Whitefield Academy Blog
Reading in Latin? That’s Legit
Okay, for all of you who aren’t immediately cracking a smile at this blog post title, let me explain the humor: reading Latin is cool and impressive (duh!) and therefore “legit” in English slang, but legit is also Latin for “he/she reads”, so it’s a bilingual pun. Ha! Now of course it’s fun to start things off with a little joke, but this pun also leads us nicely to our topic here today, namely what the goals of our new Latin curriculum are and how we’re going to get there.
So to begin, what is it we’re aiming at in studying Latin? Well, first and foremost, learning to read Latin! And I mean authentic, unadapted Latin texts from the Roman period and beyond. Fluency in communication is the pinnacle achievement of studying any language, and since Latin is no longer spoken anywhere as a primary language, for us “communicating” will come mostly in the form of reading. We will learn to write Latin to practice our forms, grammar, and eventually composition skills, and we may speak a little too, but mainly we will read and read, for the ability to read Latin grants us access to many classic texts of the past two millennia in their original language, from Cicero and Vergil to Augustine and the Vulgate, from Tertullian the Church Father to Isaac Newton’s notebooks.
Second, in studying Latin we’re seeking to gain a broad knowledge of the classical Roman world – its history, culture, literature, and mythology. Language never emerges from a vacuum, and so we must study too the people, places, and major events associated with it. Such knowledge is crucial for properly understanding the texts we’ll read (context is key!), and in addition to serving as a slice of human history within God’s creation – and therefore worth knowing in and of itself – it is the context for the birth of Christianity and the early church, and moreover it lays the foundation for understanding Western civilization and our own cultural and historical heritage at large.
Let me give you an example of the latter. Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid is a gripping tale and worth reading even if you don’t know anything about Roman history or literary traditions, but knowing the circumstances of its composition greatly deepens one’s understanding of the text. Vergil penned the Aeneid during the first official decade of the Roman Empire (29-19 B.C.), when Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus had been granted the title “Augustus” (27 B.C.) and assumed sole control of Rome after decades of civil war, seeking to unify, renew, and expand the empire through moral and civic reforms, expansion of the borders, and an impressive building campaign (Augustus boasted to have found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble). The Aeneid thus takes on a new significance when read against the backdrop of the current fledgling empire, for Aeneas’ mythical quest is destined to lead ultimately to the founding of Rome, and in fact the vision he’s shown throughout of Rome-to-be looks very much like Augustan Rome in all its imperial splendor. In thinking about the text, therefore, one must at some point consider whether and to what extent Vergil’s text sought to legitimize, praise, or even criticize Augustus’ new regime. On the flip side, knowing the Aeneid itself illuminates portions and even entire works of later Western literature, for instance the sections of Augustine’s Confessions on his education as a youth or Dante’s Divine Comedy as a whole. And knowing both the Aeneid and the period in which it was written informs our understanding of fascist Italy under Mussolini, as the latter consciously sought to evoke the power of Augustan Rome and fashion himself a new Augustus both through the use of Augustan images and symbols and even through lines taken directly from Aeneid.
This is where we’re aiming to end up in Latin – to be able to read texts like the Aeneid in their original Latin and to be able to apply our knowledge of the Roman world both to such texts and to the consequent literary, cultural, and historical developments of the West. But how are we going to get here? Specifically, how are we going to get to the point of being able to read Latin like this? There are several different pedagogical approaches to teaching Latin, ranging from a strict focus on vocabulary and grammar only for the first years to total immersion in the language from the start via what is termed “comprehensible input” these days. There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these, and my own personal philosophy, based on several decades of studying and teaching the language at various levels, is to walk a middle course of pronounced emphasis on reading Latin from the start supported by increasingly rigorous grammar instruction. A firm foundation in grammar is absolutely necessary for reading Latin accurately, but on the flip side, we can’t forget that Latin is a language and not a glorified periodic table of forms and syntax rules, and to get good at a language, you have to use it a lot – even and especially from the beginning – in order to absorb its manner of expression and diction, and accordingly build good, instinctual communication habits.
In short, you get good at what you practice. I’ve seen students get very good at identifying obscure uses of the ablative in grammar-forward teaching approaches, but then struggle to apply their grammar knowledge when faced with a sentence or two to translate, and react in pure panic when presented with extended passages of Latin to read. This breaks my heart. And so at Whitefield we are going to adopt a curriculum that emphasizes reading Latin from the beginning. We will study grammar along the way, and throughout the course of our journey our knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary will necessarily increase, but our end goal will remain reading Latin – Vergil, Cicero, Caesar, Ovid, Livy, Tacitus, and so forth. As to the curriculum itself, we will take a closer look at it in our final post of this series. Stay tuned!
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