I was taught Latin as an extra-curricular activity for eighteen months using the Cambridge Latin Course, a range of five brightly-coloured books that consist of stories written in Latin and requiring translation, and growing increasingly difficult as the course progresses. The stated aim is to ease a pupil into Latin gradually, developing vocabulary and grammar whilst keeping it interesting with the stories that the pupil translates. In terms of interest, it does not fail. The stories are educational and often witty: I recall in particular when the (very small) class burst into fits of giggles at “ancilla Grumionem delectat” (“The slave-girl pleases Grumio”). This style of teaching, namely allowing the class to take it in turns to translate the next line of the text, was sufficient for the first year. Then we reached Book 2 of the Cambridge Latin Course and it became blindingly obvious that I had learnt very little Latin indeed.
In fact, what I had learnt to do was guess. When all the stories were set in the present tense and their sentences had nouns only in the Nominative (subject) and Accusative (object) cases (as in Book 1), guessing who or what was the noun performing the verb and who or what the verb was affecting was not difficult. I didn’t have a problem at all, and I could read most of the stories at a similar pace to how I read English. But Book 2 was a whole new ball-game, and I struggled. This was not directly the fault of the Cambridge Latin Course, as the leap from Book 1 to Book 2 was not monumental or unreasonable. It was simply that during Book 2 more cases and tenses were added, and more aspects of Latin Grammar, and more vocabulary, and these were being built on very shaky foundations. In fact, they were being built on no foundations at all.
I continued to learn Latin throughout Year 11 (Fifth Year, age 15-16) and Year 12 (Lower Sixth, age 16-17). In the January of Year 12, I sat a Level 1 Certificate in Latin equivalent to a GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) with the WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee). There were two parts to each exam, a comprehension and an unseen translation. I achieved an A*. The more I look back on this, the more absurd I realise it was. I knew hardly any Latin at all and yet I was able to guess my way to the highest grade possible.
In the summer I sat the Level 2 Certificate, which was based mostly on Book 2. This time there were a few differences. At that stage, I was still not certain that I wished to pursue Latin at a higher level, and so, as a GCSE that I had elected to do as an extra option, Latin had to be side-lined in favour of my AS Levels, on which universities would be basing their assessment of me. Furthermore, I was now unable to attend Latin lessons at school. My teacher, an elderly man, became seriously ill and was hospitalised. The teacher who replaced him was only able to run lessons at times which clashed with my other subjects. The result was that I was trying to teach myself Latin for an exam from a Book I did not understand and only when I had the occasional hour or two to spare. This is not a good way to achieve progress in any subject. It is a particularly poor way to progress in a Language and it is a recipe for disaster with something as challenging and demanding as Latin.
Nevertheless, despite having struggled with Book 2, no longer having regular lessons, and spending very little time on my Latin, I was able to achieve a B in the Level 2 Certificate in the June of Year 12. This was simply ridiculous. In fact, my Latin must have been poorer in June (when I sat the Level 2 Exam) than in January (when I sat the Level 1 Exam), since I had stopped lessons and had other exams to worry about. Any exam that truly tested knowledge of Latin should never have allowed somebody like me to pass. Yet, through considerable practice at guessing a translation, and a good grasp of generic exam technique, I was once again able to ‘guess’ all the way to a decent grade.
I had no love for Latin throughout Year 12. Struggling at something you know you don’t have time to work on is seriously unpleasant, and although any sensible person would have quickly realised the correct answer was to stop doing it, I was far too stubborn – fortunately, as it has turned out. I felt I had achieved very little progress in eighteen months of tuition, and although this was largely due to me having little time for it, I did not feel I had received the best deal in terms of tuition either. In eighteen months of Latin, I had had only one lesson of solid grammar without a Cambridge Latin Course Book open in front of me.
In that lesson, though, I swear I learnt more Latin than I had done in all the lessons before it. I therefore knew that as soon as I had the chance, I would need to teach myself Latin again, properly. By this, I meant: by learning the correct Grammar as I went along instead of ‘guessing’ at stories. It turned out eventually that I wouldn’t even have a choice. If I wished to go further in my entire education, I would have to learn Latin and I would have to do it correctly.
Allow me to explain. I decided that I wished to read Classics at university. It was only through a subject such as Classics that I could continue to study all of my favourite subjects, namely history, literature, language and philosophy, without having to drop three to read only one. I was successful in my application and the course that I am now about to start is designed for people such as me, who have no A Level Latin or Greek. The result is the traditional 3 year Classics course with a preliminary year of Latin tagged onto the front. The offer that I received in the January of Year 13 (Upper Sixth, age 17-18), my university said that I had to reach the end of Book 4 of the Cambridge Latin Course during the summer before I started. Then, I would have at least a basic knowledge, which they could assess and then spend the preliminary year building upon in order to get my Latin to degree level as quickly as possible.
I was foolish in not thinking that this would be a problem. I got out my Cambridge Latin Course books. I opened the first page of Book 3 (I told myself that this was where I should have got to if I had sat an exam on Book 2). I could have cried. This was not because I did not understand any of it (I never had, after all), but because I could not even begin to guess at what half of it meant. This was how bad my Latin had become in the year since I had last studied it. I realised that some serious intervention was needed after my final A Level exams. I would need to forget everything I had ‘learnt’ and begin again.
It was soon after this that I had a stroke of luck. In March, whilst I was studying for my exams, my mother happened on an article by Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Soft Furnishings and split infinitives” which discussed Grammar lessons given by a Mr. N. Gwynne at Selfridges. In perhaps the greatest moment of serendipity I have ever experienced, I read:
“Here,” he [Mr Gwynne] exclaims, waving one about, “is the Cambridge Latin Course – beautifully produced, but IMPOSSIBLE to learn from because all they do is encourage you to guess. And here are the only three books you need – Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer, Hillard and Botting’s Elementary Latin Translation and Hillard and Botting’s Elementary Latin Exercises. I promise you that I can teach people more Latin in half an hour than the Cambridge Latin Course can manage in 18 months.”
(You can try him and see by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I am sure that, from what I have said so far and the above excerpt from Mr. Moore’s article, anybody can see why I was utterly stunned. I had found (or rather, my mother had!) by complete chance perhaps the perfect solution to my problem. I emailed Mr. Gwynne straight away asking him to make good on his promise.
I need hardly say that I was doubtful as to what his response would be. There was no way I was willing to accept that a man could teach me more in 30 minutes than I had learnt in 18 months. Nevertheless, Mr. Gwynne stuck to his boast and agreed to take me on when I was ready. I contacted him again in August after finishing school, acquiring the three books referred to by Charles Moore, and began my lessons.
At the start of the first proper lesson he asked me a simple question: “Can you translate into Latin for me ‘the girl loves the boy’?” I could not. In fact, I was thrown completely. Never had I been asked to translate a sentence from English into Latin. Mr Gwynne said I wasn’t the first and I would certainly not be the last. It was not my fault, he said, but the fault of the current education system that I had been subjected to. With his guidance, I started tackling the relevant cases, the six cases, singular and plural, of the first and second declensions of the Latin nouns and the present tense of the verb ‘to love’ as well. Not only was I soon able to recite these by heart but I could easily tell him that ‘the girl loves the boy’ is ‘puella puerum amat’. How long did it take for me to grasp all of this? About 27 minutes. It was quite incredible really.
However, what is more incredible is that, as Mr. Gwynne will happily admit, he has no magical formula. There is nothing that he has that nobody else could possess. His methods are not secret methods. They are just the methods that were used by every teacher until the early 1960s and are now not used by anybody else any more (to his knowledge). It is for this reason that Mr. Gwynne considers himself able to state that he is ‘the best teacher in the world’ with little fear of successful contradiction. This is not by virtue of his brilliance, he emphasises, but by virtue of his age. He was simply taught during a time when these methods were commonplace. The travesty is that they have since been abandoned when, quite clearly, they work, and replaced by methods that, equally clearly, do not work.
Although not a religious person, I must admit that the best way to explain the difference between modern methods and the tried and tested traditional methods used by Mr. Gwynne is with the parable of the two builders. The wise man built his house upon the rock. Although the process was slower and harder, it lasted longer and was far stronger and more reliable than the house of the foolish man who built it very quickly, but on weak foundations of sand. Well, on second thoughts, reminding myself of Mr Gwynne’s first 27 minutes with me, the traditional process is not even slower and harder. It is much quicker and much easier!
So what is the rock that all Latinists must build their house on if it is to survive? I believe the answer is Accidence. Accidence (or morphology) is all about the inflection of words. How does a word’s shape change as the context in which it is placed changes? How does a word change as the job that it is doing in a sentence changes? For instance, nouns change as they decline and verbs change as they conjugate or change tense or voice or mood. Accidence must be learnt along with basic syntax before any translations are attempted.
This is the very nature of the traditional method. Those in the generation above me, my mother included, may not have liked [better “enjoyed learning”] Latin as it was being forced upon them when they did not want to do it, but they all remember “amo, amas, amat, amamus…” 20 or 30 years after they learnt it! This is because they learnt it by heart by chanting it to a rhythm. This is what Mr. Gwynne has had me doing since my first lesson.
And this is not a case of Mr. Gwynne sucking all of the fun out of Latin by refusing to let me translate interesting stories, but it is simply him teaching me Latin so that I remember it. That is his job after all. And it is still fun. In fact it is far more fun than translating the stories of the Cambridge Latin Course. This is because I know that in the two weeks I have been learning with Mr. Gwynne, I have been making progress. And not only that, but it has been rapid progress. There are few greater feelings in the world than a sense of accomplishment, that one has achieved what one set out to do. I get that feeling at the end of every lesson and every time I solve a problem or translate a really complicated sentence, no matter how long it takes.
There is no point in translating a story if you are guessing as opposed to analysing the text. One should be thinking along the lines of ‘well this noun is in the nominative singular and this one is accusative plural and this verb over here is first person present tense therefore…’ as opposed to ‘I don’t really know for certain but X seems probable’. You must be certain. As Mr. Gwynne often says, grammar is a science. If you can be certain, then make sure you are. It may be slower and harder to start with, as you parse your sentences and analyse the nature of every word, but it will make things a lot easier in the long run. This is why I am convinced that Mr. Gwynne’s teaching is the correct way to learn Latin. That, and the fact he is a man of his word who taught me more Latin in 27 minutes than I had previously learnt in 18 months.
Not only has he taught me Latin, he has taught me how to learn Latin (or indeed any rigorous, academic subject, as the method of building solid foundations first must surely transfer), so that even when I go to university, I shall be able to continue learning effectively and correctly. For it is only by first studying grammar and accidence that one can hope to build suitable foundations in Latin. Then you can have fun translating accounts of what Grumio gets up to in his spare time!
George Lord, Age : 18, 30th August 2012.
Post script: I think this later addition ought to be of interest to any readers. At the time of writing the above testimonial, I had had only 10 lessons with Mr. Gwynne. Since then (at the time of writing this) I have had a further 8 lessons. What is both interesting and frustrating is that in my lessons, I have been making just as many silly, careless mistakes – errors that an eight-year-old would not be expected to make in the first week of starting to learn Latin – as when I started with Mr. Gwynne. For example I will “see” singulars as plurals, the imperfect tense as the pluperfect tense and forgetting to make adjectives even remotely agree with their nouns. This happens whether I am translating English into Latin or Latin into English. It still happens even though I am now expecting it to happen and therefore taking trouble to making sure that it does not.
Although the obvious answer may appear to be that that I am merely a careless student, Mr. Gwynne says that this is not the case. In fact, it is becoming clear to me that what the Cambridge Latin Course did was get me into bad mental habits (such as guessing a translation without parsing the words) which are extremely difficult to get out of. I know how difficult it is to break physical habits and I can only suppose that breaking mental habits is at least as difficult, possibly more so. Be that as it may, I am undoubtedly a living example of Mr. Gwynne’s insistence that it is more difficult to teach Latin to students who have been studying Latin with the Cambridge Latin Course for any length of time, even years, than it is for him to teach complete beginners, starting absolutely from scratch.
8th September 2012