Sunday, July 2, 2017

What Go Fish Taught Me about Sheltering Vocabulary, Not Grammar.

I have returned from the American Classical League Summer Institute, and I had an absolutely great time. I reconnected with many friends, made new ones, and felt that my Detoxing from the Textbook presentation was very well received. 

On Day 2 of the Summer Institute was a Mensa Latina (literally, Latin table) breakout session for folks who wanted to get together to speak Latin. In the Latin teacher community, speaking Latin as a conversational, living language is a very sore topic, because most feel that there is no need for it or are scared to attempt to do it since it is a skill rarely taught when learning Latin. Since my first Rusticatio in 2010, I consider myself now to be a strong Intermediate-Mid/High conversationalist in Latin. There has not been a Mensa Latina at the Summer Institute for years, so I was glad to see it return. I was looking forward to taking part in the Mensa Latina, because it has been almost two years since I have truly conversed in Latin with folks, but at the same time, I was also very hesitant, because it has been almost two years since I have truly conversed in Latin with folks. For me, speaking Latin with my students as part of a CI classroom is NOT the same thing as actually conversing with someone in the language. In my Latin 1 classroom, as the teacher, I am the one who is dictating the conversation, its subject, and its register - it is more like I ask questions, students respond, and I am the one doing most of the talking in Latin for the purpose of providing input. In a true Latin conversation, so many components are going on: I have to understand what is being said to me, to formulate in my mind an understandable response in the target language, and to get that response to come out of my mouth...all in the matter of a few seconds if I wish for the dialogue to continue. Of course, this is assuming that I understand what is being said to me and that I possess enough knowledge to respond.

I was not sure who was going to be there for the Mensa Latina or what level of speakers would come, so I brought a couple decks of Go Fish to play in Latin. My dear friend Edie (or Editha in Latin) from Rusticatio has adapted a Latin version of Go Fish (called I Piscatum) using a deck with different fish illustrations on them. She also created an index with the corresponding Latin fish vocabulary. 

We play this at Rusticatio a lot with Latinists who are new to speaking Latin (but know their grammar!), because Go Fish has such a basic scripted dialogue to follow:

Person #1: Do you have __________?
Person #2: Yes, I have ___________. 
Person #2: No, I don't have _________. Go fish!

Primus homo: Habesne ____________?
Secundus homo: Certe, habeo ________. 
Secundus homo: Minime, non habeo __________. I piscatum!
About 20 folks showed up for the Mensa Latina with a wide range of speaking abilities, so I started up a game of I Piscatum with about half of them. Many 1st time Latin speakers joined in, and due to the limited vocabulary/structures of the game, they were able to participate, even at a basic level of speaking. To quote Nancy Llewellyn, they already possessed a passive knowledge of Latin, so all which they needed was an opportunity to activate it. 

But what I love about the way in which my friend Edie promotes I Piscatum is that the game also allows for folks to use different structures of the same word or different ways of saying the same thing in Latin if they wish as variety or to practice a higher register. Because of this, during the game I found my speaking confidence returning, as I began to use different ways of phrasing the same things and to hear others do the same (hence, input for me).

While we were playing I Piscatum, it suddenly it hit me: to a degree, this game was demonstrating sheltering vocabulary but not grammar. I could take the basic questions and answers in the game and truly play around with the grammatical forms but keep true to the vocabulary in most instances and yet still remain comprehensible in the process. This is why I was feeling successful in my speaking ability.

Possible various Latin questions
  1. Habesne ____________? (Do you have ___________?)
  2. Habesne ullos/ullas/ulla ____________? (Do you have any _________?)
  3. Velim aliquid te interrogare: habesne ullos/ullas/ulla ____________? (I would like to ask you a question: do you have any _________?)
  4. Suntne tibi ulli/ullae/ulla ___________. (Are there any __________ to you?)
Possible various Latin responses
  1. Certe, habeo ________. (Yes, I have __________.)
  2. Certe, habeo _____________, ergo tibi trado _____________. (Yes, I have _________, therefore I hand over to you ___________)
  3. Certe, sunt mihi ___________. (Yes, there are ________ to me).
  4. Minime, non habeo ullos/ullas/ulla ______________. (No, I do not have any _________
  5. Minime, habeo nullos/nullas/nulla ___________. (No, I have not any ___________.)
  6. Minime, nulli/nullae/nulla ___________ mihi sunt. (No, there are not any _________ to me)
  7. Minime. Si haberem ullos/ullas/ulla ____________, tibi traderem ________________. Sed re vera, habeo nullos/nullas/nulla ___________, ergo nequeo tibi tradere ullos/ullas/ulla ___________. (No. If I were to have any ____________, I would hand over ___________ to you, but in reality, I do have not any ___________, therefore, I am unable to hand over any _________ to you.
Possible various other Go Fish responses 
  1. Necesse est tibi ire piscatum (It is necessary for you to go fish)
  2. Tibi eundum est piscatum (you must go fish)
After years of playing I Piscatum at Rusticatio with Edie, I do not understand why I never made that connection of sheltering vocabulary but not grammar until now. 

More importantly, however, I finally now had a working knowledge of sheltering vocabulary and not grammar, because I myself was experiencing it and was using it for the purpose of communication. I think prior to this I really understood the concept of sheltering vocabulary (heck, I have even written up a post about it), but not necessarily how it went hand-in-hand with unsheltering grammar - in other words, I think that I was focusing too much on limiting vocabulary but not enough on applying that limited vocabulary to raising students through the levels of grammar in a compelling way.

If I wish truly to apply sheltering vocabulary and not grammar in my classroom, then it is going to require me to be very deliberate, i.e., to map everything out, and to figure things out. In I Piscatum, using subjunctive conditional clauses seems perfectly normal, but we traditionally hold off on anything relating to the subjunctive until upper levels - quite honestly when sheltering vocabulary but not grammar, there is no reason why we cannot introduce conditional clauses in level 1.

Anyhow, I had a great time playing I Piscatum with folks in Latin. I regained much of my confidence in conversing in Latin (still at an Intermediate Mid/High level), but I experienced and internalized a very important concept in Comprehensible Input. We shall see how and where this all goes in my classroom next year.


  1. Dear Keith:

    I think you've given us another example of the power of teaching through parables (or stories, if you like). I've long accepted the principle of "shelter vocabulary, not grammar" as a key component of teaching in accord with CI and other linked strategies. But your personal story serves wonderfully as a metaphor for the larger issues.

  2. Keith, this is fantastic. Playing go fish (I called it Carpe Chartam) was my first foray two years ago into even attempting spoken Latin in my class-- I was doing a lesson on counting and decided to try out a little spoken Latin and to my surprise it worked better than anything I'd ever tried in my old boring Latin class. Then I found out about CI and your blog and the rest is history. So this post has a special place in my heart, and I can't wait to take your ideas back to my room!