Thursday, September 13, 2012

Didactic of Sanskrit

I have been learning Sanskrit for many years and hope to improve my knowledge of it all my life long. Furthermore, I had for many years the priviledge of teaching Sanskrit and I look forward for the next chance of doing it again. This probably applies to you, too. Nonetheless, the didactic of Sanskrit is a sort of terra incognita. This might have to do with the fact that many Sanskritists feel that teaching is only something they have to do, whereas their true vocation would be to just research. Or with the fact that pedagogy is generally considered as a sub-field, one for people who failed in the main topic ("if you are not able to be an historian/a philosopher/a philologist, etc., you are ready to become a pedagogist").
Still, this is a pity. Because learning and teaching Sanskrit without being aware of the best tools to do it means wasting one's and other people's time.

At the last IIGRS (click here for the whole programme) there were two incredibly well-prepared and well-documented papers on the didactics of Sanskrit (a theorical one by Sven Wortmann and a practical one, showing how an actual class can be structured, by Ann-Kathrin Wolf). Everyone seemed to have enjoyed them and the follow-up discussion has been a great success. Here is my personal highlight:

  •  There are several kinds of students (analytical, visual, auditory… ones). Thus, one needs to use the tools which are more effective to each of them.

This is tantamount to say that one has to know oneself. There is no point in trying to focus on learning by heart the declension of devaḥ if you are a visual type and would rather be able to remember its graphic form. Nor does it make sense to focus on it if you are an auditory type, who would remember all the forms of devaḥ once you have encountered them in an actual conversation. Sven and Ann-Kathrin stressed the importance of leaving one's "comfort zone" and trying out other learning styles, but I am not completely sure I agree with that. If you are an analytical type, knowing about the Indoeuropean background will help you, but if you are a visual one, you will just have to learn by heart two sets of paradigms (the i.e. and the Skt ones). And so on.

What was your experience in learning Sanskrit? And in teaching it? What would (or could) you improve?

On the last IIGRS, see also this post. On Spoken Sanskrit (a powerful tool if you are an auditory type), see this post and this one. On my own efforts of explaining Sanskrit syntax (in an analytical way, I am afraid), see this post.


Bill Haines said...

Hi Elisa,

(I tried to post this on your blog, but I couldn’t beat the machines.)

I gather Sanskrit is a language with innumerable endings. Or for a learner, innumerable charts of endings. I guess that for any learner there will be several years when she doesn’t have immediate comprehensive intuitive access to what ending means what, but needs to be able to call up much of that information from memory rather than from a book. For this purpose I think the following device might be helpful.

Take some middle-sized chart of endings, say a chart with 8 or 12 endings. Write a cute poem in your native language such that each line or half-line ends with a syllable that approximates the ending in the corresponding position in the chart.

It might be much easier to memorize fifty poems than to memorize fifty charts of endings.

Does modern technology prevent one from making money by publishing such sets of poems?

elisa freschi said...

Thank you very much Bill. This is a cute idea and I will certainly suggest is to my future students (unluckly enough, I am not teaching Sanskrit for the time being).
As for its general validity, while trying to memorize as many as possible of the Grammatical aphorisms (sūtra) by Pāṇini, I read a bit about mnemotechniques. It seems that your idea reflects one of the two fundamental techniques (fonic approximation+associated image –the other is the spatial one). For some, it works. For others, it just leads to the complete confusion among the two sets.
Thus, my didactic procedure for the moment would be to offer as many different devices as possible to different kinds of students and help them to understand to which type they belong.
Is your experience different? Could you make up poems working for all English speakers?

Anonymous said...

Alas, I have no experience!

I think the poems would have to be very brief, elegant, and rhythmic --like Blake or Lear, not like Homer.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks. I will try to write one (and any reader is very welcome to share his/her own creations).

Vidya said...

I think it is much easier to read a corrupt mss in an unknown script than this captcha on blogger!

I teach sanskrit to a group of elementary school children who have grown up in an education system which lays low emphasis on memorization and actively discourages. Unfortunately for declensions and conjugations, certain amount of memorization is required. The other alternative is the use of mnemonics and these children are too young to understand Panini and "saujasamauṭśasṭābhyāmbhis..". I have never found this to be an issue when I taught other South Asian languages such as Tamil to this same group. We use ipad apps, flash cards,acting out verbs, auditory reinforcement, use of rhyme schemes and incorporating objects. Remembering by association and relating words in other languages (onoma, nāma, nom, name etc) are somethings that have worked. In terms of learning, I found it far easier to use the sūtra-based approach and remember a set of sūtras and their application. Perhaps due to my own internal bias and background, I use mindmapping and visio diagrams to track the application of sūtras and their exception.

While it is true that there are different types of learners and certain tools work best, I still think the best tool is the one that is inside our heads!

elisa freschi said...

I eliminated the verification test, sorry for the hassle.
Thanks for sharing your experience. I would have no idea about ipad apps and I would also be grateful if you could explain what does "incorporating objects" mean.
Re. memorization, it is quite strange to see how children and young adults do not know any poem by heart, but can remember (say) all the steps of a Zumba dance or all the best soccer players of Real Madrid and so on. Which leads me to your last remark: my main goal is to set into motion my students' brains. One has to find something which matters for them, so that they start concentrating and caring for what they are learning. What works for you?

Vidya said...

Thank you.
By objects, I meant the use of real-life object such as the use of a book, a window, a door which aids learning by association. There are a few Ipad (or other device-based) apps that enable accelerated learning of a script allowing users to trace letters on them, hear certain sounds repeatedly and helps in reinforcing letter-identification and pronounciation skills.
This may not be true of the kind of students you come across but in this case, simply by using a technology/device that these student associate with "fun" the monotony of learning is removed and it immediately engages their mind.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Vidya,

thanks for the explanation. Fun always helps, even among older students (it works for me, too:-)). Could you name a couple of adds, for interested readers? I myself do not have an I-phone, but one of the things I really miss while teaching or learning a new script is a tool to learn the right ductus.

Vidya said...

Letter2sound and learnsanskritwriting are a few. There is an anki flash card software and there is also an android based flashcard apps which lets you create flash cards.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you Vidya!
After this post and its interesting comments, I am starting to imagine a Coffee Break Conference on didactic of Sanskrit. It would be interesting to share methodologies and failures/successes.

On CBCs:

windwheel said...

Wow! Bill Haines and Vidya really opened my eyes!
I'm a native Tamil but did not know the correct language when I came down to Madras at age 3. Actually I was a Hindi speaker! By God's grace, Saint Auvaiyyar's compassion upon the poor urchins, who requested she do something for them, not just concern herself with 'International Peace keeping', resulted in the beautiful and easy and lovely works she wrote for us kids- Aatticutti, Konraiventan- anyway, I am old now, but I was a good person for many years maybe because of such teaching.
Haines & Vidya, it seems to me, have hit on the techniques of Saint Auvaiyyar. (Okay Vidya probably knows Auvaiyyar and maybe has gone beyond her- but still this is a paradigm of vatsalya as 'Bildung'. I mean 'mutual motherly care' is essence of Education and Enlightenment.
What a lovely surprise to find such beautiful comments on such a serious Scholarly blog!
Jai Hind!

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