February 04, 2007

Repetitio mater memoriae

In English: Repetition is the mother of memory.

After yesterday's proverb about the mors memoriae, the "death of memory," I thought it would be good to do a memory-boosting proverb today, offering a piece of advice that every language-learner needs to take to heart.

I had never heard this saying in English, but I clearly remember on the very first day of my Russian class, our teacher taught us the Russian version of this saying, which has a wonderful ring to it: повторение матъ учения, "poftoreniye mat' ucheniya." If we still used the word "tuition" in English to mean "learning" (instead of the money paid for learning!), we could say "repetition is the mother of tuition" to get the same kind of sound play in English.

It was a propitious proverb to begin the Russian class. Learning a Slavic language involves a lot of memorization. In Latin, you get hundreds, even thousands of words "for free," so to speak, because you can guess the meaning of so many Latin words based on their English derivatives. In Russian, you get hardly any words at all for free. As students begin to read and write in Russian, they spend a lot of time with the dictionary. My Russian and Polish dictionaries are far more grimy and thumbed-through than my Latin or even Greek dictionaries - a sign of many late nights spent looking up word after word after word.

But please note: I am referring to a Russian dictionary here, not a Russian-English dictionary. In the third year and later of Russian studies in college, students start using Russian dictionaries, not Russian-English dictionaries. Despite the fact that Russian is demonstrably more difficult than Latin (even more cases, more difficult phonology, an aspect-based verb system), students of Russian regularly speak Russian, read Russian newspapers and stories and plays, watch Russian films in Russian, etc. Ideally, they go to Russia, leave their English behind, and gain real fluency in the language, "living" in Russian, an activity entirely different from translation.

There has been a very passionate discussion on the LatinTeach listserve over the weekend about fluency in Latin. My own personal experience is that we have a lot to learn from the teachers of Slavic languages, because they are the folks who have had to learn how to teach living languages with a highly complex inflectional system. Although there is an enormous amount of memorization involved in studying a Slavic language, and an intense need to understand the grammar, I do not remember ever writing out a paradigm on an exam. This is not to say that the word endings were neglected: not at all! Instead, by constantly seeing and hearing inflected words (repeat repeat repeat), by constantly producing and reproducing inflected words, you learned the words and endings - in the context of actual language use.

So, in praise of both repetition and learning, here is today's proverb read out loud:

234. Repetitio mater memoriae.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Latin Audio Proverbs blog to listen to the audio. You can also hear this saying read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).
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