Active Latin and Living Latin

This is second in a series of answers to Critiques and Comments to Communicative Approaches to Ancient Languages. The first post has had some very thoughtful and worthwhile responses so do go and read them. I have quite a few posts to come, so today I thought I’d tackle one that heads in a different direction somewhat:

Robert Low asked,

do you think there’s a useful distinction between active Latin (using spoken and written Latin in the learning process) and living Latin (using it as a modern conversational language)?

It’s an interesting question, and I think it opens up an illuminating consideration. I think I, and many, would quibble at exactly those labels of “active” and “living” Latin to describe those two things, but we can all see what Robert is asking with them, and let’s run with them for the sake of argument. First though, let’s take a step back and consider a few prior questions:

Before all, as I say often, we need to consider what sort of thing we mean by ‘knowing a language’, and what purpose we are learning/instructing for.

My starting point here, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s shared by many, is that our purpose is (usually) “to read historical texts”. That’s probably why most students sign up for Greek or Latin studies, no? Their particular interests may vary – Homer, Classical Greek Authors, Biblical Texts, Byzantine Medical Treatises, Medieval Legal Latin  – but the primary interest and motivation is to gain access to a body of literature and to be able to read that for themselves.

Now, that’s not the only purpose one can learn historical languages for, and perhaps we’ll circle back to that later. But let’s take my second question, what sort of ‘knowing a language’ do we mean? I mean “acquiring a language as a mental representation of a linguistic system in a way analogous to other languages that people acquire and speak”. I don’t mean, “having an externalised content-type knowledge of a language’s grammar”.

This matters so much. Because knowing the grammar of a language does not typically convey an ability to read in a language. But acquiring a language + having the specific skill of reading (and literacy + reading is much more readily learnt when picking up an L2 than L1) does carry that ability with it.

To circle back around then, I’d happily affirm without much doubt that most of those who advocate for communicative methods for historical languages do so because they (rightly) believe that doing so is a more effective way to get students to a point of acquiring enough language to read historical texts without translation. We can call that “Active Latin in the Learning Process”.

What about “Living Latin”? There is a contingent of people, smaller no doubt, who have an interest in using Latin for regular communicative purposes. Of course, there is variation within that group! Some enjoy writing in it, some enjoy contemporary fiction or poetry. Others enjoy speaking in it as a medium of everyday communication. (And there is an even smaller group of people worldwide interesting in using Ancient Greek in this way).

I would conjecture (and feel free for readers to comment on this!) that most of us in this category hold two beliefs about this: (1) that it’s an enjoyable hobby, (2) that it is also a very useful means of ongoing improvement in acquiring a broader and deeper grasp of the language.

That is, it’s not that you ever really finish the learning process, and can thus dispense with active Latin – learning Latin is an endless process, if you keep going, and practising living Latin in your life with other speakers is a highly effective way of advancing in Latin ability. So apart from the enjoyable hobby side of it, it remains a part of pedagogical acuity. Once you’ve reached a point where you can hold a conversation in Latin with without great difficulty, regularly conversing in Latin is one of the most useful things you can do to continue to develop your facility in the language (the other being extensive comprehensible reading).

Granted, every now and again you meet an idealist, usually a naïve novice I dare say, who wants to see Latin revitalised as a language of shared-location community usage + intergenerational transmission. That’s not a position or dream I hold or share, and I think that’s outside most people’s prospect for historical language pedagogy.

I do want to circle back to the idea that there are other purposes for learning Latin beyond reading historical texts. Latin has had a long, protracted afterlife. We have far more Latin from post-antiquity than antiquity. Most of those authors acquired Latin as a second, learned (in both senses) language. There’s no intrinsic reason that has to have ceased – Latin invites us to be fellow authors even today. For myself, I delight that some people want to speak Latin, and author new Latin texts, even into this new millennium. That, certainly, is a goal of “Living Latin” in the communicative sense, and long may it prosper.