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Aut Latine aut nihil? A tertium quid

Tom Keeline

Washington University in St. Louis

Active Latin can seem like an all-or-nothing proposition. For most programs today, however, whether at the secondary or postsecondary level, converting all Latin classes to all Latin, all the time, is unrealistic. There’s no doubt that the communicative approach to language instruction serves some of our curricular goals very well; in particular, as SLA research indicates, it helps students learn to read with greater ease and understanding (summarized in e.g. Carlon 2013, Lightbown and Spada 2013; cf. ACL 2017, embodying these results). Furthermore, as practical experience shows, it’s just plain fun. But our Classics programs and our Latin classes too are about more than just reading Latin (and fun!), and other methods may sometimes be more effective at meeting those needs. I will offer some suggestions for how Active Latin can be profitably combined with other approaches, based on my experience as someone who makes extensive use of Active Latin in a broadly traditional university Classics department. I will give examples of materials and activities from three different levels: first-year Latin, advanced reading courses, and graduate seminars.

I start with an observation that I’ve found a useful guide for how and when to use Latin in the classroom: it’s relatively easy for tyros to talk about the Latin language and Latin texts in Latin, but it’s relatively difficult—and frustrating—for them to try to talk about larger literary and cultural issues in the language.

Thus, beginning Latin classes, focused primarily on Latin itself, are ideal for full immersion. But even here small adjustments can be made to prepare students for a transition to an intermediate class taught by another faculty member and focused on translation; for example, Latin grammatical terminology can be presented with English equivalents. Furthermore, students can be encouraged to ask questions about Roman culture and the like in English, which can be answered in simple Latin. (After a bit of instruction, students’ comprehension abilities far outstrip their abilities to express themselves in Latin, and so this approach gets the best of both worlds.) Finally, it’s important to discuss students’ background and expectations with whoever will be teaching them next. Fundamentally, students who can understand a Latin sentence in Latin can be taught to translate it into English without undue difficulty.

Advanced reading courses, by contrast, do not focus as strictly on Latin. Class meetings can thus be usefully divided into a Latin portion, in which students discuss a text in Latin, and an English portion, in which they address wider issues prompted by the text. Latin worksheets can be created to help guide undergraduates through their readings, which students can fill out at home and use as a basis for in-class Latin discussion. Students can likewise be asked to paraphrase Latin sentences and paragraphs and pages, or to get up and act out a scene as it’s being read, or to do any number of other activities in Latin. But when they discuss a scholarly article on Nero or give presentations on the archaeology of Pompeii, the discussion can be much richer and more nuanced when the language is English.

In a graduate seminar, students can be expected to do more of the heavy Latin lifting themselves. Rather than filling out worksheets, graduate students can consult commentaries written in Latin and take their own notes. Similarly, they can compile their own Latin commentaries, or write compositions in Latin in imitation of the authors they’re reading. And yet in these seminars the details of the Latin language are even less the focus, and more of the class can be spent in English discussion of larger issues.

I think that an all-or-nothing mindset may discourage adoption of Active Latin. I hope to show that with a mixed approach, students at any level can reap the benefits of a communicative classroom, and that such a classroom cannot just coexist with but indeed complement a more traditional Classics program.

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What Can Active Latin Accomplish

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