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Christine Miller

Language in the Grammar Stage

This page last revised:
February 2003


Language in the Grammar Stage

Christine Miller

Language in the grammar stage refers to classical languages, Latin and Greek. Several questions which may crop up at this point in the discussion might be: Why learn Latin, a “dead” language, at all? Which one should I start with, Latin or Greek? Why begin these in the Grammar stage and not later as schools have traditionally done? All very pertinent questions. I refer you to the Classical Education Support Loop website, specifically the Learning Latin page, for the answers, or at least some opinions about what may be some answers. This article assumes that Latin and/or Greek in the Grammar stage is a worthwhile endeavor, and we will continue based on that assumption.

Introduction to Inflected Languages

Latin and Greek are inflected languages, while English is not. An inflected language is one in which the words of the language are comprised of roots, or stems, and inflections, or endings. The roots remain relatively stable, and the inflections change depending on what job the word is doing in the sentence.

Here is an example of four English sentences using the word milk in different ways:

Cold milk tastes good with warm cookies.
The boy spilled the milk.
The farmer will milk the cow tomorrow.
A kitten’s milk teeth are sharp.

In the first two sentences, the word milk is used as a noun, in the first sentence as the subject doing the action, and in the second sentence as the direct object receiving the action. In the third sentence the word milk is used as a verb, and in the fourth it is used as an adjective describing the noun teeth. In English the only way we can tell what job the word milk is doing in each sentence is through word order and context. But in inflected languages, such as Latin and Greek, the jobs are very easily determined by the roots and endings (inflections) attached to those roots. A noun would have certain inflections, a verb something else, and so on. Even a subject has different inflections than a direct object.

Dorothy Sayers in her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, says that the inflected languages interpret the uninflected. This means that understanding the grammar of an inflected language such as Latin or Greek will help a child understand the grammar of an uninflected language such as English when it is time.

Progression of Learning

Learning a foreign language, like any other subject, follows a certain progression of natural order. To discover what that progression is, think back to when your children learned their native tongue as babies. They followed the progression of learning the sounds of the language, then began stringing those sounds together into syllables and words, and finally, learning to connect the syllables and words to form meaningful sentences. This process took several years, and was more or less finished by the time they were old enough for school. In school, then, they learned to read and write the language that they spoke and understood so fluently.

I believe that since a child is not going to be speaking Latin or Greek with his contemporaries on a daily basis, a slightly different approach can be assumed, while still following a similar progression of natural order.

Elemental Sounds

The Latin and Greek languages are phonetic languages. Their alphabets are a collection of letters which represent sounds. Those sounds put together in varying ways represent the words of the language. A study in phonetic languages should always begin with a study of its elemental sounds, and the letters those sounds represent. Therefore we begin our study of Latin or Greek with the sounds and alphabets of those languages.

One word of caution is in order: Latin uses much the same alphabet as English. Since the Latin vowel sounds in particular are somewhat different from the English ones, I would hold off a formal study of Latin until English phonics are down solidly. This avoids any confusion between the two. So about third grade as an ideal time to begin a new alphabet with new phonics.

There are two commonly taught Latin pronunciations. Classical pronunciation is the pronunciation thought to be in use during the classical period of Roman literature, roughly the time before and after Jesus’ life on this earth. This pronunciation is favored by Latin scholars because of its association with the literature of the period. The Ecclesiastical pronunciation is the pronunciation which developed in the Roman Catholic church, and continued in use there after the Latin language itself evolved into its different forms of French, Italian, Spanish, and so on. The rich heritage of church liturgy and music is in this pronunciation, and is favored by Catholic scholars.

Since Latin is no longer a spoken language, it can also be pronounced using English phonics. It doesn’t really matter which pronunciation you choose. Choose the pronunciation that will be most easy and useful for your family, and then stick with it.

Begin as with English phonics - learn the easiest, the consonants, then add the vowels, then the dipthongs and digraphs (two-letter vowel and consonant teams representing a single sound). A few minutes of drill a day at a time is all it takes to firmly embed the desired information in the mind. You can quickly run through the Latin and Greek alphabets and letter sounds while helping your child make his bed or clear the table; even while watching TV with him—mute the commercials and have him do a run-through. Sixty seconds is just about right. Drilling several times a day like this will help the child get it down more strongly and quickly, without requiring the parent to spend extra time during class. Every few days, throw in a matching game - flashcards or Concentration.

Syllables and Words

The next step after elemental sounds are mastered is learning the syllables and words of the language. This is the vocabulary portion of the Latin or Greek curriculum. The rules of syllabication can be learned and practiced on new vocabulary. The child should be able to pronounce the words correctly and then give its English counterpart. When given an English word, the child should be able to respond with its Latin or Greek counterpart.

I also recommend that the English words derived from the Latin or Greek vocabulary in question be learned. This serves two purposes: the first is as a memory aid to help the child learn the vocabulary better. If he knows that the Latin word magna means "large, great, and important," and he also knows that the English word magnificent comes from that Latin word, that is going to help him remember the Latin vocabulary better. The second purpose in learning the English derivatives is in helping the child learn Latin and Greek roots in English words, something he should be learning in the etymology stage of English grammar instruction anyway.

Paradigms and Chants

Since Latin and Greek are inflected languages, however, there is a problem with ending vocabulary instruction there. Unlike the English word for girl, which has one form girl, or if plural, girls, the Latin word for girl can look like any of these forms: puella, puellae, or puellarum, among others. If all a child learns is puella for girl, he may be unable to recognize puellae and puellarum when he sees them.

Luckily Latin and Greek inflections follow easily-learned patterns, called paradigms. These patterns tell how a noun is going to be declined (how a noun will look with all of its endings added in the pattern, each ending indicating a different noun function: subject, direct object, possessive noun, etc.) or how a verb is going to be conjugated (how a verb will look with all of its endings added, each ending indicating a different tense, number, or person.) A simple Latin paradigm for the noun puella looks like this:



Following the pattern:

- a

- ae



- ae

- arum



- ae

- is



- am

- as



- a

- is

A child should learn the paradigms along with his new vocabulary. One paradigm a week or two is plenty. Continue to drill and be sure that these paradigms are memorized concretely. They do not have to learn what the difference is between puella and puellarum at this point. Just recognizing the different forms and being able to chant them is quite sufficient. Knowing the vocabulary and the paradigms are the most important aspect of the early Grammar stage of language study.

Most curricula also contain Latin and Greek phrases to memorize; anything having to do with memorization is great for the Grammar stage of language study.

Syntax Study

Once the paradigms are memorized concretely, a child can begin to learn the syntax of the language under study. Many programs have a child memorizing paradigms while learning syntax, and this too works well. It is okay if a child is learning Latin or Greek syntax in Language class and English syntax in Grammar class. The inflected interprets the uninflected, and learning about direct objects in Latin before learning about direct objects in English will help make the English syntax clear.

Translation and reading practice belongs with syntax study. These skills will progress in complexity as the syntax study progresses, and will carry over into the next stages.

Drill and Memorization

Spend as much time as necessary on drilling the Latin and Greek alphabets, sounds, vocabulary and paradigms. Don’t be in too big a rush to move on to the next material. Move on when the current material is mastered. This is a foundational skill that the rest of the house will be built upon; it is okay to take the time to do a thorough job. It is important in all subjects, but especially in language study, to continue to drill the previously learned material. Drill is the key to mastering Latin and Greek.

Another important way to help a child learn his memorization material is by writing: his alphabet, his dipthongs and digraphs, his vocabulary, his paradigms, declensions and conjugations, memory phrases--anything that he happens to be working on at the time. While he writes, he should also be pronouncing the sounds, words, chants, phrases and sentences that he is writing. This will also help his spelling of his Latin and Greek words.

Writing is a powerful tool in learning any material, because so many different brain functions are involved. The child is doing the writing with his hands, while seeing what he is writing with his eyes, while speaking what he is writing with his mouth, while hearing what he is speaking with his ears. I highly recommend it in learning languages.

Important Links:

Language Curriculum for the Grammar Stage

Preparing Younger Children: Languages

CE Loop: Learning Latin

CE Loop: Latin and Greek Links

Buncha (Latin and Greek) Roots

The Grammar Stage Subject Index

History in the Grammar Stage Literature in the Grammar Stage

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