What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 2b – Responding to Patrick Owens

[Seumas: There’s always a danger of saying too much, of trying to add words upon words upon words. However, I think a preface to the following post is deserving. In part one I laid out some of the language oriented problems in LLPSI, in part two Gregory Stringer has laid out some of the difficulties in terms of content, including many things that some people perceive as problematic. Patrick Owens wrote a length comment reply, which you can read in the comments on part two. Recognising that the kind of response that Owens brings, reflects a broader set of concerns among classical studies, I’ve given space here for Gregory to write an extended response. I’ll defer further commentary to parts three and four, in which Gregory and I will both speak to how we as educators negotiate both language and content challenges in LLPSI. The rest of this post, responding to Owens, is another guest-post from Gregory Stringer]

Owens: I believe these criticisms are unfounded or exaggerated.

In response to our Part II post on “What’s Wrong with LLPSI” we received a long response from Dr. Patrick Owens. Dr. Owens believes the “criticisms are unfounded or exaggerated.” First, I’m grateful for the time and effort Dr. Owens spent on this response. We welcome dialogue on this topic! And also, it is a shame that Dr. Owens didn’t wait for our announced follow ups, where we will address how we each approach these particular issues, linguistic and cultural, in our individual settings, as I think he will find that some of his objections were precipitous and based on an incomplete understanding of our thoughts on the book as a whole. Nevertheless, I will take the time to treat his objections one by one

Owens: LLPSI replicates Roman ideologies because it is a Latin textbook that teaches the predominant viewpoints of the authors that are read in Classical Latin. This is not ‘problematic material’ unless one think one must believe everything one reads.

So we both agree that the text does indeed teach a version of Roman viewpoints (or at least a modern reconstruction of some of the attitudes as expressed by a restricted group of men in a restricted group of texts) in service of the purpose of preparing students to read the “canon”. But the larger point for me is, I simply believe that responsible teachers should know that occasional uncritical reproduction of Roman ideologies in the voice of an “objective” narrator is a feature of this textbook, and sometimes in ways that should make us uncomfortable, especially, as in the example I gave, around enslavement. Explicit or implicit statements that slavery is not inhumane are in my opinion, ipso facto, problematic. And, especially since this textbook is often used, as in my district at my direction, with students as young as 11 years old who, unlike an adult, are often still developing the intellectual capacity to “not believe everything one reads,” it only seems prudent to acknowledge and be aware of this fact when teaching from it.

Owens: LLPSI centers on Roman elites because (a) we don’t have as much evidence for the attitudes of the lower classes; 

We have TONS of evidence for the lives, practices, beliefs, and attitudes of the lower classes, material and textual, it just has been traditionally excluded from the “canon” or largely ignored. Archeological evidence from around the Roman empire, including material objects and graffiti, is rich with details that can shed light on the beliefs and attitudes of the lower classes, as can texts often ignored or overlooked such as the Vindolanda tablets, papyri from Egypt, and even careful reading of canonical texts – things such as the plays of Plautus, the fables of Phaedrus, the works of Apuleius and Petronius, the satires of Juvenal and the epigrams of Martial, the letters of Cicero and Pliny, and the Christian Bible and early Patristic texts can all be fruitfully mined to get a better sense of the lives and attitudes of non-elites. Having less evidence is not the same as having none, and to  be honest, I’m not even so sure we have less, it’s just not as neatly packaged or easily accessible. 

 Owens: (b) the standard classical tongue that is being taught is not what the plebs would have spoken to one another;

Next, “standard classical tongue” should probably say “standardized” since we know that the version of Latin vocabulary and grammar presented in any textbook is as much an artificial ideal following centuries of curation and standardization, rather than accurately replicating what has been passed down to us via manuscript tradition. The classical texts upon which the Latin in LLPSI is based have been the subject of centuries of recopying, editing, and emendation, and also the classical authors themselves, even Cicero, often break the “rules” as laid down in grammar books and use Latin in ways that would seem “un-classical” based on what is taught in textbooks. Furthermore, Dr. Owens’ argument that what “is being taught is not what the plebs would have spoken to one another” and therefore the textbook naturally centers an elite family quickly falls apart since, first, there was no clear-cut division between a formal Latin of written texts and the spoken Latin of the common people, rather merely different registers of Classical Latin used and seen in different contexts, and second, there are plenty of characters in the book who are not elite, such as Medus, Lydia, and Davus inter alios, who also have speaking roles and yet use the same “standard Classical” Latin as Iulius, Cornelius, and Aemilia. So if Hans was attempting to accurately reflect the Latin of the canon and also be historically accurate, and therefore was in some way compelled to center the story on an elite family in order to teach their dialect (as Owens claims), why did he include non-elite characters and have them speak in a “historically inappropriate” (to them) Classical Latin? Or was he simply creating an engaging teaching tool aimed at helping people read the canonical texts and so he, as anyone would, put together something he felt would be effective based on his own knowledge and experience with Latin and Roman culture? Surely the latter. Again, I’m not out to “attack” Hans Ørberg or his incredible achievement – indeed here is a video of a talk I gave at CANE this year which promotes LLPSI to teachers as the single best tool for any Latin curriculum (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQEi5EJfoog). But I also don’t labor under a false idea that the book is flawless. It can have flaws and still be an excellent tool for a Latin curriculum. I don’t even say Hans was necessarily “wrong” to center the book on an elite Roman family and I believe he did an overall excellent job of producing a nuanced depiction of them and the non-elite characters presented in the book. And also, centering Iulius and his family was an authorial choice, just as much as what order to teach the cases in or when to introduce the subjunctive, and there are implications of that choice. And so I feel it is important to make other teachers who want to use this book aware of these various features they will encounter so they make informed decisions for their curriculum.

Owens: (c) it is a great deal more pleasant to read about the inner workings of a family than a volume centered around the nearly ubiquitous suffering among the poor and disenfranchised. Second language learners don’t do well with depressing input. Furthermore, when great literature references the Romans (e.g., Dante, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Voltaire, FitzGerald et cet.) it is the life of the elite and the literary products of the elite that are requisite knowledge. Interested students may go on to learn about the rest of Roman life, but this is an excellent entry point.

This last point strikes me as rather strange. According to Dr. Owens: 1. Reading about an elite family (who, among other things, enslave and oppress others) is inherently “a great deal more pleasant” than reading about non-elites. 2. A book centered on non-elites, the poor, and the disenfranchised would necessarily be entirely about suffering or that it would necessarily be “depressing.” Yes, the lives of the non-elites were undoubtedly full of toil and pain, but they were also undoubtedly full of all the other emotions humans are capable of as well. Indeed, what, for example, is the Christian Bible if not a story of simultaneous pain and suffering and joy and uplift of non-elites? 3. In the end, Dr. Owens reveals it is because his goal is for his students to go on to read famous works of great literature. That is a fine goal, and one I share to a degree. But it is merely one goal among many. My students sign up to study Latin for all sorts of reasons and I see it as my job to do my best to prepare them to do what THEY want to do with Latin, not to decide for them what they must read in the future or do with the skills acquired in my class. And, being a graduate of public schools myself who now teaches to public school students, I aim to give them a more inclusive view of the world of ancient Rome rather than just a vision from the top down. In fact, I find my students are just as interested if not more to find out what their lives may have been like in ancient Rome, as opposed to just learning about the lives of the elite. If they are interested in learning more about the lives of the elite or reading great literature, interested students may go on to study these topics and will find no shortage of places to do so. But a more holistic, realistic view of the vast and diverse realities of an ancient society and acquiring the Latin reading skills to read what they want to read is, in my opinion, the best entry point.

Owens: Yes, there is some familial “violence”. And it appears representative of the history. In fact, corporal punishment in the family isn’t infrequent in human history (it is not so uncommon in Europe today, and it was not uncommon, I believe, a century ago in the USA). Perhaps this is an opportunity for the writer to confront his presentism and amerocentrism. That would allow the writer to engage this material in a less sanctimonious manner.

Dr. Owens accuses me of addressing the concerns of my colleagues about the violence in LLPSI in a “sanctimonious manner”. It was the point of this post to address common concerns raised about this book as a teaching tool by colleagues on Twitter and at my aforementioned CANE presentation, so that everyone can make informed decisions about their curriculum. I acknowledged that concerns around violence in a textbook used with children as young as 10 or 11 are reasonable, which they are – some people are comfortable with corporal punishment as comedy, some are not. Some are comfortable with corporal punishment in general, some are not. How ancient Romans or modern Europeans choose to discipline children is irrelevant to the discussion at hand and I expressed no judgement on that, whatever I may personally feel. I simply respect the freedom of colleagues to judge for themselves what works for them and their students in their classrooms. Also, I am indeed an American teaching to American children at the present time giving my opinion to fellow teachers at the present time, many of whom are undoubtedly American. I recognize my positionality and in no way attempt to hide from it – a quick Google search will tell anyone exactly who I am. And who I am and when I live undoubtedly informs how I read and teach a text in much the same way that Hans Ørberg’s status as a Danish man in the mid-20th century informed how he wrote the text, much as how Cicero being a Roman novus homo in the mid 1st century BCE informed how he wrote his letters and speeches. My readers are invited and encouraged to take my positionality into consideration as they should also do with Hans Ørberg as they would do with Cicero or any other author. For anyone to feign a sort of timeless, cultureless objectivity is surely folly.

The portrayal of women is not sexist; rather, it is Roman. Nevertheless, it is simply untrue that the female characters are unduly confined. It is difficult to think of ordinary careers or responsibilities that are more important than child-rearing. Significantly, the responsibility of childrearing in ancient Rome, typically fell to the mother. Aemilia’s work (and the assistance of Syra and Delia) are illustrative of the way things were in second century Rome. The writer may might not like it (and clearly does not), but he may not re-make Rome in his own image. Are there other examples of women in the ancient world doing other things, certainly! And good for them too! But an introductory textbook must present the culture under consideration to emphasize what is typical to them and strange to us – not what is exceptional within that culture and conforming to us. Furthermore, Aemilia discusses her complicated emotions regarding her brother, who is off at war, and her frustrations with her husband are clear; these make her less of a one-dimensional character. Lydia, who is able to read (!!), attempts to teach her fiancé Medus. I should not like to speculate as to why this significant point was omitted from the above essay.

So Dr. Owens is right, it *is* Roman – as in, yes, the portrayal of women in the book does indeed seem to reflect elite male Roman attitudes similar to those expressed in canonical authors such as Ovid or Martial. And also, those attitudes were and are sexist. Both are true. I can’t imagine that Dr. Owens would attempt to argue that Romans were not sexist, so I must have missed something here. As to what it means to be “unduly confined” I have no idea. Can, according to Owens, women be “duly” confined? He says the text is “illustrative of the way things were.” The way they were for whom? Every single woman in ancient Rome? Every elite woman? This is to some degree a corner that the book has written itself into by focusing primarily on one imaginary elite family when we know, in fact, that the realities of both elite and non-elite women often varied wildly (see for example the Vindolanda tablets, the poems of Sulpicia, the anonymous woman of the so-called Laudatio Turiae, the great business woman Eumachia of Pompeii, or the life of Saint Perpetua). And while it is certainly true that many womens’ choices were much constrained by the society they lived in and control over their own bodies was greatly infringed upon by men, this surely does NOT mean that women could not think for themselves and have their own opinions, and I feel more of that could and should have been included in the book. Likewise, evidence demonstrates that elite women *did* in fact receive education in ancient Rome and attention to the education of Aemilia, Iulia, and Lydia is a choice the author could have made but didn’t and one I attempt to address with my students via a close look at what the ancient sources actually say regarding the education of women (Capitulum XV – School in Ancient Rome Sources). Next, of course there is nothing wrong with women choosing to raise children, just as there is also nothing wrong with getting an education, or running a business or doing all of the above or any other choice a woman may want to make, then or now. 

I am not attempting to “remake Rome in my own image” as Owens asserts, but rather I want to help students understand the rich and complex reality that was the world of ancient Rome. In fact, this complaint by Owens is somewhat ironic as Ørberg himself admits to having modelled elements of the story in LLPSI on his own life, quite literally “remaking Rome in [his] own image”! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFKbhqTPjjQ) In the end, all teaching is a subjective act in which teachers mediate between the material and our students, emphasizing what we feel is important, and I am quite open about my process and the choices I make and why I make them.

Then, Dr. Owens states that “an introductory textbook must present the culture under consideration to emphasize what is typical to them and strange to us – not what is exceptional within that culture and conforming to us.” Must it? Who has written this rule? I was not introduced to this law upon being awarded my degrees or my teaching licence. I’m not saying he is necessarily wrong, that is certainly one way to design a textbook, but certainly not the only way either. I, instead, would argue that a textbook should aim to provide as complete a vision as possible of the culture under study, both those things typical AND exceptional to them, as well as those things strange AND conforming to us. I acknowledge that this is difficult for a single volume textbook aimed primarily at language instruction, but these blog posts were meant as ones of ideals – how could this excellent resource be made even better? Once again, Dr. Owens seems to think I’m anti-Ørberg when anyone who has seen me present or read my work knows that quite the opposite is true. I believe he did an outstanding job of creating a book that is at once broad and accessible and nuanced and subtle. I simply know it’s not perfect and I feel no compunction about engaging with the ways in which it falls short.

Finally, as I stated in the original post, there is indeed much nuance to the characters which does get revealed over time. If one reads all the way to the end of the book you find that Ørberg in fact does an excellent job of undermining some traditional elite Roman assumptions, especially in Chapters XXVIII, XXXII and XXXIII. But, as I stated in the post, some of this is unfortunately lost because many students and readers never make it that far. Indeed the examples Dr. Owens cites, Aemilia’s frustrations with her husband (p. 156-158), Lydia’s literacy (pp. 224-229) and Aemilia’s literacy and complicated feelings about her brother (p. 275-281) all come after the halfway point of the book and the last two well into the last third. Finally, Dr. Owens has in fact anticipated my discussion of Lydia in part IV of our blog posts on LLPSI, as the exception that makes the rule. The Lydia character is perhaps the most fascinating in the whole book, as a literate freedwomen and a Christian she serves as an excellent counterpoint to the vision we are offered of Aemilia. And yet, she only appears in 6 of 35 chapters compared to Aemilia who is present in 17 of them, when of course there would have been statistically far more non-elite than elite women in the Roman empire as a whole. LLPSI would be much enriched if we heard more about Lydia – it would be great to have a volume that gives us more of her and Medus’ backstory and what happens to them when they get to Greece.

Owens: Everyone is not depicted as “white”. Latin does not, as far as I know, have one term for a “white” person, so this is only quibbling about the kind of presentistic diversity wherein diversity is judged only by a predefined set of categories, beyond which no diversity can be said to exist. And yet, there is great diversity in the story for a rich Roman household. Yes, there were people of darker complexion in Rome in the second century. Yes, they could have appeared somewhere in the story. But it is also no surprise that they do not since the majority of people in Rome, and likely those persons in the households of the rich, were more representative of the regions that are already represented by Julius’ household. This is hardly a “glaring shortcoming”. If it does come up with students, it is an excellent opportunity for discussion. That is not a bad thing.

Dr. Owens is correct that Latin does not have a term for this because the Romans did not have a concept of a “white” person as we understand it, although they certainly did see and react to skin color in various ways. Also, we agree that there is in fact great diversity shown in Hans’ narrative. And he seems to agree that these are important discussions to have with our students. Finally, he himself acknowledges that people of various darker skin tones were present in ancient Rome at the time of the stories presented. Two of them at least, Syra and Syrus, even have names that suggest that would be the case. So I just wish that reality were better reflected in the illustrations. I’m not sure what makes that such a controversial stance.

Owens: There are not “repeated appearances” of Christian overtones in the book. It is referenced in one of thirty-five chapters. In that one chapter students read some Latin from an early translation of the New Testament. This is not taken from the Vulgate (as the writer incorrectly asserts) but from the Vetus Latina, since the Vulgate had not yet been written at the time of the story. There are many good pedagogical reasons to imbed such versus into the text, but I’ll limit myself to responding to the writer’s criticism.

Dr. Owens is mistaken here. There are, in fact, repeated appearances of Christian overtones in the book beyond just the one chapter. Christianity is directly referenced in the following places: Chapter XVI, vv. 129-150, again throughout all of the aforementioned Chapter XXVIII, and again at Chapter XXXI, vv. 142-147 and one last time in Chapter XXXII, vv. 59-75. And, as I said originally, that is perfectly appropriate. We agree that the ratio of Christian material to the book as a whole is in not of proportion for the time and place it is set and I agree that it is a fine choice of text for language pedagogy reasons as well. 

Dr. Owens is also mistaken about the version of the Bible used in Ørberg’s text. While it is true that the 4th century Vulgate of Saint Jerome did not yet exist at the time the stories take place, there exists no one set text of the Vetus Latina and the text LLPSI uses is, in fact, a slightly modified version of the Vulgate text (as Ørberg himself states in his LLPSI companion volume Latine Disco, p. 40) but he has slightly changed the grammar and vocabulary (and added punctuation) to fit with what he has already introduced. So, for example, Ørberg changes the line “Filia mea modo defuncta est… Et cum venisset Iesus in domum principis et vidisset tibicines et turbam tumultuantem dicebat…” (Vulgate, Matthew, 9.18, 9.23-4) to “Filia mea modo mortua est… Et veniens Iesus in domum principis, videns tibicines et turbam tumultuantem, dicebat…” (LLPSI, pp. 224-5, v. 68, vv. 70-72) changing the pluperfect subjunctive verbs to present participles, since the pluperfect subjunctive is not introduced until Chapter XXXIII, and replacing the word defuncta, which he has not introduced, with mortua, which he has. Also, since much of the Christian literature at this time was written in Greek rather than Latin and we are told that both Lydia and Medus are in fact Greek, it is much more likely that what she is actually would be reading him was in Greek, not Latin, but for pedagogy purposes Ørberg has given us the (modified) Latin – but in the end, it really doesn’t matter that much as LLPSI is not gospel, merely a story meant to be entertaining enough to keep the reader’s attention while teaching them Latin.

Owens: Firstly, the writer seem to be confused about the meaning of antidisestablishmentarianism, which – pace the condescending parenthetical definition – means ‘opposition to the withdrawal of any state support or recognition from any established church’. 

Dr. Owens is right about antidisestablishmentarianism. I was indeed confused – I evidently had learned the meaning of the word as the opposite of what it actually is. Oops. My mistake and I thank him for setting me straight on this. Never too late to learn something new, I always say! Not sure why he feels I was being “condescending” by including a (mistaken) definition of an uncommon word in parentheses, but he often seems to insinuate nefarious motives to my writing for reasons that are unclear.

Owens: In any case, the writer seems to think that “strong antidisestablishmentarianism [sic] (“separation of church and state”)” justifies or requires that Christianity not be mentioned in schools. But this is not true. The doctrine which the writer surely intended to reference (i.e., disestablishmentarianism) protects a state church against government overreach, and thus prevents public educators (as agents of the government) from coercing students to pray.

Finally, the separation of church and state in no way impedes teachers from discussing Christianity in an academic fashion, and it surely should provide no obstacle to and no cause for concern in the text under criticism. Indeed, what kind of education would a school provide students if it failed to acknowledge a religious movement with 2.5 billion adherents today and one that has figured so largely into international history for the last two millennia? How could anyone possibly teach about the dramatic societal changes in Late Antiquity, the causes of the Crusades, the art of the Renaissance, or the debacle of Henry VIII without at least teaching the basic tenants and history of Christianity? I suspect that there is a further confusion here and that the author did not mean exactly what he has suggested here because for a Latin teacher (a *Latin* teacher!) to suggest that this is somehow verboten, can be little more than the ignorant balderdash and buffoonery of one who cares more about his own brand of social ideology than actual education.

In his last paragraph, Dr. Owens has decided that I suggested that it is “verboten” to teach Christianity in an academic fashion in American schools, when in fact I said nothing of the kind. At no point do I say or even suggest that “separation of church and state justifies or requires Christianity not be mentioned in schools” as he claims. This is pure fantasy and I have no idea how he came away with this from anything I wrote. I have been teaching with this book for 10 years, reading this chapter with my students every time and I have no problem doing so. In fact I always include robust units on Christianity in the Roman world, first when we get to Chapter XVI and again when we get to Chapter XXVIII. Rather, what I did say is that some teachers and professors have told me the Christian themes make *them* nervous to teach with this book in *their* schools. The reality is, some teachers in the US do feel a need to stay away from any and all talk of modern religions and other “sensitive” or “personal” topics such as religion, politics, etc. out of an overabundance of caution. I am instead fortunate to teach in a very open and liberal school which gives me great trust and freedom to teach my class the way I see fit. But, it very much depends on where you teach. And because of that, teachers are sometimes made to feel it is safer to just avoid the topic of non-extinct religions completely. That is unfortunate and I agree that separation of church and state should not provide any obstacle to using this book or reading this chapter or teaching the history of Christianity in school, but again I trust my colleagues to know what works for them in their schools. Dr. Owens has come to some very strange and inaccurate conclusions of what I said about this topic based on what I actually wrote and, I invite him to read the original post again more carefully.


Finally, I’ve always been happy to engage with complicated issues directly, and willing to acknowledge when I am wrong, and where there is room for debate, and to discuss openly and honestly why I hold the positions I do, and to do so in the spirit of intellectual exchange. These blog posts were written in that same spirit. It is regrettable that Dr. Owens felt he had to resort to distortion, insinuation, and name calling to attempt to make his points over the reception of a textbook, but so be it.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 2

Today we have a guess post by Gregory Stringer, written with some input from myself.

As discussed in Part I, LLPSI is an outstanding language teaching and learning tool. And also, it is not without flaws in terms of both language instruction and content. In Part I we looked at its flaws as a tool for teaching language according to SLA principles and our best understanding as experienced teachers of best practices language instruction. In Part II, we look at some of the most glaring shortcomings of the book in terms of its content. While we argue that this book still presents a much richer, more nuanced picture of Roman society than perhaps any other book on the market, it nevertheless contains problematic material that cannot simply be brushed aside. Here they are in roughly chronological order of how they come up in the book.


1. Replicating Roman Ideologies

Almost all ancient texts contain ideologies that are rightfully abhorrent to modern readers, yet, of course, teaching with those texts doesn’t mean that we want our students to assume the ideologies contained within or that we personally endorse them because we teach them (i.e. Hopefully no one nowadays teaches De Bello Gallico because they want their students to grow up to lead a genocidal conquest). Rather we teach texts to learn more about the ancient world, its languages and customs, and to use those texts as jumping off points for constructive dialogue about the human condition, then and now. The same is true of any textbook – it is a tool for teaching and using a particular resource is not the same as an endorsement of all its ideology – though, understandably, that line can sometimes be more blurry with instructional materials written more recently. Nevertheless, the teacher must always carefully read the resources they provide and be prepared to discuss and deconstruct potentially harmful or controversial ideologies contained within any and all texts used in the classroom. This is perhaps slightly more complicated in a text like LLPSI, because in his attempt to teach culture in a method similar to the way he teaches vocabulary and grammar – i.e. implicitly via an inductive approach – Orberg embedded Roman ideology about a variety of topics including family life, enslavement, war, entertainment, and education into the storyline. LLPSI is generally careful to put ancient Roman ideologies into the mouths of his ancient Roman characters and these are (as far as I can tell) based on authentic ancient Roman textual sources (e.g. the extended discussion between Iulius and his wife Aemilia in Chapter XX about child-rearing and nursing is based on evidence from Aulus Gellius, Juvenal, and Tacitus inter alia). However, while these words spoken by the characters accurately replicate Roman ideologies (at least as held/voiced by the wealthy male elite) and are drawn from ancient sources, this could also unintentionally give the impression to less experienced or less skilled readers (or those who don’t make it all the way to the end of the narrative where more nuance is revealed) of an alignment with or an endorsement of these Roman values. 

Also, there are a few places in the book where the character/narrator distinction breaks down. For example, at the close of Chapter XXVII when the paterfamilias Iulius has finished threatening his tenant farmer (colonus) with eviction if he doesn’t pay back rent and his tenet shepherd with corporal punishment for having allowed his sheep to wander in the nearby fields, the omniscient narrator quips “Etsi dominus severus existimatur, tamen inhumanus non est” (“Even if he is deemed a strict master, he is nevertheless not inhumane”). While the exact status of the colonus is not revealed in the text, we know that Iulius is an enslaver of others and I hope anyone teaching agrees that enslavement is, ipso facto, inhumane. And, while there is much material in LLPSI, especially in the supplemental readings of the colloquia personarum and the fabellae Latinae, which directly provide a portrait of the brutal reality of enslavement from the point of view of the enslaved as well as the surely complicate ways in which this played out in their individual lives, lines like this run the risk of feeding into an “enslaver apology” wherein the idea that some enslavers were not as cruel as others works to undermine the terrible reality that is enslavement, as much in the Roman world as anywhere or at anytime.

Lastly on this point, as with any book, the process of selection – what gets included and what gets left out – is necessarily an act of ideology. From Chapter I (“Imperium Romanum”) of LLPSI it is a Roman worldview we are presented with via a map of the Mediterranean with the outline of the Roman Empire and a discussion of what was and was not in the Roman Empire and throughout, anyone outside of the empire is repeatedly and emphatically described as “barbarians” (barbari).

2. Centering of Roman elites

The characters at the center of LLPSI are a wealthy Roman family, in this case, that of the aforementioned Lucius Iulius Balbus of Tusculum. While the book doesn’t give us much detail on Iulius’ career, we are told that he lives in a large villa in Tusculum and is the dominus of 100 enslaved people, most of whom never appear nor are named. In fact, chapter 2 teaches students the genitive largely through this relationship of enslavement “Iulius dominus Medi est. Medus servus Iūliī est.” (“Iulius is the enslaver of Medus, Medus is the enslaved of Iulius”) etc. While ultimately Iulius is decidedly not the “hero” or “good guy” of the book, in fact quite the opposite – it is rather Medus an enslaved man who escapes from Iulius’ household with his freedwoman girlfriend Lydia that the reader is meant to “cheer for”- but that is only slowly revealed throughout the course of the continuing story and many students or classes never get that far. Also, the intentional portrayal of the rich Roman Iulius as the book’s villain is somewhat undermined by the presence of Cornelius as the “good” neighbor. Cornelius consistently appears as a more thoughtful father and husband than Iulius, but the narrative glosses over his own status as a Roman enslaver because he is not as wealthy as Iulius. Does the fact that Cornelius only enslaves 10 people as opposed to 100 make him a better person? That said, in the final chapter of the narrative (XXXIV) Cornelius is also revealed as much less “humane” than he at first seems, as he revels in a description of violent gladiator games and a deadly chariot race. 

3. Violence

In fact, while we would argue that LLPSI is, overall, much less violent than say the Cambridge Latin Course, much of the early narrative focuses on Iulius’ domination of his 3 children and the enslaved in his household. The eldest son, 9 year-old Marcus is constantly bullying and hitting his younger siblings provoking corporal punishment from his father. All this familial violence is presented in a humorous way and some teachers have reasonably raised concerns about teaching sibling violence and corporal punishment as comedy with students. Likewise, in Chapter IV some of Iulius’ money has gone missing and Iulius calls in the two most trusted enslaved men of his household to question them about it and threatens violence on the perpetrator. One of them, Medus, has indeed taken Iulius’ money and disappears and Iulius’ pursuit of him and his planned punishment are a recurring subtheme of the entire book which is treated somewhat comically in the early going in imitation of Roman comedy in a way that likewise makes some teachers/readers uncomfortable. 

4. The sexist portrayal of women. 

The women in LLPSI are consistently portrayed and described in highly problematic ways. While we can attribute elements of this, like the violence described above, to verisimilitude of a Roman setting and a replication of attitudes of canonical Roman writers, the level of misogyny present in the structure and narration of LLPSI is nevertheless inexcusable, indefensible, and avoidable. For example, female characters are described largely by their physical appearance in a way the men are typically not – e.g. in chapter six the words for pretty (pulcher) and ugly (foedus) are introduced through descriptions of the noses of the enslaved woman Syra and the young daughter Iulia. Furthermore, almost all of the dialogue, narration, and actions of the female characters is confined to so-called “women’s topics” – love, childbearing, jewelry, etc. Likewise, whereas much attention is paid to describing the life and education of the boys, we hear nothing about Iulia’s present or future as a young girl in ancient Rome and we only hear about the mother Aemilia’s courtship, marriage, and childbearing. And so, just because canonical Roman male authors often present a world which severely circumscribes the universe of Roman women (and even that evidence is often contradictory), we have plenty of other evidence – textual, inscriptional, archeological – that presents a much more dynamic reality for Roman women and this, and womens’ perspectives more generally, could and should be represented in the text.

5. Everyone depicted as “white”

While this is a result of the illustrations rather than anything written in the text per se, all the characters are drawn as pale skinned “white,” when we know from our sources that the reality of second century CE ancient Rome would have looked much different. This is also despite ostensible diversity of the characters, especially enslaved people of Iulius’ household as based on their names or backstories (Syra and Syrus, presumably coming from Syria, Medus we learn comes from Athens, etc.). Regardless, the book could certainly use more diversity overall and it’s unfortunate that the images in LLPSI don’t accurately reflect the diversity already present in the text.

6. Christian overtones

This is an issue that seems to come up especially in American public schools where strong antidisestablishmentarianism (“separation of church and state”) has led to a situation where many public school teachers are afraid to even mention anything remotely related to modern religions (although they will happily talk about Greco-Roman polytheism and mythology all day without a second thought!). Therefore, the repeated appearance of Christianity in the text makes some teachers nervous, especially in Chapter 28 when the freedwoman Lydia tries to convert her boyfriend Medus to Christianity via extended readings of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible). LLPSI does introduce all the Roman gods as well, though with little mention of lived Roman religious practice, and though the total amount of Christian material present is probably not actually disproportionate for the setting (about 1 chapter out of 35), some feel, perhaps not wrongly, that the scene at the end of Chapter XVI where Lydia and Medus’ ship is seemingly saved from a storm by Lydia’s prayers to her “dominus” more than subtly hint where the author’s actual sympathies lie.

We’ve covered a range of issues, but we’re aware that some readers may find other inclusions, or omissions, problematic. In recognising the text as an artefact, and a product of Ørberg’s own context as well, a teacher may find the text problematic enough to choose not to teach it. For our part, we both teach using LLPSI, and in part 3 we’ll address how we both, in different teaching contexts, navigate and seek to ameliorate these difficulties.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, Part 1

(This post co-written with Gregory Stringer)

I (Seumas) am happily on record, and will continue to say, that Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata, and in particular volume 1, Familia Romana, is one of the best language textbooks in any language. Not just that, but it is so by a very wide margin. It demonstrates a deep and profound instantiation of the Direct Method, and succeeds very admirably at being ‘per se illustrata’.

However, it’s not perfect. Some of its faults are innate – a textbook cannot escape being a textbook, for instance. Others are characteristic of the text itself. In part one, we are going to look at what we think are some of its major drawbacks on the language side of the equation. In part two, we will explore some of the more content oriented problems in the book.

  1. Assuming that one you understand it, you know it.

Ørberg does a really good job of introducing new language features, illustrating or exemplifying them in a way that makes them understandable based on the building blocks you’ve had so far, and then covering a range of forms and permutations. Chapter 17 is a good example as he walks you through exemplars of all persons and number of the passive present across the conjugations. However, there is this assumption in Ørberg that knowledge is binary – you go from ‘not knowing’ to ‘knowing’, and then you know it. Which means that later on the text always assumes that you know a feature you have been taught. Humans don’t learn, or know, like this. The process is far messier. Familia Romana would be a better book if it had a lot more redundancy built in.

2. Grammar driven curriculum

Related to this, FR is shaped and structured around incremental acquisition of grammar: morphology and syntax. We also have good reason to believe that this isn’t how humans acquire language, and so FR is still shaped by a grammar-driven curriculum. This is why I say often that LLPSI is not a ‘CI-book’ – it’s not a book that was written based on the idea or principle of ‘Comprehensible Input’, or the practices that shape contemporary communicative-based language teaching. It is, or can be, comprehensible input in the sense that it is a wonderful text that many people can read and understand without much help if any, but it is not a “CI-based” method of teaching. It reflects, accurately, Ørberg’s understanding of the Nature Method. As best as we can tell, Ørberg did try to apply some understanding of acquisition orders, based on other languages, to his sequencing, but there is still very much a sequencing going on.

3. Vocab and volume

LLPSI has a tonne of vocab. Not too much, I don’t think. I’d rather students got the 1800 or so words of FR compared to the smaller vocabulary counts in other textbook offerings. However, for the amount of vocab he presents, it should be a longer book. Or it should have companion books that introduce no new vocab or grammar, but just tell other stories (yes, I’m aware of the supplements. What if we had more, and more diverse, supplements?).

4. Some grammatical features come too late

The subjunctive, in particular, appears quite late in the book, giving students inadequate space, in this volume, to attempt to assimilate and acquire its forms and usages. Similarly, students don’t meet the 1st and 2nd persons until chapter 15, and tenses other than the present until 18, when they finally do come thick-and-fast. Any curriculum is going to introduce some things early, some things late (unless you choose a totally different organising principle), but these seem particularly difficult.


Doesn’t a written corpus distort a spoken language?

Yes, but that’s okay.

In the comments on my recent post about Authentic Language, Alan Wood asks, “What difference does it make that we largely have ‘writing patterns’ rather than ‘speech patterns’?”

I think this is neither a feature nor a bug, just a given, of both what we have, and what we are undertaking. So, when we talk about speaking and acquiring Latin, or Ancient Greek, or another historical language, the “idealised corpus of speech” which serves as the objective basis for acquiring the abstract ‘language’, is simply the corpus of written texts we have. There is no ongoing native-speaker community-spoken community of the ancient language as it was. And, we do know well that they way language is represented in writing always differs from how it exists in the moment of speech and conversation. If there’s any doubt for you of that, listen to an audio clip of a conversation and try to transcribe it verbatim.

However, what is the language we’re trying to acquire? It’s the language of the written corpus. We’re (or at least I) not trying to reconstruct a vernacular oral language behind the texts that we have. Any such reconstruction of some kind of “this is how it was truly spoken” involves a level of speculation and tentative reconstruction. Not that this is impossible at the micro level, but I have rather large doubts about it at a macro level.

Rather, we are being acculturated and inculcated into a fossilised representation of language, embodied in texts. There will always be an inherent conservatism, then, in ‘living’ Latin, or Greek, etc., because the corpus is a norming norm for all new speakers.

However, the norm should be broad. We do get conversational and colloquial elements in ancient texts. You see strong elements of conversationality, colloquiality, and the like, even when stylised, e.g. in the comedies. You get a different register of writing in the sub- and non-literary papyri. For a biblical studies student, you cannot get a good sense of style and idiom if all you’ve read is the New Testament. To repeat my common trope, it is like learning all your French from 20,000 leagues under the sea and then wondering why you can’t accurately judge register, tone, style, idiom.

Written language is a standardised expression of spoken language, and serves as a good standard to model contemporary communicative language upon.

You’ll get it wrong – misrepresenting authentic language in communicative teaching

Yet another part of our series on objections to communicative methods

One objection that you sometimes hear to more communicative methods is that those who are using historical languages productively will ‘get it wrong’ and thus be creating unrepresentative/incorrect language data for learners. This is another in my And especially that this is self-reinforcing – incorrect language features are used by incomplete learners, and create a hybrid monster that is “communicative historical language X” which actively harms people learning “historical language X” (feel free to substitute in your Latin, ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew, etc., as needed).

My response to this kind of objection is threefold: Yes, it is a danger; the benefit far outweighs the danger; teachers have a duty.

Firstly, I think there is a genuine danger here though I think it’s vastly over-represented by people who do make this objection. Speakers of Latin and ancient Greek are almost all incomplete learners. Some of us are more incomplete than others! And so mistakes are made. And sometimes mistakes are made and perpetuated, within the speaking community, in a way that makes me cringe.

However, no one I know is incognisant of this danger, no one cavalier, no one thinks it something to just shrug off. Perhaps there are people with that attitude, I don’t know. Our goal, almost always, is to pursue a representation of the language in our communication that reflects and approaches the patterns of the literature corpus we are interested in. That’s the norming norm for our situation.

The benefit of communicative approaches, and particularly in terms of actively speaking and conversing and writing in these languages far outweighs the danger of bad representation. If you think the danger is, “oh, a learner will think that XYZ is standard but it’s not”, what exactly damage is that going to cause? They’re unlikely to go and misread some text that does have the standard feature. They’re no more likely, when it comes to biblical studies for instance, to get things wrong than the woefully less complete and accurate representation of the language that a non-communicative student of equal attainment has. Essentially, someone who speaks Latin is still far and away going to end up a better reader of Latin, even if their speech perpetuates some non-standard features.

Thirdly, teachers have a duty. This goes back to the norming norm – insofar as we are aiming to reflect a particular corpus (e.g. classical Latin. historically broad Latin. Koine Greek. Classical Athenian Greek. Greek across 2000 years. that corpus can be narrower or broader), our language communicatively should aim to reflect that. Which means in terms of self-monitoring and editing and particular production of learning materials, I do think teachers have an obligation to be checking and correcting their own materials to those standards of the corpus. It’s why I’m always interested in the answer of, “who uses this structure?”, “is this attested?”, “attested where and by who?”.

In sum, we ought to strive to reflect an accurate representation of the language as we find it in our literatures, while not letting this paralyse us from actively using the language, which is a paramount way by which we improve our individual acquisition of that very same representation of the language.

On the desire to speak about matters grammatical

Part of an ongoing series on objections to communicative methods

In my last post on these three inter-connected questions (those who don’t want to speak), I discussed the issue of those who object to the ‘content’ of communicative approaches – e.g. the desire not to speak about daily trivia. In this I turn to a similar but again distinct question – what is the ‘nature’ or ‘object’ of language instruction more broadly. Is the point of language instruction in historical languages to teach “grammar, and the analysis of language and texts along grammatical lines”? Or is it something else?

I want to say firmly that it’s something else – that the purpose of teaching a historical language is that students acquire that language as a language, with at least the concomitant proficiency in reading texts in that language, but preferably also some competency in listening, speaking, and writing.

If that is true, then we can ask a separate question about ‘grammar’ – or really two questions. Again, (1) what ‘is’ grammar, as it is taught, and (2) what place could, should, or must grammar have in our classes.

These are actually quite large questions. And the answers I give here may not be shared by all, but I’m articulating what I call “my considered and informed opinion”.

Grammar, as it’s typically taught and understood in classical languages, is a systematic description (descriptive!) of the language as it was used by its speakers and authors, as evidenced in a particular corpus of texts. It is language talking about language. And for that reason it’s incredibly useful, because one of the things that we might like to talk about is how language means. Having a vocabulary, and an understanding, of what nouns and verbs are, what endings are and do, how adverbs function, how clauses relate, etc., allows us to have conversations about how a language is working.

That’s why grammar is metalanguage – it involved a technical (domain-specific!) set of vocabulary useful to have if you want to talk about language itself. And most of our grammar is embedded in the history of Latin literature itself, since grammar as a field emerged among Latin and Greek authors.

But it’s very important to note that the analysis and study of language moved on from Latin grammar and philology to become Linguistics. We now call the systemic and scientific study of language(s) “Linguistics”, and the grammar traditions still incumbent in classics departments are often woefully ignorant of modern linguistics, carrying on with fossilised understandings of how languages work (often highly prescriptive), neglectful of how applying linguistics to Latin and Greek would yield, and already has yielded not only new insights, but in some cases overturn traditional categories and ways of talking. Traditional grammar is often quite bad grammar.

So, grammar is language for talking about language, and that’s quite a useful thing to have, especially since we are very interested in language! But what place should grammar have?

The Grammar-Translation method fundamentally operates on the maxim that if you teach people to understand grammar (and practice applying it in translation exercise), then they will learn the language. Several centuries of experience, and the work of modern SLA theory, strongly suggests that grammar is not the mechanism by which acquisition occurs. So we are left asking, “if grammar is not the mechanism by which acquisition takes place, what role could it have?”

I do think grammar can play a positive role in the language learning space, but before I get on to that let me qualify by saying, it is entirely possible to teach for acquisition without utilising or having a place for explicit grammar at all. Some teachers appear to have adopted that position, and it may be that you have learners who do not want to learn grammar. They don’t have to.

But you may also have learners who really do want to learn grammar in one form or another. So here’s a range of things that I think grammar can do, and you might want it to do.

  • Grammar can be a means of making things comprehensible.

Just like quickly glossing things in English can short-cut having a 20minute circumlocution to get across your meaning staying in language, having the tool of metalanguage can quickly and directly make something understood. This only works if you teach some grammar along the way, but it works. I’d rather use grammar to make something comprehensible in a sentence, than not.

  • Grammar allows you to talk about language use

Precisely because grammar is metalanguage, if you want to talk about language as a topic, if you want to talk about how language means, then this is a domain that learners need to acquire. I wrote in yesterday’s post about how I became quite domain-competent in talking about grammar in Mongolian – it’s because I (and my students) wanted to discuss language.

  • You can do grammar in the target language.

There’s no reason you can’t do grammar talk in the target language. Indeed, since students are likely learning a lot of this metalanguage vocabulary for the first time, doing it in the target language might be even more beneficial. So, in my Latin classes, we do talk about nomen, verbum temporale, modus coniunctivus, et cetera. While my Greek classes get subjected to questions like ἐπὶ τίνος πτώσεως ἐστιν αὕτη ἡ λέξις and the like. You can do communication about grammar in the language, thus creating more opportunities for comprehensible input.

  • You can equip students to access technical resources and secondary literature.

I was asked in a separate question about how I equip students to access various resources. If someone goes on to ‘higher’ study (caveats must apply), and to read technical commentaries, grammars, etc., etc., they will need to come to a mastery of traditional terminology. This is one reason I tend to work on grammar in both the target language and in English – if you’ve learnt both παρατατικὸς χρόνος and imperfect tense-form, you aren’t going to have a problem either discussing it in Greek, or reading a commentary talk about why something is imperfect.

  • You can sideline/background grammar.

One of the things I have tended to do now is to leave it to students to read information on grammar in English, or watch videos that I have produced (examples here), outside our main instructional time. Especially if they feel the need to get that kind of handle on the language (which many do), they can do that, it’s all there, but then we are freer in our limited instructional time to focus on operating in the language.

You don’t have to abandon grammar to do communicative methods, but you do need to let go of doing grammar as a primary mechanism for learners to acquire the language. If you want to teach grammar as the content and goal of language instruction, without acquisition, you are better off designing a course that is “Linguistics of Historical Latin” and adopting full-scale a linguistic approach to the language which presumes that none of your learners have, or will acquire, any facility in the language. That is totally fine. Indeed, I wish there were more places that in fact did that. There is a woeful absence of teaching Linguistics applied to historical languages.

But grammar? Yes, teach some grammar. Just teach it appropriately, and for its fit purpose, and without thinking it leads to acquisition directly, but as a means of talking about language for those who want to do so.

On the desire not to speak (about particular things)

This is a follow-on from ‘on the desire not to speak’, and a continuation of the longer ‘objections’ series. See here for parts one, two, three, and four. And today I want to talk about those whose objection to communicative methods is, paraphrasing Jeremy J. Swist, I don’t want to talk about daily trivia, I want to discuss literature. I’ve got four points on this.

You can talk about anything via a communicate approach. That is, the communicative method does not determine the content of your communication. There’s no reason that a communicative class has to spend its time in practicing how to order lattes in Latin, or asking the way to the bathroom in Ancient Greek. That’s a feature of a subset of modern language instructional material designed to give basic conversational competency to beginners, especially those who might travel abroad, and because those are situations those learners might face and want to have the language for. You are never going to be faced with those situations in Latin or Ancient Greek (unless you deliberately sign yourself up for an immersion event).

A class should talk about things its students want to learn. The method and practice of communicative teaching is about working in the language to make sure learners receive comprehensible messages, which should be interesting to the learners, because interest makes us pay attention and engage. So if you have a class full of people interested in reading ancient texts, the content of the communicative classes should orient itself to those texts. If you have a class full of people interested in discussing medieval philosophy, or South American botany, or contemporary geo-politics in South-East Asia, your classes should work to make that possible.

Language competency is domain specific. It is important to realise that while language structures (e.g. syntax) tend to be broad, competency, especially in vocabulary, is domain specific. To give an example, when I learnt Mongolian I had a real need (teaching) and interest is learning to speak about grammar and linguistics in Mongolian. So I became very familiar with that domain, and could talk about grammar in Mongolian. On the other hand, I didn’t do that much shopping for vegetables, and my competency to talk about various foods was very underdeveloped. The same is true in Latin and Ancient Greek – what you make the content of communication will also be the primary areas you develop vocabulary competency in.

A teacher should be broadly competent. I would say, then, that a teacher ought to be working on a broader competency than just talking about one field. When we talk about higher ‘levels’ of language proficiency, it does involve an ability to talk about a variety of topics. And as a teacher you ought to be shaping your communication to the learners you have, not the learners you think you should have. That requires breadth in order to be flexible. So, for teachers, I don’t think learning how to order lattes is as optional as it definitely is for students. I call this the latte test, by the way. Sure, there is no real reason to order a latte in Latin, but you should probably be able to.

On the desire not to speak

Part of my ongoing response to answers to Critiques and Comments to Communicative Approaches to Ancient Languages. See here for parts one, two, three.

What about students who have selected Latin or Greek because they want to take a foreign language that doesn’t require them to speak, or because they don’t want to talk about going to the shops on the bus, or because they want to analyse language in a linguistics-type manner.

I think these objections often come bundled, but really they need to un-bundled into three separate issues with three related but distinct responses.

  1. The desire not to speak
  2. The content of our classes
  3. The nature of our subject

In the rest of this post, I’m primarily going to talk about the first point here. I’ll deal with two and three in the next two posts.

I recognise that, especially in school and college contexts where “foreign” language credits are required, Latin (in particular) can be an attractive option for students who don’t want to be forced to speak.

And, I recognise too that, especially for children and youth, there’s generally an added aversion to speaking. Being forced to speak, being put on the spot to produce L2 content in front of other people, in environments that are performative, evaluative, and often competitive, is a set of affective features that multiply stressors.

Overall I think my response as an advocate of communicative practices, albeit one who does not typically deal with a lot of students uninterested in speaking, is threefold.

Firstly, it’s a structural problem at a larger level that “foreign” language credits are required, and so that students are forced to take a language. Now, I do think there are good reasons to have that problem – i.e. I don’t take issue with the idea that you might have a school/college system that has decided this is a feature of their programs. That said, it certainly creates a problem – students need to take a language, and they don’t want to take (a) certain languages, (b) any language. This is a problem that generally I have avoided by not having this kind of teaching job!

But recognising this is as a problem doesn’t identify a structural solution, nor am I even suggesting there is one. All it means is that students end up taking classes they don’t want to. And, where Latin (or Greek, but usually it’s Latin) is an option, you then particularly get students who take Latin because “it’s a dead language, and so they won’t make me speak it”.

If they rock up to day 1 of Latin, and it’s all spoken, then you have a different problem, but it is a marketing one. That can at least be solved by making it clear that you teach Latin communicatively (easier said than done). But it doesn’t actually get to the problem that I think is worth talking about:

How can communicative language teaching appropriately cater for learners who are not interested in speaking?

To which I want to lay down four foundations:


  • Comprehensible Input is necessary and (probably) sufficient for acquisition;
  • Output is neither necessary nor sufficient.
  • Compelling output doesn’t aid acquisition, and probably hinders it.
  • It’s okay to (partially) privilege reading (and writing).


1. CI drives acquisition. Whatever role you are prepared to grant to explicit instruction of grammar, from some to none, I’m firmly in the position at the primary and overwhelming driver of learners acquiring a mental representation of a language is their exposure to comprehensible messages in the target language (that are interesting and are produced in communicative contexts).

This comes with two corollaries. If INPUT drives acquisition, you don’t need learners to output to drive acquisition. There’s no acquisition based need to force or compel output. Students don’t need to write, let alone talk, to acquire Latin. They do need to read and listen though. They need to read and listen a lot.

This, by the way, is why I don’t mind doing the bulk of talking in my own classes.

Secondly, you can explicitly cater for students with apprehension about speaking by making this explicit and up-front. “In this language class I expect that you will acquire the language by attending to what I write and say and attempting to understand it.” Now, being lost in a sea of immersive incomprehensible language also raises people’s affective filters, so you need to work hard to make sure that it’s comprehensible, but setting the basis as “your job is to pay attention” is a much better foundation.

2. Output takes on a very different role then. Now, I have just said that OUTPUT doesn’t really lead to acquisition, but it can play three other important roles: (i) learners do need to output if they are going to develop output competencies. So, if students want to speak, they need to speak to improve speaking. But that is a distinct, but not discrete, output skill. And it’s still largely driven by the input. (ii) output can lead to input for other learners, (iii) output can also elicit input as other participants output (e.g. conversation!).

If you are specifically interested in catering to people from who output is going to cause stress, then I recommend working on developing output opportunities that can scale for confidence. At the high end is monologue speech with audience observation. Then working down through dialogue options, single Q&A with sentence answers, one word answers, written answers, through to comprehension-only multiple choice responses where the only thing you are checking is that a student comprehends a written text, through written text comprehension of multiple-choice answers. There are probably other ways too, but if you really want to make it possible for learners to acquire without production, it’s possible.

3. As soon as you force learners to output, you are putting them on the spot, and quite frankly most people don’t like that. Especially if it’s (a) public, (b) instantaneous, (c) spoken, (d) people are judging your correctness. So, really, you don’t want to do this to anyone who’s not wanting to do this. It’s why I don’t mind if students tell me before class (or even during class) that they’re just going to listen and observe.

That said, a teacher who is skilled and sensitive should be doing all they can to reduce the affective filter here – they should be encouraging production at a level that allows learners to respond with confidence, celebrating communicative success, facilitating negotiation of meaning when communication doesn’t quite work, and allowing minimal to no space for negative feedback. Explicit error correction doesn’t appear, according to the SLA research I’ve read, to have any concrete and long-term benefits on acquisition or on outputting correct forms. Even recasting does not appear to have strong positive effects.

4. As I’ve said elsewhere now, since most students of Latin and Ancient Greek are primarily interested in reading, that’s our main goal for most classes, even communicative ones. Which means you can still privilege reading in your class, provided reading is being driven by a communicative understanding – we read to understand messages in the target language, we don’t acquire language by analysis of grammar. That means actually a lot more reading, of (usually) a lot easier material, to make sure it’s comprehensible, and to increase the volume of comprehensible input.

It also means, especially for learners who have zero desire to speak, that you could shift your output activities to writing ones. Writing allows two feature that speaking does not – editing and time. You have time to ‘get it right’, and you can edit what you write. So, students who are feeling a strong negative response to speaking for those reasons can be further alleviated.

All this to say, I still think that a communicative language classroom for historical languages is the best way to go, and I would conclude (i) communication done well meliorates many of the factors of “spoken language” that learners find stressful, (ii) it’s possible to design and run communicative learning procedures that minimise, or eliminate, output, if that’s really a pedagogical necessity; (iii) my end goal for a student who came into a Latin class because they wanted to take a language class they didn’t have to speak in, would be to see them internalise Latin well enough to read it without translating, and be able to speak it if they wanted to.

Upper Level classes in communicative approaches

This is third in a series of answers to Critiques and Comments to Communicative Approaches to Ancient Languages. See here for parts one and two.


not a critique, but I’m curious about how proponents of communicative approaches handle the transition to upper level classes, where literary and historical analysis, secondary readings, etc., begin taking up more class time. Most of the conversations center around intro classes.


I’m going to split this up into three sections: what I’ve heard from others, what I do, what I can imagine.

It is true that a lot of the conversations about communicative approaches focus or centre on intro classes – that range of classes designed to bring learners to a point where they can read and understand texts for themselves. Let’s just pause and recognise that the notion of upper level classes (and I have college classics in view here) strongly revolves around the notion of “intro classes teach them grammar, vocab, and enough translation skills, beyond that they can read authentic texts with minimal help” which I consider patently false. Nonetheless, we do want learners to reach the point where they are reading texts and thinking about the content of those texts (among other things), not simply wrestling their way to an understanding of the words and sentences at a basic comprehension level.

So, as I understand it there are some camps of communicative proponents, in high schools, who have basically said, “given the time we have and the rate of acquisition, we cannot meaningfully get students to acquire enough Latin/Greek to read high register literary texts within our 2-6 years. So we aren’t aiming to.” I have reservations about that position, but I don’t think this is the post to go into them.

Among non-institutions, e.g. the various conventus, conventicula, summer schools, etc., at the intermediate and advanced levels you see courses offered that are basically, “we’ll read and discuss this in the target language”. But these tend all to be short-courses, not college-type upper-level classes. So let’s take a step sideways and think about what a ‘traditional’ college-type upper-level course looks like…

I don’t want to profile a particular course and professor, but using a mostly real example, a course in Greek Drama – we’ll read 3 plays in the original, then some others in translation, and you’ll read a range of secondary literature. Lectures will discuss historical contextualisation, literary features, etc. Students will read a great deal outside class both in and out of Greek, and write various types of papers.

At this point I have two thoughts: Firstly, if you’ve really, comprehensively embraced a communicative approach in your learning, as a student, and are at the point where you can read Greek Drama reasonably well, you should be able to handle a course like this on the Greek side, without much difficulty. A student with communicative competency and reading proficiency can handle being put in a non-communicative program.

My second thought, I’m going to delay until further down. Let’s talk about what I do at SeumasU instead. I don’t have that many ‘upper’ classes, partly due to student numbers. I have tried to offer 200 and 300 level courses – at the 200 level I envisage students who have covered most of the introductory language material, and have had some, though sometimes minimal, exposure to communicative approaches. We read simpler texts, and we work through them at a simpler level – I use the same q&a style that I mostly use in my intro classes, and we’re focused on understanding the texts at a comprehension level. But we’re still doing it mostly in the target language. So this is part of training students to read and comprehend *and discuss* while staying in language.

I’ve started to offer 300 level courses, where my expectation is that students (a) will prepare outside class, (b) can read the text with a degree of fluency, especially with pre-preparation, (c) we’ll read and discuss the text at a meaning and content level, not simply a comprehension level, though we’ll pause to unravel anything that’s not so easily understandable. That’s what I’ve done with Boethius last term, and with Ysengrimus this term. It’s still a long way short of the above college type course, but I’m also not teaching 2-3 hours of a course each week and expecting students to do 8-10 hours on their own over 14 weeks. Nor do I pull that kind of salary.

But could you teach an upper-level college course in the target language? Yes. Here let me draw on a parallel set of experiences. I’ve just finished taking a 200 level college course in Scottish Gaelic poetry from 1900 onwards, taught entirely in Scottish Gaelic. So here’s a college level course with target language texts, taught in the target language. Students need to be at a level where they can comprehend the lectures in the language, but naturally for those who are not natives, their output abilities are likely to lag behind. Much of the secondary literature, an overwhelming majority, is written in English. So that’s unavoidable, as it is in classics (not just English too!), but that reading can be done outside class hours, and it can be discussed in the target language. Assessments, both oral presentations, exams, and essay, all done in the target language.

I raise this example because it’s a minority language, very many of the students are non-native speakers, and even those that are native speakers may not have developed advanced literacy and academic skills yet in the language. And yet it’s possible.

Which circles me around to my delayed thought from above – one can envision an upper level course taught communicatively, if it were developed and supported appropriately. Both students and teachers would need to develop, gradually, the linguistic means and tools to discuss the range of critical, literary, and historical topics that you want to discuss in upper level courses. But of course, that is possible! Students, too, particularly need to be helped, very gradually, to write and express themselves in more complex ways and more academic ways than are often encountered in intro classes. Nobody wants to get to 200 level Latin and be asked to write a 2000 word Latin essay unless they’ve been given the chance to write 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, etc etc, word pieces along the way.

As far as I know, Polis Institute is one of the few places that really teaches some upper level courses in the target language. I don’t have any experience of them, but I know a few of their alumni are occasional readers, and I’d love for them to chime in.

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.

Ancient Greek Listening Project

Inspired in large part by the Latin Listening Project launched by Justin Slocum Bailey, I think it’s high about time we had an Ancient Greek one. So I’m starting one. There’s been more and more listenable material in Ancient Greek lately, what I’d like to see is more widespread, short clips by various speakers addressing common topics or questions. I hope to lead the way with a list of topics and questions, and providing regular short clips of myself speaking. If it takes off, I’ll be happy to curate a list of videos here (on a separate page perhaps).

λέγωμεν δή!



Communicative Approaches aren’t fast enough?

This is the first in a series of answers to Critiques and Comments to Communicative Approaches to Ancient Languages (which is a mouthful and I won’t repeat it like that. Essentially, I asked people on twitter for some of their best critiques of Communicative-Approaches, and received a number of critiques, but actually more comments and questions. I intend over the coming weeks to provide my own reflective answer on each of them. There’s no particular ordering to my answers, by the way.

@Ludovic47101295 writes:

The one I see the most (merely as a language student fascinated by pedagogy) is that CI isn’t fast enough at getting students to the level needed to pass some external test.  For example preparing for the AP Latin test in the US.
I want to start my answer here just be recognising that many teachers of historical languages (by which I mean Latin, Ancient Greek, and similar ‘classical’ or ‘ancient’ languages) work within systems in which they have little choice about this – they are teaching students who will face those exams, and they necessarily must accomodate the way they teach to those exams. For them, this is a given.
But if we take a step back, we ought to be asking some prior questions: what are we testing? and what are we testing that for? Because if we look at AP Latin, or the GCSE, or other similar end-of-high-school exams, the content of those exams is very revealing. You could boil down the exams to the following types of questions and tasks:
1. Analysing morphology of words
2. Commenting on syntax structures in sentences
3. Translating texts
4. Writing longer comment answers on the contents of ancient texts.
Or, to whit, Grammar, Translation, and Commentary. So, which came first, the testing of Grammar-Translation or the teaching of Grammar-Translation? Students who are going to get tested on G-T need to be prepared for that, but the really prior question should be – what ought to be the outcome of language instruction?
If the answer to that question isn’t “grammar + translation”, then we’re teaching and testing the wrong thing.
And here’s what I would say – that shouldn’t be the primary aimed-at outcome of language instruction. Now, that’s partly a philosophical position about language instruction, but if you think that acquiring a language is meant to be the point, so that students come out of a program with an ability to read, e.g. Latin, as Latin, and understand Latin texts in Latin, without needing to translate, then both the teaching and testing superstructures that exist are misguided.
There’s a fundamental distinction that CI-based approaches adopt, following Krashen, but widely held in a lot of SLA – that there’s a difference between knowledge of a language (an external, content-type knowledge of a language), and acquisition of a language (an internalised, more-skill-like competency in a language). Those two things may be related, or not; they may impact each other, or not, but they are two separate things. Teaching for acquisition but testing for knowledge is bad pedagogy. Teaching and testing for knowledge but expecting acquisition is likewise bad pedagogy.
With all that said, I think the ‘speed’ objection is possibly true in the short term, but false in the long term. That is, if you have a bit of a lead time, and enough instructional time, a communicative approach should produce someone with a better ability in the language, and then you can teach some grammar/knowledge about the language they have already acquired, and the student will end up more than capable of handling the current crop of traditional exams. So I do think that teachers who have students who will face the traditional grammar/translate/comment exams can get away with communicative teaching, if they have a long enough program and are prepared to adapt some of their teaching towards the inevitable gravitational pull of the test. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We made it that way.

Interviews with Latin content creators (6): Alexius Cosanus

A brief note this week, introducing you to the superb work of Alexius Cosanus:

Magister latīnitātis sum in scholā classicā Vestōniāna, quae in Tennēsiā locāta est. Italus sum ex illā terrā tūscolatīnā, quae Maremma vocātur. Operam dēdī praesertim antrōpologiae et linguisticae, quārē minus mē classicistam quam linguistam dīxerim. In pāgellā meā poeticā (https://www.facebook.com/AlexiusCosanus) pauca, ex numerō multōrum carminum, quae scrībō, nōnnumquam pūblicō. Nūper coepī cūrāre canālem in tūtubulō, in quō latīnē loquēns varia et nōnnumquam vāna trāctō magnā, tamen, cum dēlēctātiōne. (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUwo90gVjngKWvhVU2kexXA).

Interviews with Greek content creators (5): Claire Mieher

I’m so pleased to present this next in my series of interviews with Latin/Ancient Greek content creators, with Claire Mieher:

  1. So, tell us a little bit about yourself, and your previous experiences with languages

I grew up in Western Massachusetts and lived exclusively in the Northeast until moving West for graduate school. I’d say my household was a pretty creative and nerdy environment; both my parents have creative hobbies, and they encouraged curiosity from a young age. I wouldn’t say I was an avid reader as a young kid, though. Until my early teens, I wanted to be an artist or musician.

I was always interested in languages, which became clearer when I started taking Spanish in middle school, and a year later, when I started taking Latin. Since then, I have added a number of languages (most recently Sanskrit), but I am most comfortable with my proficiency in Latin and Greek. I was initially trained in both languages using grammar translation methods. I will admit that I actually enjoyed what I saw as the “puzzle” aspect of learning them, until I started reading authentic texts and realized I wasn’t really reading at all; I was parsing. About 5 years ago, I was introduced to active Latin methods, which have completely changed the way I approach ancient language teaching and learning.

  1. What was your impression of Latin and Greek prior to your serious foray into learning it.

Before I started learning Latin (and Greek), and even many years into my ancient language education, I saw them as challenging, dead, impossible to speak, and like I said above, puzzles to be solved. While I enjoyed the challenge, there have been more than a few moments in my language-learning journey where I’ve nearly given up and concluded that the languages were just too hard for me, or that I would never reach the level of proficiency I hoped. As I learn more, I continue to have moments like this where I realize how much I still don’t know, but they have become more motivating than discouraging, because I have a much better sense of how to get from where I’m at to where I want to be.

  1. What has your Latin-and-Greek-language-learning journey looked like so far?

I’d say my language-learning journey with both languages can be split into three parts: the initial “I’m learning a new language, this is new and awesome!” phase; the intermediary “I have no idea what I’m doing” phase, and where I’m at now.

I started out with Ecce Romani (which I haven’t touched since high school) and Athenaze (which I re-read frequently). The first authentic texts I read in Latin were Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil; in Greek they were Plato and lyric poetry. Those middle years are a bit of a blur, since I don’t think I retained much of what I was reading.

But to be honest, I didn’t start taking my own language learning seriously until a couple years ago, when I started grad school. For a long time I had tangentially participated in spoken Latin circles, but I hadn’t applied the pedagogical strategies I was experiencing passively to my own active learning. In the past year, I have been listening to as much Latin and Greek as possible, I’ve joined a couple Latin reading/speaking groups, I’ve taught Greek to high schoolers, I’ve taken a few classes in spoken Greek (with our friend Andrew Morehouse) and I’ve started to produce much more output in Latin and Greek, thanks in large part to your Greek composition course. All of this, along with re-reading and re-listening to podcasts, has helped immensely.

I struggle sometimes to balance the grad school expectation of preparing intensive-reading translations for class with my desire to improve my output and extensive-reading skills. I feel like I’m constantly engaged in two separate educational pursuits, and I don’t always have time for both. But I’ve noticed significant improvement in my language skills, which has motivated me to continue my work outside of school, and to apply some of those strategies to my schoolwork.

For me, the turning point in my language-learning journey was realizing that I can use creativity to encourage myself and others to keep studying these languages. I’ve found that the combination of creative work and language learning recreates the sense of novelty I felt when I first started learning these languages, which is exciting, energizing, and indispensable to language learning.

  1. What sort of Latin or Greek  content have you been producing, and what are your hopes for the future?

So far, I’ve produced some Greek and Latin poetry, Greek prose, and a couple videos. I’m still learning how to compose metrical verse in Latin, so I’m hoping to continue with that for a bit and attempt some Greek verse composition soon. Much of my Latin poetry is inspired by 17th century naturalist and painter Maria Sibylla Merian and her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, which I just finished reading with a wonderful group of women. So, up until now, I’ve composed mostly nature poetry in a variety of meters about caterpillars and frogs.

In terms of prose, I am working on a longer Greek prose project which tells the story of Penelope and Odysseus’ initial encounters, betrothal, and marriage. I use Attic Greek with some Homeric vocabulary interspersed. I am hoping to publish it eventually in novella form.

I’m also hoping to produce more videos—probably more songs and other chronicles about my frogs. I particularly enjoy the creative process of working on song translations, and I welcome any suggestions!

  1. If people want to hear more from you, in Latin or Greek, where can they follow your work?

I’ve collected most of my work on my website. I also post my videos and shorter poems on twitter as I create them. You can find my videos on my YouTube channel as well.



Interviews with Latin content creators (4): Caia

1. paulum nobis narra de te ipso, et quomodo alias linguas in primis didicisses.

Nōmen mihi est Caia Caesarēnsis (vel saltem id vocārī mālō, partim quod Novae Caesarēae versārī soleō). Profestrix sum nōn Latīnae sed Physicae et investīgātiōnēs īnstrūmentīs mathēmaticīs condūcō ad vulcānōs in fundō maris pertinentēs. Quamquam inūsitātum sit, cottīdiē variās rēs in labōrandō agō Latīnē (dē quibus plūs deōrsum).

Prīma alia lingua mihi Bulgarica erat, quia forte amīcōs Bulgaricōs habēbam. Hanc linguam discēbam praecipuē per dialogōrum legendum et amicīs meīs in sermōne. Ōlim librum Famīliam Rōmānam fortuitō invēnī et nōn crēdere potuī linguam intellegere posse sine aliae linguae auxiliō! Rē vērā sīcut magica vidēbātur sonitumque huius linguae valdē amābam. Hīs diēbus etiam linguam Hispānicam discō et in hōc opere Latīna ūtilissima est.

2. quid censebas de lingua latina, antequam discere incepistis?

Sciēbam hanc linguam ūniversālem scientiae aliārumque disciplīnārum fuisse (exemplī grātiā, per librum “Philosophiae Nātūrālis Principia Mathēmatica” ab Isaacō Newtōnō), sed ad Latīnam discendam tantum genera librōrum “Wheelock’s Latin” similia mihi nōta erant et ille modus discendī mē omnīnō reppulerat.

3. adhuc quomodo linguam latina uel discis uel melius colis?

Legere amō et hōc amōre ūtor quam maximē in linguārum discendō praesertimque Latīnae. Cottīdiē multiplicem varietātem rērum legō et saepe eandem rēm plūries. Ad linguam exercendam per tōtum diem rēs agendās mihi ipsī narrō et notās Latīnē faciō (dē consiliīs investigātiōnis, congressibus facultātis, lectiōnibus cursūs et cēterīs).

4. quae latine scribere soles, atque quid temporibus futuris creare in animo habes?

Dē rēbus insolitīs bēstiīsque imāgināriīs discō et in fābulās meās incorporō. Persōnae principālēs hārum fābulārum paene semper sunt fēminae, partim quod nōn satis fābulae Latīnae tālēs habent, sed etiam quia mē plūs perītam esse sentiō in scrībendō dē fēminīs. Hās fābulās aliquando in ūnā narrātiōne coniungere velim ut aliquid sīcut “Ad Alpēs” creem, sed in genere phantasiae, cum viātoribus fābulās narrantibus in mundō imāginōsō.

5. si quis plus scriptum/inceptum a te audire aut legere vult, ubi inveniri potest?

Omnēs meae fābulae invenīrī possunt apud Journaly et mē sequī in pipiandō licet @caesarensis.

Interviews with Latin content creators (3): Matthew Jay

  1. So, tell us a little bit about yourself, and your previous experiences with languages

So my career to date is a pretty odd one. I went to law school fully intending on becoming a criminal law barrister and then a judge (naïve 16 year-old me wanted to sit in the Court of Appeal) but I was, thankfully, disabused of such ideas when I witnessed the hopelessness of the criminal justice system in action. I became a welfare rights adviser at the Citizens Advice at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, mostly helping EU families access benefits, and there I developed a strong interest in health inequalities and health justice. Nowadays, by day, I’m a full-time legal epidemiologist. The main part of my research uses big, routinely collected data to study participation in education among children in the care system and other children particularly vulnerable to poor outcomes.

In terms of languages, being educated through a pretty bog-standard English state school, I never really cared. In our school, French was mandatory from year 7 to 9 (about age 11 to 13) and then we had to pick from French, Spanish and German for GCSE (age 14 to 16); I picked German. I got good grades but could barely speak a word of either language and remained monolingual until much later. Classical languages were unheard of at my school. Even when I went to college (6th Form) to do my AS and A levels (basically the pre-requisite for going to university), Latin and Greek were nowhere to be seen. I studied Psychology, Biology, Law and Classics, the latter of which basically consisted of reading excerpts from the Odyssey and then something to do with Pericles and Thucydides, all in English and all frightfully dull. I actually wanted to do the Romans, I hated the teacher with a passion and then I dropped the subject (sometimes I tell people I “dropped out” for dramatic effect, but the truth is it was standard back then to drop one of the four AS subjects and take only three onto A level).

  1. What was your impression of Latin prior to your serious foray into learning it.

I never really had one. I was taught in primary school that it was the language of the Romans but even the idea of a dead vs a living language wasn’t part of my linguistic schemata. There was just language, which you could either learn because there are people who know it, or you couldn’t, because there aren’t. I suppose I knew Latin fell into the former category because it’s everywhere but I never even thought about how someone would go about learning it, and certainly never knew the difference between knowing about language and knowing language. I must have heard at some point before entering the living Latin world that “Latin is a dead language” but I never really knew what that meant or why a language should be considered dead just because there’s no big nation state that uses it.

  1. What has your Latin-language-learning journey looked like so far?

One day, sometime around 2007, I decided to learn another language. Because I’ve always been interested in the Romans (we had a “Roman week” in primary school for which my dad made a replica scutum out of balsa wood—I got to be part of the emperor’s body guard), I decided on Latin. I just began Googling for affordable courses and I found a physical pen-and-paper distance course which was the typical grammar-translation, not a word spoken, approach. The course probably should have taken a few months to complete but I found the lack of progress so agonising that it actually took me two years and, as you can guess, I came out of it not being able to read a single thing beyond Poeta puellam amat. This was very disappointing and so I pretty much gave up, only occasionally returning to Latin. I thought, given I have a legal education, I should at least be able to read Magna Charta, but even that evaded me at the Rex Anglie and so I gave up again.

A few years Later, I was bored and, searching on Google for information on how we know how Latin was pronounced by the Romans, found audio books and other such material. I just started listening to this and reading simpler stuff without any real direction but found myself being able to understand more and more. I then found some podcasts which are now increasingly prolific. I eventually summoned the courage to attend the London Latin Circle where I learned about CÆLUM (the Madrid living Latin summer school), my first being the 6th CÆLUM in 2018. When I returned to work, a colleague commented on how I actually looked relaxed and chilled out, which nobody has ever said before, so I knew I had found my Latin home. Otherwise, I now just try to speak to as many friends about interesting topics in Latin as I can and teach through the UCL Living Latin & Greek Society.

  1. What sort of Latin content have you been producing, and what are your hopes for the future?

I basically have two main projects, both of which are really side projects and so only got done when I have some spare time. The first is my podcast, “Salvi Sitis!,” which I will carry on with as long as I can be bothered. This is a podcast entirely in Latin about anything to do with epidemiology and health. Sometimes it’s the very modern stuff, like what Latent Class Analysis and social epidemiology are or how you say “Data Science” in Latin, other times, I look at some of the Victorian greats in epidemiology, like the doctor John Snow, and I’ve also delved into the early modern period in looking at William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis (on the motion of the heart). The hardest part of producing this has been the neologisms. I always try to find words in our sources—we have medical texts written in Latin at least into the 18th century and a modern Latinate vocabulary—and so I hope I’m doing a good enough job in that regard and, therefore, that the podcast is a source of information about both epidemiology and Latin.

My second project is an Ørbergified version of De Motu Cordis and I’m also gathering together other relevant materials; so far this consists of two Latin poems written about Harvey and his book. I’m not sure for how much longer I want to carry on with just Harvey. So far I’ve been doing the whole of each chapter but I might start excerpting the rest of the book and then bring the project to a close within some reasonable time frame. I also want to expand into other early modern anatomists and do something with them, though I haven’t decided what. I think I’d like to do a compilation in the manner of the In Delphini Usum books but there are only 24 hours in a day.

5 If people want to hear more from you, in Latin, where can they follow your work?

Probably easiest is to follow me on Twitter (@MattJayLats). I almost always tweet about both my Latin and scientific activities, hoc sæpissime Anglice, illud Latine. People should be able to subscribe to Salvi Sitis! anywhere where they normally download podcasts. I put my De Motu Cordis work out on https://matthewjayepi.com/. Finally, if people want to know more about my legal epidemiology work, they should check out our website at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/child-health/research/population-policy-and-practice-research-and-teaching-department/cenb-clinical-5.


Interviews with Latin content creators (2): Delia

Series forward: One of the things I’m interested in doing more of, is promoting those involved in generated new, original authored materials for Latin and Ancient Greek. I hope this will spotlight some of the amazing work being done and produced, and encourage you to go and read it, support these individuals, and participate in literary production and consumption in the languages. See my first interview with András Alkor.


So, Delia, tell us a little bit about yourself, and your previous experiences with languages.

I grew up in a rural community in Downeast Maine, and moved around a lot at a young age, almost always in Maine.  I wouldn’t say my family is particularly “bookish,” but they always encouraged my love of reading from a young age; one of my earliest memories is trying to read Lord of the Rings, well before I really could read proper English prose.

I don’t really have many stories about myself, just scattered memories that are made ever more dim and ever more scattered as the years wear on.  A constant in my life has been literature, something that really drew me into the ancient world.

Besides some mandatory, unfruitful classes in Spanish and French, I never had any particular foreign language exposure until I was already in high school, where I’m due to graduate in a few months.  Latin was my first foreign language I had any particular success in, then Greek, and currently I’m learning Catalan.

What was your impression of Latin prior to your serious foray into learning it.

I didn’t really have much of a pre-conception of Latin besides that it existed mostly in medicine and law and was the precursor to many Romance languages.  I took Latin in high school on a whim because of my aforementioned failed attempts at learning Spanish and French, the only other two languages available at my school.  I had been told it was a dead language, that it was useless, and that it was hard; three facts that seemed to make me ever more determined to learn the language, in my foolhardy stubbornness that hasn’t left me, yet.

You’ve had some… unconventional learning tactics, especially for Greek. What have you done? Would you recommend it?

Haha, yeah.  My Latin experience is somewhat accidentally Natural Method.  My school’s program, taught by the wonderful voice behind Latintutorial, uses the Cambridge Latin Course, which, while I recognize isn’t the best textbook available, especially for the methods I ended up committing to, was all I had available.

As a freshman in high school (I think that’s 13, 14 years old?) I was immediately hooked by the idea that languages could be a) taught in a book and b) be taught with an entertaining story.  I’d fallen for the Educational YouTube bait of being entertained and tricked into learning.  While my teacher definitely supplied me with a grammatical base (who continues to push me even as my time with him as my formal teacher comes to a close), the fullest extent of my learning came from, initially, reading the story of the CLC over and over again and, when summer came, eventually moving onto “authentic” authors.  Cicero, Martial, and Caesar were my first “proper” authors, assuming Winnie ille Pu is not considered authentic Latin.  My infatuation with poetry came with Tibullus, whose poetry I emulated closely (and poorly) in my early days of writing; poems that, while enjoyable to write, aren’t worthy of public consumption and won’t be in the mind of people besides those who’ve already had the misfortune of reading them.

Now for Greek.  First off, I would not recommend this for most people, especially in 10 years from now when, hopefully, there’ll be better resources than Athenaze complete and available, (cough cough, LGPSI). It is a road of frustration and misery, until eventually coming to the conclusion that Greek is not a mountain to climb, but a sea, utterly indifferent to you, that will offer you great peace and great pain on the same day.

That being said, what I did was get the basics from the, in a word, frustrating Athenaze (I believe up to Chapter 8), so that I wasn’t totally lost.  Essentially, I knew how the cases worked, mostly learned from Latin, and how the present tense conjugated.  Then I bought a bunch of Loebs (I believe the Iliad, Odyssey, Sappho, and Theocritus), and a notebook, and bookmarked Logeion and Wiktionary.  Then I read.  Slowly, painfully slowly, I read bits of Greek, wrote down what I had read, in Greek, and wrote some more Greek that was wholly unrelated to what I had read.

I had started this about a year ago, right when the pandemic began.  The timing was coincidental, I think, but it certainly helped having the Odyssey on hand while drifting through the uncertainty and frustration of being stuck at my home.  At the moment I can read a fair bit of somewhat difficult Greek with some difficulty; I’m currently reading Theocritus and some Homeric Hymns, for reference.  Vocabulary especially has been my hard spot, but I think writing has been the most helpful.

Where do you see your Latin ability now – things you’re able to do and areas you’re still working on?

I think my Latin ability is rather strong at this point, four years into the process.  I’ve read a few epic poems and analysed at the very least the broadest strokes without research.  I’m able to read most Latin texts, or at least the Latin texts I’ve come across, and, without much help, understand at the very least the basics.  I’m currently going through a phase of reading OCTs as opposed to my traditional Loebs, and I’m not really missing the translation at all.  As well, I think I have a greater grasp of style in my composition, a greater sense of rhythm and sound than I had a year ago.

Obviously, improvement is always needed.  My vocab is, as with Greek, my hardest spot, and especially in unfamiliar prose, I’m not that skilled at going beneath the surface.  If I am to use these languages as a method of communication, I do need to work on my listening comprehension more, though I think that is getting better all the time.

What sort of Latin (and Greek) content have you been producing, and what are your hopes for the future?

I write Latin and Greek poetry, and, on YouTube, I recite some short excerpts of my work.  When not writing short, lyric poetry, or the longer epyllia of 80-200 lines, I’m writing two epic poems: one is my lockdown project, a Latin poem about trauma/grief, chosen vs biological family, and identity, tentatively called the Mannica, which to date is around 1,150 lines, after multiple revisions of the first book, and many, many drafts of the overall plot.

The second is a new project, in Aeolic Greek, without a title but a couple hundred lines in or so, about community and rebuilding, both of communities and individual people, after disaster.

In the future, after the completion of these two projects, I hope to continue writing epic poetry.  In the immediate future, I’d like to start making more audio versions of my work, branching into my Greek work, and especially an audiobook version of my epics.  For most of my writing career, I’ve wanted to write fantasy but have only had success so far with these two projects, so perhaps one day I’ll revisit fantasy in Latin or Greek (or maybe both)!

I have an idea to start a publishing company for authors in ancient languages to make the whole process from writing to publishing to reading fully accessible for all people.

If people want to hear more from you, in Latin, where can they follow your work?

As I said earlier, my YouTube channel is where I produce some basic audio versions of some of my smaller work.  For text versions of varying quality and size, my Twitter is the place to be.  Finally, my Patreon is where I post the largest excerpts from my work, some or most of which is available for free, but the rest is locked behind a paywall, especially pre-revision drafts of my work.


τοὔνομ’ μοί ἐστι “tecum sto”

Over on twitter, our friend Travis asks the somewhat provocative question

Almost every single Communicative Greek resource I’ve ever seen commits a very basic error with naming. According to John Lee, Greeks said: τὸ ὄνομά μου or ὄνομά μοι but NEVER τὸ ὄνομά μοι. How has literally everyone missed this?!

I myself have certainly been guilty of violating that ‘rule’ (I note that Lee places ‘rule’ in quotation marks within his paper, and I’ll talk about too), and I think this provides a good occasion to reflect upon errors, idiom, communicative methods, and related things.

Lee’s article

John Lee’s article is worth reading. In short, he observes that the LXX and NT consistently use τὸ ὄνομα + genitive, but ὄνομα + dative, and that this pattern is consistent with an almost universal pattern in Greek from Homer to the Koine period, starting to break down in the 2nd century CE. He then formulates this as a ‘rule’, and suggests that it is proof of the LXX and NT authors having good Greek idiom, whether native or native-like. Lee also, importantly, notes that he hasn’t seen this ‘rule’ formulated anywhere before – not within Greek literature, and not in grammatical works on Greek.

Types of ‘error’

First of all, I think it’s worth realising that there are various degrees of error, and I think violating the ὄνομα rule is very low down the scale. In fact, I wouldn’t call this an error, I would call it non-native idiom. In particular, this represents a completely understandable and comprehensible pattern of language. If you said, ὄνομα μου or τὸ ὄνομά μοι to a native speaker of 1st century Greek, I have zero doubt that you would be understood. Maybe they’d correct you, maybe they wouldn’t, but there’s zero failure of communication there because in this instance the difference between a possessive dative and a genitive is a rather minute nuance.

There are other types of errors, though, and some are failures of idiom, others are ungrammaticalities. It is very common among contemporary Latin speakers, especially those influenced by American speaking circles, to use the phrase tecum sto (lit. “I stand with you) to mean “I agree with you”. This phrase isn’t attested classically with this kind of idiomatic meaning, there are quite a few other phrases that would do better service. But it’s widespread. Personally I think this non-native usage is a slightly higher level of problem, because it’s shifting to the realm of meaning, and reinforcing a non-idiomatic construction. But even here, you shouldn’t be a jerk about it, interrupting Latin conversations to rant at them for their barbarisms.

The type of errors that speakers today of historical languages should most be concerned about in their own speech, are ungrammaticalities. παύομαι τρέχειν for “I stop running” is right on the verge of being categorically ungrammatical. Yes, you might be understood by a native speaker, but they are going to pause and mentally check for a second. If they were given a nice little linguistic field test, they’d mark it with an asterisk for ‘ungrammatical sentence’.

Why we all ‘got it wrong’

Why did almost all communicative teachers of ancient Greek get the ὄνομα rule wrong? And why is tecum sto so prevalent? Let me deal with the latter first, and highlight a genuine danger for contemporary speakers of historical languages. As best I know, tecum sto was picked up by some American speakers (sorry American friends), and circulated reasonably widely among them, and because of the nature of spoken-Latin events and circles, it has been widely reinforced and now forms part of some speakers standard phraseology. Even very proficient speakers use it commonly, to the chagrin of purists.

This illustrates a feature of contemporary speaking circles – the number of contemporary Latin and Greek speakers is relatively small, and in the age of the internet things can spread rapidly and decisively. Terrence Tunberg suggested the word acroama / ἀκρόαμα for ‘podcast’ and it was taken up by Latin podcasters within the week.

So, what about τὸ ὄνομά μοι? I would suggest that we all ‘missed’ this for a simple set of reasons. Firstly, Ancient Greek is now an undead language – it’s spoken, but it does not have intergenerational transmission nor is it used actively as the daily language of a residential community. Secondly, although (as Lee does) you can search the corpus of AG literature to find lots of examples of ὄνομα usage, the simple exchange τί ἐστι ὄνομά σοι; would happen countless times in a speaker’s life if they engaged in life with a Greek speaking community, but it is not so frequent in literary texts. Thirdly, it’s not that Lee noticed a rule that we were all ignoring, it’s that Lee formulated a consistent idiom pattern that no-one had formulated in explicit writing for 2800 years. Fourthly, it suggests something subtle about article usage that had escaped us. Fifthly, this kind of non-native idiom sometimes occurs among contemporary AG speakers due to Latin interference. That is, while not all AG speakers have Latin or are stronger in Latin, many are, and their Latin sometimes shapes their Greek.

Proof that you communicative folks are terrible

Now, at least regularly I hear some people pipe up and say, “Look, this is why you can’t teach communicatively! How could you confidently teach ancient Greek as a spoken language if you can’t even get the ὄνομα rule right??”

To which I would reply τὰδε· Every communicative teacher I know is well aware of the issues that face us about linguistic accuracy, the corpus we have access to, what linguistic data is ‘missing’ because there is no intergenerational + daily life speaking community with continuity (setting aside the important questions about the role of Modern Greek). It’s not that we are ignorant or are ignoring those challenges, we’re just not convinced they are defeaters.

Given that Lee is the first to point out explicitly this ‘rule’, I don’t think you could reasonably complain or blame anyone for not knowing it. You certainly couldn’t say grammar teachers were doing a better job – I’ve never read or heard a grammar teacher formulate the rule!

Do better

Please take this section-header tongue-in-cheek. Communicative teachers of AG (and Latin) are interested in norming their learners’ and their own speech to a literary corpus. That’s almost always been true of Latin, and it remains true of AG. We’re not aiming to revive the language and then see it become a modern spoken language that goes on to evolve independently. So there is an inherent conservativism, or a gravitational ‘centre’ to our language use, and that center is the literature we are interested in.

And so, as I have said before, the thing that more than anything will norm our speech patterns, is regular and consistent exposure and immersion in authentic ancient Greek (and Latin) literature. That is incumbent upon teachers in particular – they need to be spending considerable time reading and reflecting on ancient texts. It is less incumbent upon learners, because they should be getting as much comprehensible input as possible, at the easiest possible levels, and that learner-oriented material should be being produced by teachers who are norming themselves to the literary corpus I just mentioned. That’s how you ensure that Latin and AG produced by contemporary speakers continues to conform to usage patterns of thousands of years ago.

Secondly, we need good linguistics. Although I am definitely on record as saying that explicit grammar is of little to no use for acquiring languages, I am very in favour of ongoing, rigorous linguistic work on ancient languages, and that this understanding of Latin and Greek should then be brought to bear, especially on teachers and teaching. Lee’s paper is a great example, it has refined all our understandings of a pattern that we didn’t explicitly know existed, and teachers and speakers can now consciously adjust their usage to reflect that norm, which should then be reinforced among learners.

Thirdly, this is one reason LGPSI exists freely available for you to read and critique, instead of waiting umpteen years for me to finish it, publish it, and then get lambasted for errors. There are definitely errors in LGPSI right now. But it is there for people to read and send me corrections and suggestions at any time. Even now, I have been going through and subtly conforming it to the ὄνομα rule.

Fourthly, remember to be gracious to speakers of ancient languages. Classics and Biblical Studies have enough snooty jackasses already.

Easy Greek, Transcription, and helping yourself and others

Lately I’ve been talking here and there about a few things that all interrelate, so I thought I’d try to bring them together in one post, with a pitch at the end.

Reading Easy Greek

I spend a lot of time these days reading quite easy Greek. Obviously this includes reading and re-reading textbook material (primarily but not exlcusively Athenaze) with students, but also in some of my own time, I am reading easy Greek as much as I can. It’s this that I recommend to people as a key element in getting lots of comprehensible input, and it’s this that is going to propel your Greek forward in general. If you can spend 5 minutes reading a passage in which you comprehend basically everything, or need to look up just a handful of words along the way, you’ve done wonders for your Greek. Incidentally, this is why I’ve moved to start telling my students about halfway through Athenaze that it’s time for them to start working on additional readings.


I also recently spent some time talking about why you might spend some time transcribing Greek texts. I think this does a good deal of good in focusing you on a text, and developing typing skills as well as spelling and accentuation sensitivity. So when I personally am reading easy greek, some of that is transcribing easy greek and then re-reading it, proofing it, and adding a few notes in for my own benefit.

Where to find Easy Greek?

Honestly one of the best things you can do is scour 19th century and early 20th century Greek Readers, such as those listed here. That, and reading any connected narrative text in textbooks helps too. Some authentic texts could be considered easy, depending on your own level. Then there are people writing modern content in ancient Greek, for example.

What if there were more ‘Easy Greek’ for everybody?

This is essentially why the Greek Learner Text Project exists and came about. Through discussions with James Tauber and I, it became clear that if we consistently digitised Greek-Learner texts, and developed annotated versions of those texts, they could become part of a personalised, difficulty-structured, reading platform, which would know what you know, and offer up texts, and reading supports, to give you Greek that was just that tiny step up that you needed. But to do that we need digitised texts, and especially lemmatised texts.

You could help:

Whether you transcribe a text, or OCR it and proof it, or read through another text and help lemmatise it, or even just proofing in general, these would all help the GLTP move forward in getting some complete texts at least to the point of digital and lemmatised, which is the starting point for some exciting transformations of them. If you’d like to help and don’t know how to start, get in touch and we can help you do so.

Greek Notes in Passing: Mark 9:1-29

I’m going to try a thing, where I just post some observations on a Greek passage ‘in passing’, i.e. not an in depth study or anything, but things I noticed this week. This week is Mark 9:1-29, and I’m using the Tyndale House GNT.

v2 παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ τὸν Ἰάκωβον καὶ Ἰωάννην

It’s interesting that Ἰωάννην lacks an article here, I wouldn’t venture a hypothesis why though.

v8 ἐξάπινα  ‘immediately’ or ‘unexpectedly’. A very uncommon adverb, found as ἐξαπίνης classical but also rare. The α form might echo Doric and Aeolic, making this even more striking.

v9 Καὶ καταβαινόντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ* τοῦ ὄρους διεστείλατο αὐτοῖς

A great example of how non-absolute Genitive Absolutes are.

v11 ἐπηρώτων αὐτὸν λέγοντες· ὅτι λέγουσιν οἱ γραμματεῖς

ὅτι here used as an interrogative, equivalent to τί or τί ὅτι, not very common in broader Greek. Appears several times in Mark though.

v15 καὶ εὐθὺς πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἰδόντες αὐτὸν ἐξεθαμβήθησαν καὶ προστρέχοντες ἠσπάζοντο αὐτόν

Nice example here of the shift from the grammatically singular collective noun ὄχλος to grammatical plural participles.

v21 ἐκ παιδιόθεν

This is interesting, because ἐκ παιδός or ἐκ παίδων can mean from/since childhood. The όθεν suffix works to create “from X”, or “-ence” type forms, but it is not vastly productive. πόθεν – whence? οἴκοθεν – from home. Here you have a relatively unattested coinage with παιδιόθεν strengthened with the arguably redundant ἐκ.

v23 Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ· τὸ εἰ δύνῃ

The father in the story has just say, ἔ τι δύνῃ, and Jesus’ response contains a great instance of the substantising force of the article. In fact, here I would suggest that it’s like saying “if you are able?” with the person literally making air-quote signs with their fingers and a look of incredulity on their face.

v28 Καὶ εἰσελθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς οἶκον οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ κατʼ ἰδίαν ἐπηρώτων αὐτόν

Not only is this a great example of GA not being absolute, like above, but it demonstrates how the Genitive-Adverbial-Clause sets up and provides background information, regardless of whether the subject of the GAC appears in the rest of the sentence, it remains ‘offline’ contextual and circumstantial information before the main clause gets going with οἱ μαθηταί