Update: Here are the takeway points in this article, distilled into a YouTube video:
If you want to practice your Latin writing skills, is it still worth the drudgery to work through an old-fashioned course in “Latin Prose Composition”, or are there more enjoyable and effective alternatives?
This is the question I ponder frequently while thinking about how we tend to teach writing in Latin.
This article is a response to Daniel Pettersson’s article, ‘Latin prose composition: Books and Method’, in which he calls “Latin Prose Composition” a “fantastic language technique”. I greatly respect Pettersson, especially for his admirable Latin writing skills. The fact that he is so good at writing Latin makes it all the more difficult to disagree with him on methods of teaching writing. But I am compelled to speak up, not because I want to put down someone else’s methods, but because I want to propose methods which might be significantly more effective for the largest number of learners. I will endeavour to present Pettersson’s arguments as charitably as possible. My disagreement is in no way a criticism of the man and his excellent work, and I hope he will not be discouraged in any way by this. I strongly recommend his Legentibus app and Latin story resources.
So, is “Latin Prose Composition” something we should generally be encouraging learners to do? Let’s break this issue down into several key questions:
- What is “Latin Prose Composition”?
- Why would someone want to practice writing?
- Is “Latin Prose Composition” the best way to achieve those writing goals?
- Are there more effective and enjoyable writing activities?
What is “Latin Prose Composition”?
Firstly, what is “Latin Prose Composition”?
Here is an example of what we mean by a “Latin Prose Composition” exercise; these are the first few sentences for translation in Bradley’s Arnold. The student needs to translate these English sentences into Ciceronian or Caesar-style Latin:
And here are the first few sentences in North & Hillard’s Prose composition (these are preliminary exercises, easier than the first intended real exercises):
1. The land was ruled by a good king.
2. The soldier was killed by an arrow.
3. The boy killed the bird with a stone.
4. The Roman general was defeated by Hannibal. …
As Daniel Pettersson explains, “Latin prose composition” is different from what you would expect “composition” to mean.
Latin prose composition is not actual composition (emphasis added) but an exercise in translating from a modern language into Latin. It is a didactic exercise with the focus of drilling vocabulary and grammar.
Pettersson acknowledges that this task is not at all the creative exercise that the name “composition” would seem to suggest:
Latin prose composition perhaps sounds a bit odd. “Composition” immediately brings to mind music composition, which is free and creative. Latin composition, however, is everything but free and creative. “Composition” here is rather a euphemism for old-fashioned structured translation exercises to drill vocabulary and grammar where you translate from a modern language into Latin.
It is strange to keep calling this exercise “composition” when we all know there is no authorial voice from the learner in this process, and the word “composition” gives an impression of what this activity is not. In school, I did these exercises under the name English-To-Latin Translation (nicknamed E2L), which I think is a more transparent label. However, for the sake of consistency, I will continue to refer to E2L exercises as “Latin Prose Composition”, but always in capitals and quotes so that you know I don’t mean to imply this is really a ‘composition’ task in any other sense of the word.
As you might imagine from those example sentences, “Latin Prose Composition” is not a very enjoyable activity among students. Pettersson does not sugarcoat this: he describes it as “traditional, quite square”, “old-fashioned” “quite boring”, and repeatedly refers to it as a “drill”. When acknowledging that these exercises often use military or political vocabulary, he admits that this subject matter “might not sound too interesting”. He does not argue that “Latin Prose Composition” is in itself enjoyable; rather, that its benefits are pleasing and worth the effort and toil.
But are they? Is this task – a task we all agree is quite tedious – the only and best way to get the benefits it is supposed to impart?
Before we answer that, we must establish what a learner might want to achieve from a writing task.
Why would someone want to practice writing?
Why would someone want to use “Latin Prose Composition”, or practice writing in Latin at all?
Firstly, some learners want to practice writing because becoming a good Latin writer is one of their goals. They may have a creative writing project in mind or just really want to share their thoughts in the medium of Latin.
Other learners want to incorporate writing alongside speaking as part of practicing active and authentic Latin, and believe that you cannot truly know or learn a language unless you are productively using it. They might believe that all four modes (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) contribute to language acquisition, such that becoming a better writer will directly make you a better reader.
Other learners may not believe writing directly contributes to acquistion, but still believe there are indirect benefits. I follow more of an input-based approach, believing that acquisition is driven by the receptive modes (listening and reading) and not the productive modes (speaking and writing). According to the input-based approach, the most important activity is to absorb as much comprehensible input as possible, without worrying about perfecting output early. Infants learning their first language exhibit a silent period where they listen for as much as a year before starting to speak. Language learners such as Matt vs. Japan have demonstrated that this silent-to-active route also works for adults. Matt immersed himself in Japanese media for 3 years without taking formal classes or doing any active speaking, and when he started trying to speak, he found it only took a couple weeks before he could speak naturally and fluently without much effort.
However, even if output may not be essential (especially at the beginning stage) for language acquisition, there may be practical benefits to doing writing and speaking activities. For instance, I find that learners are more motivated and attentive to their input when they are also producing or expressing something as part of their engagement with input material. A writing task paired with a reading/listening task can make the reading/listening task feel more purposeful.
I’ve also found that writing can be motivating because students see the products they make as evidence of their learning. Not all students are convinced that they are “learning” when they are passively listening or reading something, even if Second Language Acquistion theory might say they are. Right or wrong, students value learning tasks more when they create something out of it. Why fight them on this? Even a very minor writing task helps make students feel more motivated and perhaps more accountable for language learning.
Another important factor is interaction: interaction in the target language can help make input more comprehensible as the participants try to help each other understand meaning. This “negotiation for meaning” is a key element of communicative language learning. Interaction is perhaps easier in a spoken format, where replies can be instantaneous, but writing tasks can also be interactive. If students write something which they know will be read and responded to by other students, this can constitute a meaningful exchange of information in the language that supports their comprehension.
So to summarise, these are the desired outcomes of writing in the target language:
- Some learners want to become good at writing in Latin for the sake of writing creatively in Latin
- Some learners want to write because they believe writing is part of knowing a language
- When writing is paired with reading activities, learners may be more attentive to the input
- Learners can be more motivated when they create products along the way, because they can see their progress
- Interaction boosts acquisition because the negotiation for meaning helps make input more comprehensible
So now to our third point: Is “Latin Prose Composition” on the whole the best way to achieve those desired outcomes?
Is “Latin Prose Composition” the best way to achieve those writing goals?
A repeating theme in Pettersson’s article is that “Latin Prose Composition” promotes the active use of Latin.
But is this the best way to promote “active Latin”?
One gigantic red flag that I see with “Latin Prose Composition” in promoting “active Latin” is that this technique is not widely used to teach any living language. In a French classroom, for example, students might be asked to write a diary entry, or a personal introduction about themselves, or a letter, or a review of a product, or a recount. Or they might simply be tasked with a “free write” where they just write as much as they can on any topic for a set amount of time. Sometimes much more structure is given, such as in the form of a sentence builder, where the student is asked to create sentences according to a template and swap in their desired vocabulary. In each of these activities, the student is expected to have some semblance of choice in what they express. If the closed “Prose Composition” exercises were so crucial to active language use, it is extremely suspicious that they are only used for teaching dead languages.
Normally it is the Grammar-Translation enthusiasts who are pushing the idea that Latin is “different” and must be learned a different way to living languages. The “active Latin” crowd usually resists this exceptionalist narrative and insists that Latin is ultimately a human language, and that the best way to learn Latin is whatever is also the best way to learn any language. It is very strange for the “active Latin” movement to prescribe something which would be weird to do in a living language. Of course, modern language teachers incorporate other types of writing tasks in their pedagogy (yes, other types of writing activities exist!), just not tasks in the template of “Latin Prose Composition” where all students, working alone and in parallel like factory hands, are forced to translate the same predetermined sentences into the target language.
So let me be clear: if I reject “Latin Prose Composition”, that does not mean I reject the idea of writing in Latin. On the contrary, I think that supporters of active Latin should be looking at incorporating more living and communicative writing tasks rather than clinging without reason to a single activity that came from 19th century language pedagogy as if that constituted the only writing activity imaginable in Latin.
Pettersson calls the “Latin Prose Composition” activity “tried and true”. The implicit argument is that because “Latin Prose Composition” has been part of Latin instruction for so long, it must have been retained for a good reason. I would argue the opposite: the history of language pedagogy has in fact condemned the practice. At one time, it used to be part of the Grammar-Translation method used for teaching all languages. However, it has long been rejected in the teaching of all languages except in the special case of teaching dead languages where it has survived against the odds. “Prose Composition” has certainly been “tried”, but almost never found “true”: it has not survived the test of time in 99.99% of cases when teaching human languages, especially in the very languages which people want to use actively!
So to get back to our list of desired outcomes for doing writing tasks, which of these could “Latin Prose Composition” help?
The creative writer
Does it help the learner who wants to be a creative writer? Only in so far as it is a writing task at all. Creativity is completely banished in this type of activity as the learner is literally not allowed to say what they would like, and is forced to try to reproduce someone else’s writing. The learner is not given the freedom to paraphrase what they would like to say or even to choose a different subject to talk about other than killing soldiers on the battlefield and winning supporters to their political cause, or whatever else the textbook happened to choose.
Pettersson argues that these constraints are beneficial to the learner, because they force them out of their “comfort zone”:
Latin prose composition is distinct from free form writing, where you express your thoughts, and run the risk of staying within your language comfort zone. You will thus be forced to move beyond the grammar and language you already know; if you have to translate a particular sentence, you cannot avoid it or use circumlocutions.
I would actually argue that using strategic circumlocution to best express yourself within your current level of capability is a skill worth training in its own right. I often observe beginner Latin writers make a critical error when they try to write their thought as a fully formed English sentence first, then translate that English sentence into Latin, mangling it terribly in the process and creating a sentence no one can understand. This is not a good writing strategy as they aren’t training themselves to think in Latin as part of the writing process. A writer should be thinking, “How would a Latin writer want to say this?” The practice of “Latin Prose Composition” encourages the bad habit of first thinking in English and then shoehorning it into Latin, because you are literally presented with a fully formed English sentence first and your task is to do whatever it takes to wrangle that into Latin. That’s not how a fluent Latin writer should approach the task of writing in Latin. The sentence should be built from Latin to begin with.
In regards to “forcing” learners to “move beyond the grammar and language you already know”, I would argue that a writing task is not the appropriate venue to be using grammar and language you don’t already know from input. Language acquisition comes from understanding comprehensible input, not from sheer force of will in trying to produce a feature you haven’t acquired.
But I might be misinterpreting Pettersson. He might have simply meant that a writer should challenge themselves to use gradually more sophisticated language (which they had already acquired from lots of reading), and that “Latin Prose Composition” is the ideal task for presenting that challenge. I would disagree on this point too. I think a creative writer who wants to write in a more sophisticated way will actually really want to use gradually more complex expressions when the thought they want to express demands it: often a story requires indirect statements, indirect questions, and ways of expressing purpose succinctly and elegantly, which internally motivates a writer to develop their range of expressions.
Moreover, in a creative task, each learner can decide for themselves when they are ready to challenge and stretch their language use, and in what direction. In “Latin Prose Composition” you are forced to abide by a rigid curriculum set by the textbook. How likely is it for every student to need “indirect statement” on Tuesday, then “expressions of time” on Wednesday, followed by “uses of the subjunctive in relative clauses” on Thursday? It would be much more productive if the right topic of instruction could be provided in a just-in-time manner so that a student could learn it when they want to use it. Oh wait, that already is a pedagogical practice! It’s called “pop-up grammar” and it is used in input-based language teaching, including in modern languages.
If someone wants to argue that a creative writer will still stay in their comfort zone unless forced out, there are many ways of upping the challenge without completely removing creative choice. One way is to try poetry composition: this forces the writer to reach for rarer vocabulary and a greater diversity of expression to fit the special constraints of metre. It also has the bonus of training the writer’s attention to the aesthetic qualities of writing: the use of contrasts, metaphors, action, description. This is much more satisfying than wrangling a trite English sentence about soldiers into Latin.
So, for the reasons above, I would argue that a writer who wants to develop their true expressiveness in Latin writing for the sake of becoming a good writer would benefit a lot more from creative, open-ended writing tasks that can naturally scale to the appropriate challenge for the learner.
Writing as an authentic use of language
The next kind of learner is the one who wants to write because they believe that writing is an integral part of knowing a language authentically: if you can’t write in a language, you don’t really know it well. For such a learner, authenticity and using the language communicatively is important. They want to have a similar set of capabilities as any competent speaker of a language, and that includes being able to write. Now granted, “Latin Prose Composition” is one activity which results in a sentence of Latin being produced. But things like creative writing, writing a diary, writing replies in a forum, and a myriad of other activities also produce Latin writing. And at the same time they are also a hundred times more authentic, purposeful, and communicative than doing schoolroom exercises in “Latin Prose Composition”. The learner who wants to dive in and write in Latin because they want to be authentic users of the language would better fulfil their goals from these purposeful communicative activities than from the isolated and artificial drills in “Latin Prose Composition”.
Using writing tasks to increase engagement with reading/listening
The third situation is that writing activities, when paired with reading/listening activities, help students pay more attention to their input. This integrated writing activity is meant to be done in conjunction with an input-based activity like reading or listening. For example, students might read a story, and then create a set of true/false statements based on the source material, which they will then share with other students and answer each other’s questions. In this task, students are encouraged to model their sentences on examples they find in the reading, and thus make connections between what they read and what they produce. The traditional exercises in “Latin Prose Composition” books are not designed to be seamlessly integrated with reading tasks in this manner. They are random sentences devoid of context that come out of nowhere and lead nowhere. An integrated reading/writing task is a lot more interesting, grounded in reality, purposeful, and meaningful than “Latin Prose Composition”.
Writing to increase motivation
The fourth learner was one who felt more motivated when they saw themselves producing language. On one level, Pettersson has a point when he says that a learner could find satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment in ticking off items of grammar in the checklist of “Latin Prose Composition” exercises. Here he is careful not to overstate his point: he asserts that something “ticked off” in this manner is not necessarily acquired, but just a step on the road to acquisition. I will grant that completing writing tasks – any writing tasks whatsoever – can give students a sense of satisfaction to complete, and completing items on a checklist is even more satisfying.
But we need to weigh up the effect of “Latin Prose Composition” on motivation as a whole. I’ve been teaching Latin for more than five years, and until this year I’ve always had to teach some Latin-to-English translation at some level, because it was on the curriculum until the official state-wide study design dropped it this year. Students have always felt dreadful about “Latin Prose Composition”: it is an activity that makes them doubt their abilities. Think about it: you have no control over what you might be asked to produce, and the only audience reading these sentences is a teacher whose job is not to listen to your ideas but to correct your grammar. It is a task so constrained that it only shows your deficits: the parts where your answer diverges from the correct answer. It tells you how far away from perfect you are. This format is incredibly discouraging.
In addition, “Latin Prose Composition” usually reveals to students that they are making the same mistakes over and over. The chapter focus might officially be on “uses of the subjunctive in relative clauses”, but many students will be getting proportionally more marks taken off for “stupid mistakes” like missing the accusative case, bungling up adjective agreement, or forgetting to use a plural verb form. This is completely natural and to be expected, as grammar features are not neatly acquired in the same order as the grammar curriculum presents them. Pettersson has acknoweldged that ticking something off in a previously completed “Latin Prose Composition” exercise does not mean that the feature had been acquired. And students can learn the valuable skill of proof-reading their writing to catch and fix these obvious mistakes before the teacher catches them. But to a lot of students in this messy learning process, it looks like they are continually failing at “basic” grammar. It is very hard to convince students that continuously catching yourself making the same mistakes and fixing them up is normal and not necessarily a sign that you are failing the language.
Taken as a whole, I have found that “Latin Prose Composition” has a net negative effect on student motivation, and every time it has been removed from the curriculum in my experience, students have universally rejoiced.
It is much more satisfying to write something which someone else is going to read and actually pay attention to what you wanted to say, as opposed to scrutinise it for mistakes. Writing activities which involve some level of student choice are able to tap into this innate desire to express and be heard. Therefore I would say that “Latin Prose Composition” is not the activity I would reach for if I wanted to show a student their language progress and motivate them. I would rather provide more meaningful writing activities in which students can develop their own expressive abilities at their own pace, and see their progress as they become more expansive in their language use.
Writing as a form of interaction
Finally, there is the student who can benefit from writing as a means of interacting in the language. Does it even need saying at this point? The “Latin Prose Composition” exercise is the opposite of an interactive communicative activity. The student is not allowed to say what they want. They are not allowed to paraphrase to clarify meaning for an addressee. There is no actual addressee for their writing, and no chance of receiving a reply in the target language. There is no opportunity for negotation of meaning. No one is trying to say something and no one is listening.
So that brings me to my final point:
Are there more effective and enjoyable writing activities?
Yes, and lots.
But for the benefit of self-learners, I will provide here four easy writing activities which can be done with even fewer resources than “Latin Prose Composition”. You can complete these activities without a teacher or a classroom: you just need a place to write comments online.
Each of these activities is integrated with a reading/listening task, so that the reader is encouraged to use the language and forms that were demonstrated in their source material. In this way, the challenge can be scaled to what appears in the source material and whatever is appropriate for the learner at their own stage.
First, you need to find a piece of Latin posted online that is appropriate to your level, where you also have a place to write a comment. For example, you could choose a YouTube video, someone’s audio recording of a chapter in a textbook, a post in Latin on Reddit or other social media platforms, or any story based resource that comes with a comment box.
Here are the four interactive writing activities you can do immediately after watching, listening to, or reading that resource.
1) “Two Truths and a Lie”
This is the easiest writing activity. Start with, “Hey guys, which of these three statements is a lie?” Then write two true statements and one false statement in the target language. This is very easy to compose because you can actually directly copy three statements from your source material, just change one thing about one of them and boom, you have created an interactive activity for another human being to answer.
If you see someone else’s “Two Truths and Lie” activity in the comments section and it hasn’t been replied to yet, you can go ahead and hit reply and say which statement was the lie.
An advantage of Two Truths and a Lie is that many people can write their own three statements on the same material without necessarily repeating each other – but if anyone repeats, it’s no big deal, as it’s good for learners to get lots of meaningful repetition in what they read.
2) Vērum an Falsum (True or False)
In this activity, you write a list of true/false statements, with the title ‘Vērum an Falsum?’ (‘True or False?’)
This is similar to Two Truths and a Lie but more open-ended, because you can write as many or as few vērum/falsum statements as you wish, and they could all be true or all false if you want to mess with your audience’s expectations. It’s also fun to write silly obviously false statements.
If you see someone else’s list of vērum/falsum statements, go ahead and reply with which ones you’d label V/F. Posting an answer key to someone else’s vērum/falsum statements can be helpful for another student to check themselves if they are less confident. And if you get any of the V/F labels wrong, the original poster can reply and help you understand it better! Interaction!
3) Questions in the target language
This is slightly more challenging than writing true/false statements, but not by much. All you need is a list of appropriate question words and the knowledge of how to form a question in your target language. From there you can turn any statement from the source material into a question, often simply by swapping one word or phrase with a question word, and moving the question word to the start of the sentence. Here is a list of question words for Latin:
|-ne? (attached to end of first word)||Creates a yes/no question|
|… an …?|
utrum … an … ?
|… or … ?|
|ubi?||Where? (in what place?)|
|quō?||To where? (to what place?)|
|unde?||From where? (from what place?)|
|quālis est…?||What is … like?|
|quantus, -a, -um?||How big?|
While we’re at it, here’s a similar list of question words in Ancient Greek:
|ᾶρα;||Creates a yes/no question|
|… ὴ …|
|… or …?|
|διὰ τί;||Why? (on what grounds?)|
|ἵνα τί;||Why? (for what purpose?)|
|ποῦ;||Where? (in what place?)|
|ποῖ;||To where? (to what place?)|
|πόθεν;||From where? (from what place?)|
|ποῖός εστιν…;||What is … like?|
|πόσος;||How big/of what quantity?|
If you see a list of target-language questions in the comments section and no one has responded yet, you can reply and try to answer them all in the target language (which often just requires you to re-use the sentences from your source material). You’re making an answer key for everyone else, and that’s really helpful!
A third layer of interaction here is to read someone else’s answers if the original poster hasn’t replied, and check if they are correct. You can then reply saying they’re all correct or offer your suggestions and corrections.
You could call this activity “possibile, crēdibile” if you want to stay immersed in Latin. This is more nuanced than the true/false activities. In possible/probable, you write “Hey guys, how possible or probable are these statements?” then compose a set of statements that are inferential and varying shades of likely or unlikely. E.g. if the source material depicts Caesar attacking the Gauls, your statement could be something like ‘Caesar values human life greatly’ (Caesar vitam hūmānam magnī aestimat). This is harder to compose than true/false and closed questions because 1) it uses more creative thinking and 2) often requires words that are not provided in the source material.
If you see a list of possible/probable statements in the comments, you can reply with your opinion by writing ‘possible’, ‘impossible’, ‘probable’, or ‘improbable’ next to each statement. (Or if you’re really wanting to stay only in Latin, ‘possibile, impossibile, crēdibile, incrēdibile’. This can also be modified by adverbs like ‘maximē, minimē’: ‘maximē crēdibile’, etc.)
If you see that someone has already replied to a list of ‘possible/probable’ statements, you can read their opinions and see what items you would agree and disagree with, and reply stating why you’d have a different opinion, in Latin or in your native language. ‘Possible/probable’ is a subjective assessment so different people will naturally reach different conclusions. This activity tends to produce really interesting discussion of characters and motivations.
These four interactive writing activities are by no means the only writing activities you could productively use to train your writing skills. But I am confident that these will be more motivating and better for your overall language development than struggling alone with artificial “Latin Prose Composition” exercises. Composing for a purpose is not just more enjoyable for you, it is also more helpful to everyone else who is also looking for meaningful interaction in the language, at an appropriate level of difficulty.
I think if we committed to doing these interactive commenting activites, we’d use the language a lot more than if we tried to whip ourselves into grudgingly sustaining an innately unpleasant writing activity. It would also foster our sense of community and being part of learning Latin together, cooperatively interacting in writing with one another. Active Latin is so much more than just one extremely limited writing exercise. We need to look beyond our tiny Latin bubble and imagine what other exciting learning possibilities we could find in the broader world of second language pedagogy… or have those composition drills killed our imagination after all?