Steven Hunt looks at how Latin can be a living language
I have been lucky enough to attend a number of conferences and more informal occasions in which the subject of speaking Latin – or at the very least reading it aloud – has been the subject. I have to admit that initially I was sceptical. Some of that scepticism was born, I have later realised from fear: the fear that despite having learnt Latin from the age of 11 and having been a teacher of it and now being a lecturer in Classics Education at the University of Cambridge, I could not speak it coherently, error-free, about myself, my surroundings, or anyone else. Fear kept me quiet in case I got found out.
nunc, ex armario egressus, as it were, I am willing to explain my change of heart. Indeed, I tell my teacher trainees not only that they might like to give it a go, but that they really must experiment and grow in confidence with making sounds in Latin. I am convinced that speaking Latin, error-prone though it might be, is an integral component of teaching Latin.
Of course, this is not a new thing. Ignoring the obvious fact that the ancient Romans themselves spoke Latin perfectly happily, let’s remember that spoken Latin was actively encouraged from the 16th century both as a means of communication and as a support for the study of the ancient literature, as Laura Manning reminds us (2021). Based here in the Faculty of Education in Cambridge, I am almost within shouting distance of the Perse Upper School, where the Classics Department is housed in a gleaming new building with the name of W H D Rouse on the wall – the Edwardian contributor to the Loeb classical editions and the founder of the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching, which promoted the so-called Direct method of Latin teaching (Stray, 1992). While the examination system in the UK since has tended to privilege written – and therefore silent study – of Latin, in the USA schools have been less restricted and more open to experimentation (Hunt, 2018). Among the leading proponents of what I will call Living Latin or Active Latin movements in the States have been Professors Terence Tunberg and Milena Minkova at the tertiary level (Tunberg, 2011; Lloyd, 2016; Minkova & Tunberg, 2021), with their work at the University of Kentucky. At High School level Bob Patrick has long been a powerful advocate (Patrick, 2011; 2015; 2019). In universities in the UK, Active Latin is catching on, with Latin speaking circles at Oxford and Cambridge (Ornelas & Parker, 2021) and experimental classes held in King’s College London (Lloyd, 2021) and at the University of Warwick (Letchford, 2021). Again, in Oxford, Melinda Lett’s Oxford Latinitas has gained a reputation for effective pedagogy (Letts, n.d.). Further afield, summer schools dedicated to spoken Latin exist in Poland, Eire, Italy and Jerusalem. At the UK school level, Harrow, Eton and Haileybury have recently taken to trying Active Latin approaches and shared their experiences at a conference for school teachers in 2022. A further conference is planned in Autumn 2023.
So why Active Latin? What is all the fuss about? I will make ten points, which are designed to provide some reasons, provoke ideas, and I’ll end with some thoughts for the future and some further reading. I’m not advocating for the replacement of current methods of teaching. There are plenty of excellent resources which work well and it would be silly to throw them out. But I do think that as a complement to such resources, Active Latin has a huge amount to offer.
- We do not have to make our lessons look like the current exam. There are lots of ways of learning Latin, but relatively few for testing. ‘Assessment only’ approaches to teaching makes the teacher forget about all the other things that we can do to learn a language. Modern languages teachers know this: they engage all the senses when teaching their languages: Latin is not different – though it might be ‘dead’, it can still be thought of in the same terms as a language that is in use today and the same things which are used for teaching a modern language can be used for the ancient one.
- Humans learn languages predominantly through meaningful communication, not through the study of its vocabulary or grammar. Humans learn languages initially not through memorization of rules but through meaningful communicative experiences. The rules follow when the communication needs them. We can attune learners to rules later on, once they’ve started to get the gist through hearing and speaking the language. Input, especially the repetition of vocabulary in meaningful senses, is vital. Learning or acquiring vocabulary is one of the most important things to do to acquire fluency: without vocabulary, students can go nowhere. But traditional teaching provides relatively few occasions to input vocabulary. Spoken Latin – or even just read-aloud Latin (by teacher, by teacher and students, by students alone or together in various combinations) is a fantastically efficient way of getting used to vocabulary. And talking about something worth talking about is engaging.
- Latin is not ‘silent’ even when we make no sounds with our mouths. Instead, we ‘hear’ the words in our heads. This is called subvocalization, and is an essential component of all language learning. Students who lack fluency in English will find it difficult to develop fluency in any other language, because they have not sufficiently developed the skill of subvocalizing. Subvocalisation is an important skill in developing the ability to read—even when we read ‘silently’. It’s much underrated in Latin teaching—perhaps even ignored, and I think that’s an error. Latin has a high degree of grapheme-phoneme correspondence. That should make it easy for students to associate the look of the words on the page with the sound that they make – provided that the teacher makes the effort to say the words and get students to repeat back to them out loud. Even asking students to read aloud in pairs on a regular basis will help – with one student monitoring the other as they go. Such a paired spoken activity does not just develop subvocalization, it also encourages close attention to the spellings of words – especially important in a morphologically complex language like Latin. And it’s fun.
- Active Latin has the potential for keeping the cognitive load low. Speaking and listening takes place at an appropriate speed. Speaker and listener are at the same place ‘on the page’, as it were, and no-one gets lost. Spoken input relies on a relatively small (or ‘sheltered’) vocabulary. Repetition of the same words, in different forms perhaps, helps to ensure that the vocabulary is taken in. When Latin is silently read and translated, each word is processed far fewer times; once translated, the student moves on. Most of the thinking about the word takes place in English – English meaning, its relationship to other English words in the sentence, the details in English of case, gender, number and so on. It’s not easy to learn a foreign language if you spend most of your time thinning about English. The careful teacher will make the new language feature (accidence or syntax) obvious through careful control of the communicative structure.
- Active Latin makes input efficient. More words can be heard in spoken language than can be read in the same period of time. Vocabulary and grammar can be reinforced by repetition (and manipulation of new forms) using Latin that is already known, thereby doubling the input. The use of synonyms and antonyms doubles and triples the vocabulary input.
- Active Latin can be adaptable to any standard course materials. Take Caecilius and his family from the Cambridge Latin Course, or Sabina and Faustus from Suburani. Any narrative course will do – even some of the practice exercises from GCSE books. The teacher relies on asking questions of the text, in Latin, with Latin responses expected. You can get a long way with the simple ‘quis? quid? cur? quando? ubi?’ Students scan the text for the answers and read out the sentence in Latin, or respond in whatever way seems best: ‘ita vero’ or ‘minime’. Careful questioning at a later stage might expect the student to modify the grammar in their answer – to change a nominative to an accusative or an active to a passive. The easy thing about this form of speaking and listening is that the text is there as a prop, both for the teacher to ask, and for the student to answer. As a starting point for Active Latin, it’s almost perfect. More proficient teachers and students might prefer to extemporize, using the characters from the course book to ask more searching or playful questions. Yet more proficient learners could talk about themselves, perhaps using some of the vocabulary from a course book as a means of support or reference.
- Active Latin can be personalized. The task can suit the students’ interest – or even be about the students themselves. Student to student ‘conversations’ or ‘readings’ involves more students, with peer review when students listen to (and check) each other for meaning; more proficient students can ask each other Latin questions. Spoken Latin can be recorded and students practise listening and responding in various ways, much like they do in modern languages.
- Active Latin provides a class with more variety. You can talk about anything – current affairs, the weather, the classroom, the students. It’s best to have something to talk about rather than trust to extemporizing. I’ve already mentioned the Latin text in front of you, but you can also use pictures from the course book or displayed on the board. Students can create their own stories in pictures and read and annotate as they go to each other. The teacher can tell a story with images on the board and ask students to repeat the story back in Latin.
- Active Latin is multi-modal. Teacher talks and the students talk. They listen to recordings and make recordings—for the teacher, themselves and their parents. They may listen to text being read while it is displayed on the screen. Dictations and dictogloss, gesture, the tone of voice, physical actions – these are all multi modal ways of engaging learners of languages – which are not just words on a page. Students write the endings to stories, or their own stories, either by themselves or in collaboration with writing groups. They read easy stories set at their own level – or slightly below – to enhance reading fluency.
- Active Latin is Latin as a language not as a code (we’re not creating code-breakers for Bletchley!). Students learn how to put words together to make meaningful communication rather than merely studying individual words: every word is in a relationship with every other word. Free composition is a place for personal expression, for community exploration, and as a ‘safe’ space to explore and celebrate things that interest learners. Latin is not a competition in which only the fastest and cleverest finish first.
When Mair Lloyd and I co-edited our book Communicative Approaches for Ancient Languages, we were surprised that no-one had written such a work before. The collection of chapters exemplifies a variety of practices for both Latin and ancient Greek, some written by masters of long experience, and others by those just trying out practices and finding their way. We think that’s a good thing – to have a book where there’s a certain tentativeness among some of the contributors: we wanted not to have a ‘know-it-all’ book, but instead something which would entice people in, for teachers who could identify with the authors’ experiences and efforts and who might feel they too could have a go. I’m delighted too that some of my teacher trainees – and some of those I have trained in the past and are now experienced classroom practitioners – are experimenting with Active Latin. Recent PGCE assignments have been about free voluntary reading, dictation and creative composition, while several ex-trainees regularly ask students questions Latine, with responses Anglice or Latine.
Many years ago, when I was a classroom teacher, one of my students told me, to wind me up, no doubt: ‘Latin’s dead, Sir, and it’s not coming back!’ I wasn’t exactly crushed by this attempt at a put-down, but I didn’t have the nous to have a suitable comeback. Now I think I would cheer, ‘vivat Latina!’ and even he would understand what that meant. And I would mean it.
Communicative Approaches for Ancient Languages, by Mair Lloyd and Steven Hunt (Eds.) is published by Bloomsbury Academic (2021).
Hunt, S. (2018). Latin is Not Dead: The Rise of Communicative Approaches to the Teaching of Latin in the United States. In A. Holmes-Henderson, S. Hunt, & M. Musie, Forward with Classics. Classical Languages in Schools and Communities (pp. 89-108). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Letchford, C. (2021). Communicative Latin for All in a UK University. In M. Lloyd, & S. Hunt, Communicative Approaches for Ancient Languages. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Letts, M. (n.d.). ars longa vita brevis. Active Latin in the Classroom. Retrieved from Antigone Journal: https://antigonejournal.com/2021/10/ars-longa-vita-brevis-active-latin-…
Lloyd, M. (2016). Living Latin: an Interview with Professor Terence Tunberg. Jounral of Classics Teaching, , 44-48.
Lloyd, M. (2021). Exploring Communicative Approaches for Beginners. In M. LLoyd, & S. Hunt, Communicative Approaches for Ancient Languages (pp. 67-80). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Manning, L. (2021). Active Latin in the Classroom: Past, Presnt and Future. In M. Lloyd, & S. Hunt, Communicative Approaches for Ancient Languages (pp. 9-16). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Minkova, M., & Tunberg, T. (2021). Global Latin, Active Latin: Kentucky and Beyond. In M. Lloyd, & S. Hunt, Communicative Approaches for Ancient Langauges (pp. 125-132). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Ornelas, I., & Parker, J. (2021). Student-led Initiatives at Oxford and Cambridge. In M. Lloyd, & S. Hunt, Communicative Approaches for Ancient Languages (pp. 179-188). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Patrick, B. (2011). TPRS & Latin in the Classroom. Experiences of a US Latin Teacher. Journal of Classics Teaching, 22, 8-10.
Patrick, B. (2015). Making Sense of Comprehensible Input in the Latin Classroom. Teaching Classical Langauges, Spring, 108-136.
Patrick, B. (2019). Comprehensible Input and Krashen's Theory. Journal of Classics Teaching, 39, 37-44.
Stray, C. (1992). The Living Word. W. H. D. Rouse and the Crisis of Classics in Edwardian England. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press.
Tunberg, T. (2011). The use of Latin as a spoken language in the Humanist Age. Journal of Classics Teaching, 22, 8-9.
Steven Hunt is Senior Teaching Associate in Classics Education and an affiliated lecturer in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. He is also Editor of the Journal of Classics Teaching and an adviser and trainer for Classics for All. He has written and co-authored several books on Classics pedagogy for Bloomsbury Academic, including Starting to Teach Latin 92016 / 2023), Forward with Classics (2028), Teaching Classics with Technology (2019), Communicative Approaches for Ancient Languages (2021) and Teaching Latin; contexts, theories, practices (2022).