I've writen two books about Greece and Rome, introducing each civilization with their most famous authors woven into the narrative. Check them out on their own website!

Loquere Latine – On Speaking More Latin in the Classroom

Loquere Latine

Principles – Begin with the End in Mind

C.S. Lewis, on walking into a dark toolshed, paused to admire a beam of light entering through a crack between the door and the frame. Looking at the light, he realized he could look at light, noticing it particular beauty and shape as it pierced the dark space. But then he peaked back through the crack above the door and when he looked along the beam of light, he saw not light but green leaves and blue sky. Lewis then muses that these two different ways of knowing something are both important, but quite different. The scientist may describe the physiology of the man falling in love— increased heart-rate, distractibility, the chemicals inundating his brain—but the man in love experiences something quite different, and much more than, the sum of all these descriptions.

To experience something is to see by it, not to see it. Whereas, to learn about something is to see it, to know it from the outside and remain there. Languages, by their very nature, can be studied in both ways. A language seen from the outside has a grammar and morphology that can be described, parsed, and memorized. When conclusions are founded on how all languages work, we have the science of linguistics. But a language can also be lived from the inside: the means by which culture is communicated through space and time. Language is, not quite like cotton, the fabric of our lives, but it certainly constitutes a major component of the material cause of culture, necessary if not quite sufficient.

And so, why, in our Latin classrooms, do we spend so much time examining the light of Latin instead of basking in it and seeing by it? Likely because it is easier. Easier to measure and easier to execute. I’m not going to pull a page from Kant and try to argue that we should do the harder thing because it’s harder. Rather, I will try to show you in this talk, that speaking Latin in our classrooms isn’t just better for our students, but far easier than we think. I will also do so by completely side-stepping the current hot debate pitting Grammar-Translation against Communicative Approaches or Comprehensible Input people. I deeply care about this debate and have strong opinions that you can access outside of this talk. For this, I think we can all benefit from increasing the amount of Latin we speak in our classrooms regardless of where we fall in this debate.

But a few prefatory principles are nonetheless in order, after all.

Features Tell, Benefits Sell

What’s the goal for your Latin curriculum? Put it into one sentence. No seriously, write it down. I won’t force you to share, but I don’t think we come back to this exercise often enough. Marketers and salesmen will often say “Features Tell, Benefits Sell” and we find ourselves falling back on the benefits to sell Latin to our students, and their parents, rather than clearly keeping the end in mind. The end is not:

  • To earn higher SAT Scores
  • To help you Learn other Languages (so there’s a foundational meta-language course we want all students to take?)
  • To learn English grammar
  • To separate academic wheat from chaff
  • To teach logical thinking; Latin has enough exceptions, particularly as we dig into idioms

In preaching the benefits—some of which are spot-on and some of which are overblown—we’ve utterly lost sight of the ends. We’ve also lost sight of what Latin is, so perhaps we should start there. The assumptions underlying these statements, particularly when they are used to answer the question “Why am I studying this?” lead to strange conclusions for the students. Latin is not a brain exercise or a puzzle to make you stronger. It is not Sudoku with the added benefit of Ciceronian wisdom nuggets at the end.

  • It is a natural human language, that has been spoken for hundreds of years by the authors of the classical and medieval canon and by regular people.
  • Natural languages are complex, but we CAN handle them at the speed of speech…eventually
  • Since Latin comes to us as Catholics in the Mass and prayers at the speed of speech, we should prioritize our students knowing it at the speed of speech for these contexts. The downstream effects of focusing on understanding at the speed of speech is that it also helps understanding at normal human reading speed.

A Catholic Latin program should have the following goal for its students:

To teach our students to read, think, and pray (sing?) in the language of the Church—which was also the language of Western Civilization for two centuries preceding the Church—and to give them a foundational comfort in its idioms, prayers, arguments, and poetry.

Perhaps that sounds good, but what does it look like? I argue that it looks like we need to overhaul our Latin programs down to their roots. We have been invaded by 19th- and 20th- century scholarly approaches that strip Latin down to one or two centuries of brilliant prose and poetry (almost entirely pagan) and then teaches that translating it slowly, line-by-painstaking-line, is the same as reading it.

Our textbooks, and most of our curricula, are currently structured around grammar and vocabulary goal-posts. I think these goalposts should fade into the background and be replaced by modality goalposts: How much comprehensible reading, listening, speaking, and writing did we do in the classroom today?

The means:

  • A LOT of input – MULTUM

Some Definitions: Reading is NOT Translating

Read – To understand what is being said WITHOUT having to move it into another language. That is, what we’re all doing now. To look along the beam is to see by the light of Latin, and not to describe the Latin’s light in English terms.

Translate – To choose the best way to express the ideas of one story in our first language.

Not all Input is Created Equal

How is it that generations of Catholics could sit in Mass entirely in Latin and not grow fluent in, at the very least, the Latin of the Mass? We know that exposure to something is not the same as attention given to that thing. We must attend to the Mass to learn from it. We must pray the Mass, as Pope St. Pius X reminded us. Input must be comprehensible, able to be understood in the context.

This first means that vocabulary must be the first priority. Not knowing the words is akin to not knowing any strokes and jumping into the deep end, we’ll flail, but ultimately drown. But how we know the words is important too, and it’s key to get or keep English out of the way as much as possible.

To quote C.S. Lewis again, the goal is not to know vocabulary in a way that brings up an English word on the back of a flashcard. Though he speaks of Greek, the same can be applied to Latin, mutatis mutandis:

Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, and behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.”

—Surprised by Joy, p. 134-135

Latin should bring us into contact with the world, not back into contact with English. The best way to ensure this is to make the input comrehensible as often as possible. Believe it or not, it is more essential to shelter unknown vocabulary than it is to avoid difficult grammatical constructions.

Input is necessary but not sufficient anyway, though the input we give our students in a normal Latin class is impoverished when we stick only with reading and translating sentences. Speaking Latin in class immediately doubles, triples, or quadruples the input coming into the eyes and ears of every student. It’s not just more efficient, it’s more effective!

Two Filters for Input:

So, I ask myself two imporant questions about all verbal input I bring into my classroom.

What information or content is being conveyed?

What will my audience do with this information?

In other words, even my communication in the classroom needs to have real content and be compelling for my student. Yes, of course, some of that compulsion will come from their grades and my paycheck. But not every day and not all the time. The tone we set at the beginning of the year controls a lot of the process downstream in the doldrums of February and the spring fever of April.

Sources of Input – Teacher and Resources (Artificial and Real)

We know that teachers are important for many reasons, not least of which is that they bring to life the subjects that would otherwise strike most students as dead and inert. We are living bridge-builders from the knowledge and wisdom of our discipline into the hearts and minds of our students. But, in the language classroom, we are more than that. In the Latin classroom, we may be the only meaningful comrephension that students engage in with this language. Those 45 minutes every day must be made to count! As such, we have an obligation to our students to give them as much comprehensible Latin as possible from Day 1. We start with:

Ourselves and the Context of the Classrom

While the vocabulary of the classroom isn’t necessary for reading Vergil, Cicero, Augustine, or Aquinas, it will give us what we need to practice the most basic forms to get us up and running.

Surgite, Oremus! will be almost instantly recognizable by the end of the third day for most students. Windows, doors, desks, chairs, walls, and white boards will all take their place in the daily vocabulary of our students. But more than nouns occur in the classroom. We can command them to read, speak, stand, sit, quiet down, or leave! It’s the most compelling input they’ll receive!

Our Body Language and Histrionics

Early on, we’ll be able to convey meaning through the concrete context, but after a while, we’ll really have to bring all our acting skills to bear as we embody tristis, or sleep artus, even if we’re stertens while sleeping.

And now, I think we’ve laid a foundation on which we can offer tools for the classroom that will be passed through my two filters: Content is King and What Will My Students DO with this?

Building More Latin Into Any Classroom

Whether I’m in a Beginners or an Intermediate Class, it’s wonderful to have structures built into the class that also include more Latin. Sure, we’ll take a break, but let’s play a game. Or sure, it’s time-consuming to pass back papers, but let’s turn it into a Latin title and job. See below for the ideas that could fit in any classroom.

LudI – Latin Games

Saxum, charta, forfex – Rock, paper, scissors

Sursum, deorsum, lentius (nimis lentē) – Up High, Down Low, Too Slow!

Micāre digitīs OR Micātiō (morra) – This likely needs its own post, but you can find it explained here. The game is still popular in Italy.

Da mihi quinque! – Pretty self-explanatory ✋

Pictionary – A good way to get younger students moving… trying to keep it all in Latin

Jobs – Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

Scrība – Keep track of points and who is absent. +1 for each volunteered correct answer; scores out of 5 for those picked by the Randomizer

Ianitor or Tesserarius or Vigil – Guard the door; set the password (tessera)

Hospes – Host for guest students or guest adults; explain how class works; assign them a seat; escort them to their next period

Chartarius – Paper-person

Librarius – Collect and pass out books

Exactor – Collector

First Five Prayers

  1. Signum Crucis (Gen. Sing!)
  2. Gloria Patrī (Dative Sing!)
  3. Ave Maria
  4. Pater Noster
  5. Angele Deī OR Confiteor (private vs. public devotion)

First Five Hymns

  1. Panis Angelicus (St. Thomas Aquinas)
  2. Veni Creator Spiritus (Rabanus Maurus)
  3. Iesu Dulcis Memoria (Bernard of Clarivaux)
  4. Tantum Ergo – i.e. last two verses of Pange, Lingua (St. Thomas Aquinas)
  5. Ave Verum (Pope Innocent VI)
  6. Marian Hymn of the Season (extra credit… my school sings these regularly after Mass, so I know my students are mostly familiar with them).
  7. Alma (Advent)
  8. Ave Regina Caelorum (Lent)
  9. Regina Caeli (Eastertide)
  10. Salve, Regina (Post-Eastertide to Advent… i.e. OT)

Two Main Types of Classroom – Textbook and Author

How can we increase the Comprehensible Input in our classrooms?

— Beginners (still using a textbook)

— Intermediate (author-based classes)

How I Structure My Beginning Classes

The Randomizer: Rota Fortūnae

In the day-to-day workings of my classroom, I want to encourage participation. Based on my understanding of the research, production of the language only really helps the learner, though if it’s correct it could act as good input for the rest of the class. But I’m not worried about mistakes from my 9th-graders anymore than I’m worried about my three-year-old using the past tense incorrectly or not always nailing his plural nouns. He has had thousands of hours of input and will be corrected by thousands more. I only have hundreds of hours to give my students, so I don’t sweat their mistakes (or really mine, either, though I try to be 99% correct).

I will repeat back the correct Latin, and often just repeat the statement in a different person and number to increase the exposure, practice, and comprehensibility. But not everything needs to be for a grade, and we’re actually trying to incentivize (and thus reward) risk-taking in the language classroom because it teaches them how to learn. Docking my students for every mistake would be like trying to teach my children to ride bikes but then punishing them every time they couldn’t balance or fell.

TPR – The Early Days

I don’t immediately dive into the textbook in my begnining classes. I have two jobs: first, to convince my students that even though Latin is required they don’t have to hate it (i.e. they can even enjoy it) and second, that if they learn nothing else, they should learn how to learn and that’s by taking risks and making the knowledge their own. With language, this means listening attentively for meaning and responding as best as one can.

I spend the first few days breaking down how the class will work, expectations for them, how to earn an A, etc. Once that is clearly established, I then show them that languages are the primary means we use to interact with the world. Thus, whatever is in the mind must first be in the senses, so we listen, learn, and interact with the entire classroom with the goal of establishing enough communicative vocabulary that we can run the class tantum Latīne (plus minusve).

Q & A – The First Lines of Latin

So, we read the lesson and interact with the Latin as much as possible in Latin. At first, this does involve a great deal of translation. But I’ve found once they have abou 100 words under their belts, we can keep much more of it in Latin. Questions and Answers tend to pace the class where the goal is ensuring they’ve understood what they’re reading.

We use stories from Lingua Latīna so we’re all on the same page, but I’m hoping to add more stories from other eras of Latin-speaking history: an easy Life of St. Benedict, or Boethius’s imprisonment and death, or the story of the founding of the Franciscans, Dominicans, or Norbertines all in Latin. The sky really is the limit, but I have a lot of work to do because these resources will never be prioritized by public schools, and its up to us to show our students that while the Romans gave us the foundations of the Latin language, the Medievals built towering edifices on that foundation: literary, philosophical, theological, mathematical, and astronomical.

How to test is important, and I’m still re-tooling this. Since this talk isn’t about assessment, I’ll focus on in-classroom techniques for before the test. We should, however, tailor our tests to what is going on in the classroom and so I have tweaked my normal testing in response to this style of bringing more Latin into the classroom.

Variations on a Theme – A Good Way to Test Forms

In case you’re worried that I never test forms, rest assured, I want them to recognize the forms. I actually need to hand them on to other teachers in my department and so we all have to stay on a similar page and pace. One way you can do this, though, is still to remain in Latin. For example, I could give a few sentences, or preferably a continuous narrative that uses verbs entirely in the present tense. I could underline the verbs I want them to change and then either give the directions in Latin, e.g.

Mutā tempus cuiusque verbī sublineātī in tempus futūrum vel imperfectīvum secundum totum sensum in sententiīs.

The more often I give quizzes in this style, the easier it is for them to respond to the Latin as I present it, even if they don’t understand every word. I would add to a quiz like this other comprehension questions to encourage them understanding the story, and not just using it to hunt and find the right answers. Other activities would continue to focus on form. They can change singulars to plurals; active to passive; or use an alternative for expressing purpose (ad + gerundive instead of ut + subj. for example).

I used to give a small quiz every day. When I was fully convinced that the grammar-translation method was the best, it would be a forms quiz every day. Drilling these daily meant many more students saw success. None of them ever read faster or more fluidly. But, they knew their forms.

Now, I quiz often but not every day, and I try to balance my time between forms quizzes (about 50% and easy A’s for the kids who are decent-to-good memorizers) and comprehension.

Vocabulary – Comprehensible and In Context

Textbooks are tools. As such, tools will only be suited to certain uses. One of the drawbacks of Lingua Latīna is the runaway growth of the vocabulary. If you complete this book in two years—the average it likely takes high school students—you’ve been exposed to 1800 words. They’re not all created equal, though, and I find myself prioritzing the words to test and review. I look first for words that match the 1000 most common words published in the Dickinson list.

I try to make my vocabulary quizzes match word to reality, and not require an intermediary English word. This is a lot more work, but many of these resources have already been put together for books you know and use: Ecce Romani, Cambridge, Oxford, and Lingua. Once you’ve gathered the pictures into slide decks from the internet, it’s not too much work to alter the format to create a vocab quiz (or just give one from the power point by shuffling the deck, and then grade it in class to get another round of review).

There are other ways to have your students involved in this process and take some of the prep-work off your plate. The first would be to choose 4-8 of the most important words and have the students illustrate them on loose-leaf printer paper. You can make it a timed activity and walk around the classroom to monitor drawings. Then the students can vote on the best drawings, and the rest can be used for future vocabulary quizzes. The winners can earn a bonus point on the next quiz, or some other incentive system that works for your classroom. The voting process allows you to use more Latin vocabulary to talk about better and best (melior and optima) and and verbs or selection or choice. Plus, it gives you repeated exposure to the words and their meanings. It can also often be quite funny. You can add words to a corkboard in the room to create a vocabulary Hall of Fame of sorts. Save the rest by taking pictures of them and storing them in a Vocabulary folder for that chapter.

When the words are really important, and the students are intermediate, you can pick 8 or so words that the students have to incorporate into a story. The stories can be looked over by you during class time, and then you can also correct grammar as you walk through. The next day, using pictures for the vocabulary, you can walk through the best story with the students in the first five minutes of class. The story could also be added to a hall of fame of sorts.

The Intermediate Classroom – Real Authors

Alternatives to Written Translations

I have never assigned written translations for homework. I discovered quite early on the temptation was too strong to copy from someone else or use Google translate. As such, I don’t require much homework, though they have to spend some time preparing for quizzes, generally either memorizing forms or re-reading a passage for comprehension. A few things I have not yet tried, though, as I work to bring translation back into my class is choral translations. First, I’d read an entire passage out loud, generally limiting us to about 5-10 sentences of an easy story of a single sentence if we’re dealing with Cicero. Then, we’d point to each Latin word and translate chorally. We’d repeat if I don’t hear anyone and only the nerds pipe up with their answers. One or two can hide, but not most of them. Then, I’ll read it aloud again but ask them to close their eyes or watch the Latin and try to picture the story (or argument) to themselves.

The techniques I’ve listed above are the ones I’ve already employed in my classroom. Below this, are ones I plan to use this year and in future years. Now, I haven’t used these yet in my classroom, but I stumbled across them preparing for this talk and thought I’d share. Let me know in the comments below if you have used anything listed here or have thoughts or perspective to add yourself.

Post-Reading Activities

I can go back and translate the same passage (perhaps the next day) making purposeful mistakes. They have to catch me by calling me stulte. Once they’ve caught me, they can correct me.

We can also give comprehension-style quizzes (or activities) giving three sentences where two are true and one is a lie. These can be set in the first-person even if the story is in the third-person. Make Odysseus talk about himself and the students have to identify the lie. One or two of these isn’t enough to prevent guessing, but five will require a lot of reading and thinking on the part of our students. Perhaps it would be easier to keep it to a simple Verum an Falsum, but Two Truths and a Lie requires a bit more.

They could also have a list of 10 statements and have to label them as possibile or impossibile. This requires reading of each statement and then a judgment based on the character or plot under study.

We’re all aware that our students vocabularies are not large enough after two years of Latin study to jump right into Cicero or Vergil, Augustine, or Ambrose. That said, we still don’t have to rely solely on translation here either. One of the reasons Caesar and Cicero are taught is that the excerpts we generally use from them tell a story. The Catilinarian Orations are as much a description of the plot as they are a trial before the Senate. Caesar’s Gallic Wars are likewise descriptions of battles, maneuvers, etc. Vergil tells the story of the aftermath of the Trojan War for a certain small band of refugees.

This physicality means that we can create tiered readings that introduce vocabulary more slowly and familiarize our students with the story through repetition. This has already been done for the entire AP Syllabus, which seems to shrink every ten years or so as we require less and less of our students.

AP Tiered Readings

For the first line of the Aeneid, it would work something like this:

canō dē armīs et dē virō. hic vir, Aenēās, quī erat profugus ab Trōiā, vēnit ad Ītaliam.

The first go-round tries to say everything as explicitly as possible. Most of these physical things could be glossed with pictures or drawings on the board. The proper nouns are hopefully already familiar because of the rest of the students’ education.

The next tier looks like this:

canō arma virumque, quī, profugus fātō, vēnit prīmus ad Ītaliam

And we’re starting to see the poem take shape.

The second-to-last tier might highlight important grammar worth noticing:

arma virum-que canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs

And that allows them to see what has been said.

Enodatio, Simplificatio, and Amplificatio

This can also work the other way. Students can be given a few lines of poetry and told to restore it to a more normal prosaic Latin word order. I call this practice enodatio or untying. Generally, in the younger grades, I do it to bring the Latin in line with English word order. At the higher levels, though, and particularly with poetry, it works as a great way to show students how hyperbaton works and to help them find the way the poet arranged his thoughts contrary even to the expectations of the prose-reading Roman.

I will also ask my students to find the simpliest (simplicissime) way of stating a sentence. In my intermediate Latin, it can be helpful to build up a sentence from its normal kernel. If we start with Marcus Rōmam ambulat, we can add a great deal of information about the how and why to that sentence and enjoy the process of giving Marcus a backstory.

Sustained Silent Reading

The last thing I have not tried at all is Sustained Silent Reading. More and more Latin teachers are publishing easy reader novellas for their students to read. Once you’ve read it yourself, you can add it to a library and allow the bored or advanced students to read them as long as they write a three-sentence summary at the end of class about what they read.

I will likely encourage my students to do this reading on their own, but not carve out class time to do it. While it’s still a great deal more input than reading and translating single sentences, I see our class time as community-building time and the silent reading seems to undermine that. Not having tried it, though, I could experiment with it this year to see how it goes.

Analyze what you memorize, read everything else faster for comprehension.

I close with this principle because this post is long (and likely overwhelming for any beginning teacher that just stepped in). Feel free to reach out to me for perspective, corrections, or help. I love helping beginning Latin teachers grow more excited and more competent in what they’re teaching.

Latin still hasn’t found a way to integrate into the rest of the curriculum in most “Classical” schools. They attempt Latin out of a sense of obedience. It’s difficult to attract and keep good teachers, and it’s even more difficult to force families and students to take a course when they don’t know why or still remain unconvinced of the why. I get it. Practically there are many things stacked against us every day.

I want to inspire my students (and teachers I meet) to keep bringing as many students as we can to a deeper appreciation of the Mass, or to the mountaintops of Latin poetry with Vergil and Prudentius, or exploring the rule of law and ethics with Cicero. Not all students will make it this far in the race, but those that exit earlier will still be stronger for their effort. Even our students who quit after two or three years should still have a stronger appreciation of the Latin language, how to learn a language, and a glimmering of what Latin accomplished as the first world language of the first global culture.

Leave a Comment