What’s wrong with LLPSI, Part 1

(This post co-written with Gregory Stringer)

I (Seumas) am happily on record, and will continue to say, that Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata, and in particular volume 1, Familia Romana, is one of the best language textbooks in any language. Not just that, but it is so by a very wide margin. It demonstrates a deep and profound instantiation of the Direct Method, and succeeds very admirably at being ‘per se illustrata’.

However, it’s not perfect. Some of its faults are innate – a textbook cannot escape being a textbook, for instance. Others are characteristic of the text itself. In part one, we are going to look at what we think are some of its major drawbacks on the language side of the equation. In part two, we will explore some of the more content oriented problems in the book.

  1. Assuming that one you understand it, you know it.

Ørberg does a really good job of introducing new language features, illustrating or exemplifying them in a way that makes them understandable based on the building blocks you’ve had so far, and then covering a range of forms and permutations. Chapter 17 is a good example as he walks you through exemplars of all persons and number of the passive present across the conjugations. However, there is this assumption in Ørberg that knowledge is binary – you go from ‘not knowing’ to ‘knowing’, and then you know it. Which means that later on the text always assumes that you know a feature you have been taught. Humans don’t learn, or know, like this. The process is far messier. Familia Romana would be a better book if it had a lot more redundancy built in.

2. Grammar driven curriculum

Related to this, FR is shaped and structured around incremental acquisition of grammar: morphology and syntax. We also have good reason to believe that this isn’t how humans acquire language, and so FR is still shaped by a grammar-driven curriculum. This is why I say often that LLPSI is not a ‘CI-book’ – it’s not a book that was written based on the idea or principle of ‘Comprehensible Input’, or the practices that shape contemporary communicative-based language teaching. It is, or can be, comprehensible input in the sense that it is a wonderful text that many people can read and understand without much help if any, but it is not a “CI-based” method of teaching. It reflects, accurately, Ørberg’s understanding of the Nature Method. As best as we can tell, Ørberg did try to apply some understanding of acquisition orders, based on other languages, to his sequencing, but there is still very much a sequencing going on.

3. Vocab and volume

LLPSI has a tonne of vocab. Not too much, I don’t think. I’d rather students got the 1800 or so words of FR compared to the smaller vocabulary counts in other textbook offerings. However, for the amount of vocab he presents, it should be a longer book. Or it should have companion books that introduce no new vocab or grammar, but just tell other stories (yes, I’m aware of the supplements. What if we had more, and more diverse, supplements?).

4. Some grammatical features come too late

The subjunctive, in particular, appears quite late in the book, giving students inadequate space, in this volume, to attempt to assimilate and acquire its forms and usages. Similarly, students don’t meet the 1st and 2nd persons until chapter 15, and tenses other than the present until 18, when they finally do come thick-and-fast. Any curriculum is going to introduce some things early, some things late (unless you choose a totally different organising principle), but these seem particularly difficult.


6 responses

  1. Yes, these are all valid points (I would say as someone currently learning Latin). However, I think you miss one very important problem, which is that it is hard to revise or build upon the course, because it remains under copyright, and will do for another fifty years. This is a particular problem because it is the best available course, while very little innovative content is available, and many people do seek to reuse and build upon the work (for instance recording Youtube videos, deploying online excercises or distributing audio versions). Yet all of this is fragile because it is copyright infringement.

    Latin like other less studied languages suffers from a general lack of graded reading, practice tools and so on, which makes the initial steps and perhaps intermediate stages quite hard. I think the solutions for LLSPI could include the Ørberg estate releasing some parts of the course, such as the example sentences, or the course grammar outline, under a CC-0 licence, so others could amplify the course content without fear of copyright breach.

    However, more widely, there ought to be an effort to produce CC-0 or CC-By-SA materials that could be reproduced across minority languages. Bedwere’s translations of public domain cartoons are a good example of how this could work, but of course the number of suitable, well-written, public domain cartoons is probably quite small (there are a lot of cartoons, but less that lend themselves to this).

    There are a few other examples of this approach, but they are fewer than they ought to be. Education is an area where collaboration ought not to be so inhibited by copyright, and where languages that receive less commercial investment could make real strides by taking this kind of permissive, co-operative development as a core means to reduce costs and improve the quality and variety of output.

    • I agree with you, though I think this is not so much a problem in the text (which I have mostly discussed here), rather a problem with the text as artefact. Nor do I think it’s likely to be solved in the case of LLPSI – it seems quite unlikely to me (quantum scio) that LLPSI would be released under any license beyond what it currently is, and that’s a real shame.

      Which means either you work with it under the licensing that exists, and make the best of it, or you go and do something else. I do think there might be a space to creatively parallel LLPSI and create resources that don’t depend upon it but tie-in to it.

      My own philosophical commitments around open source and the like is reflected in the fact that my LGPSI project has a CC-By-SA license attached.

      • Yes, you are right that the licensing is not an inherent problem 🙂 I suspect you are right that opening LLPSI is unlikely, however, only the choice of content (grammar and words, maybe the example sentences per chapter) need be explicitly opened up to enable a wider ecosystem, without causing any commercial impact, should the copyright holders wish to do so. I imagine the impact on sales would be positive if they did so and follow on materials were easier to create without risking copyright violation.

        Great to hear about your LGPSI project, which I did not know about. It looks like an excellent initiative.

  2. Pingback: » What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 2 The Patrologist

  3. Pingback: » What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 2b – Responding to Patrick Owens The Patrologist

  4. Pingback: » What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 3 The Patrologist

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