How I Teach

So I teach languages. Languages are systems of communication. In order to learn a language, you need to know its grammar (that’s the closed, systematic part) and sufficient vocabulary (that’s the open-ended part). What is a ‘sufficient’ amount of vocabulary depends entirely on what you want to do with a language: wanting to communicate with locals while on holiday obviously requires a different level of vocab (and grammar, and practice) than wanting to pass as a local.

For the grammar, the systematic part of a language, I emphasise those systems. Sanskrit, for example, has well over 30 ways of declining nouns (that is, of making a noun fulfil different functions in a sentence by saying things like ‘this is the cat’s food’, ‘I was woken up by the cat’ or ‘the cat is treated to just as much luxury as he deserves, thank you very much’). The best way to approach this maddening multiplicity is to point out the underlying structures, that which all these 30+ ways have in common, and whenever you come across a new declension, to then ask students to learn explicitly only the bits that make it unique. The more you understand a system as a whole, the less you need to rote memorise its many constituent parts.

Sometimes, those underlying structures only become clear (or: become much clearer) when you bring a little bit of language history into play. I am a historical linguist by training, and a comment on RateMyProfessor warns you NOT to ask me about historical stuff, or else I will not stop talking for 5-10 minutes. I have, however, learned to control my enthusiasm, and my classes will give you only the language history you need to make your language study easier. (If you want to know more about language history, though, I almost always stay behind after class to answer any questions anyone may have!)

When it comes to learning vocabulary, which I personally also find difficult, I try to offer as many different approaches as possible. I use mnemonics and suggest techniques for creating your own. For Sanskrit, I have created lists of the most frequent 900 words and have made complete sets of electronic flashcards on sites that my students can access for free. (For other languages, I will simply point you to such lists made by others.) I make use of language relationships (knowing the English word mother surely makes remembering the Sanskrit mātar easier) and talk my students through systems of word formation (both obvious ones, like English entertain entertainment, and ones that are less so, like English slow sloth).

But perhaps most importantly, I do all I can to make my classes warm and relaxed. No one likes making mistakes, especially not in front of others; but making mistakes is the best way to get better at something. Hence I try to create a friendly space in which everyone is happy to make all the mistakes they need and to ask all the questions they want. If I can help by doing something as simple as repeating myself, or maybe rephrasing what I’ve just said, I am delighted to do exactly that. Languages are difficult to learn, but oh so beautiful. I want to use my 20 years of experience teaching ancient languages to make sure we all enjoy ourselves as we learn.