How Greece and Rome made me a better English teacherA few months ago I was lost, both as a teacher and as a person. In the classroom, I was having trouble teaching new vocabulary to my students in an appealing and relevant way. On a personal level, seven months without a hoagie, counting from the time I arrived in Korea, had left me disoriented. How I yearned for the collection of meats, lettuce and tomatoes sloppily arranged on an oblong whole wheat roll.
Fortunately, both of my problems were on their way to being solved when I stumbled upon a Tantalus sandwich shop near my house. The massive roast beef sub fulfilled my gastronomical need, providing me with a taste of home. Also, the name of the shop inspired an idea.
Tantalus is derived from Greek mythology. Tantalus was a son of Zeus and the gods’ most favored mortal. But he ran afoul of daddy and was lashed to a tree and stricken with tormenting hunger and thirst. The tree was laden with fruit and a pool of water lay at his feet, but both were kept just out of reach. From this story comes the English word, “tantalizing.” I realized that I could teach vocabulary in a much more interesting way by discussing the Greek and Latin etymologies of the words.
Most Koreans (and native speakers of English, for that matter) do not know the Latin or Greek origins of many English words. A quick look around any neighborhood reveals many words with classical roots. I found the hoagie shop in Samsung Plaza. While Samsung is definitely a Korean name, plaza comes from the Latin platea, which means “broad street,” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. Beneath the plaza runs a subway, which comes from the Roman word sub or “under.”
Having enjoyed a delicious sandwich and filled with excitement about teaching, I headed off to school the next day and prepared a lesson around a story of people using telegraphs. I passed out a worksheet explaining that tele means “far” and graph means “write” in Greek. It also explained that “phone” comes from a Greek word for “sound” and “vision” from the Latin word for “see.” The students could easily understand how words like “telephone” and “television” came about, and their smiles “telegraphed” their pleasure at learning something new.
I like the results of my new emphasis on Greek and Latin roots. By explaining the origins of words students already know, they can more easily learn new words that came from the same origins. And they get to pat themselves on the back for figuring it out on their own. Last week I patted myself on the back for being such an ingenious teacher. But then one of my students called me narcissistic. Maybe I should have left the story of Narcissus off of that last worksheet ― or dangled it before them, like a tantalizing sub.
by Justin Short
Mr. Short teaches English in Bundang