Ubi est piscina? Teaching Ancient and Modern Languages

Judy Nesbit

This is the first in a series of articles on the topic of teaching Latin (and, by extension, other ancient languages) in the 21st century.

Latin is an ancient language. I don’t like to call it “dead”, but nor do I pretend that it is living in the same way as English or Dutch or Mandarin. This means that the experience of learning Latin – or Classical Greek, or Sanskrit – is fundamentally different from the experience of learning a modern language.

In the secondary/high-school sector, a successful Latin student leaves school able to understand Latin literature, albeit with significant support from dictionaries, commentaries and perhaps a translation. A successful student of a modern language leaves school able to understand the main points of a written or spoken news report, and perhaps able to join in a discussion about climate change. Although most students will drop languages before reaching such levels, these goals determine the nature of the classroom experience for 11–16 year olds.

Parents sometimes ask why anyone learns Latin, if the only place you can use it is the Vatican. I may be tempted to tell them about the late Reginald Foster, the papal secretary who spoke fluent Latin and tweeted in the language, inventing Latin words for modern terms such as spaceship (navicula siderea, “a starry little ship”). I try instead to explain the different aims of studying Latin and, say, French. The Latin student learns to read beautiful and influential literature, not to communicate with native speakers.

Some excerpts from the Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis (Dictionary of Contemporary Latin, 2 vols, Latinitas, Vatican, 1992), reproduced from the excerpts given here. The fullest list for modern English terms in Neo-Latin is the Morgan-Owens Neo-Latin Lexicon, freely available here.

The Latin classroom is therefore very different from a modern language classroom. Students do not work in pairs to role-play ordering an ice-cream, nor do they dress in favourite or outrageous clothes and deliver catwalk-style commentaries on the outfits. They may on occasion enact a play about a runaway slave, and they certainly work in groups or pairs, but they are much more likely to be writing a translation of a story drawn from Roman history or philosophy. Speaking is expected, but only to read a text aloud, or to discuss, in English, Roman culture or literature.

Attention to detail is another key difference. In studying a modern language, it is important to understand the gist of what is said and to respond, even if the response is not grammatically perfect. Accuracy is valued, especially in written language, but is not always paramount. In the Latin classroom, by contrast, students are expected to analyse every word-ending and discern changes in a single letter. A considered answer is more valuable than a fast reaction. Accuracy, logical analysis, and attention to detail are critical. Students who enjoy developing these skills often enjoy Latin.

A sentence from Cicero’s first Catilinarian oration (1.5), translated literally (A.A. Maclardy, The First Oration of Cicero Against Catiline, Completely Parsed Classics, Hinds & Noble, New York, 1902).

While people with a tendency towards extroversion often thrive in the Classics classroom, it seems to me that there are some Classics students who choose the subject because its demands fit better with their introverted natures. Someone who quails at the thought of telling the whole class, in any language, what they did at the weekend may enjoy puzzling for half an hour over the meaning of four lines of text about an omen from the gods.

Most Latin textbooks do not hide the complicated grammatical rules of written Latin. They engage directly with Roman texts, whether Caesar sending despatches to Rome about victories over the Gauls, slaves gaining their freedom, or gods playing with mortals. Students are introduced to seminal authors such as Vergil and Cicero and analyse language in the same way as they analyse the language of Shakespeare or modern English texts. They discuss philosophical and ethical problems raised by Roman authors and compare ancient and modern societies.

The ‘Great Cameo of France’: an allegorical depiction of Augustus and the Julian (or Julio-Claudian?) family, sardonyx, 1st cent. AD (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).

There are a small number of students who have studied Latin by the so-called ‘Direct Method’, in which the teacher speaks in simple Latin throughout each and every lesson; students are equally bound to replying in Latin. Reginald Foster (see above) and, in early 20th-century Britain, W.H.D. Rouse were major exponents of this system and taught it successfully. Many teachers, especially in America, are returning to aspects of this method, calling it ‘Living Latin’. Most classrooms, however, do not go deeper into Latin conversation than the greeting salvete or perhaps quid est? (“what is it?”). Even top Latin scholars cannot usually talk fluently in Latin – and indeed usually prefer not to try.

W.H.D. Rouse and his pupils at The Perse School, Cambridge, enjoy 4.5 hours of Latin chatter (Linguaphone, London, 1930).

While I applaud and admire those who speak Latin, I would argue that the differences between modern and ancient languages should be celebrated rather than smoothed over. Indeed, few proponents of the direct method replicate a modern language classroom. If time were infinite, an ability to converse in Latin would undoubtedly add to our depth of understanding of the language – though we have very little evidence of spoken Latin, and engaging in conversation using the language of Cicero or Vergil may be rather like speaking in the language of Dickens or a parliamentary report.  

Some improbably learned banter from W.H.D. Rouse and six of his school pupils (Scenes from Sixth-form Life, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1935, 24–5).

Students who study Latin at school, even for a single year, gain the metalinguistic awareness that helps them understand how their own native language(s) work and provides them with tools to acquire yet other languages. I know of a head of Modern Languages who was happy to relinquish French lessons in Year 7 (ages 11–12) because she found that students starting French in Year 8 (ages 12–13) after a year of learning Latin were far better prepared to make progress with French. Studying Latin teaches students to be aware of word-order, verb tenses, and the use of an article (Latin has no equivalent of English a or the). Even the old-fashioned drill of chanting tables of word-endings can enhance metalinguistic awareness if it is done with understanding. But far more helpful are the discussions that take place between students about why they have chosen to translate a sentence in a certain way: “that’s accusative so it goes after the verb in English”; “it has to be plural”; “you must add ‘the’ in English”; “he’s put the adverb at the beginning because he wants us to notice it first.”

This understanding of how a language works is a key benefit of studying Latin in a contemporary school. Latin teachers are enormously skilled at engendering enthusiasm for the study of Classical languages, literature and history among those students who choose to continue their study of Latin beyond the elementary level. Perhaps they should pay more attention to what students gain if they study Latin for just a short while, whether as children or adults. These benefits include metalinguistic awareness and the opportunity to discuss complex ethical and philosophical issues raised by Classical myths, literature and society. Such discussions can be deeper and less constrained because they start from stories or practices that do not belong to any current community or individual and can therefore be analysed and criticised freely, without fear of causing offence.

Cupid and Psyche, fresco of the Fourth Style from the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii, AD 55–79.

If we are to offer students, whether at school or in older life, a broad education and choices about how they learn, we should teach ancient and modern languages differently. Classes should offer different experiences and emphasise different skills so that a French lesson differs from a Latin lesson in more than content. That is not to say that Latin teachers have little to learn from their modern-language colleagues or from experimenting with the direct method. Students are more likely to be engaged via what is familiar to them, including technology. Many people now first encounter the Classical world via computer games, and there are currently over a million users of the Duolingo app, which introduces Latin in the same way as it teaches modern languages.

Ultimately, however it is taught, the study of any ancient or modern language should develop a broader understanding of what language is, as well as foster an appreciation of both our cultural differences and our shared humanity.

Judy Nesbit has taught Latin at schools in the UK, South Korea and Singapore. She is currently living in the Netherlands, teaching academic writing and trying to learn Dutch. 

Further Reading

  • Two accounts of Reginald Foster and his passion for spoken Latin can be read here and here.
  • For more on the Direct Method, see this page maintained by the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching. A survey of ‘Living Latin’ is provided on the Quinquennium Classics teaching blog here.
  • For an overview of metalinguistic awareness, this article at thoughtco.com by Richard Nordquist is a good starting point.
  • For those seeking to learn Latin after leaving school, an internet search will provide links to several, usually free, self-study courses in Latin. For those prepared to pay, there are many online tutors who can provide occasional 1:1 lessons to support your learning. In the UK, classes are available through local colleges in many areas, or through the National Extension College and the Open University