I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Tuchman's Law: The fact of being reported mulitplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to ten-fold (or any figure the reader would care to supply).

Barbara Tuchman, historian


<September 2020>



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  07:30 PM

As I explained in part 1 and part 2, Duolingo's pattern- and repetition-based instruction is supposed to teach you a language without grammar instruction. How's that working for me?

I should note that I've had a lot of language instruction—I rassled with two-way prepositions in German and with the subjunctive in Spanish. I can explain phrasal verbs in English. I know what vocative means in "vocative comma."

So I'm probably an outlier in Duolingo's audience. Still, language learning is language learning, and even when you're studying a language the traditional way, you're only going to get better if you practice and practice, which is one of Duolingo's mantras. Could I learn Latin through repetition alone and with no explanations?

Possibly, but I wasn't patient enough to find out. Even at the very beginning, when I was presented with a new pattern, I was both learning it and analyzing it. To repeat an example from earlier:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

From this I abstracted that one plural ending was -i and another was -ae. I might have even concluded that -i is a plural for masculine nouns and -ae for feminine ones. (I guess I also abstracted the idea of noun genders and singular/plural verb conjugations, none of which Duolingo has breathed a word about.) So I'm not just learning the patterns, I'm starting to fill in a chart in my head of noun declensions and verb conjugations.

The first thing that threw me a bit was encountering this contrast:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Estne femina domi? (Is the woman at home?)

My previous language experience had not primed me to expect that when a verb is used as a question, it takes (or can take) an -ne suffix. Because this was novel to me, I stumbled over it repeatedly until—just as Duolingo hopes—I just went with it. (Mostly; I still forget sometimes.)

As I progressed, I kept mental tabs like this on grammatical aspects as they were introduced. For example, from sentences like this[1]:

… I tucked away that the 2nd singular form of verbs (present tense) ends in -s and that in the singular, direct objects (i.e., accusative case) have an -m at the end.

Eventually I got to something that I just could not figure out. Compare these sentences:

ego litteras latinas lego. (I read Latin literature [lit. "Latin letters," how poetic])
ego litteris latinis studeo. (I study Latin literature)

Here's where my need to analyze the grammar worked against me. In both sentences, "Latin letters" is the direct object. But which is the form for the direct object, litteras or litteris? I kept seeing both, it seemed to me, and this made no sense to me.

Maybe I could have just accepted this contrast, the way a Roman toddler would have eventually gotten it through sheer repetition. But after I'd already spent some time deducing that the -as ending was an accusative (direct object) ending, what was I to make of this seemingly arbitrary difference?

On every exercise, when you've submitted your answer, there's a Discuss link at the bottom:

When I was sufficiently flummoxed by this direct-object thing, I clicked the link. Sure enough, I was hardly the only one to have had this question. Someone who knew Latin had explained: the verb studere ("to study") takes a dative object. That's why it's ego litteris latinis studeo.

This is where Duolingo's philosophy and traditional instruction really part ways. The term "dative object" instantly cleared this up for me; I'd encountered this in German and in Old English. I imagine that the folks at Duolingo assume that the term "dative object" would be gibberish for many (most?) of their students, so of course they don't formally provide an explanation. But they've provided the discussion forum as a backdoor, so to speak, where learners can talk to one another and where you can often get the grammatical explanations you won't get directly from Duolingo.

At this point, I decided I wanted to supplement Duolingo. This was a learning experience in itself. The teaching of Latin was the template for language instruction for, what, the last 15 centuries? And boy, a lot of Latin coursework is the epitome of old-skool (haha) language learning. The classic approach, it seems, is that after a quick lesson on how to pronounce the letters, you learn all 6 cases for the first noun declension! Fun times.

After looking around and reading a lot of reviews, I settled on three books:

And I've got a notebook and I even went and got 3x5 cards to make flashcards with. Not to mention that I can find stuff on the internet.

I'll keep doing Duolingo, because I do actually have faith in the principles they're following. Daily practice and repetition are powerful learning tools, and I've learned stuff by adhering to their philosophy. Plus they have some excellent and useful sentences, like Uxor maritum senilem habet ("The wife has an old husband") and Velisne vinum rubrum ("Would you like red wine?").

Overall, though, I'm not sure if the Duolingo/ALM approach can ultimately work all by itself. Maybe for others, but I guess I'm not going to give it a chance to be my sole way to learn Latin.

[1] By coincidence (or was it?) I started seeing sentences involving graves around Halloween last year.

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