LinguaTute

Why we need to update how we teach Latin

Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. If you journeyed back about 70 years to a beginners Latin class , you would likely hear something akin to this being chanted. It’s part of what is known as rote-learning, a memorisation technique based on repeating words aloud – while effective, it has come to be associated among learners with boredom and disconnection with the language. In fact, if you visited an average Latin beginners  class today, you would hear the same thing – relics of teaching based on a bygone era.

The study of ancient languages has long been associated with elitism. It was, for a long time, only available to upper-class boys, who would have studied it well into their university years – at Oxford, Greek was required for entrance until 1920, and Latin until 1960; exams were conducted orally in these languages until around 1820, when written examinations began to be offered, which would again require comprehensive language knowledge. Although the field of Classics has taken steps to become more inclusive in recent years, Latin is still only taught in 2.7% of state schools. So what could encourage uptake of Latin in UK state schools? 

‘Living Latin’

The traditional method of teaching  Latin – which often involves rigorous grammar exercises, translation, and the aforementioned rote-learning – is still missing something key: speaking. Stephen Hunt of Cambridge University claims that, though Latin is not a living language, ‘the human brain is hardwired for sound, it learns by speaking, listening and using language’, and, according to his new book, Teaching Latin, more and more teachers are turning to these methods of teaching modern languages for Latin, with greater rates of efficacy. Since 2019, Jesus College in Oxford has pioneered the use of this method, known as Active or Living Latin, which, according to their website, has proven ‘popular and academically productive’.

It makes sense that this is a better way to engage with the language – after all, it was once a means to communicate in everyday life. Mothers would have scolded their children in Latin, dealings at market would have been conducted in Latin, couples said their first ‘I love you’s’ in Latin. But communicating solely in Latin is understandably daunting: that’s why having a mixture of teaching through the medium of the target language, in this case, Latin, and instruction in the learner’s native language can only be beneficial. Studies have shown that a mixture of these two methods of teaching yield the best results, such as a 2022 study in Spain. The researchers found that ‘teaching vocabulary in the target language exclusively leads to better learning, while it would be advisable to make use of [both] when teaching grammar’.

Voices from 2000 years ago

But how do we know how to speak Latin like the Romans? Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to discover what Latin may have sounded like during the Classical period (around 1st century BC to 2nd century AD), thanks to what is known as ‘Restored classical pronunciation’. From the grammarians who left behind notes on the “correct” way to pronounce words, such as in the Appendix Probi (which provided a list of common errors and ways to rectify them, showing us both the colloquial and upper class sociolects), to transcriptions of Latin into other languages such as Greek, linguists have been able to reconstruct a fairly reliable pronunciation guide to Latin, which could be a powerful tool for teaching the language.

The result is a language which sounds much closer to Italian or Spanish than its traditional English pronunciation would suggest – for example, grammarian Terentianus writes, describing how to pronounce the letter r: 

R shakes out a dry sound with rapid blows.

 

A later poet, Persius, confirms this, attesting that the sound is akin to dog’s snarl – this tells us that the Latin ‘r’ likely resembled the trilled-tongue tip sound used in romance languages today. Restored classical pronunciation is not without its issues, as it largely provides us with an impression of what Latin spoken by elite Romans would have sounded like and is inherently prescriptivist in its background – but it is certainly a step forward in efforts to bridge the gap between past and present.

Exercises such as trying conversational phrases and reading poetry aloud could bring learners so much closer to those people who spoke the language thousands of years ago. Learning the ancient pronunciation has practical advantages, too – studying metre in poetry (the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse) is made infinitely easier when vowel quantities and other aspects of pronunciation are properly observed. Additionally, free prose composition – in other words, creative writing in Latin – is also being advocated as a means of improving fluency and engagement with the language. Hunt even describes how students of his class translated Taylor’s Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ into Latin as an exercise.  In other words, it is evident that there are many ways to make Latin engaging for a range of audiences.

 

Giving old methods a facelift 

Old-fashioned  methods of teaching Latin do, of course, have their advantages. As a current student of German and Classics at Oxford  at Oxford, I have been learning Latin since my first term, and have certainly benefited from the disciplinary approach modelled on earlier 1950s methods, which champions in-depth and detailed study of grammar and translation. It enables students to have a forensic knowledge of grammar which is imperative when it comes to understanding complex ancient texts, such as Cicero and Vergil. However, such methods could hinder the uptake of Latin both in schools and at university level, largely because they do not necessarily encourage enjoyment of learning this ancient language – and enjoyment, of course, is key for motivation.  

The future of Latin

It is difficult to predict what the uptake of Latin in schools and universities in the UK will look like in the decades to come. However, thanks to the valuable work of charities such as Classics for All and the Classics Association, more and more state primary and secondary schools are adding Latin and other classical subjects to their curriculum, meaning that a greater number of pupils have access to this vibrant and exciting language. I was lucky enough to study Latin as an extracurricular subject in secondary school thanks to Classics for All, which opened up my enthusiasm for the language.

 

If  we want to promote the learning of Latin in a way that is uplifting and accessible for all, we need to re-examine the way it is taught and the way it is thought about, so that many can enjoy it for generations to come.  

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