Thursday, November 6, 2008

"The Tongues of Men and Angels"

A couple of weeks ago I started tacking a Latin phrase, proverb or quotation on to the end of each English lesson. We began with ad astra per aspera, which went over very well indeed; China's maiden spacewalk is still a reasonably recent memory even by a third-grader's reckoning. The next day we did omnia vincit amor. Then we did mirabile dictu and the next day its cousin mirabile visu. We've done Deo volente, my old high school's motto "non sibi" and ab ovo usque mala. In honor of the US general election, we did e pluribus unum and vox populi, vox Dei. Then, in honor of the holiday mood attending the results of the election, we did nunc est bibendum.

Now they want me to teach them Greek.

I just don't get it. For the most part, they have not, in the two months that I have been teaching them, shown the slightest interest in language for its own sake. They learn English because it is their parents' wish that they should. When they work hard at it (which is rare, not that I blame them for this -- they are seven years old and already overworked) it has always seemed to be because they wish to do well, not because they have any real love for what they are learning.

So here I am scratching my head. What is it about Latin that captures their enthusiasm? How did I happen to stumble on to something that works?

Because it really was a stumble. I'd planned to introduce my students to Latin because I thought that the almost mathematical symmetry of its grammatical structure would seem friendly and familiar to them. (I mean, hey, this is China. I haven't seen their syllabus for this year but as they're in the third grade I assume they're doing calculus.) I also thought that learning Latin would help them with the some of the rough patches native Chinese speakers often experience learning English at a more advanced level. In particular, I thought they would benefit from an extra perspective on the use of the subjunctive mood, especially in conditional expressions, which many Chinese students of English never really master.

The thing is, my students can't even begin to cope with conceptual grammar. Not in Chinese, not in English, and certainly not in Latin. (I mean, come on. What was I thinking? They're seven. Even if they are doing calculus in math class, their native language is practically grammar-free.) Occasionally they are able to differentiate between nouns and verbs. They can also sometimes spot subjects, but not predicates. That's about it. Objects, whether direct or indirect, might as well be written in Welsh.

When I discovered this I pretty much gave up on the idea of teaching them Latin. I'm not qualified to teach them through immersion, even if I agreed with that approach (it seems to be increasingly popular, and I don't disapprove of it, exactly -- I don't know enough about it to judge -- but I am not sure I want to hop on board either), and so since an abstract, grammar-based approach appreared to be off the table as well, I just shelved the whole project.

I came up with the "phrase, proverb or quotation" approach when I saw my students being drilled in a list of chengyu 成语, or four-character fixed expressions, which they had memorized for their Chinese class at school. Chengyu are a special characteristic of the Chinese language: there are hundreds and hundreds of them and it is impossible to speak or write really good, literate Chinese without them. It is not that the Chinese expressive tradition does not value originality, but its originality operates within a framework of highly articulated convention. Thus it is said of the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu -- widely regarded as the greatest poet in Chinese history -- that every line of his poems has its roots in antiquity; his corpus is one vast network of cultural, historical and literary allusion.

Perhaps because chengyu represent a substantial difference between Chinese and English models of self-expression, many English speakers underestimate their importance and most Chinese language programs tend to neglect them. Oddly enough, until I saw my students practicing their homework, it had never really occurred to me that Chinese children didn't just come by them naturally.

Anyway, that's how I came up with the Latin proverb project. I wasn't surprised when ad astra per aspera was such a hit, since it was so topical, and I figued omnnia vincit amor would produce a few giggles. I also reckoned to succeed with both mirabiles, since they are exclamatory: apostrophe and all its rhetorical ilk seem to be very popular with seven-year-olds. ("Oh, my God!" was evidently one of the first English expressions they acquired -- they were certainly using it freely by the time I arrived on the scene -- and they were very pleased to add "Wow" and "Whoa" and "Gosh" to their repertoire later on.) But I had kind of expected them to start losing interest after that. Nope. Now they want Greek.

They also want to write a letter to President-Elect Obama, congratulating him on his landslide victory and expressing their best wishes for his success in office. If I am not mistaken, they are also hoping to throw in "dum spiro, spero" -- a friendly nod between fellow linguists, half a world apart.

That being the case, I guess tomorrow we'd better do ex animo.


Alana said...

A friend of mine from Xinjiang also congratulated me on the election of Obama. Did you find that your students (or their parents) thought favorably of Obama in particular, or would they have wanted to congratulate any newly elected president?

flyingfish said...

Well, I think my students are pro-Obama because they know I am pro-Obama, as was my predecessor in this post. Their parents are pro-Obama on their own account. The weekend after the election, we all went out to dinner to celebrate.

MelissatheGreat said...

Historic day today - the mood is like nothing I've ever experienced. There is such ownership in this election across all elements of our country that we are all looking at each other differently. For those of us who felt in exile in our own country for the last 8 years, the emotional intelligence is balm to our wounds. I'm torn between hugging my right wing nut job friends and saying "its okay" or yelling loudly at them..."see what an adult can do in the white house?" In the end I find myself following the example of this great leader, and going to a higher place and moving forward...Amen.