Great Method Debate: “Natural” vs. “Grammar/Translation”

If you read last week’s post, featuring Fr. William Most’s thoughts on teaching Latin, you know there is something going on. It’s a war–well, an academic war: which way of teaching Latin is better, the Grammar/Translation method (a chorus of voices chanting “amo, amas, amat…”) or the Natural Method (using the language to speak and read, rather than repeatedly drill and work out translations). As the author of Latin by the Natural Method series, it is obvious where Fr. Most stood. The case he makes, excerpted in the previous post, is compelling. Not everyone agrees with him, though…

For example, the folks at Memoria Press, an American Classical Education curriculum publisher, hold that The Natural Method Is Not Natural. In a classroom setting, students do not have enough time to learn to think in and speak a second language the way they learned their first language; also, the presentation of the material through free conversation is neither systematic nor logical, wrote the Press’ foundress, Cheryl Lowe. Accordingly, Memoria Press’ Latin curricula use loads of memory drills for Latin word forms, and presents lots of sentences for working out grammatical nuances. Their curriculum is widely and enthusiastically used among homeschoolers and Classical private schools in the U.S. Well, could their position be right?

Thanks for asking! I will now weigh in with my position on this debate. Which, of course, is going to run along the lines of, “It’s complicated.”

So I believe in both of these methods. It’s personal. I fell head over heels in love with Latin in high school, having been given photocopies of a vintage (early 1900s, American) Classical Latin textbook. (Yes, really!) It was drill, drill, and more optional drill, which I dutifully performed. And I liked it. (You wouldn’t believe how good I got at recognizing all possible permutations of “portare!”) Then I headed off to college, where various British Latin textbooks were put before me: more drill and laborious translations, with Virgil, even! But in spite of all this, I couldn’t really read Latin, only parse the heck out of it. And so Fr. Most would likely say that that method had failed me. But…

A few years ago when I discovered his and another Natural Method series, and began to read them, I was incredibly prepared for diving into them. I didn’t have to wonder about inflected language ways and means, confusing forms and endings in the paragraphs, etc., flailing around trying to find my way. I already knew these things! So as I gained fluency in reading, learning how sentences fit together stylistically in good prose paragraphs, all my built up grammatical knowledge allowed me to understand why I was seeing what I was seeing: I had gotten the diagnostics manual first , and then skillfully took out the vehicle for a test drive. It was fun!

Takeaway from all this:

Both methods serve a purpose. They both do good things. Choose for your situation:

If you are teaching children or youth, I think you should start them with the Grammar/Translation method. 1) They will develop mental toughness, discipline, and discernment, etc., as well as learning how language works, dozens of essential grammar rules, and have their eyes opened to the spread of Latin derivatives. All of these things are extremely valuable, and I believe the Grammar/Translation method is the way to learn them. 2) Finish off Latin studies with a Natural Method series, so that students learn to read fluently as well. Note to Classical Education enthusiasts–starting off with a Classical (Roman) Latin Grammar/Translation textbook will give your students the history and culture of Latin before it became Church Latin. Then, finishing off with a Church Latin Natural Method series, or medieval Latin reader, makes the language study over the years multi-dimensional: grammar, history, culture, logic, memory, derivatives, etymology, mythology…and, of course, language fluency, by the end! As an educator, you literally couldn’t ask for more.

Adults, if you are the one interested in learning Latin, I recommend you go straight for reading fluency, and use the Natural Method textbook from the beginning. If you are curious about the inner clockwork of language in general, and Latin in particular, then start with a Grammar/Translation book, but that will take you a bit longer. It’s worth it to me, but you’ll have to decide for yourself!

2 thoughts on “Great Method Debate: “Natural” vs. “Grammar/Translation”

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  1. Hi Magistra Stella, I’ve just finished reading your and Fr. Most’s article and have enjoyed them both. I’ve read before that learning a language via the grammar/translation prevents one from (possibly ever) being able to speak and read that language naturally — after having learned a language that way, although you can “read” the target language, you’re forever doomed to internally translating it and are not able to think in that language.

    What are your thoughts on this? Having spent some time working through Wheelock’s, I would prefer to go back to it as I think Latin is very useful for “mental discipline,” but I don’t know if it would be worth it if it comes at the cost of not being able to enjoy the other side of the language.

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    1. “I’ve read that…after having learned a language that way, although you can ‘read’ the target language, you’re forever doomed to internally translating it and are not able to think in that language.”

      I wouldn’t say forever! I have successfully learned to read Latin prose, such as the Gospels and Propers of the Mass, at sight, working with Fr. Most’s books in the last three years. Before that, with my several years of Grammar/Translation Latin training, I could not have done such a thing, but I love what that knowledge of Latin did for me.

      Word-picture coming: Imagine someone hands you an old-fashioned pocket-watch, and you have never seen one before. The person who handed it to you gives you the choice: 1) do you want to be able to learn to read the time on the face of the clock, and tell time with it whenever and wherever you are, or *flipping it over*, 2) do want to be able to understand the inner workings of the interconnected gears and parts which move the clock to do its time-telling work?

      That’s how I see the difference in method. You’ll have to do both to get both–and I did–and it’s worth it. There is a lot of helpful Grammar in LNM, and so Fr. Most’s book serves students who wish for both approaches VERY very well.

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