How do you get an ancient language ‘right’?

You know, at the end of last week I put up that youtube video with an invitation to come and learn some Latin with me through CKI. I knew before I posted it that there would be errors, because I know that anytime I speak in a non-native language I generate errors and it is impossible for me to catch them all. Indeed, I even make errors in my native tongue, so it’s not really a surprise.


I could launch into a defense, self-deprecating or self-justifying, of the kinds of errors I made int hat video, or why, but I don’t really think that’s helpful. If you want to learn Latin through CKI, go and enrol. If not, don’t. If you have specific questions about my Latin or my credentials, you can write to me.

No, I want to talk about something else today, and that’s the issue of how do we know if we’re getting an ancient language ‘right’? If Communicative Greek, Latin, or any other now ‘classical’ language is going to be taught along these communicative lines, with an aim of “accurate speech that reflects the linguistic norms of a certain time period”, how do we go about that?

I was asked this a while back in person, and then I gave a double-barrelled answer, but I think one of those barrels can be elaborated on.

So, we don’t have a living, breathing, talking language community to norm our own speech behaviours. Therefore we must use other means:

  1. Explicit Grammar Check and Correct
  2. The Textual Corpus

Let’s talk about 1 first. We do have a pretty good grammatical knowledge of Latin (let’s stick to Latin in this post). So we can pre-check and post-check things we say/write. Pre-checking is what I try and do before a teaching session – I look at what I want to teach, I double check forms, patterns, usages, even vowel lengths and accents. I’m trying to make sure in advance that what I present is right. Post-checking is what happens afterwards. So many things might arise in the course of using the language, some of which I think I know, some of which I half know, some of which I’m less sure of. All of which I want to review later. It’s almost certain I make mistakes. Explicit checking allows us to go away, mark what wasn’t correct, and then correct it the next time around.

The second element is that we have a large textual corpus. It must stand in for a speaking community. But we can use it in several ways. One way is simply to be reading as much authentic material as we can manage. This exposes us to natural patterns of usage that we wouldn’t think of ourselves, and ingrains in us the phrases, idioms, structures of the language at both a grammatical and discourse level.

We can also use the corpus more explicitly. We can run analysis on words, forms, phrases, etc., to try and actively work out how some things might be expressed. This I do not really do enough of, it’s not really my area, but I still think it’s important.

We cannot become native Latinists, native Koine speakers, and in fact even if we achieve vaunted ‘fluency’ there is always more to be learnt, more mastery to be acquired. Learning to norm our own speech according to an objective norm is what helps us stay on track.

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