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Author Archives: Carla Hurt

Why the Cult of the One True Textbook Has to Stop

The following is a transcript of my long-form video essay, “Why the Cult of the One True Textbook Has to Stop”.

In short, if we truly care about improving language pedagogy, we have to stop worshiping Ørberg.

Salvēte omnēs, ego sum Magistra Hurt. I am one of the most vocal critics of the Nature Method textbooks series among Comprehensible Input Latin teachers. So imagine my surprise when Ayan Academy contacted me to create a sponsored video directing people to where, if you want,  you can buy yourself deluxe custom bound copies of Nature Method textbooks. This video is sponsored, and at the end I will provide an affiliate link for you to get a 5% discount off your purchase should you wish. (For those reading this on the blog, it’s this link with the discount code FOUNDINANTIQUITY5)

But the sponsorship or affiliate link does not change my strongly held opinion of the topic at hand. Ayan Academy knows this, and is on board with me giving my honest opinion, which is fortunate because I would have done it anyway. If I sound like I’m roasting this book too harshly, I want you to keep listening to the end because I think you’ll be surprised by my conclusion.

So, let’s get stuck into the Nature Method.

Part 1: A moderately tall person in a land of dwarves

Dēlia ancilla pulchrior est quam Syra.

– Hans Ørberg

In a land of dwarves, a moderately tall person seems like a giant. Language textbooks are a very slow-moving genre, generally far behind what the research says is most effective in language acquisition. They are like the dwarves in this analogy.

To begin with, a lot of them are not even vaguely based on the principles of Comprehensible Input, but on skill-building grammar translation that has been proven to be the least effective approach for many many decades, which nevetheless sticks around because it is the easiest thing to make unit tests and vocab and grammar quizzes from.

But even excluding those, among the “Reading Method” textbooks, those that at least try to support fluency through Comprehensible Input, the pacing and the general learner experience often leaves much to be desired. Examples include textbooks like the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), Oxford Latin Course (OLC), Ecce Romani, and Suburani, among others. All these reader textbooks, when treated as if they are complete courses, little universes unto themselves, do not by themselves offer enough input for the learner. Paul Nation in a 2014 article estimates that to acquire a vocabulary of about 5000 words a student needs read about 2 million words, and to acquire 9000 words they need about 11 million words of extensive reading.[1] Suffice to say, the amount of words a student needs to read to gain fluency in the language is somewhere on the scale of millions. But textbooks contain much less than that: Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata Familia Romana, for example, contains around 35,000 words, and the CLC in its first 4 out of 5 books contains around 36,500 words. As a result, all reader textbooks move at a faster pace through the language than the learner moves in their acquisition, and when learners are suddenly confronted with authentic texts after finishing these textbooks, they are still a million or more words short of what they need to succeed in reading fluently.

So with that, the learner of these reader textbooks is either forced to reread every chapter tens of  times before proceeding to authentic material, or to struggle slowly through authentic texts with frequent recourse to the dictionary and a lot of puzzling over explicit grammar rules. Or they are to read large amounts of intermediate material that bridges the gap as they slowly work themselves out of the Intermediate Plateau. This is not usually explained to people when they are marketed a “complete course” in the language.

Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata – LLPSI – is the moderately tall person, among vaguely tall persons, in the land of dwarves.

It is arguably the best currently available single resource for an adult self-learner to study Latin from scratch with. But it is not by a long shot the best textbook that could theoretically be written for that audience or other audiences. It is “good enough” at what it does, but where I take issue is the way people like to rave about it and hype it up to be something it isn’t. Some people just seem to think there couldn’t possibly be a better resource, and they are dead wrong. This is not by a long shot an ideal course, and that should affect how we talk about it and how we treat it.

A page from the 1957 version of LLPSI

LLPSI was first published in full in 1957 under a different title, Lingua Latīna secundum nātūrae ratiōnem explicāta. Ørberg continued to revise it throughout his lifetime, publishing new versions in 1983 and 1991. But here I disagree with Nancy Llwellyn’s assertion that the LLPSI method was continuously refined over 50 years of a man’s lifetime: sure it was edited and polished, but with all the tweaks and adjustments and refinements, if you compare the 1957 version with the current one, you can immediately see it is fundamentally the same text as it was 65 years ago, in terms of its method, its philosophy, and its course structure. The pēnsa (the excercises) are exactly the same as they were in the 50s. The core method in this book is as it was 65 years ago. This method is not the product of five decades of refinement; it is essentially the product of a small team of Direct-Method-inspired authors, producing textbooks according to a shared mould in the mid twentieth century. The meat of it, and the rules for its learning method, come from a point in time.

Part 2: Survivorship bias and internet echo chambers

Discipulus quī nec stultus nec piger est, sed prūdēns atque industrius, multās rēs ā magistrō discere potest.

– Hans Ørberg

Now Nancy Llwellyn certainly does not claim that LLPSI is without its faults, as she outlines many things to be aware of when using LLPSI in her speech, In Or Out of Ørberg. On those points we agree.

But there are many, many people on the internet – usually not teachers, but self-learners – who, typing reviews in their echo chambers, collectively shout from the rooftops that LLPSI is the theoretical pinnacle of language learning, and the canonical method of using it is to be uncritically followed without deviation from the author Ørberg’s intent. They do not restrain themselves to stating how useful it was to them as a textbook, but instead raise it on a pedestal as the magic silver bullet of language learning. This is extremely naive because it implies that six decades of scientific research into Second Language Acquisition (SLA) somehow has no way of improving language teaching, because the formula had already been magically cracked by these half dozen or so individuals in the mid 20th century.

What can I say? If it worked for you, it worked for 100% of your personal sample size of 1.

Because when you are a self-learner, your sample size is 1. Maybe you could expand that to about a dozen if all your friends are also in on it and are trying it out with you. But friends tend to have similar interests; like attracts like. Even if you expand your sample size to the select people in your friendship circles, you aren’t getting a random sampling. And you will only hear from people for whom it worked.

The result of this survivorship bias is that if anyone were to make up a new language learning method today, no matter how silly, and promoted it widely enough, I guarantee they will find some dedicated pockets of people who will swear by it on this planet of 7 billion.

When you’re a language teacher, your sample size is considerably larger and more random. This year I’m teaching 192 students across six year levels, in ten classes most of them quite full, an average of 19.2 students in each class. I’m in my fifth year of teaching at this school, and the numbers are roughly the same each year, so it’s fairly safe to say I’ve taught a few hundred students in my day. I’ve taught students with learning disabilities, behavioural problems, absolute beginners slotted without preparation into second-year classes, students with chronic illnesses who are absent half the year, gifted students who get everything done in two seconds, English Second Language students, dyslexics, people with language processing problems, ADHD and autism, you name it.

The self-selecting group of self-learners rave about following the rules of the Nature Method.

The school teachers who have taught with these materials or similar, are a lot more realistic and not quite as Messianic about it, and heavily adapt it. Or at least, the good teachers adapt it when they use it; as I will later explain, I have witnessed what happens when you do not.

So from the perspective of a Latin teacher who has been in the trenches so to speak for five years in this school, or six years teaching in total, nearly ten years if you count my tutoring days, and one who has been more recently looking into modern SLA research for evidence-based practices apply in the classroom and in self-learning, let’s talk about the pedagogical validity of the Nature Method in 2022.

Where did the Nature Method come from, and what has happened since 1957 in the realm of best-practices language teaching?

As a broad overview, the Nature Method came about as a written adaptation of the very orally focused Direct Method of the early 20th century, which shares some major similarities as well as differences with communicative language pedagogy today.

The Direct Method involved a lot of high-input practices among other things, but it is not fundamentally based on the Comprehensible Input hypothesis, because the hypothesis had not yet been proposed.

In our zeal to promote the way of CI, we have to resist making up a kind of hagiography, a fanciful story that casts the Direct Method in general and Ørberg in particular in the role of a saint fighting the good fight against the darkness of Grammar-Translation. The Direct method was not perfect in every way, and the way we are teaching now almost certainly is not perfect in every way; this is why we need to critically evaluate our teaching and look to evidence-based practices rather than simply inheriting and replicating another line of grand tradition. In short, if we truly care about language pedagogy, we have to stop worshiping Ørberg.

Part 3: Some casualties of the LLPSI cult

“ō Marce!” inquit, “hōc modō nihil tē docēre possum! tam stultus ac tam piger es quam asinus!”

– Hans Ørberg

Admire the man if you wish, appreciate his work, be thankful for Ørberg’s legacy. But worshiping the doctrines of a mere man – whether living or dead – is an embarassment to the pursuit of truth, and it reflects poorly on our discipline.  

It certainly turned me away: when I left high school and first started my life in classics, I was a Grammar-Translation (G-T) supporter for over 10 years. Then last year around June I did a sudden 180° turn and converted to Comprehensible Input (CI) based methods, tore down all my G-T stuff and started rebuilding everything from scratch. You know what had kept me away from taking CI seriously for 10 years? The slavish adherence of the acolytes of Ørberg to their favourite textbook, LLPSI. I had heard boundless praise for this textbook when I first started Latin tutoring, so naturally I bought it thinking it would be great. I tried it out with my tutoring students, and started reading things with them directly from the book. It was a flop: my students and I really couldn’t get the stories to hold our interest for long, and I also didn’t know all the techniques for making reading interesting and interactive that I’ve been more recently learning (it’s not like the textbook comes with any instructions on how to create the necessary variety of reading activities to go with it).

At the same time, a young teacher in a nearby school, let’s call him “Tim”, radically transformed his middle school Latin curriculum to be based on LLPSI, and I was given a string of tutoring students in the middle to low achieving bands who had been taught by this guy but had been left far behind by his approach. (I later found out that “Tim” had not been teaching equitably, but had been favouring the high-achieving students and simply allowing the middle and low ones to slip. However, at the time I was tutoring, all I could find out about him was that he had learned Latin through LLPSI just like those people on the internet, he had fallen in love with the approach and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread; he had condemned G-T with a passion; he had then radically transformed the middle school curriculum with LLPSI at the centre, thinking with great certainty it was the best thing to do, but it clearly hadn’t worked for everyone because if students dropped behind in his class, they dropped FAR behind.)

So, stung by all these small- and large-scale failures, I switched right back to what I had been taught and what seemed to work better for everyone: a hybrid of G-T and the reading method. To me LLPSI had been so over hyped as a “fun”, “nearly effortless” method for learning Latin that for it to be boring and draining and often incomprehensible in reality was an utter betrayal: no one on the internet at the time seemed to have any words for this book except unreserved absolute praise and a total blindness to what a compelling narrative is, and none of them would back down on the most minor point of criticism for their master, Ørberg.

Over those years I hardened my heart against CI because all the people promoting CI were clearly just a group of mutually-brainwashed people lifting up a 1950s textbook as if it was the inspired, God-breathed word of the Latin language itself. I wonder how many other potential allies to our CI based methods have been driven off by the blind and stubborn defensiveness and reverence that the Living Latin proponents have for Ørberg? You can’t just take responsibility for the successes of this method: you also have to own your failures.

Part 4: The Direct Method

Nunc tempus est numerōs discere. Prīmum dīc numerōs ā decem ūsque ad centum!

– Hans Ørberg

So, where did LLPSI come from if it was not handed down from on high? As I alluded to above, LLPSI is a product of the Nature Method, and the Nature Method is itself a written adaptation of the mostly spoken Direct Method. Let’s start by explaining what the Direct Method really entailed and move from there to see how the Nature Method Institute and LLPSI came to be shaped the way they were, while evaluating LLPSI and other Nature Method books in the light of modern SLA-based practices.

The Direct Method of the early 20th century was not exactly the same at all times and in all places. Teachers conceived of it as a broad collection of language teaching practices that roughly fell under the umbrella term: ‘the Direct Method’. In 1917, Mark Skidmore wrote an article about the Direct Method in the Modern Language Journal. He wanted to define what people meant by the method, what was essential to it, and what was more variable in its practice. He sent a survey to 140 language teachers about it, and 74 of them replied; in this sample 19 said they were currently using the Direct Method, 16 said they were not, and the rest said they were adapting various features, ranging from “largely” to “trying to use it”.[2]

From these responses, Skidmore concluded that these were the main features of the Direct Method:

“there is almost unanimity on the following six points:

  1. good pronunciation (phonetics)
  2. extensive oral work
  3. inductive teaching of grammar
  4. real reading, not mere eye-reading, as the basis of the instruction
  5. translation is reduced to a minimum
  6. much use of “free composition”.[3]

Regarding grammar, Skidmore provides a quote from Professor Myers which better describes the role of explicit grammar in the Direct Method: “The direct method as we are using it here is not an inductive grammar method taught in the foreign idiom, but primarily a language course, in which the students are taught to see and imitate the expression of certain ideas in the foreign idiom, with sufficient training and drill in the elements of grammar to strengthen their sense of certainty and security in using the language.”[4] That is to say, it’s not a French grammar lesson taught in French, and not even primarily a grammar lesson taught inductively, but a language course in which students are expected to mimic and reproduce what they hear to express ideas with the help of drilling, until they are accurate in their output.

Skidmore also described some more specific activities employed in the Direct Method, that he cautioned were not universal:

“The use of gestures and pictures, suiting the action to the word, singing, reciting in unison, the entire exclusion of the vernacular are not universally, nor even generally, insisted upon as indispensable.”[5]

On the final point, language immersion, only 8 out of the 74 respondents said that the Direct Method means “the entire exclusion of the vernacular from the class room.”[6] But then, as now, there was a vocal minority who insisted that 100% immersion was the only way to go. Skidmore provides an anonymous quote, “If by the direct method is meant a method that excludes the vernacular as much as possible, I favor its adoption anywhere and everywhere.”[7] I can’t help but feel that the sentiment being expressed here is that total immersion, no matter how poorly implemented, is unquestionably superior to all other possible teaching methods.

Speaking realistically, teachers tend to observe serious attrition in immersion programs. Bob Patrick, a pioneer and advocate of communicative Latin teaching, commented on the subject, “Immersion almost always insures that some will become so lost that they will give up.” Lance Piantaggini, also a communicative Latin teacher, shared that he had “seen adults cry at a conventiculum. Two different people, actually.” A conventiculum is a Latin convention – often a multi-day event – in which everyone only speaks Latin, and they attend conferences in Latin. Attendees to conventicula typically sign a formal contract swearing that they will not use a language other than Latin for the duration of the conventiculum. Lance continues, “These are people who paid for the experience. That’s not a typical/regular/normal – whatever you want to call it – learner, and even *they* didn’t make it.”

As good as it is to maximise use of the target language in the classroom, that doesn’t have to mean total exclusion of the native language at all costs. Even in the 1917 survey of the Direct Method, the majority of teachers did not think the Direct Method essentially required banning first language (L1) use in the classroom.

So let’s focus on Skidmore’s unanimous six points:

Firstly, there was a primary emphasis on pronunciation. It is interesting that pronunciation tops the lists of essential features in the Direct Method; one of the respondents to Skidmore’s survey remarked that the method “presupposes phonetic drill”. Modern communicative attitudes about pronunciation are often more ambivalent about enforcing pronunciation, except where it would hinder communciation. As an example, Randall Buth, who promotes the use of spoken Ancient Greek, does not insist on correcting students for sub-phonemic distinctions, but only where distinctions could carry a potential difference of meaning in the language concerned. The main difference between the Direct Method practitioners and today’s communicative language teachers is that today’s teachers are more concerned with communicative competence, whereas the Direct Method teachers were concerned with accuracy of output. Our priorities and measures of success, in pronunciation as well as other areas, have moved away from demanding complete accuracy and towards supporting proficiency.

The reason for this general shift towards prioritising proficiency before accuracy is because, if you want to end up with both, you will get both faster if you pursue proficiency before accuracy than the other way round. I have observed it in my classes: the ones who hyper-focus on details of relatively minor importance to the detriment of their overall understanding tend to progress slower in acquisition than their peers (but get everything right in grammar tests). The last remaining languages in which teachers continue to insist on valuing accuracy as a special virtue in itself are the dead languages – languages in which it is acceptable for respected and tenured professors to be terrible at reading fluently. Ultimately, though, this is not an either-or situation: if you care to think of Latin as a human language and not just a mark on an exam or an ornament on a certificate, you will want both proficiency and accuracy. And you can gain this most efficiently when you aim for increasing proficiency ahead of increasing accuracy.

Secondly, the Direct Method was said to contain extensive oral work. Oral activities could often include the teacher holding up a picture and describing it in the TL, or acting out a verb and describing it; the teacher and students would then take turns describing the pictures or actions, racking up lots of repetitions orally. To me this sounds very similar to TPR, Total Physical Response, a comunicative method in which teachers command students around the classroom in the TL and often describe and interact with the physical space, pictures, and props. The difference here is in the role of oral production: it sounds like the Direct Method had a goal of getting students to repeat the language aloud in oral drilling, whereas TPR spends a lot more time, especially initially, in getting students to respond and interact with the commands non-verbally, before they are comfortable enough to respond and interact verbally. The reason why TPR teachers don’t demand verbal output from students until they are ready is based on Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis (that language acquisition is driven by understanding input, not producing output) and his Affective Filter Hypothesis (that the unconscious processes of language acquisition are significantly impeded if the student feels stressed or anxious).

The Direct Method’s emphasis on the oral meant that textbooks were not actually necessary to the success of the method – a feature shared by both the Direct Method and modern TPR again. One of the possible definitions of the Method considered but rejected by Skidmore included the comment, “the conversational work may  [italics supplied by Skidmore] be supplemented by text book or note book.” [8]

Thirdly, grammar was taught “inductively”. Inductive means that the student sees an example, and works out the rule themselves, rather than being told upfront what the rule is. The previous quote from Prof Myers that the Direct Method is not an inductive Grammar method but a language teaching method has to be put in the context of saying, when grammar was taught, it was taught inductively, even if grammar was not focused on in isolation. But we have to be aware that inductive learning is not the same as acquisition. Induction is student-led rule-making; the student is tasked with discovering explicit grammar rules. By contrast, acquisition is the nearly unconscious process of getting so familiar with a grammar feature that the learner becomes internally, instinctively able to know when the feature is used correctly or incorrectly, and eventually produces the feature without exerting mental effort to edit how they speak or write.

On the use of reading in the Direct Method, Skidmore calls it “real reading, not mere eye-reading” and I honestly don’t know what he means by eye-reading – probably reading without understanding, or mere reading aloud. But the role of reading stories with understanding is emphasised in the Direct Method, and I can’t help but compare this with TPRS, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, a set of practices in which the teacher cooperatively writes and reads stories with their students. TPRS  is often set up to follow on from oral TPR practices. The Direct Method’s combination of oral practice followed by story-reading appears quite similar in character to the TPR-TPRS route that some communicative language teachers are taking today.

The opening story in Carolus et Maria, 1933.

But the character of the reading material of Direct Method texts differs quite significantly from the character of CI texts written today. You’ll notice that as soon as you pick up material from the early 20th century like Carolus et Maria, Maxey and Fay’s A New Latin Primer, Latin for Today, Cornelia, etc. The learner texts were not primarily written to present interesting content through the language, but to teach the language through rather plain but comprehensible material. Skidmore reports a quote from Professor Holbrook objecting to the use of literary material in the classroom, which reads, “The student should never be allowed to forget that what he is primarily attempting to learn is the French language.”[9] He then adds metaphorically: “one cannot become a botanist or a gardener by merely loving flowers, and usually it is those persons who know most about them who love them best. Similarly, the beauty of a linguistic construction, its fitness, should be most apparent to him who understands it best.”[10] Interestingly, knowing about the language here is touted as the key to appreciating literature. It is the language that is the object of study, not the meaning expressed in the language. The content is more or less supposed to serve as filler while the student concentrates on language learning.

That is in direct contrast to best practice communicative language teaching today – to encourage acquisition and not mere inductive rule-learning, students ought to be consciously focused on the message expressed by the Comprehensible Input, and indeed interested in understanding it, as it is through their attention to the content that their subconscious langauge systems can best make form-meaning connections. Stephen Krashen strongly advocates not for dull texts or even just “interesting” input, but “compelling” input. He elaborates, “Compelling means that the input is so interesting that you forget that it is in another language.”[11] By contrast, Direct Method practitioners seem to have deliberately avoided making their materials too compelling or interesting; the foreword to Cornelia puella Americana states, the learner “should not be called upon to deal with situations outside his own experience or to acquire knowledge through the new medium”.[12] The things that pass for stories in the Direct Method seems to focus on being orderly, expected, and obvious. Suspense and surprise, as critical as they often are for constructing compelling narratives, are avoided in the writings of the Direct Method.

Point number five: translation is reduced to a minimum. Notice the wording: it’s not that translation is an unforgiveable sin, or that a person instructed in the Direct Method could never become a professional translator. But in the language class, for pedagogical purposes, translation is “reduced to a minimum”. SLA research since that time has consistently criticised the grammar-translation method’s excessive dependence on translation for language learning.[13] It’s not to say that one couldn’t possibly learn a language through translating; it’s that the effect of oral interaction, extensive reading, and other high input activities is so much greater, that it is a relative waste of time to spend very long on translating compared to the more profitable activities. In this point, the Direct Method and SLA-informed best practices are in agreement.

Finally, point six of the essential components of the Direct Method as reported by Skidmore was “free composition”:  Skidmore does not define this term, but the wording suggest free writing, where the student writes whatever they want to. If I have understood him right, this is definitely one of the practices in modern communicative language teaching; students are given a timer and asked to write as much as they can within 5 minutes or so, and they can say anything. It’s a way to increase fluency of output, at the pace set by the students themselves. The products can then be collected into a writing portfolio and used as evidence of progress.

However, “free composition” may not have been always as universal as Skidmore suggests here; an article from 1949 in the ELT journal  advocates for rather constrained composition activities, stating “until a fairly advanced stage is reached, the exercises should be restricted to the completion and conversion types. Exercises in which the learner is to compose material wholly his own are best deferred.”[14] This is suggests that within the larger umbrella of the Direct Method, there were teachers who set very constrained writing production activities.

Those types of highly constrained writing activities (eg. the conversion activity of “turn every singular word plural and every plural word singular”) are fundamentally not communicative language activities: no one is expressing meaning, the utterance is not being addressed to an audience who will hear the message, and there is no possibility of a meaningful response. There is no “information gap” being bridged between interlocutors. These types of fill-in-the-blank or change-the-word-endings activities do not by their nature encourage the connection of meaning and form, but of rules and form. And the 1949 paper makes that explicit: “conversion exercises have the advantage of combining thought (about the grammar mechanism or whatever it may be) and association (eg. between the present perfect tense and the certain class of adverbial)”.[15] That is to say, the exercises are intended for developing explicit command of the grammar through rules.  Plain and simple.

It is quite surprising to hear from the 1917 article that free composition was a nearly unanimously agreed feature of the Direct Method, when it is strongly advised against in the 1949 article, but this shows the variety of practices and mindsets within the Direct Method.

As you can see, the Direct Method was not applied the same way in all places; a lot of it came down to the teacher in the classroom. Many teachers did not publish their materials, and so their methods died with them. Many others did publish what they developed, and a lot this is excitingly now in the public domain.[16] The products of this movement serve as potentially quite useful Comprehensible iInput, even if they are not very compelling. Try reading them at least; your mileage may vary.

Part 5: From the Direct Method to the Nature Method: What was adapted, and what was lost?

scrībite hanc sententiam: homō oculōs et nāsum habet.

– Hans Ørberg

So now we move over to the Nature Method and its adaptation in LLPSI. The first textbook of this distinctive style was an English self-learning course published by the Nature Method Institute in 1939 by the name of English by the Nature Method. In 1954 the Institute also published a French Course, Le Français par la «méthode nature». By then Hans Ørberg had joined the Nature Method Institute as a permanent employee from 1952, and was tasked with making a Latin course which replicated the same method as the other two books. LLPSI was finally published in full in 1957.

So to be clear, Ørberg did not largely invent the method, but adapted it (with a great deal of creative decision-making, to be fair) to Latin’s situation. The base format however had been pioneered nearly 20 years prior in 1939 with English by the Nature Method.

Georges Bonnard in the preface to that book outlines the goals of the course, saying that it is “aimed at providing those who wish to learn English and are denied the help of an ordinary teacher, with a text-book that might, in little over a year, bring them to the point where reading English books and conversation in English may be, or at least begin to be, actually possible.”[17] The absence of a teacher is assumed from the beginning; the course is not designed to be used in conjunction with a teacher, but to make up for the lack of a teacher. This would naturally explain the lack of guidance in how teachers might adapt the material to suit the needs of a classroom environment. [edit: but for the record, there is currently an official teacher guide for LLPSI online.]

As to the demographics of the target audience, Bonnard hints that the promoter Arthur M. Jensen’s “main concern has been with young people in the world of business” stating that it is there that “he will mostly find young men and women who feel the need of some knowledge of English and have never had the opportunity of getting it. But he has taken care not to give undue importance to their requirements, so that his course may be used with just as much profit by whoever desires to learn English by himself.”[18] It was not aimed at an intellectually elite audience, which is absolutely great, but it was also not aimed at children or teenagers in schools. It was written for young professionals with a self-determined motivation to learn the English language.

So, Jensons’ writing team (his daughter and colleague; Jensen himself did not write most of the content of the course) were producing an English course for a motivated, adult young professional who due to their life circumstances, didn’t happen have a language teacher. And the model they looked to adapt for a teacherless textbook was naturally, the Direct Method. 

Let us now examine what made the transition from the Direct Method to these books, and what did not.

I have identified seven major features they brought in from the Direct Method:

  1. Exclusive use of the Target Language. English by the Nature Method is written completely in English, with no recourse to any other language. Likewise, LLPSI is fully in Latin, teaching Latin-through-Latin. This reflected some of the practices of the Direct Method where TL use was maximised; but it is important to restate that the total banning of L1 was not necessarily practiced by the majority of Direct Method teachers, and “immersion” practices are not mandated or necessarily beneficial for communicative language teaching today.
  2. Pronunciation was stressed in its importance. This is challenging for a written textbook, but English by the Nature Method emphasised pronunciation by providing IPA transcriptions under words. LLPSI doesn’t appear to have as much overt emphasis on pronunciation, but it does print macrons.
  3. Grammar was taught inductively. Each chapter introduced a new target feature, a grammar lesson of the day, which the learner was meant to consciously discover through working out the meaning of the sentences. This is true for all the nature method textbooks. It essentially meant that grammar was withheld until its grand entrance in a chapter all about that feature. The result is sometimes some very odd circumlocution was employed to avoid using grammar that hadn’t been formally introduced, even if the context would have strongly suggested it. For example, in Capitulum X of LLPSI, Aemilia sees her son being carried, and asks “Why can’t he walk?” In the story, the boy has just fallen out of a tree. The natural expectation is to say “he fell out of a tree”, repeating the same words as before but in the past tense. But the perfect tense had not been formally introduced. So instead Julius says “Quintus can’t walk, because he is not a bird and does not have wings! He who wants to fly but cannot, falls to the ground!” This mindset of sheltering grammar at all costs and insisting on students mastering rules one at a time leads to missed opportunities where a fairly innocuous unexplained grammar feature could have been woven in when the context demanded it, in which case it would have made the storytelling clearer and ironically more comprehensible.
  4. Reading as the basis of instruction. The Nature Method books inherited the style of storytelling which had been present in the Direct Method for decades: very obvious descriptions of pretty safe subject matter where for long stretches of time, mundane realities are described without incident. That is not to say there aren’t plots in these Nature Method books; it’s just that the stories were clearly not designed for entertainment or to function as interesting let alone compelling stories, but for being the filler material which the student can dissect for discovering rules in the language.
  5. The use of pictures and visual aids. The illustrations in the Nature Method textbooks are all very practical, clear, and relevant to the story at hand. Teachers have always wished there were yet more visuals of course – if there could be a drawing for every meaningful utterance, we would be very delighted. As it stands, the illustrations that the text provides are very meaningful and practical aids for language learning.
  6. Translation is reduced to a minimum. The Nature Method textbooks indeed do not encourage translation, but reading.
  7. The incorporation of constrained and somewhat-unconstrained composition exercises. English by the Nature Method had Exercise A, which was a fill-in-the-missing-word activity, followed by Exercise B, which was an answer-the-question activity, the questions being fairly closed questions with predictable answers. For the first few chapters, Exercise B is further constrained by providing a certain number of dashes corresponding to the number of words expected in the answer. Exercise A, the fill-in-the-missing-word activity is not terribly useful because it is possible fill in the missing word without understanding what was being said. As for Exercise B, answering a question is not as free as “free composition” said to have been essential in the 1917 paper on the Direct Method, but at least it involves the processing of meaningful messages and the task of expressing a meaningful answer. The exercises are arranged in order of most-constrained to least-constrained: this is consistent with the advice of the 1949 paper. LLPSI has three sets of Exercises: Pēnsum A is a fill-in-the-endings exercise, Pēnsum B is a fill-in-the-word exercise, and Pēnsum C is respond in Latin to Latin questions of a fairly closed nature.

    As with English by the Nature Method, LLPSI orders the exercises (pēnsa) from most-constrained to least-constrained. The exercises are supposed to be integral to the method; in practice they act as gatekeepers to the rest of the content: the learner is expected to produce perfectly accurate output of everything they have encountered up to that point before moving forward. In the light of modern SLA research, this is actually an unrealistic expectation for acquistion: if input is the basis for acquisition, and acquisition is a gradual process, your output accuracy must reasonably be expected to lag behind your comprehension.

    When faced with the pēnsa, the learner essentially has two options: repeatly reread the chapter as many times as necessary to memorise – and not necessarily internalise – the forms of that chapter, or consciously apply explicit grammar rules to get through. If the learner does neither of those things and just skips the pēnsa, the authors can then blame the laziness of the student if they fail in any way. Failing at the pēnsa means you apparently weren’t ready to move on.

    I tend to believe that the pēnsa are more beneficial to the reputation of the course than to the learning experience, because making accurate output a kind of arbitrary gatekeeper to receiving more input is not exactly in the best interests of the learner, if what really drives acquisition is sheer volume of comprehensible input. And if you’re only allowed to progress if you’re perfect, only the perfect will stick with the course, and the rest will drop out and you won’t hear from them again.

    Add to that, as Nancy Llwellyn points out, the pēnsa as they are ordered in the book demand language competence in the reverse order of its actual acquisition: in reality, learners acquire large chunks and whole words before they acquire smaller details like the endings of words.


And so these seven features of the Direct Method, both good and bad, were adapted to the print textbook medium of the Nature Method textbooks. But what was lost in the transfer between the classroom practice of the Direct Method and the teach-yourself-textbook of the Nature Method?

Extensive oral practice. The greatest loss between the two formats is the loss of extensive oral practice which had formed the bedrock of the Direct Method. A book cannot talk with you, point to things, describe them, ask you questions, laugh, give you commands, receive commands, or any of the myriad rapid-fire oral interactions that a teacher can do with you in person (or which could be filmed and shared via video, like my introductory Latin TPR video series). In my experience with large and diverse classes, building a bank of concrete vocabulary through oral activities, especially TPR, makes reading and storytelling a lot more accessible to students when you get round to it. Actually what I noticed this year is that the students who turned out to be particularly problematic in other ways, behaviourally or academically, tended to do well on TPR. People who doubted their language abilities tended to respond well to TPR too. TPR in particular and comprehensible oral activities in general are in my experience far and away the best start you can get in a language: low pressure, high levels of input, quick feedback cycles, lots of interest and variety.

But it is not something a paper book can easily convey, in the absence of a teacher. Even if you try to read transcripts of TPR or oral conversations in books – and there are books that do that[19] – the book can never capture the charisma of the teacher in the moment, and the reality of seeing something true right in front of you being described. In comparison, starting with a map of the Roman Empire followed by the description of a fictional Roman aristocratic family doesn’t have the same power to hold students’ attentions and prepare them for more interesting stories.

On the topic of oral language teaching, it was actually oral methods which converted me to Comprehensible Input. When I saw videos of Aleph with Beth, a course that teaches Biblical Hebrew through TPR, comprehensible input, oral questioning, and eventually storytelling, I was blown away by how much more effective and enjoyable it was at getting Hebrew to stick in me compared to the grammar method, or inductive method. Aleph with Beth videos are such an outstanding resource in the CI teaching space, and so gentle in their learning curve, that I think they put Nature Method textbooks to shame. And in no small part this is because they can capture and reproduce real human interactions in speech with live props in a way that a print textbook simply cannot. If Aleph with Beth had been made in Latin, I believe it would be worth ten LLPSIs.

(Side question, would you like it if I tried dubbing Aleph with Beth straight into Latin? I know that’s totally not the proper way to structure an introductory language course, as Aleph with Beth is carefully built around Hebrew grammar, but you know, just suggesting it if you were interested.)

Part 6: Does LLPSI beat everything else?

pāstor humī sē prōiciēns dominum ōrat nē sē verberet: “nōlī mē verberāre, ere! Nihil fēcī!”

– Hans Ørberg

So in summary, how do Nature Method textbooks such as LLPSI stand up in 2022? 

It doesn’t beat a real teacher, by which I mean someone like Justin Slocum-Bailey, who can captivate a class with a spontaneously generated spoken Latin role-play scenario within his second lesson of Latin with them, and spend the entire time with their attention on him as he speaks and interacts 90%+ in Latin with them. It does not hold a candle to a live teacher doing wide varieties of oral activities and interactive story-telling.

But, as a resource competing among resources, is it, as Nancy Llwellyn said, “simply 80 times better than anything else”?

I’d say it is better than at least most textbooks in some important ways, but worse in other important ways. Taken as a whole it could be a better single resource than all the alternatives. However I qualify this by saying this only works when students – in both self-learning and classroom contexts – are somehow kept interested in the content either with external help from the teacher or fom sheer internal drive.

However, I don’t think that it’s much of a high praise to say that LLPSI is perhaps better than other textbooks overall. The sad fact of the matter is that there aren’t a whole lot of very useful truly CI-based textbooks published as complete courses. Teaching lags a few decades behind the science, and it seems textbooks lag much further behind the vanguard of teachers.

The reading method from the 1980s and onwards produced a lot of courses such as the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), the Oxford Latin Course (OLC), Ecce Romani, Suburani, Latin through Ovid, and others, which present Latin through stories, but they all introduce vocabulary at a high rate per story, and rely heavily on glossing, to such an extent that a large portion of students are often not really reading the stories but stringing together glosses or spending most of their time flipping through the dictionary at the back of the book. It’s not really reading when every five or so words you have to stop to look up a new word you’ve never seen before. Unless the teacher heavily modifies the materials, for a student to get the experience and benefit of extensive reading in these courses, they have to reread previously understood stories. And as much as I tell students to do that on their own time for their own benefit, I really don’t think it happens unless the teacher specifically carries out an in-class activity that makes them reread (such as the many post-reading activities listed here).

The one advantage of these reading method books, however, is that they tend to be more interesting as stories than LLPSI and the Direct Method materials, particularly the CLC. However sometimes I feel the authors of reading method textbooks try a little too hard to tell a story a certain way, and you see a sudden concentration of glossed vocab on the side when they do that, which very often ruins the pacing of the story when a student attempts to “read” it. Crafting a story which is both compelling and comprehensible takes special effort beyond just thinking “it’s a an adaptation of a myth and the myth says XYZ, so now I will say XYZ and gloss it.”

There is also a pretty nice newcomer on the textbook scene, Via Latina, which is entirely written in Latin with Latin glosses, similar to LLPSI. Its learning curve however is a bit steeper than LLPSI and it seems to presuppose a classroom context in which the teacher will be assisting students with getting extra vocabulary practice, perhaps through oral questioning, which makes it less immediately useful to self-learners, but still useful. The written exercises in Via Latina are far better than LLPSI and any other course I’ve seen in the textbook space. They provide a lot more connection between Latin words and their meaning, as well as greater variety.

In addition to complete textbook courses, however, we also now have a large number of Latin novellas for extensive reading and incorporation into TPRS based courses. Novellas tend to tell lively stories with as little new vocabulary as possible, thus providing the gentlest and potentially most entertaining way to read large volumes of Latin for fluency. But they also are not without some flaws. It is a very recent and rapid development in Latin teaching. As of 2022 the genre has only been around for 8 years, but there are already over a hundred novellas published. Most of these have been written in North America by Latin teachers working overtime, and are voluntarily edited and proofread by other Latin teachers in their overtime, with the result that the products are not edited to the same standard as massive big-budget textbooks. There are other questions around the Latinitas of some novellas which I hope to address more fully in a later video. LLPSI as a single resource beats out a lot of other single resources, but that doesn’t mean a subset of the best novellas couldn’t rise to the surface and eventually form a reading list that beats LLPSI out of the ring.

But ultimately, trying to find a “winner” is not the right question for us. Because what really matters most is the sheer amount of massive comprehensible input you receive in the language. For this reason, I will go on record with a rather firm endorsement of LLPSI: if it were beaten either in the present or future by not just one but two superior “complete” introductory courses, I would still recommend learners give the book a try and see if it works for them, as additional Comprehensible Input among everything else they are doing. For its sheer amount of comprehensible content, LLPSI doesn’t have to be “perfect” be recommended, or even “anywhere close to perfect”. It is “good enough” – so darn “good enough” – that it wins even if it loses.

Part 7: Final thoughts

Dominus rīdēns eum currentem aspicit, tum ad vīllam revertitur. Etsī dominus sevērus exīstimātur, tamen inhūmānus nōn est.

– Hans Ørberg

So, when all the dust has settled, I do actually end up endorsing and recommending LLPSI as a resource. Use it to learn and teach the language, by all means, just don’t uncritically accept the book in its specific format or the author’s methodology as the best possible way to learn a language.

We all have a tendency to look fondly on the first Latin textbook that really got us over the hump towards reading Latin. For a lot of people in the living Latin movement, that book was LLPSI, and their natural emotional response is to remember all the good times, and forget the bad. When you teach from a textbook, you’re forced to relive the bad parts over and over and over, believe me! So I get a lot more of an allergic reaction to the bad parts of a textbook than someone who just remembers it as their Latin textbook from years ago.

Writing this has also forced me to reflect on why I react so abrasively to LLPSI. I have long observed that when I read the stories, I feel an irrational surge of rage building in my blood, which I cannot quite explain, but nevertheless cannot shake. Perhaps part of it is the writing style: I’ve been sprinkling in sentences from the book to adorn the section headings here, and there are so, so many examples of things that I would never say in my own voice. Things like “stupid children can’t learn” or (said by a husband) “You are less skinny than you were back then,” or (said by a child) “how tall is the wall of the military camp?” And it has a very pro-slavery, pro-corporal punishment bent to it. But I don’t have this strong a reaction to the awkwardness, corporal punishment, or slavery references in other textbooks like the OLC.

I think a large part of my unresolved rage issue towards LLPSI is actually that I had quietly suppressed the story about “Tim” and the casualties of his failed curriculum reform. For years I was tutoring students who had lost a lot of Latin progress because he had not met their needs with LLPSI. I formed long-standing teacher-student relationships with these students whom he had overlooked. They helped me refine my Latin tutoring techniques, and I was very pleased to see them grow and thrive. But “Tim”, through either conscious or unconscious negligence, had not intervened with them. Instead he had covered up their failure with rigged tests that were impossible to fail (eg. a test with 20 items in it, marked out of 100, where an incorrect response counted as a single mark off from 100). He soon left the teaching profession after finishing one year of teaching with LLPSI, and pursued an alternate career. For years I had refrained from talking about this former teacher because at that time I was very early in my Latin career, and the world of classics is pretty small. If I badmouthed him in front of the wrong people, or tarnished the reputation of the prestigious school which had hired him, I worried it would damage my future career. But I think the injustice of what he had done with the curriculum had been eating me with a hidden flame; every time I see someone on the internet praise LLPSI to the high heavens it triggers that cognitive dissonance. I can’t help but think of this LLPSI fanatic who wreaked havoc with that methodology in a classroom. This is where you end up if you just hand people LLPSI and tell them to “get good” or get out, because it’s Ørberg’s way or the highway.

To my relief now, it seems enough time has passed – I haven’t run into him in nearly ten years – that I think I can finally tell the story in detail safely and put it to rest. For those of you in my area who can easily put two and two together and work out who I’m talking about, I ask for grace if I have misremembered or confused details of this old story. I have not been trying to think about it for a while.

Interestingly, I have yet to feel even the slightest bit angry while reading the Italian entry in the Nature Method series, l’Italiano secondo il metodo natura. This further suggests that it is my personal history with the fanaticism of LLPSI and not fundamentally the resource itself which makes me cringe so strongly against LLPSI. I’m not sure if I will ever bring myself to enjoy LLPSI, but on the basis of my research, I cannot deny its sheer utility for Comprehensible Input based language learning.

Hard cover Nature Method textbooks offered at Ayan Academy – click here to get 5% off your order.

Now if you’re in the mood to get a deluxe, custom, hardbound copy of any of the Nature Method textbooks mentioned in this talk (they don’t stock LLPSI but they stock the other languages), hop on over to the link shown on screen, and use the discount code FOUNDINANTIQUITY5 to get a 5% discount on your purchase. I can personally vouch that the Italian one, l’Italiano secondo il metodo natura, is a particularly good member of this family. I never restricted myself to only reading that resource for Italian, but I found interleaving it with other Italian input sources continues to be of great benefit to my language acquisition.

Anyways, valēte omnēs!

Bibliography

  • Carreres, A. “Strange bedfellows: Translation and language teaching. The teaching of translation into L2 in modern languages degrees: Uses and limitations.” In Sixth Symposium on Translation, Terminology and Interpretation in Cuba and Canada. Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council, (December 2006).
  • Hornby, A. S. “Diret Method Composition Exercises (I)” in ELT Journal, 4 no. 1 (October 1949): 22-27.
  • Jensen, Arthur M. English by the Nature Method. 1939.
  • Maxey, Mima. Cornelia Puella Americana. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933.
  • Nation, Paul. “How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9,000 words?” in Reading in a Foreign Lanugage 26, no. 2 (October 2014): 1-16.
  • Skidmore, Mark. “The Direct Method” in The Modern Language Journal 1 no. 6 (March 1917): 215-225.

[1] Nation, How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9000 words?, 5.

[2] Skidmore, The Direct Method, 221.

[3] ibid, 217.

[4] ibidem

[5] ibidem

[6] ibidem

[7] ibid, 220.

[8] ibid, 216.

[9] ibid, 219.

[10] ibidem.

[11] Krashen, The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis, 1.

[12] Maxey, Cornelia, vii.

[13] for instance, see Carreres, Strange bedfellows: Translation and language teaching.

[14] Hornby, 22.

[15] Ibidem.

[16] See Carolus et Maria, Maxey and Fay’s New Latin Primer, and Cornelia for examples of Direct Method Latin textbooks in the public domain on Wikisource.

[17] Bonnard (1951), in the Preface to English by the Nature Method, 5-6.

[18] Ibid, 6.

[19] See the Polis Institute’s Forum for Latin, and Saffire & Freis’s Ancient Greek Alive for an Ancient Greek example of TPR written in textbook form.

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

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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.