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4 Interactive Writing Activities More Beneficial Than the Dreaded ‘Latin Prose Composition’

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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:

  1. What is “Latin Prose Composition”?
  2. Why would someone want to practice writing?
  3. Is “Latin Prose Composition” the best way to achieve those writing goals?
  4. 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:

  1. Some learners want to become good at writing in Latin for the sake of writing creatively in Latin
  2. Some learners want to write because they believe writing is part of knowing a language
  3. When writing is paired with reading activities, learners may be more attentive to the input
  4. Learners can be more motivated when they create products along the way, because they can see their progress
  5. 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:

LatinEnglish
-ne? (attached to end of first word)Creates a yes/no question
… an …?
utrum … an … ?
… or … ?
quis?Who?
quid?What? (/Why?)
cūr?Why?
quōmodo?How?
quandō?When?
ubi?Where? (in what place?)
quō?To where? (to what place?)
unde?From where? (from what place?)
quālis est…?What is … like?
quot?How many?
quantus, -a, -um?How big?

While we’re at it, here’s a similar list of question words in Ancient Greek:

Ancient GreekEnglish
ᾶρα;Creates a yes/no question
… ὴ …
πότερον… ὴ…
… or …?
τίς;Who?
τί;What? (/Why?)
διὰ τί;Why? (on what grounds?)
ἵνα τί;Why? (for what purpose?)
πῶς;How?
πότε;When?
ποῦ;Where? (in what place?)
ποῖ;To where? (to what place?)
πόθεν;From where? (from what place?)
ποῖός εστιν…;What is … like?
πόσοι;How many?
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.

4) Possible/probable.

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.

Conclusions

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?

Launching a new Ancient Greek YouTube channel

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As I’ve been making more Ancient Greek language videos on my Latin channel, it has become increasingly clear that it is best if these Greek videos have their own home on a dedicated channel for Ancient Greek content. So now I’m launching a new channel for Ancient Greek comprehensible input – Found in Antiquity: Ancient Greek! I’ll be posting new Greek videos and moving my old Greek content over. There’s only about a dozen videos on it at the moment but in the coming time you’ll see more.

Separating my Latin and Greek content into two channels was not a light decision to make, given the historical links between the languages. Ultimately it came down to what best represented the learners and audience. As I stated in my previous post, 12 Reasons why Latinists are not learning Ancient Greek, not everyone who learns Latin learns Ancient Greek, and vice versa.

I want my content to be focused on helping as many people in their language journeys as possible, and that includes people who only do one of the ancient languages without the other. As a result, I do not expect Greek students to have mastered Latin or vice versa, so I do not structure my Greek content to expect a progression from Latin –> Greek with prerequisite knowledge carried over from Latin.

If you’re interested, there’s a more in-depth discussion of my reasons for splitting the languages into two channels in this video: 

I’m excited to be contributing more story-based learning and comprehensible input videos to the Ancient Greek learner community and I hope this channel will help many people on their language journeys, wherever you currently are.

12 Reasons why Latinists are not learning Ancient Greek

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Are all Latin enthusiasts also engaged with learning Ancient Greek, and vice versa? The poll results are in, and while there’s an overlap, there are also big segments that loyally stick to just one of the languages. In this post, I will investigate why not everyone learns both Latin and Ancient Greek, focusing in particular on why a lot of Latinists aren’t touching Greek right now.

To begin with, how big is the overlap in interest between Latin and Ancient Greek?

Classics degrees typically mandate the study of Latin and Ancient Greek together, so it is common for Classics students to do both languages, even if out of compulsion. But how common is it for learners in the wider world to do both languages, including those outside of formal Classics degrees?

I polled my audience on YouTube asking what languages they watch videos in, and these were the results:

Less than half of the YouTube respondents (41%) reported that they watched videos in both languages. The largest segment (50%) were interested only in Latin, while a small number (9%) were interested purely in Ancient Greek. My YouTube audience may not be the most representative sample space for ancient language learners, but it looked like a very large proportion of Latinists (more than half of the total Latinists polled) were not touching Ancient Greek.

I also ran a poll on Twitter to see how Twitter followers would respond. This is what came back after 3 days:

A larger segment (about 60%) were engaged with both Latin and Ancient Greek, but still significant portions of the voters (around 20% each) were in just one of the languages. I have a feeling that the Twitter audience I’m connected to consists of more professional Classicists and Latin/Ancient Greek teachers, whereas the YouTube poll may have consisted of a younger audience of learners with more often a hobbyist background. This greater proportion of professional ancient language specialists may have skewed my Twitter poll results more towards those who had more time and professional interest for learning both languages.

My takeaway is that while many people do have an interest in both Latin and Ancient Greek, a large number only engage with one of the languages, especially if that language is Latin.

If this is true – if a lot of Latin fans are not currently engaging with Ancient Greek – I want to know why! Are they uninterested in learning Ancient Greek? Or are they interested, but certain barriers prevent them from starting Ancient Greek? If so, are those barriers something we as teachers and resource makers can help learners overcome, or are some things outside of our control?

I needed to hear it from the learners.

So I asked the Latin subreddit: If you’re a Latin enthusiast but not currently learning or dabbling in Ancient Greek, I want to hear about why you’re on pure Latin.

The post gathered 92 comments and replies in the first 24 hours. When I read through these comments, a lot of people had very different interests and circumstances, but there were also many repeating themes.

Excluding the reply threads, I gathered the remaining 50 standalone comments from the post at the time and tagged the themes that came up in each comment, such as ‘I’m not interested in Greek’ and ‘It wasn’t offered at my school’. This allows us to summarise all of the themes and compare the relative frequency of each.

Here were the results, consisting of 12 reasons why Latinists weren’t learning Ancient Greek:

The two most common cited reasons for not pursuing Ancient Greek was ‘lack of interest’ and ‘not having enough time to commit to learning another language’.

Tied for third place were three themes: ‘lack of good learning resources for Ancient Greek’; ‘It’s not offered at my school’; and ‘Greek is hard‘. Some of the posts which allude to Greek being hard are simply reporting a feeling of dread as the learner perceives Greek to be a hard language based on what others have said, but others are posts from people who have personally tried to learn Greek but found it too hard to continue.

As for the resource gap, I am very keenly aware that there is a big gaping hole in beginner-friendly comprehensible-input-based resources for learning Ancient Greek. There are remedies for this on the horizon that we are working on. Alpha with Angela is a wonderful Comprehensible Input based video series which teaches Biblical Koine through speech, props, gestures, and TPR. It is currently in development – as of the time of writing, there are 14 lessons – but more videos are being made all the time. It’s completely free and released under Creative Commons, which has allowed me to make dubs of Alpha with Angela in Lucian pronunciation, if you prefer Lucian to Erasmian pronunciation. There is also the Ancient Greek in Action series by Luke Ranieri (Lucian pronunciation) which is designed to ease beginners into Greek and to dovetail into the start of the Athenaze textbook. Luke is also planning a big release of an Ancient Greek learning resource in the next few weeks which I’ll edit into this post when he announces it. I also highly recommend the Ancient Greek courses offered by Seumas Macdonald at The Patrologist – he teaches communicatively with a lot of input-rich resources such as his Lingua Graeca Per Se Illustrata, which is not a direct translation of Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata but develops an independent storyline tailored to the needs of Ancient Greek.

There are certainly resources we can create (and which we are creating) that would make Ancient Greek less daunting to learn.

But it is important to acknowledge that many of the reasons Latinists are not touching Ancient Greek go beyond the resource gap, and can’t all be fixed by us filling the resource gap. This isn’t just a ‘build it and they will come’ situation. A lot of Latinists simply don’t feel any interest, affection or emotional attachment towards Ancient Greece, Greek culture, the Greek language, or the Byzantines. They connect with the Romans a lot, but the Greeks seem foreign. Is it because the Roman Empire holds more interest than Greek civilisation in Western European countries? Is there a more tangible sense of place and historical connection to the Romans? A commenter mentioned seeing Latin inscriptions every day where they lived, and feeling like they were connected to the Latin past, but said they wouldn’t feel the same connection with Ancient Greek culture. As an Australian, I don’t feel any land connection to either the Romans or the Greeks, but even here there is a vague sense in which we inherit the connections to the Romans through the colonial British past, and Roman culture seems more relevant than Greek culture.

A large number of commenters mentioned that they are studying periods or places which used Latin but had comparatively little contact with Ancient Greek, such as the Medieval period, the Early Modern period, North Africa, or the Papacy. It wasn’t just the Ancient Romans who wrote in Latin. Consequently, these Latinists have much less interest in taking up Ancient Greek.

Many commenters also mentioned that learning any language – especially an ancient one – takes an extraordinary commitment of time and effort. When asked ‘why aren’t you learning Ancient Greek?’ they quite understandably objected that they shouldn’t have to justify why they hadn’t chosen Ancient Greek. Some of these people are already learning multiple modern languages, and adding another ancient language to the mix would be overwhelming. Others mentioned that they had their hands full with other important responsbilities in life, and it just wouldn’t be possible to add another language on top of Latin.

Several commenters were waiting for their Latin to reach a higher level before they could feel comfortable starting out in a new language like Ancient Greek. They did not want to spread their time too thinly between languages.

Some were also mentioning that they wanted to learn Modern Greek to a comfortable level of fluency before Ancient Greek. Learning the modern language would help them reach fluency in Ancient Greek faster, and there are more living ways to learn Modern Greek than we have available in Ancient Greek.

A lot of Latinists mentioned the Greek alphabet as a barrier to them learning the language. We need to take this concern seriously. It’s easy for a teacher to forget how long it really takes to adjust to the alphabet. Far too often, Ancient Greek courses throw students into sink-or-swim situations where students are expected to master the alphabet by day 2, and all subsequent materials are silent words printed on paper. Sure, one can memorise individual letters pretty quickly, but it takes a lot longer to be able to fluently read whole words, sentences, and paragraphs rapidly. Many students get left behind from the very start and never fully catch up, simply dropping out of the course.

One commenter mentioned that their teacher’s general approach was to assume that students of Ancient Greek were already gifted linguists. I can’t help but feel that is a toxic attitude which has damaged Ancient Greek pedagogy and restricted success only to the most exceptional language learners. We need to resist this tendency to teach Greek only for the best of the best.

In all, there are some important things we can do to remove barriers to learning Ancient Greek. But we should not assume that all Latinists will automatically have an interest in learning Ancient Greek. While there is a significant overlap between communities learning Latin and those learning Ancient Greek, there is also a significant proportion of learners who only want to learn one of the languages, or only have the time to focus on one. And that is okay!

The Gospel of Matthew, Greek audiobook in Lucian

Posted on

I’m creating a Creative Commons audiobook of the Gospel of Matthew, narrated in the original Ancient Greek language, using Lucian Koine Greek pronunciation.

Audio and video materials

I am making YouTube video versions of the audiobook chapters, with text synced to the narration.

Here is the full YouTube playlist.

In addition, the audio files for each chapter will be posted publicly on Patreon.

Links to the audio for each chapter:

(I will also make the audio files downloadable somewhere, as a zip folder of mp3s, but at present I’m not sure where best to host this.)

About this project

This is a long-running project, started over a year ago in January 2021.

Back then my Greek pronunciation skills were not as developed as they are today, and I was aware that my oral proficiency was not where I wanted it to be. Nevertheless I started making rough recordings as a ‘first draft’ with the intention that I would return and make a more polished version later, when my skills had improved. This time has now come.

Between 2021 and now, it’s been a big year for language learning for me, in which I adopted more communicative ways of learning and teaching ancient languages. I feel that my oral skills have improved a lot (although I know that I will continue to improve as a lifetime learner of the language).

I changed my dominant Ancient Greek pronunciation scheme not once but twice during the drafting of this project and finally settled on Lucian pronunciation. More about why I chose Lucian pronunciation below.

I’m using the Nestle-Aland 1904 text, which is the most recent critical edition that is also in the public domain. Many thanks to the Nestle 1904 Greek New Testament website for making this text available.

Goals

A major goal of mine is to make Latin and especially Ancient Greek more accessible to more people. One of the barriers to learning ancient languages is the relatively scarcity of media, especially audio and video, that could help us internalise the languages. The Greek New Testament, and especially the Gospels, are relatively easy to read compared to the majority of Ancient Greek literature, and are therefore well suited as extensive reading material for late-beginners to intermediate learners of the language. Creating high quality audiobooks of the Greek New Testament would open up more options for Greek learners of all faith backgrounds to internalise the workings of Ancient Greek and improve their fluency in the language.

Another goal is specifically to improve Ancient Greek fluency among people who learned Koine Greek in seminary school and who wish to retain their Greek. The biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew, are often taught as required subjects for biblical exegesis, but for the majority of students, very little of the languages is remembered after seminary school. This is a shame, since (like any ancient text) the bible in its original languages has a kind of beauty and expressive power that you would never be able to truly feel and appreciate in the various English translations. But for Christians it’s not just an ancient text – we read the bible for it to speak into our lives and for God to make himself known to us. Translations are good to an extent, as they can be accurate at conveying the same meaning as the original, but they will never be able to capture the same feel, tone of voice, impressions, word play, sound play, and subjective experience as hearing or reading scripture in the original languages. Part of the goals of the Matthew audiobook project is to provide more opportunities for seminarians and ex-seminarians to experience and appreciate the beauty of scripture in Ancient Greek, to retain more of the Ancient Greek language, and continue growing in it as as life-long learners.

A third goal is to be able to produce works that encourage the proliferation of other learner materials. Ancient Greek is in a kind of self-perpetuating resource famine. A lot of talent and new pedagogy of ancient languages is being poured into Latin, but its sister Ancient Greek lies neglected and poor in learner resources. Since relatively fewer people gain fluency in Ancient Greek due to the lack of resources, fewer people are around to make resources and the vicious cycle continues. I am releasing this audiobook in the Creative Commons to make it maximally accessible but also to allow for it to be modified and re-used in other projects that may benefit from audio materials, such as video projects, learner software, or anything else in the future. I want to make it easier for other people to produce quality learner materials in Ancient Greek.

Creative Commons Licence

The Gospel of Matthew (Lucian pronunciation) audiobook project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

How is this different from other recordings of Matthew/the NT?

The entire Greek New Testament has been recorded in Modern Greek pronunciation in the public domain, and the Gospel of Matthew has been recorded in Buth’s Historical Koine reconstructed pronunciation, though not in the public domain.

This project is distinct from the other two as it is in Lucian pronunciation.

The only other recorded New Testament audiobook in Lucian pronunciation is Luke Ranieri’s Gospel of John trilingual audiobook, which is sold on his shopify.

Why Lucian pronunciation?

There are several competing pronunciation schemes for Ancient Greek.

Erasmian (perhaps the least deserving of all pronunciation schemes) is dominant in tertiary institutions in the West. Erasmian arbitrarily chooses combinations of phonemes from different time periods to create a version of Greek that sounds distinctly Western European and was never spoken by a historical native Greek speaking population.

On the other hand, historically valid pronunciation schemes include reconstructed Attic, Lucian, Buth’s Koine, and Modern Greek.

Attic, frozen in time from 500BC Athens, would sound quite different to the various Koine pronunciations circulating in Palestine in the time of the New Testament. Choosing a later pronunciation for a text isn’t as jarring as choosing earlier pronunciation, since the audience of an ancient text includes those who received it and appreciated it in later generations. But choosing a pronunciation (i.e. Attic) that came and went hundreds of years before this text was written would feel odd. It would be as weird as reading Harry Potter in Shakespearean OP. Our remaining options for historically appropriate schemes would be Lucian, Buth’s Koine, and Modern Greek.

While Modern Greek and Buth’s Koine are valid historical choices for reading the Greek New Testament, my problem with learning and teaching with these later pronunciation schemes is that they contain features which restrict their usefulness and applicability to earlier forms of Ancient Greek literature, specifically quantitative poetry.

Modern Greek and Buth’s Koine lack phonemic vowel length, ignore doubled consonants, and depend on a stress-accent system which is not compatible with quantitative poetry of the Classical and Hellenistic periods. One could still read the poetry in those pronunciation schemes, but the quantity-based rhythm system would be lost.

One might object, ‘There is no quantitative poetry in the Greek New Testament, so what’s the problem?’ The problem is that limiting teaching to ‘only what occurs in New Testament Greek’ or ‘Christian Greek’ or ‘Koine’ contributes to the fracturing of our learning community. On one side there are the Atticists with Classical training (and, more often than I would admit, elitist attitudes) who turn their noses up on seminary students who are learning ‘baby Greek’, and on the other side are some NT scholars working in silos, who may never have read a sentence of Greek outside the tiny corpus of the NT and yet might act as authorities on the semantic range of words in Ancient Greek.

The divide between Classical Greek scholarship and Christian Greek scholarship is deeply unhelpful for both sides, and has served to make the learner resource famine even worse for everyone. Fundamentally, Koine is a form of Attic Greek and these historical dialects form a continuous, mutually intelligible language. Classical students would benefit hugely from reading the long, easy-to-digest, narrative passages in the New Testament. In turn, seminary students would benefit from knowing first-hand what NT Koine sounds like in comparison to other writing styles, other dialects, other time periods, and I would love if they could feel more comfortable with venturing outside reading only Koine texts even if these may not be the focus of their studies.

I choose Lucian pronunciation as my dominant pronunciation scheme because it offers the highest degree of compatibility with both Classical and Koine texts, and thus offers the greatest opportunity for both secular and Christian students to learn from a wider variety of texts and learn from each other.

Lucian also has a growing set of materials made for learning through comprehensible input. These include Luke Ranieri’s Ancient Greek in Action series, his recordings of both the English and Italian versions of Athenaze, his recordings of the novella Ὁ Κατάσκοπος (The Spy), and other learner-friendly materials such as my dubs of Alpha with Angela‘s Comprehensible spoken Ancient Greek course.

A more subjective reason I chose Lucian is because of its aesthetic qualities. It comes with a full set of fricatives, including β, δ, γ, and χ which to my ear impart a lovely velvety sound. The way it does οι is so delightfully subtle; it’s still separate from the other phonemes but it’s coming perilously close to υ. It is also quite nice to be able to clearly distinguish κ from χ, something which I seemed to mix up a lot in both Erasmian pronunciation and in my pronunciation of earlier historical dialects that rely on the aspirated/unaspirated contrast. And I like the rhythmic and musical quality that arises when both syllable quantity and pitch accent are respected. It sounds different from Latin, and I like that; I think it sounds more authentic with all of these cool little details and transitional sounds.

Lucian may not currently be the biggest player in the pronunciation wars, but I think it has a lot going for it and has the potential to bring people from different disciplines and faith backgrounds together. It helps bridge the divide between the Classical, Hellenistic, and later Koine literature by being flexibly useful for both the biblical setting as well as for Attic texts as received by later generations, and Classical and Hellenistic poetry.

You can learn more about Lucian pronunciation from this video here.

Ancillary materials

I have modified the Nestle-Aland 1904 Greek New Testament text in the following ways:

  1. Added macrons
  2. Added quote marks « » around direct speech
  3. Removed smooth breathings

These are mainly punctuation mark-up changes that have no impact on the meaning of the text, but which make it more readable to human eyeballs.

  • Macrons are there for my uses in pronouncing quantities – they probably are a bit overkill for a biblical text, but I’m nerdy about it and I want to have them written in.
  • The quote marks make passages with direct speech more readable.
  • The removal of smooth breathings makes rough breathings more readable.

I haven’t finished editing the whole text of Matthew, but when I have, I’ll make my edited version available here, in case anyone wants to read from it.

In the process of removing smooth breathings, my husband and I created a digital tool that removes all word-initial smooth breathings automatically, performing 117 character substitutions instantly. (It also has the capability of putting them all back in, should the need arise.) We are in the process of developing a website version of this tool, but we want to make sure it’s reliable before releasing it to the public.

Would you consider making other NT audiobooks?

Yes. Once Matthew is done, I’d be tempted to do Luke and Acts. It may take some time but it would be worth it. I’m open to suggestions too.

The internet brings spoken Latin back into classrooms

This article was originally written for the Iris publication of the Classics Association Victoria. The print version will come out in March 2022 at the annual conference. I will also be presenting a talk on incorporating spoken Latin in classrooms.

Thanks to the internet age, we now have ways of teaching and learning Latin that were previously inconceivable.

As teachers and lovers of Latin, we ought to recognise these new opportunities. There is a burgeoning community of living Latin speakers in our times, and we have a duty to assess how this new technologically-connected world can help us improve our teaching and learning of Latin.

The rise of the internet has sparked two major developments promoting living Latin:

Firstly, the internet has allowed niche hobbyists separated by geography to gather around their shared interests and create larger, united communities. For the Latin community, this has meant that speakers from across the globe have been able to create a more coherent speaking community in which expertise and fluency in spoken Latin is fostered, improving the abilities of all members at different skill levels. This has enabled more Latin content creators to emerge, creating better spoken Latin materials for upskilling members of the community, setting in motion a positive feedback loop that is revitalising the language.

Secondly, the internet has allowed new language teaching methods to be shared, and new materials for implementing said methods. Latin novellas, audiobooks, podcasts, and high-quality Latin video content are now available on-demand from anywhere in the globe. The self-publishing nature of the internet has allowed Latin speakers to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of mainstream publishing. A vibrant and growing body of Latin learning materials has rapidly emerged within the last 10 years.   

Part 1: The living Latin revival

We are witnesses to a burgeoning revival of spoken Latin around the globe.

Living Latin spreading with the internet

The internet has allowed the living Latin movement to overcome geographical boundaries. People had been meeting in person at Latin-speaking conferences, conventicula, in Europe and the US for many decades already (the first SALVI conferences were in 1997-1998, for instance).[1] But with the rise of video streaming sites like YouTube, many recordings of these Latin-speaking events have been posted online. A niche conference held in a particular time and place becomes a permanent record of spoken Latin, viewable from anywhere. One can find a YouTube playlist containing 70+ hours of advanced-level spoken Latin, many videos of which were recorded from spoken Latin events.

Live conversations now take place regularly throughout the week among Latin-speaking communities whose members are geographically separated. There are several Discord servers through which speakers meet and host regular weekly voice chats.[2]  Several Latin speaking groups also meet to talk over Zoom on regularly scheduled weekly times, now running four times per week.

Of particular interest to school teachers is the rise of YouTube channels posting engaging spoken Latin videos. Notable content creators include the following:

Luke Ranieri regularly posts spoken Latin videos on his channel ScorpioMartianus. Among these is a series of videos designed specifically to be used as comprehensible input for newcomers in Latin, his Lingua Latina Comprehensibilis series. The meaning of the Latin in many of his videos is supported by his use of props and gestures, as well as carefully chosen stock footage.

Irene Regini, who runs the channel Satura Lanx, produces many spoken Latin videos explaining topics of grammar, word choice, and ancient literature, as well as vlogs on aspects of her daily life. She is a Latin teacher based in Italy with many years of experience in teaching Latin through spoken input. Her videos are an asset to the community.

My channel, Found in Antiquity, focuses on creating subtitled comprehensible input in Latin that is very beginner-friendly. The Minecraftium series introduces Latin words in the context of the game of Minecraft, and features a continuous narrative that is partly shaped by audience participation in the comments section. I also have other comprehensible input series such as Your Body in Latin  (focusing on medical Latin) as well as Latin videos inspired by pop-culture fandoms such as Pokemon and Harry Potter.

Jesse Craft, on his channel Divus Magister Craft, produces video adaptations of stories from history and mythology. Comprehension is aided by the Latin and English subtitles that come with all his videos. The visuals also help immensely – Jesse Craft creates breathtakingly detailed animations for his Latin content by recording the visuals from a heavily-modded version of Minecraft.

Daniel Pettersson on Latinitium runs a Latin website as well as a YouTube channel. He produces many high-quality spoken Latin videos of intermediate difficulty on a wide range of classical and contemporary topics, and has recently released a Latin reading app (Legentibus) with synchronised text and audio.

There are many other channels including numerous Latin vloggers and podcasters who publish their thoughts in conversational Latin, such as Musa Pedestris, Legio XIII, Andreas Alcor, Alexius Cosanus[3], and others.

Could anyone even 10 years ago have found as much spoken Latin in video format as what can be found on even one of these channels?

Many of us have long been aware of the Finnish Latin news broadcast, Nuntii Latini, which released week 5-minute radio segments that ran from 1989-2019. The Nuntii Latini were posted on the internet with transcriptions and glossaries, all still accessible today, and enjoyed a viewership of 40,000 in 2019.[4] This broadcast was nearly cancelled in 2017 and finally discontinued in 2019, when the creators of the long-running program retired, citing that there were now far more Latin resources in the world than when the program first started. The news is still being regularly reported in Latin by several other programs, the German-based Lateinischer Monatsrückblick, the Vatican-based Nuntii Latini, and the Washington-based Nuntii Latini. The internet has allowed all of these Latin news broadcasts from disparate places in the world (Finland, Germany, Italy, and the US) to gain international readership among the broader Latin community.

How big is the Latin speaking community?

There are several ways to estimate the size of the living Latin community.

One way would be to count the number of attendees at Latin speaking events held worldwide. In 2007, a single meeting in Naples organized by the Academy Vivarium Novum had over 300 Latin speakers present.[5] The Conventiculum Lexintonense in 2014 had 85 participants.[6] There are several other Latin speaking conventions such as the Conventiculum Dickinsoniense, the Rusticationes and the Bidua organised by SALVI. The Circuli Latini site lists 17 active Latin speaking groups throughout Europe and North America, and one in Hong Kong. The number and size of these meetings would suggest that there are at least a few hundred active Latin speakers worldwide.

Thirteen years ago, in 2009, a Census Latinus was conducted by Western Washington University through mass emailing and advertising on two Latin journals.[7] It hadn’t been advertised on social media and didn’t reach all Latin speaking groups before the data collection period was over, but 440 individuals responded to the survey. Out of these, 289 participants reported that they had skill in speaking Latin, and 68 said they had spoken Latin for over 10 years.[8] (As a side note, 2 of the Latin speakers were reported as being 2 years old in 2009, indicating that some Latin users were speaking with their toddlers in Latin.)[9] The numbers from the 2009 Census, while not showing the full picture of all Latin speakers, indicate there were at least a few hundred speakers of Latin.

In January 2021, I created a quick poll on the Latin Subreddit counting the number of self-reported Latin speakers in the Reddit community. The poll was active for 3 days, and 767 users responded to it. Out of these, 149 reported that they had at least some Latin speaking experience, and 54 self-identified as ‘fluent speakers’. (See Fig. 1 and 2. Note, however, that ‘fluent’ is a subjective term which does not necessarily mean that a person has achieved native-like proficiency in the language; the data from especially the anonymous reddit poll needs to be taken with caution as it is likely for users to overstate their  competence.)

[Fig. 1] The poll (users selected only one option):

Text as it appeared in the pollAbbreviated for graphs
I consider myself a fluent Latin speaker. I am comfortable entering any spoken Latin conversation on any topic.Fluent at speaking (higher)
I consider myself a fluent Latin speaker. I’m comfortable talking about most topics.Fluent at speaking (lower)
I don’t consider myself fluent, but I have spoken and effectively communicated in Latin conversation at least once.Can speak but not fluent
I prefer to listen in on conversations, but I comprehend them well, understanding most of the words.Listener in conversation (higher)
I prefer to listen in on conversations, and I miss a lot of words, but get the general gist of the topic.Listener in conversation (lower)
I’m currently at a speaking/listening level lower than all the above statements or untested in conversation.Unskilled/untested in conversation

[Fig. 2]

I conducted the same poll in the Latin Teacher Idea Exchange facebook group (asking members not to vote on both the reddit poll and the facebook poll) and after 2 days it had 198 respondents, of whom 144 reported they had Latin speaking experience, and 34 labelled themselves as ‘fluent speakers’. (See Fig. 3)

[Fig. 3]

These rough polls did not reach the full breadth of Latin speaking communities – both were conducted in English in mostly-Anglophone Latin groups, whereas there is a very significant if not larger population of Latin speakers in non-Anglophone Europe. Nevertheless, assuming there were no duplicate answers between the polls, at least 293 English-speaking Latinists have reported that they have used Latin in spoken communication. It seems reasonable to suggest that there are at least a few hundred Latinists with speaking experience, and perhaps double this number would be found if one were to poll non-English Latin speakers too.

[Fig. 4]

However, active speakers are just one part of the living Latin community. The listeners are the other, much larger, component, and are just as vital to the growth of the living Latin movement.

The viewership numbers for videos spoken entirely in Latin rank in the thousands. The YouTube channel ScorpioMartianus, which produces content exclusively in Latin and Ancient Greek, currently has 81.6K subscribers – although this subscriber count reflects inactive accounts as well as recent viewers. The view count on recent videos is more representative of a channel’s active audience. As per January 2022, the ten most recent Latin videos on ScorpioMartianus (excluding videos which were songs on dubbed movie clips) had an average of 9.1K views. On my channel, Found in Antiquity, which is smaller and newer than ScorpioMartianus, spoken Latin videos often attract about a thousand views. It appears from these numbers that the audience of spoken Latin content is in the thousands, and that is only counting those who use YouTube.

If it’s accurate to say that the Finnish Nuntii Latini enjoyed a viewership of 40,000 in 2019,[10] it would be reasonable to suggest that the Latin listening audience could number even in the tens of thousands.

The internet acts like a lever: A relatively small number of highly productive Latin speakers can produce video and audio content which reaches thousands of viewers and increases the language competency of the whole community. This creates a positive feedback loop that makes it more likely for new content creators to emerge.[11] As new creators bring different ideas and skills into creating Latin audio and video content, they further promote the language and make it more accessible to a broader audience.

One thing is clear: an international Latin speaking community exists, and it is making high quality Latin content.

The next question is how we can make use of this community in our Latin teaching.

Part 2: The spread of new teaching methods and learning materials.

When I started teaching Latin, the resources I had were the published textbook materials, anything I made myself, and any resources made by previous Latin teacher(s) to match with the current textbook.

It’s now no longer just ourselves and the textbook.

Because of the connectivity of the internet, we now have access to the creative efforts of Latin teachers and enthusiasts from around the globe. My main points in this section are:

  1. We don’t need to be highly proficient speakers to show students spoken Latin videos.
  2. We don’t need to be novelists to give students Latin novellas to read.
  3. We don’t need to have met an active Latin teacher in person to get practical advice from them on how to use spoken Latin in the classroom.

All these things and more are facilitated by the rise of sharing and self-publishing in the internet age.

Firstly, it cannot be overstated how much of a difference comprehensible spoken Latin makes to language acquisition. When Latin is understood at the speed of speech, learners can process as much as 60 words per minute. Translation from textbooks is much slower than this – in my experience, students translate Latin into written English at a rate of about 5-10 words per minute. Using spoken Latin in place of written translation could mean as much as a 1200% increase in the amount of Latin encountered. The sheer volume of content which can be delivered in audio-visual format vastly overshadows the amount of content that is provided by translation tasks in textbooks.

The idea of teaching Latin through listening comprehension is not new – the Direct Method in the early 20th century, the Nature Method in the mid 20th century, and Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis of the 1970s and 1980s are not new. What is new is that a Latin teacher can now immediately show students a video of comprehensible spoken Latin, without having already become a fluent Latin speaker themselves. A teacher doesn’t need to be the only source of spoken Latin in the classroom. The voices of Latinists from all over the world can be instantly brought into the classroom to serve as spoken comprehensible input.

Secondly, the internet has given us an entirely new genre of learning materials: the Latin novella, with sheltered vocabulary but unsheltered grammar. These novellas, written by Latin teachers around the world but especially in North America, contain compelling narratives that are so easy to read that they can be read for pleasure even at very early stages in language learning. Novellas in this genre are often 2,000 words or longer, but recycle a small vocabulary of high-frequency words, so that the reader spends less time looking up words and more time understanding the flow of what they are reading. Some schools have gone ‘untextbooked’ and teach the Latin language completely through the massive input provided by novellas, with grammar being taught as a ‘pop-up’ affair after students start noticing patterns in the language. But novellas can be used flexibly within Latin classes – a teacher can set up a ‘sustained silent reading’ as a component of lessons, which would increase natural language acquisition even if the rest of the course remained unchanged in nature.

The novella genre has emerged very rapidly, thanks to the self-publishing channels that now exist on the internet. The first Latin novella, Iter Icari, was published in 2014. As of January 2022, there are now at least 115 novellas – here is the most complete list of current novellas. If each novella represents about 2,000 words of content, that would mean over 230,000 words of highly entertaining easy Latin prose has been written and published in less than eight years. A genre that was previously non-existent is now so large that a student probably can’t exhaust all the Latin novellas in the time it takes to graduate from high school.

The novella genre exists because of the rise of print-on-demand, self-publishing sites which allow authors to bypass traditional publishers. Latin teachers could freely experiment with a new medium of teaching Latin – extensive reading – and share this development with other Latin teachers. Without being novelists ourselves, we can benefit immensely from the development of this new and exciting genre.

Thirdly, there are now more ways than ever to get advice from Latin teachers who have gone before us and tried new ways of implementing spoken Latin and input-based methodologies in classrooms.

The Latin Teacher Lab, founded by Justin Slocum-Bailey, releases YouTube videos giving practical advice and example activities on how to incorporate compelling comprehensible input in Latin classes without already being a fluent Latin speaker.

Facebook groups such as Teaching Latin for Acquisition and Latin Best Practices: The Next Generation in Comprehensible Input are excellent places to find ideas and resources for increasing the comprehensible input offered in Latin classrooms. One can often find valuable resources such as tiered readings of classical texts, and descriptions of low-prep but highly effective input-based activities.[12] But these are not static pages. They are communities of Latin teachers, and you can ask the people who have tried an activity how it went and what they had done to modify it.

The playing field has changed since I learned Latin in school in the late 2000s. Thanks to the internet, switching to input-based and spoken Latin practices in the classroom is easier than it ever has been. The Latin community itself has been growing and increasing in productive skills. Content creators on YouTube are reaching audiences of thousands with videos spoken entirely in the ancient language. Over a hundred Latin novellas have been published in just eight years. Latin itself is being revitalised as a communicative language. With toddlers and very young children learning spoken Latin, even the idea that Latin is not natively spoken might need to be revised within our lifetime. Our duty in the present is to seize these opportunities to create more joyful and effective learning experiences for our students.


[1] https://latin.org/wordpress/salvi-programs/

[2] These servers include ‘Latin’, ‘LLPSI’, and ‘LukeRanieri.com’, as well as other Discord servers for smaller friendship groups.

[3] Alessio Schiano (Alexius Cosanus, one of the Latin vloggers mentioned above) and his wife Gemma Lawless teach through Latin at a bilingual Latin-English school, Weston Classical School, in Tenessee, USA. Latin is used as a language of instruction across multiple subjects, such as maths, science, and history, including among young primary students. They have been posting dozens of videos of very young students responding to Latin questions in Latin with ease and joy.

[4] https://www.rte.ie/news/world/2019/0624/1057298-latin/

[5] Eduardo Engelsing, “Census Latinus 2009: Goals, Data Collected, Importance, Perspectives,”  Classical World 110, no. 3 (2017): 406

[6] https://mcl.as.uky.edu/dead-language-resurrected-uk

[7] Eduardo Engelsing, “Census Latinus 2009: Goals, Data Collected, Importance, Perspectives,”  Classical World 110, no. 3 (2017): 406

[8] Ibid, 418-419

[9] Ibid, 406

[10] https://www.rte.ie/news/world/2019/0624/1057298-latin/

[11] I would not have started creating Latin YouTube content if I hadn’t been watching ScorpioMartianus for at least a year. That channel was both a source of inspiration and had a very positive impact on my Latin fluency. I hope that my channel will do the same for other content creators.

[12] A tiered reading is where the student is presented with a simpler Latin version of a piece of classical text, and reads gradually more complex versions before being presented with the original text. It allows students to understand difficult Latin through simpler Latin, to stay in the target language, and has a side effect of making students read about three times as much Latin as they would have otherwise been exposed to, compared to if they were just made to struggle with a dictionary through translating the one original text.

Aeneid poster for sale, and other merch!

I’ve opened a merch shop for Found in Antiquity, to support my YouTube channel and my work in creating more comprehensible input in Latin and Ancient Greek!

Aeneid Poster

I’ve just started adding products, but let me show you this pretty poster:

These are the first 11 lines of the Aeneid, the epic poem about the Trojan hero Aeneas’ quest to bring his people to Italy and establish a new city which will be the precursor to Rome.

The first 11 lines serve as an introduction to all the main themes of the epic: War, human suffering, the will of fate and the schemes of the gods, the wrath of Juno, and the piety of Aeneas.

Almost every Latin word is illustrated with a little picture to represent the meaning of that word, forming a kind of interlinear with Latin and illustrations.

Every time you look at this poster on your wall, you can relive the opening moments of the Aeneid and immerse yourself in 100% Latin without looking at side notes or a translation.

I made this resource as a memory aid to remembering the meanings of words after the whole meaning of the sentences has been understood. I wouldn’t recommend using this as a means to understand the text for a first time reading it, as it will only help with individual words and not with how the words fit together.

The high definition colour version is being sold as a poster, but I’m also releasing a black and white version of the poster for free as a pdf in case you’re a teacher who’d like to print it out as a class handout. Here’s the black and white pdf:

Shirts and Hoodies

I also made a couple shirts and hoodies with the Found In Antiquity logo and the Minecraftium logo:

Spreadshirt lets you choose your base colour, so you can customise your shirt or hoodie colours to whatever matches your style.

Miscellaneous merch

Tucked away in the menus, there’s also a mug:

And a tote bag:

Each with customisable base colours too.

Let me know what other options of merch you’d like to see, and I’ll be happy to add them! I like creating art and design, so I’m looking forward to coming up with more T-shirts, posters, and mug designs in the future, especially if the design incorporates a lot of Latin that can aid in Latin immersion.

A living Latin project: LingQ’s 60 Mini-Stories

Would you be interested in partnering with us to translate 60 Mini-Stories into Latin? This is an open, Creative Commons project in which we have the ability to create adaptations, videos, and supporting materials without fear of infringing copyright, unlike working from textbooks. LingQ, who created the original 60 Mini-Stories in English, have made them available in the public domain and are encouraging communities to translate them into their own languages. The stories revolve around ordinary situtations, feature many repetitions of vocabulary, and are already available in 39 other languages.

Read on for how you can help!

Why speak contemporary Latin?

Did you know people speak Latin on Discord? There are not one, but several Discord groups in which everyone communicates solely in Latin. The living Latin movement is growing every year, on both text-based messaging as well as on voice chats. Covid may have put a lot of the usual Latin conventions and physical meetups on hold, but international speakers of Latin are continuing to gain momentum through online platforms. I estimate there are at least several hundred active Latin speakers, with thousands of active listeners currently consuming spoken Latin content. (See this post for how I estimated these numbers)

mihi valdē placet. I greatly enjoy this development. I want to broaden my own vocabulary and communicative ability in Latin, and I appreciate how lively and genuine the conversations have been on the various Discord groups.

But here’s my problem – as soon as I open up to talk to real people about my own everyday life, I struggle with some basic words. How do I say ordinary things like “I gotta go to work”, “I’m bored”, “coffee”, or “I’m excited for the holidays”? These phrases are not high frequency in the classical corpus, and some of the concepts are not available to Ancient Romans.

Should we not talk about normal things in Latin?

Should we limit ourselves only to the top 1000 words found in the written corpus, and not discuss the banal and mundane things of the 21st century?

While mundane, “muggle” Latin is not the central focus of my highschool classroom, I personally want to be able to sustain a good conversation in Latin and converse spontaneously about ordinary things and generally be more competent and communicative. If this is your goal too, and you want to help others in this journey, let’s make it happen!

What resources already exist?

Several resources for Conversational Latin can help us on this project.

Traupman’s Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency

You can find videos of Traupman’s work spoken by Luke Ranieri in this playlist, and a pdf on this website. Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency presents model dialogues full of idiomatic expressions that pertain to everyday life. It also has a great English-Latin dictionary of useful modern words, with macrons, that will greatly assist us in making the CI stories. I’m listening to the dialogues as listening practice, but I find I need to listen on repeat to get adequate repetitions for the vocabulary to sink in. Hopefully with the 60 mini-stories we can add to the pool of resources, providing more input for everyday Latin words.

Berard’s Vita Nostra: Subsidia ad Colloquia Latina, Vol 1

Vita Nostra: Subsidia ad Colloquia Latina is a handbook for learning living Latin through themed sections. Vol 1 is written, but Vol 2 is forthcoming. Here’s a detailed review of it. I haven’t yet read it as my copy is coming in the mail, but I look forward to seeing good examples of modern words used in context.

Harrius Potter, Winnie Ille Pu, et cetera

Latin translations of modern novels provide a wealth of words for everyday situations, though they are hard to search and don’t have macrons. Harrius Potter in particular has been a popular read among the Latin community, with book 1 (Philosophi Lapis) and book 2 (Camera Secretorum) translated. Book 3 was always my favourite and I wished the Latin ones hadn’t stopped at Camera Secretorum… but I digress. If you can remember how something was expressed in Harrius Potter, we have a precedent for how we can express everyday things in full sentences and in the flow of a narrative.

Latinitium’s 4 searchable dictionaries

The Smith & Hall (1871), Lewis & Short (1849), Horae Latinae (1901), and Doederlein’s handbook of Latin synoynms (1874) are searchable together at Latinitium’s 4 dictionaries page. Macrons abound! The Smith & Hall in particulary is very helpful for things as specific as “pancake”, “gun”, and “vaccine”. However, these dictionaries do date back to the early 20th century and before, so they work best for concepts that were current in their times – Smith & Hall (1871) has “miasma” though it’s missing “microbe/microorganism”, it has “atom” but no “nuclear”, “air-balloon” but no “airplane”. (A thought comes to me that this would be the perfect dictionary for a steam-punk Latin novella. Is someone writing one?)

Other Neo-Latin dictionaries

The Neo-Latin lexicon is searchable in English to Latin, and has “airplane”. It tries to indicate correct macrons, but is not always consistent (the āero- prefix needs a macron on the a).

Wiktionary has good macrons and lots of entries in the Latin language, and of particular interest to us here are the 1,917 entries in New Latin. I haven’t yet found a way to search English-Latin in Wiktionary though.

The vatican has an official contemporary Latin lexicon, Lexicon recentis Latinitatis (1997), which contains 15,000 words. The physical copies are spread out into two volumes (A-L, M-Z) which are about $30 US each (I don’t have it though). The small version is available here, albeit in Italian-Latin, and with only 565 words. The web version shows very few macrons, and I’m not sure if the physical copies indicate quantities.

How do the 60 mini-stories work?

LingQ’s 60 mini-stories are intended to circle around basic vocabulary in the language (i.e. related to ordinary life) and feature many repetitions of core words. They are arranged in order of complexity, but they are not the same as graded readers. They are brief, only about 10 lines long, and presented in three parts: story A is the story from one perspective, story B is told from another character’s perspective, and they are then followed by questions. We will record an audio reading of each story. The stories will be uploaded on LingQ, where vocabulary tools allow readers to click words and see a definition in their L1, and create flashcards.

Here’s an example of the first story in English:

A)

Mike gets up at 6:00am every morning.
He makes breakfast and drinks a coffee.
He drives to work in his car.
His work starts at 7:30am.
Mike is a cook at a restaurant.
He makes food for hungry customers.
The customers are from many countries.
They speak many different languages.
Mike can meet many friendly people.
Mike is happy when he talks to the customers.

B)

I get up at six am every morning.
I make breakfast and drink a coffee.
I drive to work in my car.
My work starts at seven thirty am.
I am a cook at a restaurant.
I make food for hungry customers.
The customers are from many different countries.
They speak many different languages.
I can meet many friendly people.
I am happy when I talk to the customers.

Questions:

1) Mike wakes up at six am every morning. Does Mike wake up early?  Yes, Mike wakes up at 6:00am every morning.
2) Mike drinks a coffee.  Does Mike drink a tea?  No, Mike does not drink a tea, he drinks a coffee.
3) Mike drives his car to work.  Does Mike drive his car to work?  Yes, Mike drives his car to work.
4) Mike’s work starts at seven thirty am.  Does Mike’s work start at seven am?  No, Mike’s work does not start at seven am.  It starts at seven thirty am.
5) Mike is a cook at a restaurant.  Is Mike a cook?  Yes, Mike is a cook at a restaurant.
6) The customers are from many different countries.  Are the customers from one country?  No, the customers are not from one country.  They are from many different countries.
7) The customers are friendly.  Are the customers friendly?  Yes, the customers are friendly.
8) Mike feels happy when he talks to the customers.  Does Mike feel happy when he talks to the customers?  Yes, Mike feels happy when he talks to the customers.

When recording the audio for these, we should allow a brief pause after each question in the question section to give the listener an opportunity to respond (usually just enough time to say “ita, sīc est” or “minimē, est hoc aliud…”). However, the listener is not obligated to offer a response, and should feel free to listen to the supplied answer to gain more input. This is based on the hypothesis that we acquire languages primarily through input and not through production.

In addition to uploading these on LingQ, we will have the stories uploaded to Wikiversity under a CC-By-SA licence.

How can we coordinate our writing?

We will translate and edit in Google Docs, so that we can easily see the state of progress and don’t double-up on stories that have already been translated.

These public links are for viewing and commenting only, just to show our progress. If you wish to write translations, send me an email (addressed to Carla, at carlaschodde@gmail.com) and I’ll add you as an editor to the Google Docs.

You may translate as many or as few stories as you want.

You can leave comments on other people’s stories, suggesting changes, or fixing typos. Use the comment feature in Google Docs or the “suggesting” mode to enter your proofreading changes.

Just some things to consider:

Style & courtesy guidelines

We want our work to be consistent and achieve the goal of reinforcing vocabulary through many repetitions. We want it to be in good Latin, but also to express modern concepts. We want it to be easy to use for learners.

  1. We’ll write macrons (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, ȳ) for long vowels, and distinguish consonantal u as v, and consonantal i as j.
  2. Anything typed in bold black text is a draft. If we’ve reviewed and proofread something long enough, we’ll change the text to green to indicate it is “done”. Then when the audio is recorded it’ll be in golden yellow.
  3. We have freedom to rework the stories to what is easier to say in Latin. The English story doesn’t need to exactly match the Latin.
  4. We’ll take cues from the English as to the complexity of the sentence structure. In the first 10 stories, there is only a little subordination, for example. We don’t have to totally shelter grammar (eg. early subjunctives are fine), but we should try to keep our sentences brief and clear.
  5. When different phrasings are suggested, let’s prioritise expressions that have some precedent in Traupman or Harrius Potter or other recognisable modern Latin materials for consistency, or in the classical corpus, if possible.
  6. There may be multiple good ways to express an idea (eg. autocīnētum and raeda are equally valid words for “car”, according to Traupman). In the case where both phrasings are valid, and both would be valuable, we can put one of them in the main story and the other one in a comment on the Google Doc. Later we can compile all the comments into an alternate-universe version of the story that will also be useful to learners. Bonus content in the future!
  7. We want our key vocab to have many, many repetitions. That means not mixing synonyms within a story. If a story starts with raeda for car, keep using raeda throughout the whole story. The alternate version (if we make one) can have autocīnētum throughout. (Feel free to use different synonyms between stories though, just not within.)
  8. We’re imagining speaking Latin in the here and now, not writing historical fiction set in Ancient Rome. We (modern people) use modern time and dating systems, not the Roman hours-from-dawn or days-until-the-Kalends. We wear modern clothing and not togas and tunics (usually). We drink wine unmixed. We come from multiple sovereign nation states around the globe, not from provinces of the empire. We are not localising the stories in Ancient Rome, but in the modern world.
  9. Do what you want with the English names – some Latin enthusiasts use Latinised versions of their own names when speaking Latin, some use indeclinable names (especially Hebrew names), some adopt a traditional Roman praenomen. You could turn a name like “Dustin” into “Decimus”, “Dustinus”, or “Dustin” as you fancy.

Recording audio

I’m happy to record the audio for these stories, but if you’d like to make some too, you can email me (Carla, carlaschodde@gmail.com). This will be more relevant once we have a few more of them edited and proofread. We’ll indicate which story texts have been finalised in the Google Docs by turning the text green, and if a story has already been recorded it’ll be golden yellow. You can record texts which are marked green but make sure you change the status or write a note when you’re recording something so no one accidentally doubles-up on the work.

Sharing guidelines

LingQ requires us to give credit to them wherever we post these, to provide a link to their website, and to (where space allows) mention that they have many other good input-based resources like these. We would like to thank them for their generosity in writing these stories for the public domain.

I’ll make a list of contributors on the first Google Doc so we can credit your names too.

Further ideas

Let us know if you have any further uses for these stories. If you are part of other ancient or minority language communities (such as Ancient Greek, Welsh, indigenous languages, etc.), you might want to consider making your own language versions of this. They can be made even if LingQ does not yet have language support for that language. You just need to credit LingQ for the original content and provide a link to their platform. Contact Steve Kaufmann or Zoran at LingQ for advice (you can find their emails at the bottom of this page), and his team can email you materials and answer your questions.

How to boost your Latin acquisition up to 1200%

If language acquisition is driven by comprehensible input, we want to maximise the amount of input for our students. But how can we do this without overloading an already crowded curriculum and burdening students with extra tasks? We have to do less of some things in order to make room for better things.

In this video, I compare different activies according to how efficiently they deliver comprehensible input, as measured in words per minute (wpm).

A question for all of you who are learning Latin: What is your typical words-per-minute (wpm) rate of processing input?

Next time you do a Latin study session, try measuring the number of words in the target language your brain has meaningfully processed against the time spent in the activity. If you are writing a translation, your wpm slows to a crawl (~5-10 wpm), compared to when you are reading for pleasure (~40wpm). There are now dozens of highly entertaining Latin novellas written for each learner level, from total beginner to high intermediate, with which you can feed massive amounts of CI into your brain (and enjoy a great story along the way). The novellas are about $10-$20 each and more are being published every year. This is a new and extremely exciting development in Latin pedagogy.

You can also raise your wpm by rereading Latin stories, as long as you are paying meaningful attention as you re-read. Luke Ranieri has a 7-fold rereading method which involves visualising imagery and putting emotion into a retelling of a story, which I highly recommend checking out. With his method you can adapt any slow-translation exercise into understanding Latin at the speed-of-speech, while gradually moving away from L1 usage towards staying in the target language.

The quantity you can process also goes way up when you are hearing Latin spoken in a comprehensible video format (~60wpm). For example, my Minecraftium Comprehensible Latin video series was designed with absolute beginners in mind, and is very comprehensible at an average of 62 words per minute. Watching a video allows you to take in words at extremely high rates, since the accompanying footage makes the meaning and communicative intent very clear. This is exactly what our brains were made for when we acquired languages as infants – to take in huge quantities of words at the speed of ordinary human speech, in a meaningful context.

This is good news: If you’ve been slowly translating Latin on paper, or struggling with texts way above your level, you can massively increase comprehensible input by replacing low-wpm activities with reading novellas and watching videos – all without needing to spend any extra time.

A complete guide to Classical Latin pronunciation: the sounds of Golden Age Latin

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I have now made a Classical Latin pronunciation series on Youtube! Check out the first three parts here:

These videos are suitable for complete beginners and advanced students alike. I speak 100% in Latin, with no English in these videos. This means I make no verbal descriptions of the sounds or comparisons to any variety of English. Instead, I focus completely on demonstrating the target sounds out loud and allowing for cycles of listen-and-repeat-after-me. There is no preamble, just straight-to-the-point practice. “Show, don’t tell.”

The three videos above teach the letters, vowels, diphthongs, consonants, and various combinations of letters. I make a quantitative distinction between long and short vowels. I follow the updated Calabrese 5-vowel system, which supercedes the vowel system from Sidney Allen’s Vox Latina as a more historically likely representation of Golden Age Latin vowels. I have not yet covered syllable length, accentuation or elision in these videos, but a follow-up that explains these syllabic features could be my video on Pronunciation Tips for Scansion.

Why I created this series

I had always assumed that there were already some very good “basic” pronunciation guides to Latin, but when I searched for one, all I came up with was:

  • People reading aloud inaccurate instructions from a textbook
  • Advanced, very accurate deep-dives into single phonemes

I have no complaints about the second category, the advanced deep dives, but they are not very beginner friendly because it is hard to get a systematic overview when all phonemes are split into separate videos.

I do, however, have serious complaints about the first category!

The instructions for pronouncing Latin commonly printed in textbooks are not completely accurate representations of Latin. Because textbooks are print resources and not audio resources, they rely on “close fit” comparisons to English sounds that don’t necessarily convey the true nature of Latin sounds. The result is that the beginner will inevitably speak with their native English accent while speaking Latin – because the instructions, delivered in English, can only reference English phonemes.

There are several key weaknesses to textbook written descriptions of Latin sounds:

  • For one thing, there are multiple varieties of English pronunciation, so instructions like “o as in pot” will be interpreted differently by a standard American and a Received Pronunciation (RP) English speaker.
  • Some textbooks reference particular dialects of English, saying for example that the “r is trilled, as in Scottish”. This instruction is totally useless for me because where I live (Australia) the Scottish accent is vanishingly rare. Almost everyone I have met on this continent who identifies as Scottish has an Aussie accent.
  • Textbooks are often outright misleading when explaining aspirated vs. unaspirated consonants. For example, they instruct students to pronounce “p as in pot” and “c as in cat”. Actually, both of those consonants correspond to the aspirated versions “ph” and “ch”, as English requires all initial p, t, c to be aspirated. You can test this yourself by holding a piece of paper to your lips and feeling it flutter with the puff of air that escapes as you say “pot” or “cat”, but not “spot” or “scatter”.
  • The instruction “ph as in uphill” and “th as in anthill” lead to students and teachers making bizarre “puh huh” and “tuh huh” sounds that don’t represent aspiration.
  • Very few beginner pronunciation tutorials even hint at the nasal final -m, and those that do tend to use verbal descriptions that are very hard to replicate independently (what does it mean to “nasalise” a vowel?). This phoneme is extremely common in Latin (think of all the -am and -um endings!). Knowing that the -m is barely pronounced but is mostly a marker for nasalisation helps explain why -m is ignored for elision; I think it is a shame that students only learn that sound exists in their final years when they are scanning poetry, and not throughout the course.
  • Many Latin teachers in these videos don’t know how to pronounce the Greek “y” and say “u” instead.
  • Many Latin teachers in these videos make “ū” into something that sounds like the Greek “y” – saying “ūnus” like “oonus”.

I hope that these videos fill the gap and provide a more Latin-through-Latin approach to explaining Latin pronunciation.

Key choices

Some people may be surprised that I don’t group “ui”, “eu” and “ei” on an equal level with the other diphthongs “ae, au, oe”. I did this because there are also words in which the combinations “ui”, “eu” and “ei” are treated as separate syllables. There are only about four words with “ui” as a diphthong, and three words with “ei” as a diphthong, so I deal with these diphthongs separately and show the specific words in which they do apply.

I also decided on the Koine Greek “zz” pronunciation of “z”, which may be suprising as others have chosen Attic “zd”. The reason is simple: the Attic pronunciation of zeta as “zd” had already evolved into Koine “zz” centuries before Golden Age Latin. It is completely anachronistic to mix 500 B.C. Attic pronunciation with 100 B.C.-100 A.D. Classical Latin – the time difference is huge. The Romans of the Golden Age would have been exposed to varieties of Koine pronunciation, not Attic. To recommend “zd” for zeta in the time of Augustus would be as weird as recommending 1500 A.D. medieval French phonology for French quotations inside a 20th century English novel. At least, in my opinion. I just don’t think it is likely a contemporary of Cicero ever heard “zd”, as it wouldn’t have been normal for the Greek speakers of the period.

My vices

On recording and editing these videos, I noticed that I have a tendency to shorten final -ī into a short -i, as in when I said “vēnī, vīdī, vīcī” or “Annō Dominī”. mea culpa! Those final -ī sounds should have been long.

Let me know if you hear any other vices in my pronunciation, and I will endeavour to work on those in my future videos.

Grammar Analysis scores don’t correlate with unseen translation ability

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Some of the types of assessments Latin teachers have been traditionally setting are quite weird, the kind of things that aren’t normally done in any other languages. Consequently, it is hard to find recent research on whether what we are testing really matters.

Perhaps one of the strangest things we do is Grammar Analysis, where a student is asked to remember the “ablative of this” and the “genitive of that”.

A year or so ago, there was an alarm among Victorian Latin teachers when (due to an unfortunate miscommunication from the writers of the curriculum) we thought that Grammar Analysis would be completely removed from the new Year 12 Latin study design. At the time, we reacted quite defensively. We attended a consultation meeting with the curriculum committee where we went around the table repeating all the same things: that we needed Grammar Analysis in some form in the year 12 study design, because otherwise we would lose the rigour of the subject, students wouldn’t bother to learn grammar at earlier year levels, and the quality of unseen translation would drop.

It was a drama and half, and I shouldn’t say more about the episode, except that we got what we asked for and Grammar Analysis (“questions on accidence and syntax”) was prominently reinstated into the Year 12 study design.

But, was Grammar Analysis really the right hill to die on?

The new Victorian Latin study design gives leeway for how deeply teachers want to teach Grammar Analysis, as it is only internally assessed. How much should we emphasise Grammar Analysis among our students? How useful is it to be able to identify a subjective vs. objective genitive, or a dative of person judging, or a circumstantial participle?

For better or worse, the skill we care most about in Victorian Latin is the unseen translation. It remains just under half the marks of the final year 12 exam and is one of the best discriminators of student performance in the subject.

I decided to look into the assessment data of my year 10-12 students in the years 2018-2021 to see what metrics are the closest predictors of success in unseen translation.

Limitations

Some limitations with my study are that correlation does not equal causation – I expect at least some of these metrics will align to unseen translation without actually helping translation, because relative levels of diligence and motivation would cause the same students to do well in all hard assessments. If I plotted how the students did in Maths, it would probably correlate somewhat to how they did in unseen translation. That wouldn’t necessarily prove that skills in Maths help students translate Latin.

What this study might show, however, is a relative lack of correlation. If we expect a type of test to legitimately test student’s language skills, then we expect it to correlate with their ability to translate unseens. If we see a scattershot, perhaps we are not really measuring language skills that students use in the unseens.

A further limitation is the size of my sample. The number of data points in comparing performance within the same year was 41 (eg. John in year 10 vs. John in year 10, John in Year 11 vs. John in year 11), and the number of data points for comparing performance from a previous year to a following year was 24 (eg. John in year 10 vs. John in year 11, John in year 11 vs. John in year 12). Only 17 unique students made up the three cohorts graduating year 12 in 2019, 2020, and 2021, and there was some attrition as students moved schools during this time.

However, a positive of this data set is that all the students had the same Latin teacher the whole time (myself), and the way the assessments were taught and marked and their relative difficulty was consistent year on year.

With all this, let’s see what test scores appear to correlate most strongly to high scores in unseens.

Previous performance on unseen translation

Multiple R = 0.7243

In the graph above, I plotted the average unseen translation scores for the same student in two consecutive years. The horizontal axis represents average unseen scores in one year, and the vertical axis represents how well they did the following year.

This is a bit of an obvious point, but being previously good at unseen translations is a really good predictor for how good you’ll be at unseen translation in the future.

The Multiple R value for this correlation is 0.7243 – the tightest correlation of all the data in my study. (a value of 0 would indicate no correlation, a value of 1 would indicate strong correlation.)

Other types of assessment

The main other types of assessment (excluding seen translation) we typically do in high school Latin include:

  • Grammar Analysis
  • Vocabulary tests
  • Oral assessments
  • English to Latin translation

Grammar Analysis

In Grammar Analysis, students identify accidence and syntax in seen or prepared texts. Questions can include:

  • What case is this noun, and why was this case used? (eg. Posessive Genitive)
  • What is the person, number, tense, voice, and mood of this verb?
  • What use of the subjunctive is exemplified by this word?
  • What part of speech is this word?
  • What word does this adjective agree with?
Multiple R = 0.4039

Multiple R = 0.3646

In the first graph, I plotted how well students did in Grammar Analysis (GA) versus their unseen translation scores in the same year. In the second, I plotted their previous GA score versus their performance in unseens in the following year.

Both graphs exhibit a very wide scatter. A student in the same year could get 100% in GA but less than 85% in unseens, or conversely, they could get 90% in unseens but 60% in GA. (Multiple R = 0.4039)

Moreover, the correlation between doing well in GA one year and then doing well in unseens the next year is even weaker. (Multiple R = 0.3646)

GA does not appear to be a good predictor of success in unseen translation, especially in future years.

Anecdotally, I think all Latin teachers have experienced students who show conflicting results in GA and unseen translation. When a student comes along with great instincts at reading Latin in context but does rather woefully at remembering the Ablative of Something, we worry that all the missing information about grammar categories is going to trip them up in translation in the future, so we might advise them to work on that weakness. Conversely, when a student is doing brilliantly at GA but can’t apply the rules in translation, we might have advised them to re-read their grammar notes on such-and-such that they missed in the unseen, because they seem to respond well to explicit grammar instruction when they do GA. I’m not entirely convinced that these approaches are helpful.

If Grammar Analysis is so vital to good unseen skills, it is not clearly indicated as such by my student data.

Vocabulary

In this study, I only included vocabulary testing where it was in the traditional format of “provide one definition for this word”. The direction is always Latin-to-English. At year 10 level, I use the 20-word chapter vocab lists that come with my textbook series, but my vocabulary tests at year 11-12 level draw from very long lists of Latin words in order of frequency. For example, 100 word test is drawing from the top 100 words in Latin, the 200 word test is from the top 200, etc.

Students in these cohorts have learned lists up to 500 words long.

The typical method for learning the vocabulary is through online flashcards such as Education Perfect or Quizlet, where students write or select single English meanings for each Latin item.

Multiple R = 0.4971
Multiple R = 0.4399

Single-item vocabulary tests like these have only a slightly stronger correlation to unseen translation performance than GA scores. The scatter is very wide, especially at the lower end of performance.

I was expecting vocabulary testing to correlate strongly with “diligence” or “motivation” and thus be at least somewhat closely correlated to unseen translation skills, but it seems that being able to do well on a vocab test is not a great predictor of unseen translation performance.

In my experience, when students encounter their vocab words in a real sentence, they have trouble making the right decisions as to what meaning that word should have in its context. I tend to be pretty lenient on vocab tests and allow them to just state one meaning of the word, but in an unseen translation, some meanings are definitely more appropriate than others. An additional difficulty is that students see vocab words in “dictionary format” (with all their principal parts) in vocab tests, but need to be able to recognise them in inflected forms in an unseen. When I experimented with giving vocab tests with inflected forms of the words students were learning on the lists (eg. cēpit instead of capiō, capere, cēpī, captum), vocab scores dropped by about 50% compared to traditional tests.

Having a large vocabulary is extremely important to being able to fluently read any piece of writing. However, single-definition traditional vocab tests do not very accurately capture a student’s ability to recognise vocabulary in a translation.

I am currently looking into better ways of encouraging the development of vocabulary that responds well in context. Some of this includes experimenting with picture vocab lists where students must answer a question out loud in Latin which contains the target vocabulary feature.

Oral

My oral assessment involves getting the student to read aloud a passage of Latin, with attention to accuracy of pronunciation as well as dramatic expression. I mark students on a rubric containing five criteria: consonants, vowels, accentuation, fluency, and expression. During Covid years (2020-2021), I required students to create voice recordings, but during pre-Covid years, I listened to them perform individually.

The oral assessments were essentially just testing pronunciation, with a bit of performance flair thrown in. It was not a communicative task in the sense of simulating a live conversation in Latin.

Students were given oral assessments in years 10 and 11, but not in year 12.

Multiple R = 0.3788
Multiple R = 0.6114

Scores in oral assessment were not good predictors of student achievement in unseen translation within the same year, but intriguingly, they were somewhat correlated with unseen translation in the following year. (Multiple R = 0.6114)

Why might a student who did well on an oral one year not get the benefit of that oral in the same year but have a lag-time when they would do better on translations the next year?

I’m speaking speculatively, but it would make sense that good pronunciation might have a positive effect on contextual vocabulary acquisition.

If a student worked hard to improve their pronunciation before an oral assessment, in theory they would spend the rest of the year reading Latin with a clearer sound assigned to the words. In addition, the effort of making their performance more dramatic would involve thinking carefully about how words should be naturally grouped together into phrases, which would help in later recognising phrase boundaries in readings.

The cumulative effect of having better pronunciation could be improvements in reading that eventually improve their unseen translation abilities.

I say all this knowing that my oral assessments are quite limited in scope and my data is still pretty fuzzy, but it makes me stop and think about the significance of oral assessments if they have more of an impact on the next year’s translation ability than last year’s vocab tests and GA scores.

English to Latin translation (E2L)

Students are presented sentences in English which they must then accurately translate into Latin. The most common errors involve adjective agreement, but often there are little rules like “this verb takes the dative not the accusative” that continually pop up. Ambiguity in English is often a source of angst – should you use “suus” or “eius” for “his”? It is also brutal if students haven’t completely internalised all the types of clauses, such as which ones use the subjunctive and which ones use accusative and infinitive. This is a high-stress assessment to pretty much all students.

Students were tested on E2L in years 10 and 11, but not in year 12.

Multiple R = 0.6522
Multiple R = 0.4901

English to Latin translation (E2L) is legitimately a very challenging task. Unlike a vocab test or a grammar analysis, simple rote-learning will not cut it here. This test cannot be brute-forced with memorisation: similar to unseen translation, it requires students to really, really know their stuff.

Interestingly, E2L scores are relatively strongly correlated to unseen translation within the same year (Multiple R = 0.6522) but not as strongly correlated to the unseen skills for the following year (Multiple R = 0.4901).

I can speculate as to why the E2L didn’t have as strong a correlation to the following year’s unseen translation progress. The last E2L test my students ever face is in the first semester of Year 11, and it typically excludes some final pieces of challenging grammar such as conditionals and gerundives. While studying for their final E2L, they work hard on consolidating previously learned grammar structures such as the uses of the subjunctive, and the accusative and infinitive phrases. This is very useful to the unseen translations in year 11, which are typically a bit easier than the year 12 unseens. As unseens get filled with harder grammar not covered by their final E2L test, the correlation between how they did back then and how they do with the last pieces of grammar becomes weaker.

That may be one possibility among many. I don’t quite know what is going on, because it could also be possible that E2L is a really good measure of the same qualities (diligence, motivation) that produce students with good unseen skills. It could also be a measure of their internalisation of the Latin language, or conversely their ablity to consciously apply learned grammar rules.

Ranking the correlations

These are the test scores in order of most correlated to least correlated to performance on unseen translations:

Multiple R
Unseen Previous vs. Next year0.724301
E2L same year0.652156
Oral previous year0.611353
Vocab same year0.497062
E2L previous year0.4901
Vocab previous year0.439875
GA same year0.403941
Oral same year0.378783
GA previous year0.364568

Grammar Analysis ranks very low in this list, suggesting that it is not drawing from the same skills or characteristics that make a student good at translating unseens.

The most highly correlated factor was how well students did on unseen translation in the previous year.

The second most highly correlated factor was how well students performed in English to Latin translation in the same year.

The third most highly correlated factor was how well students performed in an oral performance of Latin in the previous year – their pronunciation and ability to add dramatic expression to a passage of Latin.

Conclusions

Greater attention needs to be given to whether we are testing the right things, and whether the tasks we set are really helpful to improving our students’ ability to read Latin in context.

I don’t like how much pressure and stress English-To-Latin translation puts on students, and it is no longer a requirement in the new study design for year 11; however, it seems to have been measuring something that really correlated closely to student performance in unseens, at least within the same year. This something could have been the students’ internalisation of the language, or it could have been their ability to monitor grammar-rules, or it could even have been their diligence and motivation.

Oral performance and pronunciation could play a much larger role in improving unseen translation skills than Victorian Latin teachers have given credit. The oral assessment is no longer a requirement in the new study design for year 11, but most teachers I have spoken to had already treated it as a very minor task or not even a formal assessment. The benefits of good pronunciation, if my limited data is showing something, are most observed in the longer term as students become better at acquiring language features. If this is the case, then we should especially emphasise oral skills and pronunciation in the early years so that the process of internalising Latin and gaining reading skills is enhanced throughout the course of study.

Grammar Analysis has very little correlation with students’ ability to translate unseens, both in the same year and in future years. It is one of the least (if not the least) legitimate language test in terms of predicting ability in unseens.

Similarly, but not quite as bad, are traditional vocabulary tests (“provide one definition for the Latin word”). Even if these are very useful words taken from large, frequency-ordered lists, doing well in a vocab test is not a good predictor for how well students can recognise the words in real contexts.