Latin – the language of a thousand small victories

I’ve mentioned before that Latin is our daughter’s favorite subject. I even catch her playing her Latin songs for fun when she’s alone. I’m not sure how this happened, except that she is already mature enough to understand the concept of word play.

I took for granted how much studying Latin helps children piece their world together. They develop a considerable English vocabulary simply because the meanings of words become self-evident.

This morning, I was working with Elise on fractions for math. I told her that she could remember that the denominator was on the bottom because it started with a D and the word down also begins with a D. It was a mnemonic device I learned as a child.

She stared at me for a second and replied (rather condescendingly, I might add): “Or, I could just remember that the stem de– in Latin means down, as in decline or descend.” Seriously?

From this word, she also recognizes nomen, the Latin word for name (quid est tuum praenomen … tell me what your name is). Incidentally, this really is how we got the word denominator – you have the number and the total within the class of things you are counting. In theory, the denominator defines (names) what it is that you are counting.

Here I was thinking that would be a difficult word for a seven-year-old child to learn, but she had already decoded it and was ready to move on. I can’t tell you how often this sort of thing happens in our household. So many words are fun puzzles to solve.

I have been reading Victor Davis Hanson’s book Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. The book is about cycles in history where studying classical literature (i.e. Greek and Latin literature, the building blocks of a traditional liberal arts education) has come into and out of favor. I highly recommend this book if you enjoy a meta perspective on education. (It’s also good for your sanity if you hate the culture wars… This is not the first unbearably stupid time to be alive, and what is outstanding about western civilization will ultimately persist unharmed.)

We are obviously living in a period where classical education is out of favor in the broader culture of education. Nearly a century ago, there were one million American students studying Latin in any given year. Now Latin is the language of an evil patriarchy and universities apply a curve to SAT scores, as a not insignificant number of American teenagers are completely mystified by the content of their own language.

A young child in the 1930s would think your average college student in 2019 was an imbecile. (Incidentally, we get the word imbecile from bacillus, a device for physical support, like a cane. If you are an imbecile, your mind is a physically weak structure. You have not been given anything to hold you up as a person. A great metaphor for education.)

Dr. Hanson suggests in the book that classical literature has survived because the wisdom of ancient civilizations always find passionate protectors. I am happy to be one of them in this era.

Scallops, archery, romance, koinobori, and a chameleon

My favorite opening scene in a movie is from Less Than Zero. Clay, returning home from college for Christmas break, drives through the palm tree-lined streets of Los Angeles to the Bangles’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. It’s a story about luxury, and the greatest luxury in the world is not to have to endure a cold winter.

We’ve manged to pull that off in relocating to the Florida coastline. It still feels bizarre, however, to talk to friends and family elsewhere in the world or to watch football on television as the seasons change. Folks are breaking out the wool and celebrating whatever new frankenfood now comes in pumpkin spice while Floridians are watching for hurricanes. In Florida, the only real difference between summer and winter is how “cold” it gets at night. If it gets down into the 60s, people here start breaking out parkas. I’m not kidding. I once saw a guy riding on a skateboard along the A1A who was wearing a fur-lined winter coat but still barefoot.

We’ve had weeks of whitecaps here in Flagler thanks to the sequence of storms off the coast. It’s not good for swimming, but it sure is beautiful. I have enjoyed sitting on the front porch listening to the roar of the ocean. And it’s absolutely bonkers with the cooler air at night, which seems to pull everything closer.

We had dinner the other night at the Turtle Shack along the A1A (nominally in Flagler Beach, but it’s far north of most of the city establishments). I had Scallops St Jacques – several enormous, buttery sea scallops in a sherry mushroom sauce with Parmesan and green onions – which is out of this world. They also serve a pineapple poppyseed coleslaw that I am going to start making at home. I had never really considered pairing pineapple and cabbage before, but the taste and texture really works.

Thursdays have become our family sporting days. Elise has horseback riding lessons in the mornings, then we take her to the range to practice archery, which she has recently picked up.

They have archery ranges tucked into the jungle, which is a lot of fun. I am somewhat terrified of seeing a snake out there though. Fortunately for Elise, she’s coming straight from riding and is still wearing her paddock boots (and often half chaps).

Elise and I went on a mommy-daughter date to the restaurant in our neighborhood. It’s a fun place where the dining area is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Elise originally picked out a romance novel to read (not knowing what it was) because it had a rather adorable dog on the cover. I explained to her that it was too, um, mature for her to read (though perhaps not above her reading level, haha). She did not understand why I would not let her read a romance novel. Eventually, I figured out that she thought I was saying Romans instead of romance. She couldn’t comprehend why I, of all people, would deprive her of reading Latin literature. Children absolutely redeem the world for you. (You can see she found a genuine children’s book after all.)

Incidentally, it occurred to me that she’s not far off in assuming a romance novel would be related to Latin literature:

The story of the word romance begins as the fifth century is coming to a close, and the Roman Empire with it. The story’s key players are the inhabitants of Gaul, a region comprising modern-day France and parts of Belgium, western Germany, and northern Italy—a region one British isle short of the western reaches of the Roman Empire. The Gauls speak a Latin-derived language that we now call Gallo-Romance, but that the Gauls themselves refer to as Romanus, from the Latin word meaning “Rome” or “Roman.”

By century’s close, the Gauls have been overwhelmed by the Franks and other Germanic peoples, and the Roman Empire has fallen to usher in the Middle Ages. The influence of the Latin language, however, remains very much alive. A Latin adverb Romanice, a derivative of Romanus, emerges with the meaning “in the vernacular,” alluding to the languages that had developed out of Gallo-Romance, namely Old French and Old Occitan. What is spoken Romanice, or “in the vernacular,” is decidedly not Latin, which is what was spoken in the church and in most formal writing.

In Old French, the Latin Romanice is adapted as romans or romanz. The new word is a noun, and it refers not only to Old French itself but also to works composed in it. It’s the Middle Ages now, and the romans/romanz composed are often narratives written in verse and chronicling—what else?— the affections and adventures of gallant and honorable knights. Romans/romanz takes on a meaning referring specifically to metrical treatments of the love and times of the chivalrous, and the fate of the Modern English word romance is sealed: its close association with tales of love join it forever to love stories, both true and merely dreamt of.

(And, obviously, that’s where we get the “Romance languages.”)

Speaking of Latin, it is still very much her favorite subject. We have finished the first level of Latin already, and we are only halfway through her “school year.” (Being homeschoolers, we can have whatever academic calendar we want.) Yesterday, I caught her on the phone with my mother and Elise was trying to teach her Latin.

We have accumulated a lot of projects from our geography and history studies. This year, we are working our way through the second volume of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World, which covers the Middle Ages. Japan looms large in the book, along with discussions of the samurai and how similar their rituals and social status were to the knights of England.

As it turns out, one of our Atlas Crates (a geography / culture subscription service from Kiwi Co.) was on Japan. We made a koinobori (flying carp windsock). Carp are a symbol of strength and success in Japan, as they have the power and determination to swim up waterfalls.

We also played Daruma Otoshi (derived from the Daruma dolls and “otoshi,” meaning “dropped”). The object of the game is knock out the bottom pieces while leaving the structure of the doll intact, sort of like Jenga. It’s harder than it looks.

The drama du jour in our household is over this little fellow (see below), a chameleon in the local pet store. Elise is obsessed with getting a chameleon and wants to visit him every time we go to the grocery store (unfortunately next door to the pet shop). She has already named him Marco Polo (which stems from my recent interest in the Silk Road). Rodney will not budge on getting another pet following our Jack Russell terrier puppy, Sherlock Holmes. It’s not hard to board a dog when you travel, he argues, but who are you going to pay to chameleon-sit? And then there’s the issue that their favorite food is crickets. How lovely it would be to try to sleep in a house where dozens of crickets are chirping away, waiting to be eaten?

Elise is not persuaded by these practical arguments, however. She has been regaling us with chameleon facts for weeks. They are basically walking mood rings. Their eyes can move independently of each other. Their eggs take 1-2 years to hatch. (You can imagine how talking about pets reproducing has gone over.) Their tongue is 1.5 times the length of their body. They can hang from a branch by their tail. And then there’s her concern that the dog and the cat are probably bored when we leave and the chameleon could keep them entertained. It’s Aristotle’s Third Man Argument, but with pets.

Unfortunately for Rodney, he’s raising a kid naturalist. At least she’s not asking for a $65,000 dinosaur bone. (Yet.) Never a dull day around here.

Games for teaching young children a foreign language

We started our young daughter (seven years old) on Latin this year. She absolutely loves Latin, and I think a lot of that is due to the Song School Latin program from Classical Academic Press. At this stage, she is primarily learning new vocabulary and simple phrases. We are gently introducing some of the grammar, but that’s not the focus yet.

A lot of folks ask me how we have such a young child studying Latin. The answer is to make it as fun as possible. That means lots of songs and lots of games. I have seen other programs (like Memoria Press) that are based on rote learning. That is simply not a good way to teach gifted children, in my opinion. All children loathe boredom, but gifted children completely shut down with boredom.

Anyway, here are some games that we’ve found very useful for learning new vocabulary (and you can apply them to any foreign language).

Simon Says – This is a preschool favorite, but brilliant for teaching a foreign language. You do not need to limit it to parts of the body, either. You can do commands of all sorts. (Simon says dance. Simon says sing. Simon says point to the youngest person in the room. Etc.)

Bring Me – Name something in your physical environment for your child to fetch. It does not have to be obvious, either. (Bring me a red book. Bring me something you love. Bring me something you do not like. Bring me something that belongs to the dog.)

Scavenger Hunt – Give your child a list of clues in a foreign language with a prize at the end. This is an opportunity to include directions or make them ask someone else for information.

Grocery List – Make a list of things to buy in a foreign language while you are out shopping. This is great for introducing quantities and counting too.

Matching Games or Memory – Write the foreign language vocabulary and translations on index cards. If the child can pair them all correctly, they get a prize.

Write a Book or Story – Young children love writing stories or narrating stories. A fun twist is to use as many foreign words or phrases as possible. It’s sort of a more intelligent version of writing with emoji.

One thing I find amusing is how much Elise has started working Latin into everyday conversation. Because building a vocabulary has been a game, she now almost invents her own games by seeing how many things she can name. It’s like how kids become secret counters when they start learning new math skills.

She has also become very curious about word origins, since I mention the word origins of everything (or we Google them in the middle of conversations). We are talking about lizards, so we look up the origin of the word reptile. From the Latin, to creep. The Romans used arches frequently in architecture, and the word for rainbow is arcus. If you have your children doing this when they are very young, imagine how familiar with language they will be as teenagers.