January 24, 2011

Errando discitur

Recording also available at iPadio using this link.

Today's saying is Errando discitur. In English: "We learn by making mistakes."

This is another proverb that is essential to my beliefs about teaching and learning. Mistakes are GOOD. You cannot learn without making mistakes. To learn, you must make mistakes, and then you study the mistake so that you can avoid making that same mistake again in the future. Every mistake you make and understand is a step on the long road of learning. Yet we have turned mistakes into a source of shame and fear. Instead of embracing mistakes, we punish them, and because mistakes are punished, students try to cover up their mistakes or deny responsibility for them. What a disaster for learning! Every time students take a test but do not correct their mistakes, an opportunity for learning is lost. Every time students do writing which the teacher marks up but which they do not revise, an opportunity for learning is lost. Retake all tests! Revise all writing! That is the way to learn, in my opinion. So, the next time you make a mistake, SMILE and say: Errando discitur!

In terms of Latin grammar, you see two forms here that are sometimes off-putting for English speakers: the verbal noun which is called a gerund (errandum, here used in the ablative: errando) and the use of the impersonal passive (discitur). In Latin, these are both common and they are highly expressive! I'm not sure why the gerund causes such trouble for Latin students. I suspect it is because the future passive participle is taught first, and sometimes the gerund is not even formally taught at all, so that students are tempted to give the gerund a passive meaning, which it does not have at all. The Latin errando here is pretty much exactly equivalent to the English phrase "by making mistakes." As for the impersonal passive, it strikes me as simply perverse to insist on a literal translation: "it is learned." I far prefer a more idiomatic English translation, and in English we often use "we" for a general statement equivalent to the impersonal passive in Latin: discitur, "we learn."

For those of you who are fans of macrons, here is the Latin written with macrons:

Errandō discitur.



Anonymous said...

Discitur is pronounced like "disheetoor" not "diskeetoor"

Laura Gibbs said...

There are different styles of pronunciation. Disheetoor is the ecclesiastical (Church) style.