Oral use of Greek and Latin: one step further

Flickr: liikennevalo

Classical languages are usually labelled “dead languages” in the sense that they are not the official language of any country and in the sense that they are not spoken nowadays. As you know, teaching classical languages is usually a combination of grammar, practising grammar, and translating a given piece of text. There is often no or little emphasis on speaking Greek or Latin.

Maybe we ourselves, those who teach them, have to bear part of the responsibility for the lack of orality: teachers do not speak Greek and Latin in the class room and they do not make students speak them either.

My interest in the matter of Greek and Latin as live languages has not ceased: it has rather increased. Some of you may have heard that this summer I was in Rome attending a course of spoken Latin; it was a pleasant experience which helped me to give a new push to my desire of improving the knowledge of these two languages by making also an oral use of them.

I also visited Vivarium Novum, the school in Rome in which only Latin (and also some Greek) is spoken, and I spent a whole day with them, attending their classes, a seminar in the afternoon, etc. (it is a residential school, so students live there).

In both places, it was a pleasure to see people communicating in Latin.

Since my return, I have been making, in my two elementary courses (LT 1001 and GK 1001), some oral use of the languages, obviously at a very reduced level, saying only what I know they can understand, but it is a start, and I really feel some improvement among students with respect to former years. The improvement is not only linguistic, but also in the sense of making them lose the fear which written Greek/Latin usually produces in them.

All of us know that there are symposiums, congresses, etc. around the world in which Latin is the used language, and that there are some eminent scholars who can take the microphone and start improvising in Latin / Greek with incredible ease. Of course, we know that Latin and Classical Greek will never have the main resource that makes the learning of the language much easier: a country in which the language is spoken.

I have found that some people use this as an excuse to avoid practising the orality of Greek and Latin (“It’s not spoken in any country, we just have the texts”). We know, but if (as I have witnessed) making an oral use of it helps students to learn it and to lose their fear of it, it is worth trying this technique. British universities have a large and excellent tradition for prose composition, both in Greek and Latin; why not go just one step further?

Dr Juan Coderch, Senior Language Tutor in Greek and Latin, University of St. Andrews
Grammar site: http://coderch-greek-latin-grammar.weebly.com

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