Coding and the Beginning Latin Learner

Recently, I read Chris Bartlo’s article about how programming supports math students‘ abilities to be more precise, receive prompt feedback, accept and normalize the struggle of working, work collaboratively, and be more metacognitive. The article appealed to me because teaching Latin, like teaching math, is about teaching students a skill. One paragraph from the article seemed particularly appealing to me:

Programming forces students to be explicit about their problem solving strategies. Writing code encourages students to break the problem into discrete chunks; which is one of the most powerful problem solving techniques in mathematics. A danger with the pencil and paper calculations we rely on in a traditional math assignment is that a student can combine many elements of their problem solving process into one step. As educators, seeing how students approach a problem is invaluable information in supporting their learning.

I like this paragraph because it reminded me about how I often teach Latin verb forms: by breaking the forms down into their constituent parts so students know exactly how to form them.  Let’s use the verb cano, canere as an example.

  • Present: verb stem (2nd principle part – ere) +  stem vowel (depends on conjugation) + ending –> can + i + t
  • Imperfect: verb stem (2nd principle part – ere) + stem vowel (depends on conjugation) + tense marker (ba) + ending –> can + e + ba + t
  • Future: verb stem (2nd principle part – ere) + stem vowel / tense marker (depends on conjugation) + ending –> can + e + t

When I teach students to use this method, I help break the problem (i.e. translating this verb) into discrete chunks. They need to learn the ending to know the person, number, and voice of the verb. They need to use the stem vowel and tense markers to know the tense and mood of the verb. And they need to know the stem in order to know the meaning of the verb.  Some students quickly learn this pattern and the need to use the inflected word endings to translate, some do not.

Perhaps one way to emphasize the importance of the Latin’s inflection is to have students code. You can ask them to write a program that parses words for them. This will require students to determine how to break down the verb, noun, adjective, etc. into its constituent parts so that they can better understand everything that is going on in the word canit.

Of course, there are already tools out there that do this. The back of each textbook and grammar books are usually filled with charts to help students identify forms. The popular online dictionary William Whitaker’s Words both parses and defines any Latin word that you plug into it. For example, this is what it came up with for canit:

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 10.23.13 AM

So why should students re-invent the wheel? To teach students the mental steps that they need to use in order to parse, understand, and translate each word. To help them understand the complexities of each new tense, voice, or mood that we teach them instead of making them memorize just a chart. To give students a tool that they created to help themselves. I remember creating websites with Latin morphology charts and stacks of notecards with Greek morphology charts so that I could use them as references. The act of creating these charts helped me remember the forms better and I preferred using them to flipping through grammar books or a textbook to find the chart I needed when I could go straight to my tools that were easily accessible. Students have also expressed their appreciation when I have asked them to complete this large packet of charts (Morphology Review – Full) to help them review, and have a reference for later.

Perhaps this is a little bit of wishful thinking, and I’m not certain how well it would work out (especially since I thought this up a few days ago), but here are some other things to consider:

  • This teaches morphology and the importance of inflection. It does not necessarily teach students the various uses of each case or how to translate each verb’s tense, voice, and mood.
  • Not every student will know how to code and you probably don’t want to teach them a programming language on top of Latin, so this is probably only worth attempting where most students have the knowledge and resources to code.
  • Even where students know how to code (and you know how to help them with their code), is this an ideal use of class time?
  • I often advise students not to use Whitaker’s Words because it becomes too much of a crutch–usually for remembering vocab. A program code that parses words can be a nice back-up, but it could also teach students they don’t need to memorize forms if they can just feed them into their program for instantaneous parsing. So, how would you make sure that this complements memorizing morphology charts?


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