The Traditional Way to Learn Classical Languages

This is how Thomas Aquinas, Nathaniel Bowditch, C. S. Lewis and virtually all scholars in the medieval world learned Latin and other languages. It is how a small but vocal and growing minority of language learners, including many of us on LingQ, still do. The traditional Grammar-Translation method is not traditional. It is only a recent, modern tradition. It is traditional in the way that Fanny Crosby songs are traditional in church music, i.e. not very. And though some have achieved very impressive competence in biblical and classical languages using the G-T method, the vast majority do not. I thought you might enjoy this essay.


Thank you! This article is excellent.

Just two comments on this topic:

  1. The grammar-translation method has been heavily criticized for excluding all kinds of communicative aspects, i.e. pronunciation, speaking and listening. But even today (at least in the West) and despite the communicative turn in language teaching since the 1980s, many students are still poor language learners. Why is that?
    From my teaching experience, the reason is quite simple: Many students don’t get enough exposure to the target language they’re learning. But, without a lot of exposure, nothing happens in language learning.
    It’s not only the children and parents who often don’t understand this, but there are also still teachers at German schools today who seem to believe that playing a CD of spoken school texts to their students every 1-2 month(s) is enough to improve their listening skills :slight_smile:

  2. The grammar-translation method even failed to achieve its main goal, i.e. “to develop students’ reading ability to a level where they can read literature in the target language” (Grammar–translation method - Wikipedia).
    So where this method really shines isn’t in the production of excellent “readers”, but - at best - in the production of excellent grammarians who are poor readers (and speakers).

The follow-up question is: Why is “grammar translation” still one of the most popular language teaching methods on planet Earth, esp. in non-Western nations?
One of the main reasons could be: A central function of the education system is the assignment of grades, which open up or prevent later career opportunities. As long as this core function isn’t threatened, the method used in language teaching is secondary.
The grammar-translation method, however, allows just that: the easy assignment of grades.



Very interesting article JEllis!

I take this opportunity to mention a great Latin input youtube channel I recently found, from Satura Lanx:

Hours of easy latin input…

Also, in my experience, the Vulgata is the easiest entry point into real latin texts, especially the Gospels.


Muchas gracias, Jokojoko83!

I’m currently polishing up my (classical) Latin.
So, this comes in handy :slight_smile:

Have a great day

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Good observations! The G-T method would be far more effective if much more comprehensible input was introduced to the student prior to and throughout their study of the grammar. Obviously classicists and ministers need to be able to parse and translate ancient texts in an accurate and detailed way, but if the students were required to spend the first semester largely in immersive listening and reading before being introduced to the grammar and syntax, I think the grammar could then be taught more quickly and retained much more effectively.

Classics programs are generally much better at producing competent readers than seminary or religious studies programs due to the more greater exposure to the language in the former.


I will check it out. Thank you! And I heartily concur with the use of the Vulgate for introductory listening and reading. With the text and audio of the Bible available for free in so many languages, the Christian Scriptures are an excellent resource for anyone wishing to use comprehensible input in language study.


I agree that a mix of immersion/exposure and G-T (let’s say 70 - 30 or 80 - 20 percent) would be much more effective, efficient, and enjoyable than relying on G-T alone.

But, the education system is like a heavy tanker: it often takes decades to change.
So, it’s up to the individual learner to implement an immersion practice into his or her language learning studies. Thanks to the Internet, this is quite easy these days.

And this is true not only for classical languages (Latin, ancient Greek, classical Arabic, etc.), but also for all modern (natural or artificial) languages.


That’s spot on.
The Bible is really an excellent resource for language learning in general, that is, for the study of both classical and modern languages. See: Wordproject Bibles Index - Choose the Bible in your own language