Ars longa, vita brevis: Active Latin in the Classroom

Melinda Letts

To teach ancient languages or not to teach ancient languages; and if so, how? These are questions of real academic importance, recently given wider visibility in the UK by the Johnson government’s announcement of plans to reintroduce Latin in English state schools. Both questions arouse strong feelings, so I shall begin by nailing my own colours to the mast.

First, I believe that teaching ancient languages is a crucial part of ensuring and building diversity in Classics as a discipline. The public are interested in the ancient world, as witness the steady stream of novels, plays, films, exhibitions and so on dealing with Classical themes; or, over the last eighteen months, the flurry of articles and blogs enlisting Hippocrates or Thucydides as pundits on life during a pandemic. But, as we all know, the same piece of evidence, whether material or written, can be interpreted in sometimes radically different ways. The Nero exhibition currently running at the British Museum invites us to think critically about how much value we can attach to the motives ascribed to a political leader by his contemporaries.

Nero crowned by his mother Agrippina, relief from the Sebasteion in Aphrodisias, Asia Minor, late 50s AD (Aphrodisias Museum, Geyre, Turkey).

Reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin with my undergraduate students transforms a text once used to shape the minds of young boys destined for a career as defenders of empire into an opportunity to discuss what happens when one powerful individual controls the narrative. Without a continuing supply of Classical linguists, future generations will lose the capacity to look at ancient written evidence through new eyes, instead finding themselves dependent on a set of increasingly outdated translations made by people with different assumptions and pre-occupations – a category that will in time include ourselves, for we too will be judged by our descendants and found wanting. Studying in translation is not inferior, but it is different, and just as I don’t want to force every would-be student of the ancient world to become a Classical linguist, so I also don’t want to see those who want to study the languages discouraged or prevented from doing so.

The first page of F.H. Dewey’s long slog, Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War: The Original Text with a Literal Interlinear Translation and Explanatory Notes (Translation Publishing Co., New York, 1916).

Secondly, a growing body of evidence shows that studying Latin confers significant educational and socio-economic advantages. According to Evelien Bracke and Ceri Bradshaw, in a literature review published last year, Latin “helps with vocabulary, comprehension and reading development for English-speaking pupils… The specific impacts on Special Educational Needs pupils and in socio-economically challenging areas are particularly noteworthy.”[1] Yet the wide-scale dropping of Latin from state-school curricula has led, over the past few decades, to its being seen as an irrelevance, and as something that only the privileged elite get to study. The consequent exclusion of state-school pupils from the educational and socio-economic advantages of studying Latin is something that should concern us all.

Third, my own experience of teaching both Greek and Latin to Oxford undergraduates over the past ten years has convinced me that the traditional grammar-translation method is not in itself sufficient for the needs of most 21st-century university students, and that the ‘active method’ has much to offer. Many of today’s undergraduates have no prior experience of learning a foreign language, and it can come as a real shock to realise quite how much work needs to go into learning a language ab initio. These are not young children, who can be set to learn and chant grammar tables and will find it as unexceptionable as chanting their times tables in a maths class, or lists of dates in history lessons. Evidence suggests that the ability to learn a language primarily through grammar “declines rapidly in late adolescence,”[2] on top of which they may be living away from home for the first time, coping with the pressures of university life, and having to deliver other work at the same time as learning the language. The empirical evidence, too, is powerful: seeing students lose heart, or weep over their lists of principal parts, wondering what happened to the joy they anticipated finding in reading ancient poetry for themselves, is disheartening for a teacher, and must feel truly terrible to the student  – to say nothing of the impact on their confidence, and even their degree outcome.

So I think we need a new method for a new era of young aspiring classicists — the future interpreters of the ancient world for a public that will surely continue to want to know what happened before they were born and to be able to think about it from varying perspectives. And in mapping out the way forward, we owe our students the very best: not a binary debate between entrenched corners, but a merging of experience and knowledge. Something new is called for: perhaps a re-calibration of the existing, traditional method, perhaps a different method altogether, or perhaps a mix of the two.

An attempt to make Latin verbal endings simple: C.S. Richards’ Latin Lessons and Tables, combining the Analytic and Synthetic Methods (Crosby & Nichols, Boston, 1862) 79.

This brings me to Active Latin, that is, teaching Latin mainly in Latin. In her recent Antigone article, Judy Nesbit says, “Latin is an ancient language. I don’t like to call it ‘dead’.” I agree with much of what Judy says in her article, but unlike her I see no problem in calling Latin a ‘dead’ language. Patrick Owens, an experienced proponent of active language pedagogy, explains this very well: “Linguistically speaking, Latin is a dead language (i.e., it does not change in some significant ways) and has been dead for nearly two thousand years.” He continues: “by the death of Latin, we refer to the fossilization through formalization and standardization which allowed for a kind of apotheosis. This fossilization is attested as early as Quintilian [AD c. 35–100], who delivers a highly prescriptive system of grammar and refers to Cicero [106–43 BC] as the speaker par excellence.”[3] Owens concludes: “If Latin were to come back from the dead, so to speak, it would immediately lose its greatest virtue: its substantial immutability.”[4]

‘Living Latin’ is a misnomer, then, and like Judy Nesbit I do not “pretend that [Latin] is living in the same way as English or Dutch or Mandarin”. Unlike Judy, however, I don’t see any problem with using a dead language as the language of the classroom. I suspect the reasons why students lose heart are related to what Judy says about the difference between learning Latin and learning French. She is right, of course, that learning Latin is different from learning French, because you can’t go to Ancient Rome and talk to native speakers. But I would add that there is also a fundamental similarity, in that both are languages, i.e. each is in essence a means of communication – a way of conveying information and sharing ideas.

Yet time and again students end up turning the reading of a Latin text into a sort of code-breaking activity. No wonder many become dispirited. Code-breaking has its place in the world, but I would wager that it’s not what attracts most students to want to learn an ancient language – certainly not if what I hear from young people each year during the Oxford Admissions process is anything to go by. Ask a candidate why they want to learn Greek or Latin and the answer will almost always be that they want to read the literature and/or the philosophy. Yet within a couple of terms of arriving in Oxford they are likely to be telling me that they’re busy ‘translating’ the Aeneid (for example). My goal is to do everything I can to help them leave ‘translating’ behind and start to read the literature.

One of W.H.D Rouse’s catchier Chanties in Greek and Latin (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1922, 19302).

Judy Nesbit pokes a bit of fun at W.H.D. Rouse (1863–1950), deservedly so; but the implied criticism is wide of the mark. What we do in the classroom is not very Rouse-like. We don’t sit there exchanging post-Victorian witticisms in Latin – this is the 21st century, not the early 20th. It goes roughly like this. We greet each other in Latin, because that’s a good way of getting into the moment, of switching on the Latin bit of the brain. We open a textbook, or, depending on the level of the class, a piece of original Latin. Somebody reads a short passage aloud – perhaps a couple of sentences, a short paragraph, a few lines of verse. We talk first about vocabulary (suntne interroganda de verbis?, “are there any questions about the words?”); students ask about words they don’t understand, and the teacher provides synonyms (perhaps a word, perhaps a phrase) using vocabulary the students already know. If that doesn’t work, the teacher may draw a picture, or demonstrate the meaning through action; if necessary, they supply an English gloss.

Next, another student explains the passage in Latin (dic nobis quid significet haec sententia, quaeso, “please, tell us what this sentence means”). In this exercise, the teacher encourages not only synonyms but syntactical variation (e.g. rephrasing a final ut clause using ad + gerund or gerundive), and will then often build on that by getting students to put a construction into a different temporal sequence or a different person or number. When needed, an explanation is given in English. Grammatical material is referenced or supplied; homework might consist of grammatical exercises, or perhaps rewriting a passage of original Latin using different syntax and vocabulary. The aim is not to pretend that every Roman spoke Ciceronian Latin, but to enable students to manipulate Ciceronian (or Sallustian, or Vergilian, or Senecan, or any other) Latin for themselves, thus enabling them to get under the skin of the language and increase their ability to understand and, crucially, to appreciate and enjoy literary Latin. The effect on students’ confidence is immensely rewarding, and there is absolutely no doubt that the process increases reading fluency considerably.

Charis Jo delivers an Active Latin class, Oxford Latinitas Society, March 2018.

As teachers of Greek and Latin, we are all engaged on the same endeavour: enabling our students to learn, pleasurably and productively, a language that we know and love. Our profession is full of great teachers and interesting pedagogy; to deliver the best for our students we need to learn as much as we can from one another. We could do worse than be guided by this student who had just attended a week-long Active Greek course run by two colleagues of mine in Athens last month:

During [the course] I learnt Greek better than after almost a year of studying tables. Discussing food and philosophy, singing Greek songs, talking about the Parthenon on a walk in Athens, we used Ancient Greek as an instrument to immerse ourselves  – and no table can give you that kind of experience. I’m not saying that tables are bad or useless – it would have been impossible to start talking if I hadn’t learnt any tables. But if the only thing you study is tables you learn a lifeless, frozen language that will never come alive for you. These are two fundamentally different ways of studying and I think the best thing you can do is to combine them.

Melinda Letts is Lecturer in Classical Languages at Jesus College and Harris Manchester College, Oxford. She is Chair of Oxford Latinitas, whose mission is to provide world-class active language teaching in Ancient Greek, Latin, and other languages, in order to bring new life to scholarship on ancient texts, to enable students from all backgrounds to read, interpret and discuss ancient literature and philosophy for themselves, and to provide employment for brilliant teachers. For a brief presentation on Active Latin, try this video.


1 Evelien Bracke and Ceri Bradshaw, “The impact of learning Latin on school pupils: a review of existing data,” The Language Learning Journal, 48 (2020) 226–36, at 232.
2 Joshua K. Hartshorne, Joshua B. Tenenbaum, and Steven Pinker, “A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers.” Cognition 177 (2018) 263–77.
3 Patrick M. Owens, “Barbarisms at the Gate: An Analysis of Some Perils in Active Latin Pedagogy,” Classical World 109 (2016) 507–23, at 508.
4 Ibid., 509.