Why I teach Latin from the Vulgate

When I teach students who have (some) Greek (these are usually biblical studies/theology students), my go-to method is to use a text-based approach and in particular I tend to get them straight into John’s Gospel in the Vulgate.

Some classicists seem a little down on reading the Vulgate. They seem to think we should just stick to the classical canon and that ‘nothing good came from later Latin’. What nonsense. I love some good Cicero too, but let’s not get caught up on Latinitas.

Teaching this student population from the Vulgate has three powerful advantages.

  1. It leverages off their knowledge of Greek. Not that they need to know the Greek underlying the Vulgate necessarily, nor even by particularly familiar with John in the Greek. But having done Greek gives me something easy to which I can relate Latin syntax and vocabulary. Telling a student that ut here is mostly correspondent to ἵνα is a short-cut to comprehension. Similarly, it helps explain some Vulgate oddities, like quia being used for ὅτι when really it shouldn’t.
  2. It leverages off their knowledge of both English and the English Bible. When students clue in to the passage they’re reading, it gives them a context to ‘cheat’ – to render the text comprehensible because they know what it ‘ought’ to say. This isn’t cheating, it’s using what you know to understand a text. Similarly, Latin’s influence on English is more profound than Greek’s, and the number of cognates and derivatives also helps a great deal.
  3. It gives students a sense of achievement early on. Even filling in meanings and structures for students, they get a sense that ‘hey, reading Latin isn’t so hard! I can understand this.’ That’s a powerful motivator to keep going instead of 16 weeks of grammar all so we can know about poets and sailors giving roses to girls

I wouldn’t teach all students this way. If I had them in person I’d be inclined to a more communicative oral method. If they didn’t have a biblical studies, Koine Greek background, it wouldn’t work as well. But for this population of students, the Vulgate is a great entry point. And you don’t need to stick to something easy like John forever. Reading Old Testament, and deuterocanonical or apocryphal texts, makes for some fun forays into some more difficult terrain.

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