Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's funny, how certain things a person learns in school keep coming back and being useful (if you're lucky).

One of the biggest, most useful things I ever learned was "how to take notes" (and yes, we were explicitly taught this, as high school freshmen).

Another was the note-card method of taking reading notes: you put the name of the author and year of publication (and depending on citation method you're using, page number) at the top of the card, and then write the fact you will need to write your paper on the card. I had boxes and boxes of these cards for my dissertation but it was much easier to go, "I KNOW I read that somewhere" and find it on the card than it was to hunt back through the article you "thought" it was in.

A third, I realized today: word roots. I jokingly remarked on Twitter that teaching biology would be much easier if we could force the students to take Latin in high school. For example, today we were looking at sea sponges and the students were trying to find the osculum. I remarked to a couple of them that it "wasn't a mouth, but it kind of functioned like one" (Well, not really. It's actually probably more like an anus, really). They looked at me kind of goggle-eyed: how do you know "osculum" means something like "mouth?"

I guess they wouldn't get the jocular semi-hipster usage of "osculation" to mean "kiss," then. (From an old Daffy Duck cartoon: "Greetings, gate! Let's osculate!" You know, those Looney Tunes provided far more of an education than I ever realized, sitting watching them Saturday mornings over my bowl of Cocoa Puffs.)

But actually, I never had Latin. (I had French, which is kind of the great-grandbaby, or maybe the great-grand-niece, of Latin. And had I but world enough and time, I WOULD learn Latin. Just because it's there.)

But I did have teachers in school who impressed upon me that if you know what one word means, and you find another word made up of similar parts, chances are you can guess what the new word means. (Yes, there are "false friends" out there. I can't think of any in English at the moment but I know that in German, "das* Gift" is not something you want to receive...)

(*argh, that may not be the right gender. I can't remember now)

I also remember spending a lot of time in classes learning "word roots." (And actually, some of that may have been spelling-bee prep. I went as far as my regional spelling be when I was in 8th grade. Didn't make it very far though; didn't have a shot at the national.)

I always liked those things about my early education that equipped me well to go on and learn more stuff on my own; stuff that made me more independent. (I was one of those little kids who would wave her arms at the teacher and go, "I want to figure it out fooooorrrrr myyyyseeeeellllllllfffff!")

So, word roots have served me well. (And continue to serve me well. One of the things I've seen written about Shakespeare's writing that allegedly makes it "challenging" for modern folk is that the vocabulary is supposed to be more "Latinate." Well, as a biologist who hangs around Latin-derived (or Greek bastardized with Latin) words all day long, the vocabulary is actually often quite familiar.)


Lydia said...

I bet you'd really like Latin. It's such a beautiful language; I love the rules and the structure. It's nice and neat and orderly.

If you feel like noodling around with Latin, this site is a nice resource: There are groups of people working through things and sharing their translations with the -mail list. I've done some of the Greek and Hebrew, and there's not time limit, and you don't even have to post; you can just get the collations.

I play Free Rice with my students at the start of class, and it is amazing how much the Latin helps with their vocabularies.

AvenSarah said...

As you say, such knowledge is extremely helpful in all sorts of areas that aren't strictly Latin or Greek. In fact, many Classics departments offer some version of "Greek & Latin for Science Students" for exactly that reason -- it's not quite learning the languages, but it teaches you how to recognise roots, deconstruct words (prefixes, suffixes, infixes, etc.) and be able to guess at/remember terms better in your own discipline. I think they're very useful (if not always hugely fun to teach or take; though as always, it depends on the prof).

Kucki68 said...

das Gift

You got it right! Whee!

dragon knitter said...

i WANTED to take latin in high school, but t hey'd stopped offering it about 5 years before i got to school. i took 4 years of spanish, though, so i can see the similarities. and word roots were always a godsend to me.

Lynn said...

When I was a little kid I had ridiculously high expectations for what high school would be like. I honestly assumed that I would learn Latin and read all the classics and write stuff almost every day and I could hardly wait. What a disappointment! I actually learned very little in high school that I hadn't already learned by the 8th grade.