself, or used it as a resource for Latin tutoring, both I and my students found it very hard to endure. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something seemed very unpleasant about the stories. The narrator seemed to dwell on bodily harm in chapter 3 when he wrote the onomatopoeia “tuxtax, tuxtax, tuxtax…” to the sound of a child being beaten (the illustration showed a man with a face wrinkled with anger, hitting the boy on his lap with a stick). The incident was neither funny nor tragic. The boy’s torment simply happened. The tone seemed to lack human empathy, but presented all things, whether good or evil, in clinical detail. Frequently the stories did not follow the conventions of narrative, of motivated characters driving a plotline (such as the stories in the CLC), but instead were written like information dumps, with the story being merely a framing device for saying more words, more horrible words. My dislike of the book’s construction hardened; it grew into a burning hatred the more I wanted to like it, and the more I read of it (except for the chapter on pirates – that was actually very interesting. There actually were a couple chapters in the middle that weren’t too bad).

Meanwhile, I was tutoring a lot of students from a nearby school who had significant gaps in their Latin learning because for a whole year in middle school, a Latin teacher there had taught them from LLIPSI. Maybe this wasn’t LLIPSI’s fault – perhaps the teacher or the students were sloppy, or the class was noisy, or it was because of the sudden change of Latin courses. Who knows? But I certainly did not hear a ringing endorsement of the LLIPSI course from the boys I tutored. They said they were told to “work out the general meaning of the sentence from context” when reading LLIPSI, and be content with not having every word exactly right (as I later learned, this is not how CI should be implemented). I asked them to interpret sentences from LLIPSI aloud for me and they were getting every second word wrong. I drilled them on grammar to fill their gaps, and they learned the rest of their Latin through a mixture of reading and grammar-translation methods – the Oxford Latin Course.

As this was happening, I was reading only ringing endorsements of LLIPSI on the internet from people who supported Comprehensible Input as a learning method. I couldn’t reconcile this with my experience. I came to the conclusion that these internet reviewers were extremely motivated adults who didn’t mind reading stories about boys being whipped, or info-dumps spelling out things like “it is necessary to breathe to be alive”. These self-learners could not access the Cambridge Latin Course or Oxford Latin Course due to the steep price (at roughly $60 per book, the OLC would set you back at $180, while $50 a book for the CLC makes it $250). Their only affordable alternative to LLIPSI was the driest of all textbooks – the extremely dense grammar-exercise courses like Wheelock’s Latin, Jenny’s Latin, So You Really Want to Learn Latin, Latin for Dummies, and so on. Given that choice, I thought, it’s no wonder they supported LLIPSI. I concluded that all the twaddle about Comprehensible Input was people justifying to themselves why they should keep persisting with LLIPSI and making themselves feel like they are accomplishing more than other Latin learners, as a motivation tool to get through LLIPSI.

Fast forward to this year. I recently came across a very well executed Comprehensible Input (CI) ancient language course – Aleph with Beth. This is a biblical Hebrew course taught entirely in spoken Hebrew, with props, gestures, and stock footage of animals, people, and natural scenery. The videos are very simple in some ways and very complex in others. They are not structured as stories, but as an instructor telling you joyfully about the things that exist. As I watch these videos, I feel like I am discovering the Creation afresh. She holds up a realistic miniature horse figurine and says “SUS!”, and now I know, that is indeed a “sus”. She points at two horses together and says “SUSIM!” and I know, yes, they are “susim”. And then I am hooked to the screen. I am mimicking what she is saying. I am asking and answering her questions out loud. I am listening and echoing and acquiring the Hebrew language, and just by paying attention, I am 99% confident of the meaning of the words she says.

This is going to sound strange, but I never considered myself a “gifted with languages” person or a “language lover”. I liked Latin specifically, and then Greek specifically, and then got into self-teaching Hebrew through a grammar method. Each time, there was a lot of hard work and joy mixed together, but it was worth the hard work because I then got to read ancient texts in their original languages. Most of the time the real payoff for my efforts would come months or years down the line.

Aleph with Beth is inherently engaging from the start. It does not feel like work, and it is not boring either. It respects you and doesn’t condescend, but it also takes as much time and joyful repetition as you need to learn each word and structure one at a time. After watching the videos my brain feels tired, but while watching them, I feel energised.

I have been inspired by Aleph with Beth to work CI strategies into my Latin teaching practice, with very pleasing results. I might share these strategies in more detail in the next few blog posts, but in summary, I have been showing CI Latin videos from ScorpioMartianus that were adaptations of LLIPSI. I have also implemented the 7-step-Ranieri-rereading method with a variety of year levels, from total beginners in year 7 to our final year classes in year 12 studying Vergil’s Aeneid. I have made a vocabulary flash card set for my year 9 class with only pictures and prompting questions (eg. a picture of a book with the question, “quid est?”) so that students see the picture and have to orally answer the question by saying the target vocabulary word. I have been rewording grammar explanations to be more about using Latin phrases to explain other Latin phrases. All of these things have been immediately showing good results – students internalising and recalling the vocabulary, reading prepared stories at the speed of speech, understanding even complex grammatical constructs without first having to force them into an English pidgin.

I was so happy with the results of CI strategies that I felt that I should pick up LLIPSI again and see if it actually makes sense as a course now. I liked the LLIPSI adaptation videos by ScorpioMartianus. I liked Aleph with Beth. I respect Luke Ranieri as a very capable instructor, and he recommends LLIPSI as the best Latin course ever made. Surely now I can actually put aside my prejudices and finally like LLIPSI.

I read a few chapters again and think “Dear God, I really hate LLIPSI. What is wrong with me?”

The position I am left in is this: I love Comprehensible Input, and I can’t stand LLIPSI.

And now I think I know why.

When you watch Aleph with Beth, Beth sits in a clean and bright room. She holds one prop in front of her. There are no distractions. She shows you the concept – a horse. She asks what it is. Then she says it is a “sus”. She repeats “sus” a couple more times, gesturing to this new discovery. Later in the lesson, a video (or two, or three) of a horse galloping across a field flashes brightly on the screen. After our eyes register this, she says “sus” again, but I am already starting to say “sus”. She asks her assistant – her husband Abram – to show her “sus” from among several other animal models. He points at it and is praised, or else he points at the wrong animal and is gently corrected.

In Aleph with Beth, you are shown the concept before learning the word for it. You see a horse and then are told it is “sus”. You are shown 3 or more images of the same thing. The props are lifted up, and you see her tangibly interact with them in three dimensions. You have a very vivid image of the thing that is being talked about.

When I read LLIPSI, it feels like I’m seeing about 20 new words per paragraph. Some of these have pictures somewhere else on the page. But what predominates is the text itself. You are supposed to read the text first and then use it and your intuition to work out the meanings of the unknown words and structures. Some of the glossed definitions are written in other Latin words. Sentences with new vocabulary are just as long as sentences with old vocabulary.

The problem here is that LLIPSI tells you the word first, which at first is nothing but a set of letters, and then you have to exert effort to find the meaning. Aleph with Beth shows you the actual thing first, and only then do you learn its name. In Aleph with Beth, the meaning comes before the language.

I find that this mimics the process of a child acquiring terms in their first language, especially in what I have seen of the Montessori style of education. First the child is shown a set of wooden cubes arranged according to size. They pick up a bigger one and feel its greater weight, then pick up a smaller one and feel its lightness. Only after that experience are they eventually taught the words “big”, and “small”, gradually moving to “bigger”, “biggest”, “smaller”, “smallest.” The meaning precedes the terminology.

A second practical problem I find with LLIPSI is the printed format of its question-answer dialogues inside of the main chapter stories. For example, a paragraph could consist of the following sentences printed together:

Num Crēta oppidum est? Crēta oppidum nōn est! Quid est Crēta? Crēta īnsula est. Num Sparta īnsula est? Sparta nōn est īnsula! Quid est Sparta? Sparta oppidum est. Rhēnus quid est? Rhēnus est magnus fluvius. Num ōceanus Atlanticus parvus est? nōn parvus, sed magnus est oceanus.

In a video, these questions and answers work well, because you don’t see the answer right next to the question. You have a moment, however brief, to interpret the question and start to say the answer, before the narrator actually gives the answer. But when you read this, the answer is already there. I find I skim through these written questions and answers very quickly and without much motivation, but when the same dialogue is presented in a video format, I try to get the answer before the narrator can. I find a similar thing with my students when I show them CI videos: a number of them will try to say the answer out loud ahead of the narration. It’s a thrill to beat the narrator. It is no joy whatsoever to have to read an answer printed inline next to a question.

I feel like the video adaptations of LLIPSI have achieved what LLIPSI in itself has struggled to do. The course cannot be blamed so heavily, as it is a remarkable thing to have held up over 50 years. I think the greatest problem is the physical limitations of a book format: there is a limit to how many repetitions of words and pictures can fit in a printed book without it starting to seem wasteful to the environment, but a video series can take its time on repetitions of minute details one by one, and show a thousand times as many images in the same period of time.

For those who are currently using the LLIPSI, I would personally recommend listening to an audiobook of the passages (anything people have read aloud of it on youtube or elsewhere) and would encourage you not to be ashamed to look up a translation of LLIPSI in your native language to ease the process of initially comprehending the text, if necessary. Re-reading the Latin while re-listening to LLIPSI passages would certainly be a good reinforcement for the target language features, even if the meaning was initially found through your first language.

I greatly look forward to seeing more comprehensible Latin videos being made, and I would also like contribute to this effort by making some CI videos of my own. I have seen the results of well-implement CI methods and I cannot endorse them enough.

When ‘comprehensible input’ is not enough

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I’ve been on Latin reddit discussions for years and one single educational theory comes up again and again as if it were the only way to learn a language: Krashen and his comprehensible input hypothesis.

Put simply, a learner should be introduced to the each feature of the language incrementally, by receiving input that contains their previous level of competence plus the next feature (i + 1).

This is extremely similar to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which can be summarised as “for optimal learning, give a student enough challenge but not too much”. And “if a challenge is too great, give them scaffolding (i.e. help) until they can do it with the scaffold, then gradually take the scaffold away.”

There is sound wisdom in advice as basic as “give them just enough challenge” – that it is what we aim to do in teaching every subject, not just languages.

The error comes in believing that if a student successfully translates a sentence which happens to contain the target grammar feature, they necessarily understood the target grammar feature.

I see this all the time when teaching the accusative case to a beginner level class of mixed ability.

A lot of textbooks, when introducing the accusative, just keep on piling on sentence after sentence in the format of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV):

puer puellam videt.

The boy sees the girl.

As teachers we try to verbally explain that the ending of “puella” changed here, and this is the accusative case and you should pay atttention to it. That’s all well and good, but the experiential learning is more powerful for the student, and it often overpowers the verbal, abstract, theoretical explanation. What the student learns experientially from seeing SOV sentence after SOV sentence is that “the first noun I see is the subject, the second noun I see is the object”. By contrast, a single-letter difference on the end of the second word seems of minor importance. “Oh, so the second word gets a spelling change. Cool. Well I already guessed it was the object – correctly! – without noticing the one letter difference. I don’t need that letter.” And the more SOV sentences they see, the more their reliance on assuming the SOV word order is reinforced.

Step back and think how little a change an -m is on the end of puellam. When you are reading, you don’t read every single letter in every word. You glance at each word and it triggers recognition. Ifm there’sm one differentm letter sometimesm you can still recognise what word it’s supposed to be, and ignore the extra letter, just like you ignored the extra -m’s in this sentence. Seeing puella and puellam as variant spellings of the same word does not seem like that big of a deal to a lot of beginner Latin students, if they even registered there was an -m at all.

So now, I’m going to use Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata (LLPSI) as an example of how ‘comprehensible input’ can reinforce an unintended habit. I chose this because the Krashen crowd likes this book. However, it is far from the only textbook that does this. I could have chosen almost any.

Chapter 3 introduces the accusative case. Therefore, I tallied up the word order in all the 41 sentences containing an accusative case noun in Ch. 3 (but I excluded sentences near the end which contained the relative pronoun, which I would treat as a seperate and more difficult topic).

These are the stats: a student can correctly assume that the first noun is the subject in 36 out of the 41 sentences. That’s 88% for just assuming English-like word order.

In the remaining five sentences, a student can try translating the first noun in each phrase as the subject and not necessarily believe they made a mistake from the context. If the teacher does not immediately correct them, many students will work on the assumption that these answers could be correct:

Quīntus īrātus est et Mārcum pulsat.

*Quintus is angry and Marcus punches. (in the next sentence, Marcus indeed punches Quintus, and Julia then complains that Marcus punches Quintus.)

Iūlia plōrat et Aemiliam vocat: “Mamma!”

*Julia cries and Aemilia calls. “Mamma!” (It makes sense that the mum might call to her daughter to figure out why she’s crying. Then again, it would be odd for the next bit of speech to be Julia’s, but sometimes the word for “she says” is left out. And sometimes students just forget who is meant to be the mum or daughter.)

pater dormit neque tē audit

*Father is sleeping and you don’t hear [him]. (That’s why you didn’t know he was asleep, you just didn’t hear whether he was awake or asleep)

Iūlius Quīntum videt eumque interrogat

*Julius sees Quintus and he asks (the father really does do the asking in the next sentence.)

Mārcum verberat, quia puer improbus est.

*Marcus is hitting [people], because he is a rude boy. (Rude boys do beat up people.)

Students can use an incorrect method to translate sentences that happen to contain the accusative case, and apparently get it right almost all the time, reinforcing their erroneous assumptions. The input is comprehensible and it ‘contains’ that one extra grammar feature (i + 1), but it does so in such a way that it gives the same reward and reinforcement to ignoring the accusative case ending as it does to actually paying attention to the endings.

There are a variety of solutions to this particular problem – for example, a teacher can train students on three word sentences with totally random word order (SOV, OSV, SVO, OVS), showing that they must rely on word endings alone for meaning. I don’t prefer this approach personally, because it gives the impression that Latin word order is random, as if it were concocted to trip up students like a puzzle.

Another approach is to give a “fill in the blanks” exercise to students where they have to put the nominative and accusative endings on the Latin words to show they know they’re supposed to be there. Unless you’re training students to compose in Latin (in which case this is a good scaffolding step), I think from a reader’s perspective, this type of exercise just reinforces to students that they can still read and understand the meaning of the Latin, even with the endings removed, so endings are really unnecessary for comprehension. No wonder Latin lost its endings in the Romance languages, if you can read “Marc__ Iuli__ pulsat” and already guess what it’s supposed to say! Noun endings are clearly superfluous to getting the meaning.

My favoured approach to teaching students to really heed the accusative case is to give them many examples of a sentence type I call “SOV-OV” and work on them in an environment that gives instant feedback:

The word order of the first part is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), while the second part is Object-Verb (OV) with an implied subject carried over from the start of the sentence.

In this sentence, the format of the question shows that the answer must either be “and the daughter greets” or “and greets the daughter”.

The words have to be carefully chosen. The subject and object must be people (who, unlike inanimate objects, are capable of both acting and receiving action), and the verb must make sense as an action either person could do to the other. The student makes a choice not based on what they could assume from context, but only on the grammatical information in the word they are focusing on, and instantly, the computer tells them if their choice was correct.

Also, the word order in this sentence is something they are likely to encounter in real stories, as the implied subject is carried over without it needing to be restated. This is more natural than getting sentences in totally jumbled word orders, or having to insert an unknown “he/she” at the start of a sentence without a stated subject.

Just so that students don’t learn “the word in this position must be an object”, I sprinkle its opposite version amongst the example questions too. This is the SOV-SV sentence that would accompany the above example:

The instant feedback is key, or else students will believe they were right when they were actually wrong. I’ve been making these as online exercises via the platform Education Perfect, so that as soon as students select their answer, they are given instant feedback (and an explanation for why they were wrong, if they were wrong). You could also convert these into multiple choice questions on a free platform like Quizlet. If I have to teach in a tech-free classroom (a rarity in this pandemic now), I give students an answer key to their practice sentences and instruct them to correct their sentences as soon as they finish each question.

Habits (like assuming the first noun is a subject) are not broken by verbally explaining this to young students and hoping they do it on their own when they are caught up in the flow of reading. Students learn more powerfully by “doing”, and a poorly designed experience can teach them things we don’t intend. When designing comprehensible input for a target grammar feature, the reading activity has to reward only the right reasoning, or it will unintentionally reinforce a lazy and erroneous assumption.

Getting better at teaching scansion

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Previously, I had taught the scansion of dactylic hexameter by giving a lecture of the whole system then getting students to have a crack at it with a copy of Latin text – and with no macrons printed either.

(I quickly learned not to use the opening of Aeneid 1 as the starter material, because line 2 is so aberrant – you could go hundreds of lines without seeing an –ia ending turn into a –ja like that! It’s awful! If I do use the opening of the Aeneid for learning scansion, I tell students to skip line 2, and all the while it stares at us awkwardly on the board.)

Now I’ve just introduced scansion with my year 11s, who are translating a section of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I’ve worked out a way to make the first introduction to scansion less of a lecture, and more of an intuitive workshop.

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Icarus and Daedalus – our set passage from Ovid, and perhaps a metaphor for how students feel when they first see hexameter scansion. [source]

My goal in this session is not to give students a step-by-step formula for answering exam questions – not yet. My goal is to bring them to understand scansion from first principles.

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‘Palatina Medea’ or ‘Medea Palatina’? A preference for adjective-noun word order in Latin

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We’ve been told that adjectives in Latin ‘tend to’ or ‘prefer to’ follow the nouns they describe.

But on the contrary, the statistical evidence shows that Caesar and Cicero actually preferred putting adjectives before nouns.

We didn’t learn that ‘noun then adjective’ rule from reading unadapted Latin. We didn’t discover it from real usage. We learned it from our textbooks and from word of mouth. ‘They’ said that it was true and ‘they’ must right!

So when Cicero dramatically calls Clodia a ‘Medea of the Palatine’, we think he should naturally put his adjective after the noun, but he doesn’t:

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George Romney’s painting of ‘Lady Hamilton as Medea’. Source: [link]

Sic enim, iudices, reperietis … hanc Palatinam Medeam migrationemque hanc adulescenti causam sive malorum omnium sive potius sermonum fuisse.

For indeed, judges, you will find out… that this Palatine Medea and this migration of hers [to Caelius’s neighbourhood] has been the cause of either all the ills or, rather, all the rumours for the young man. 

However, examples like this don’t change our minds about adjective-noun order. Since they told us that adjectives ‘usually follow’ the noun, that must mean that Cicero was violating the ‘natural word order’ for dramatic effect.

It doesn’t matter how many anecdotal counter-examples we read when actually encountering the Latin; ‘this was the rule’ when we learned Latin, therefore whatever we see later confirms it. Whenever an author puts a noun first, it’s because of the rule; and whenever an author puts an adjective first, it’s because he does it for effect; ‘the exception proves the rule’ (!!).

So let’s get into the actual statistics.

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Speed-running putting on a toga

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What can you do stuck at home inside? See how fast you can get yourself dressed for the Senate of course.

I started this challenge when someone said, “You need slaves or helpers to get yourself dressed in a toga – it’s so long and difficult to drape.” I understand that in practice, a wealthy senator probably did get a slave to help him dress; but I wanted to point out that it isn’t that hard to put it on quickly by yourself, and you aren’t required to be helped.

I think it is a matter of familiarity. We don’t wear togas much these days, and so we don’t have the years of practice that would make it come as second nature. But we succeed today in say, tying ties, tying shoelaces, slipping into tight dresses, and all other awkward clothes-wearing feats – as long as we do it often enough.

More videos to come in this series – I’ll post my personal best run soon!

Tabula: a strategic 2-player Roman board and dice game

Picture yourself planning for a Year 8 class in the final period of the day. It’s the second last week of term and everyone has finished their exams and have mentally started their holidays already. The class includes several (loud, influential) students who are not continuing Latin next year. They’ve probably been watching videos all day and I don’t want to contribute more to that. What do you do with them?

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Pieces from the Gloucester Tabula board. Source: [Link]

How about play a strategic ancient Roman board and dice game?

Tabula was enjoyed for hundreds of years during the Roman period. It similar to Backgammon and relatively easy to explain.

For your convenience I have found here a version of Tabula which is playable, fun, and well explained. I’ve also made a printable board for it.

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The accent of words ending in -que

TL;DR: Latin words ending in -que should be accented on the syllable before -que only if that syllable is (or has become) heavy; otherwise, the word should retain its original accent. If this sounds new to you, that’s probably because you’ve been following Allen & Greenough and other nineteenth century scholarship.

SPQR Roman inscription augustus imperator

The rules of accent in Classical Latin are usually very simple. Almost all words follow the formula of the ‘Penultimate Law’, which states that the accent in multiple syllable words falls on the second-last (the penultimate) syllable if this is of heavy quantity, and otherwise on the third-last (the antepenultimate).[1]

But the enclitic –que (and the other enclitics, –ve, –ne, –ce) complicates these rules.

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Latin tutoring: Practice literary and context questions for Aeneid VI

The golden bough, ticket to the underworld in Aeneid VI. I painted this in my Year 12 - check it out at my deviantArt gallery

The golden bough, ticket to the underworld in Aeneid VI.
I painted this in my Year 12 – check it out at my deviantArt gallery

I’ve been captivated once again by the wonderful style and substance of Vergil’s Aeneid.

But this year I’ve been particularly nerding out because my three Year 12 Latin tutoring students are all studying book VI, the journey to the Underworld, which was the book I studied when I was in Year 12.

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Twelve tenses: When English outdoes Ancient Greek in precision

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I have sometimes heard people say, “Ancient Greek is the most precise language in the world.” This usually comes from people who have not studied Greek for themselves and haven’t really seen its quirks first-hand.

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I don’t know how best to respond. True, there are distinctions which Greek makes that English doesn’t make, but in turn there are distinctions English makes which Greek doesn’t make. (For example, “I said” and “they said” would both be expressed εἶπον [eipon] in Ancient Greek, since the first person singular and third person plural look identical in certain tenses.) As long as the idea of overall precision is left undefined, it’s not really possible to measure whether or to what extent one language is “more precise” than another.

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A Latin counting song and thoughts on Primary Latin

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I’m sorry that I missed an update in April, but there has been at least one reason for that. I’ve been involved in a pilot program to introduce Latin to a public primary school, and so far it has been a blast.

Here’s a song I sung to the children yesterday on my guitar.

First we learned the numbers one to ten, and then played a game. I say “unus”, and someone else says “duo” and so on in the sequence, but if two people say the next number at the same time, we have to start again at “unus”. It was fun and a good way to get them to participate in saying the numbers aloud.

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