Nine Ways of Teaching Vocabulary Without Translation

John Kuhner |
A Roman School
How did they ever learn without using English?

Because we have usually been raised with the grammar-translation method of teaching, Latin teachers sometimes find it difficult to come up with modes of instruction other than talking about grammatical structures and then translating. When introducing vocabulary, we often use vocabulary lists, consisting of lexical entries for words and their English meanings. But there are many other ways to teach vocabulary without ever breaking out of the target language. At various times I have been asked to give presentations describing these techniques, which became known as "the nine ways." I now share them with you, with notes on how and when to use each.

Nine Ways Of Introducing New Vocabulary In the Target Language

1. per monstrationem/indicationem

2. per imaginem/picturam

3. per scaenulam

4. per gestus

5. per exemplum

6. per synonymum

7. per contrarium

8. per indicem

9. per definitionem

[10. per linguam aliam]

1. Per monstrationem/indicationem.

The most elementary way to identify the referent of a word is simply to show it to students (monstratio) or point to it (indicatio). Even some adverbs such as sursum (up) and deorsum (down) can be done simply by pointing. The limitation on the method, of course, is that you do not have the entire world in your classroom. In order to amplify the effectiveness of this method, it is wise for teachers to bring into their classrooms items relevant to their vocabulary lists.

2. Per imaginem/picturam.

While three dimensions are generally better than two, you greatly increase the range of your capacity for monstratio and indicatio if you use images (imagines) or if you draw things (picturas, including maps). In general it is a good idea to have on file images of all the vocabulary words in the curriculum that can plausibly be represented this way, as well as relevant maps.

3. Per scaenulam.

One of the more elaborate (but for complex ideas necessary) ways of conveying a meaning of a word is through what we call a set-up, a scaenula, a kind of tiny drama. For instance, if you wanted to explain the word salutatio (greeting) or salve (hello) versus valedictio (farewell) and vale (bye), you might have a student enter and then leave the room. Explaining concepts like lepidus/urbanus (polite) vs. rudes/agrestis/inurbanus (rude) might be done via a little scaenula showing people behaving rudely or politely at a dinner table. Even finding and arranging objects to compare them by size, color, etc. is a kind of set-up. Functionally this is an elaborate form of monstratio.

4. Per gestus.

For many words, some kind of gesture (gestus) can communicate the referent. Many verbs (e.g. scribere) are easily done by gesture. Words conveying emotion (laetus, tristis, etc.) can be conveyed with facial gestures; even conveying canis with a bark and felis with a meow would count as per gestus. By striking the distinctive pose of the "Statua Libertatis," I have been able to convey the meaning of Novum Eboracum (New York).

5. Per exemplum.

If you want to teach what an urbs is, you can give examples (Roma est urbs. Londinium est urbs. Chicago est urbs.). At higher levels exempla are best accompanied by a definition, but in early stages most students can induce a satisfactory definition merely from examples. ("Quid est Graecus? Socrates est Graecus. Plato est Graecus. Apollo est deus Graecus.")


6. Per synonymum.

As students get more advanced, they can build on words they already know and build personal lists of synonyma, synonyms. "Quid significat 'cunctus'? Omnis. Universus. Totus. Sunt quattuor vocabula Latina synonyma." Easily represented with an = sign: cuncti=omnes.

7. Per contrarium.

There is a theory that all words originated in pairs  - no concept of "day" without "night." Whether this is true or not, it certainly is the case that the brain absorbs binaries of this sort so readily that it is worth teaching a word's contrarium right on the spot - if the text gives you plus, teach minus with it. Oerberg usefully designates contraria with arrows, which I recommend (bonus<=>malus).

8. Per indicem.

An index, in this context, is a ranking of words to demonstrate meaning. Once you have established a set of contraria like semper<=>numquam, you can build an index of words that indicate frequency. I came up with this to teach aliquando, which fits on an index in between semper and numquam:


What does aliquando mean? Something in between between semper and numquam. This is quickly grasped, all the more so if you frequently do this kind of demonstration. As students' knowledge builds, you can add more elements to your index vocabulorum. "Saepe" is between aliquando and semper; "raro" goes between numquam and aliquando.


One can do this with lots of words (infans-puella-mulier-anus, for example) though it is particularly useful with adverbs and adjectives.

9. Per definitionem.

The most linguistically complex way to introduce a new word is to define it using other words. We are all familiar with this, though classroom definitions are a unique art requiring you to know your students. "Halmaturus est animal saltans quod habitat in Australia," may not be a scientific description of a kangaroo, but it will probably convey the idea. Many definitions can be done with relative or other limiting clauses: homo qui, animal quod, planta quae, instrumentum quo, aedificium ubi, and so forth. "Calamus est instrumentum quo scribimus." "Pistor est homo qui panes facit."

[10. Per linguam aliam.]

The tenth way is, finally, to use another language to help you. I do not believe there is anything immoral about this; though of course it is never, strictly speaking, necessary. Sometimes it is just most convenient. If you are teaching from a standard curriculum, you can figure out over the course of years which words are best taught using the nine ways, and which (few) words are most convenient in translation. For example, I would simply translate the phrase "Quid significat" ("what does it mean?") for students. They need it at the beginning, and it's hard to explain in other ways at the beginning. At times I have used English words for some plants (like tilia, for instance), because I don't wish to spend much time on the word as even in English it has little meaning to most students, but the one word (linden) can convey something to those who do know about trees. (Other trees can be handled more easily: you can draw a salix (willow), you can define an acer (arbor e qua ducimus sucum, maple syrup), etc.)

If you have a consistent curriculum, you really can develop a strategy for teaching all of the vocabulary words your students will need, and then adjust your assessments accordingly: rather than use English translation, you can have students link Latin words with pictures, or with synonyms, or examples, or definitions. The results will be much more time spent in the target language, and hopefully noticeable progress.

John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is Editor of In Medias Res. Formerly president of SALVI, he is currently writing a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster, O.C.D. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio.


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.