Spoken Latin

In high school, I took both German and Latin. In German class, the instruction was in German and we rarely spoke English. In Latin class, the instruction was in English and we never spoke Latin.

As I looked at graduate schools, I was impressed by the students who had attempted “spoken Latin” but I always considered it a part of the Other – it was just something that I thought was great if you wanted to do it, but why would you? Latin survives only in writing and a few Catholic churches, so why speak it? And yet, this year, I found myself in a Spoken Latin group, trying it out to see what it was and why on earth anyone would do it.

My friends and I got together every week and read from Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se illustrata. Our method was pretty simple: we took turns reading the Latin stories aloud. The person who read a paragraph then spoke in Latin to summarize the paragraph, and the other participants, also speaking in Latin, could ask questions about the story. Sometimes we digressed and invented totally new stories and backgrounds for the characters, sometimes we stayed pretty faithful to the book’s story. It was a very fun experience and improved my ability to hear, understand, and speak in Latin. It also helped me practice forming complex sentences and thoughts in Latin. The experience was incredibly enriching, rewarding, and fun.

Now, I should say: all of us knew Latin beforehand and we all had experience teaching Latin. We agreed that Ørberg’s book was an excellent and smartly done book. It does a great job of introducing new grammatical concepts gradually, easily, and in a way that will be intuitive to a reader (especially if the reader takes his/her time to understand what is happening). Sentences with a new concept are often paraphrased in the next sentence. This goes a long way to bringing Latin closer to a modern language with reading, speaking, and hearing the language. That is fantastic so I would seriously consider using Ørberg’s book if I had complete freedom to choose a book.

There is one serious limitation of spoken Latin: a less intense focus on grammar. One of the great benefits of Latin is that it teaches grammar on a very detailed level. The careful dissection of a paragraph in one of Cicero’s speeches teaches the reader how to manipulate words, how to play with word order, and what the effects of this skill can be. Spoken Latin does not do this. It helps the student understand the language more quickly, more easily, and as a language rather than as a puzzle.

So how could increased reading comprehension be a bad thing? Because not all teachers use Ørberg’s book and because all Latin teachers (in high school and college) expect students to be able to explain a sentence’s grammatical features; to explain a noun’s gender, number, and case; and to explain a verb’s person, tense, mood, voice, and number. Additional, supplemental instruction, in English, would be necessary to sufficiently and fully explain the grammatical concepts to Latin students, to help them understand the value of a carefully chosen word order.

To be fair, Ørberg’s book does provide grammar explanations that we skipped over since we knew Latin, but it was a more obvious pedagogical concern than the author’s choice to write about the human body using modern rather than ancient perceptions of the body.

In sum, my perceptions about spoken Latin have been completely upended and I look forward to trying to incorporate Ørberg’s book and methods into my Latin instruction, even if it is not the primary text for the course.  Here are a few of my thoughts on how to use Ørberg’s book as supplementary material:

  • Ørberg probably introduces grammatical concepts in a different order than the course’s main textbook, so it may make sense to eventually limit how you use Ørberg’s book as supplementary material or commit to explaining “extra” grammar, if only briefly.
  • The stories in Ørberg’s book also introduce new vocabulary in order to best communicate the story.  This is usually done by explaining the vocabulary either with images in the margins or through an introductory paragraph in each story.  In order to help your students with the new, additional vocabulary, you may need to mime ideas (much like a modern foreign language teacher) or draw their attention to the marginalia.
  • Your goal for using the book may not be to make the students translate everything and understand each sentence but simply to increase their reading comprehension.  You could check their understanding through questions or a worksheet.  For a good explanation of how this might work, see here.
  • Spoken Latin may offer great benefits for students who have grown up speaking Spanish or another Romance language at home, but who are not able to read or write in that language.  Spoken Latin, or making sure these student read the Latin aloud before translating it, will be a useful way to bridge the gap between Latin and their other language.

I would love to hear more thoughts that you might have about how to best incorporate spoken Latin into classes, or stories about your own experiences with it.

Further Resources on Spoken Latin

  • For more on the ideas behind spoken Latin and a different method of using Ørberg’s book, you can see this excellent post.
  • You can order Ørberg’s book at these two sites: part one and part two (or find them at a library near you, here)
  • For more links and advocacy for spoken Latin, you can go here (Unfortunately, not all of the links on this page work anymore.)
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