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Ørberg’s Lingua Latina: an introduction for the uninitiated

Alright, let’s get to a textbook I really enjoy. Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata: Pars I: Familia Romana

This is, without exaggeration, the best Latin textbook on the market. It’s not perfect, it’s not the be all and end all, but there’s simply nothing better as a book to teach/learn with.

Firstly, how I came across it and used it. It was towards the end of my 4 year sequence of Latin at university, and a sense of growing frustration that modern language students would be reading their languages ‘fluently’ by this stage, but here I was painstakingly analysing/translating my way through Roman literature. What had gone wrong?? Like many products of the philological tradition and Grammar/Translation methodology, I knew a great deal about Latin, but I couldn’t read Latin straight.

At the time I started listening to Latin teacher online a great deal, and that’s how I first got plugged-in to the world of comprehensible input, communicative methods, etc., etc.. And that’s how I heard about LL – a holy grail of textbooks, in that it taught Latin entirely through Latin. I ordered a copy post-haste.

I recall reading the first chapter and being a little in awe both at how much I understood, and how well it is paced. Of all the “readers” that exist for classical languages, LL truly accomplishes its goal of initiating the student into the language without recourse to outside aids or a second language. From page 1 it is possible to go all Latin, all the way.

The text carries the student from the fundamentals of Latin ‘grammar’ through everything they would cover in a standard class, over 34 chapters. Plenty of repetition of vocabulary and structure helps too. “Grammar” is not entirely neglected, as each chapter ends with grammatical notes in Latin. Exercises end each chapter, of three types: fill in the ending, fill in the word, and respond to latine questions, with answers latine.

Some criticisms can be made: it’s still a textbook, and some students will not find the text engaging. It proceeds by a ‘grammar’ sequence, not a natural one. It introduces too much vocab, too quickly, and this is a slight problem. It wasn’t written for active, communicative Latin (Ørberg himself expressed surprise in learning that students were using it for this! He envisaged it as a direct method text for reading).

Nonetheless, it remains unsurpassed. It always tops my recommendations, and I’d teach from it at the drop of a hat. Even advanced students would benefit from ‘going back’ and picking it up to increase their reading fluency.

Today’s review really only treats of volume 1, Familia Romana. I’ll talk a little about the other volumes and resources another time.

Latin Pedagogy: thoughts on the conversation between Gallagher, Dickey, and Fontaine

There was a great recent article on Eidolon, “What is the Best Way to Learn Latin?”, which is a conversation between Daniel Gallagher (student of Foster) and Eleanor Dickey, mediated by Michael Fontaine.

The article is great for a few reasons. Firstly, Dickey has done some great work on ancient pedagogy, both Latin and Greek. Lately I’ve been working through her Greek Composition Book as well. So ED is really ‘up there’ in a knowledge of (a) ancient pedagogy and rhetorical school practices, (b) her own Greek and Latin!, (c) teaching. Gallagher, on the other hand, ‘represents’ the Reginald Foster ‘school of thought’. Having been slowly reading through Ossa Latinitatis Sola myself and trying to understand that school, it was great to see him in dialogue here.

The early discussion of chreia type exercises – the systematic substitution of elements in a sample sentence and manipulation of those forms (case/number), is interesting because this type of exercise has become more popular in recent years in textbooks, but I’m yet to be convinced that it is truly pedagogically effective. I do think it’s a more effective way to force students to master morphological forms through active manipulation, but I’m yet to be convinced that this pushes us in the right direction overall.

Both Dickey and Foster emphasise “total philological mastery”, though they differ in how they think this should be achieved. Foster’s approach eschews reliance on rote memorisation of tables and charts, but it still appears to end up in an ability to take any form and manipulate it any which way. It remains hard to see how this is emphatically different than a rote mastery of those forms.

Dickey is on file elsewhere as not being a fan of communicative methods, and thinking that the “tried and true” ways of grammar remain the best. For that, I likewise remain sceptical.

There’s a great line from ED about halfway through:

There is definitely something that I do not understand about Reginald’s method, namely what the students are actually doing.

Yes, I have often wondered the same thing. Gallagher goes on to give a decent example of what Reginald would be doing in class.

Another great line comes later on, this time from Gallagher:

Although the ability to speak Latin used to be the goal, today it is literacy. Developing our students’ ability to understand and digest ancient texts is the reason most of us have dedicated our lives to teaching Latin.

I whole-heartedly agree. The goal for almost all our students is literacy – an ability to fluently read target texts in their target language. However, speaking Latin, or more precisely, an oral/aural communicative fluency developed of comprehensive input, is (I am convinced), the best, fastest, and most effective way to reach that literacy goal.

That’s where my pedagogy is headed – active communicative Latin/Greek/whatever is a primary outcome because it’s a better guarantor of reading fluency than merely aiming for reading, or worse yet, aiming for grammatical analysis + translation.

Hansen and Quinn, An Intensive Course: an even briefer review

The copy I have of this, from the library is from 1980 and is described as a “Preliminary Edition.” A quick look at Amazon tells me that there is a 2nd Revised edition from 1992 though I can’t comment on what changes were made.

Originally written for Summer Greek Intensives in New York, the text certainly lives up to the “Intensive” in the title, trying to deliver 2 years of college level material over 11 weeks (six weeks to cover all the grammar, 5 weeks spent reading Plato and Homer: the book only covers the grammar).

The structure of the material is unrelenting grammatical information, in a classic instructional style (no inductive learning here), with each unit followed by grammatical drills of the Grammar-Translation method: translation, parsing, morphological manipulation, grammatical analysis.

Admittedly I have never used H&Q as a teaching text, nor have I put myself through all its rigours. It does make a handy volume to go through and make one’s own grammatical notes, because the grammar is laid out very clearly through units and numbered sections, and the contents page tells you where to find everything. This is very pleasing to see (if you’re going to have a grammar-based approach, a really clear contents is critical, in some ways more important than a good index).

Would I recommend it? No. It’s like Wheelock’s Latin, but less forgiving.

That said, if you want an old-school, master-all-the-forms approach, H&Q is attractive if only because they lay it out so well. The text lacks up-to-date linguistics, but the exercises are also a smorgasbord of traditionalist training, if that’s what you’re after.

Some thoughts on Social Media, Twitter, and Engagement

This little piece is me responding in my own way to Alison Innes’ post “Thoughts on Twitter Outreach” and it in turn bounces off Michael Fontaine’s “Promoting Classics to the Public – what worked, what didn’t what couldn’t

Firstly, I find “Outreach” a funny thing in the Classics world. I certainly ‘get’ it – if the discipline is to survive it needs to connect with people outside its own little bubble, it needs to continue to demonstrate relevance, and it needs to attract new people to be involved in it (in the church we call this evangelism!). All interest-groups have this same imperative – to engage outsiders of the interest-group for the sake of the interest-group’s survival. Classics is just another version of this and it’s unclear to me why Classics thinks it has any more warrant on public attention than any other interest group.

Anyway, this is all besides the point. Outreach is primarily about (a) increasing visibility (remember how hard it was to find out things in the pre-internet age? Of course, you don’t), (b) leverage visibility to create engagement, (c) turn engagement into buy-in.

So, on to Fontaine’s article. I quite like Fontaine’s Latin-related pieces, but this was a bit bizarre. Basically, he says he just tried everything that he thought would work or even things that wouldn’t work. The weirdest part is this:

My experiment with Twitter proved to be a failure. I began by obeying the rules of etiquette, then breaking them deliberately to see what worked.”

Of course, it didn’t work. Twitter, like all social media, evolves its own set of social norms (well, really multiple sets of social norms because Twitter is not itself a monolithic culture, but a series of related sub-cultures. I understand the “exploratory” desire to break social norms on Twitter, but turning up to a party and breaking all the rules doesn’t work (unless, apparently, you are trying to become the US President.

Fontaine’s goal, and the SCS’s, was to reach non-classicists. Innes’ post goes on to interrogate Fontaine’s approach. It critiques the vague idea of ‘outreach’, and prefers “humanities communication” and engagement. Innes’ article is interesting on its own terms, and most interesting to me when she discusses Twitter.

Twitter, in my own social media engagement, has become a fabulous place. Every social media “place” has its own vibe, culture, demographics, and sub-groups. Also, how one chooses to use those platforms may change. I have very peculiar usage patterns for Facebook, for instance. Twitter, however, is a free-for-all.

What Twitter has done for me is to bring me into conversations with a wide range of people in my disciplines. And particularly, having the (un)fortunate circumstance of a single foot in several disciplines, it engages me in conversation with a range of people I would never have come across without Twitter. Twitter is the virtual equivalence of the conference, the coffee shop, and the seminar room. It doesn’t replace any of those particularly well, but it mediates global (and national) communities for me in patristics, classics, biblical studies, and classical languages/linguistics.

I don’t have a social media strategy, or at least a super-well-thought-out one. However, I do think social media is a great invention because it is essentially social – the conversation of people, and a medium – a means by which that conversation takes place. It’s ability to mediate that conversation (removing the necessity of unmediated access, i.e. in person relationship) is precisely what makes it invaluable.

Oxford Latin Course: a brief review

The Oxford Latin is not quite as well known as the Cambridge Latin Course, the latter appearing firs tin the 70s, the OLC not until the 80s. It is primarily the work of Maurice Balme, and James Morwood. I had the pleasure of meeting Morwood a few years back. As I recall, he said that the OLC was produced really to ‘fix’ the problems they perceived in the CLC. Regardless, the OLC is now one of several ‘staples’ on the Latin market, and enjoys particularly wide usage in schools.

My own experience of it is linked to this. I tutor a student whose school utilised OLC and I teach him likewise through these materials.

As with CLC, OLC attempts to adopt a reading-based approach, mostly inductive. However, I have to say that the main difference between ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ reading approaches is whether they place the grammar before or after the reading. OLC is divided intro three main Parts, with a main storyline following Horace’s life, interwoven with related passages. In the final text, now a 4th volume, there are selected reading passages from Classical authors.

Each chapter begins with a short cartoon, which frankly does little to engage the reader and mainly serves to illustrate a grammar point. It is then followed by a reading, with both ‘new vocab to learn’ on the page, and ‘necessary vocab helps’ on the side for things needed in the reading, but not needing to be learnt yet. The reading is followed by a few (not enough) questions in Latin responding to the content of the text. Then a secondary, related, reading is given, with some questions on content in English. Finally, most chapters then have a page or two of History/Culture notes.

In the rear of the book is found the Grammar and Exercises. The procedure through the grammatical concepts of Latin is much the same as most courses. Exercises include standard fare: translation Latin > English, and English > Latin, parsing, manipulating forms.

Overall OLC is a pleasant, and reasonably well-executed textbook in its style. Its faults, then, are the same – the pacing of material is probably too quick, the space for repetition and exposure too little, the exercises not enough and too traditional. The narrative itself does benefit from being based (except for the childhood) on Horace, and helps students to grapple with the main historical events of the death of Julius Caesar and the rise of Octavius; likewise having a single continuous narrative is a positive.

Verdict: The Oxford Latin Course does what so many of its vintage tried to do: combine ‘newer’ reading-based approaches with traditional pedagogy. It succeeds as well as most of its rivals did, which is to say not-quite well enough.

It does make for a pleasant read for the experienced Latinist though.

State of the Projects, February 2017


Still waiting on examiners’ reports. They nominally have 3 months, so I don’t expect a result before the start of March anyway. I’m feeling less anxious, mainly because I have other things to worry about.


Totally unsuccessful so far. 7 rejections and 1 job cancelled to date. I have a few more applications out there, but expect them to fail as well.


I revised what I think of as my ‘major’ article on partitive exegesis, and sent it back to a colleague for a second read-through. This month I’m working on turning my paper on Chrysostom from a conference last year into a paper, and it’s progressing well enough. I hope to churn through the rest of it in the next two weeks.

Beyond that, I have a good 6 or 7 other articles to work on this year. Some are revising old material and turning them into publishable material. Others are just ideas or things I think could be articles.


I said previously I was working on a translation of Gregory of Nyssa’s De Deitate. That’s continuing at a slow pace. I did teach a short intensive course on the text, which was helpful for me personally. My main ‘slow-down’ is that I am also preparing the text to be a patristic reader text, which takes more time but gives me a more useful resource.

I’ve also started work, with a friend, on producing an English version of Hilary of Poitier’s Tractatus Mysteriorum. I expect that will take us most of the year.

Blogging plans

I plan to blog more this year, and more than just these updates. Weekly you should get a nice series on Greek and Latin textbooks, and also weekly I intend to write about what I’ve been reading, hopefully starting in a couple of days time. So that will be fun for all.


Reading Greek: a review

A short foreword: I thought, thanks to a suggestion, that I’d start blogging my way through reviews of introductory materials in Greek and Latin. I don’t pretend to thoroughness or rigour, just my thoughts on textbooks and readers I’ve dealt with in some way or another. I’ll alternate between Greek and Latin as best I can for the duration of the series. I’m also open to requests.

No further ado required:

Another product of the late 70s, Reading Greek appeared as a joint project (a second edition, much improved, appeared in 2007) under the auspices of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. It aimed to produce a reading-method text via a “continuous, graded Greek text, adapted from original sources”, and then accompany this with grammar explanations, and exercises. In the first edition, this was done in two volumes, with running vocabulary notes put into the second volume, the first being the main text alone.

The text itself is a tour-de-force. It has nineteen sections, with various subsections, and moves quite rapidly from a heavily adapted ‘framing’ story, to more lightly-adapted material drawn from classical texts (primarily 5th century Attic material, but not entirely). The spread of material through the nineteen section suffers from being uneven (some sections are shorter, others longer), and on the whole moving to too complicated Greek too quickly (a problem with most readers). The removal of the vocabulary to a second volume was a mistake, rectified in the second edition which (a) moved the vocabulary to the same volume, and (b) fixed another glaring problem, the linking device. The first edition had ‘connected works’ marked by a ‘linking device’, and then listed those words as a group in the vocabulary. This was fine in principle, except using the article this way made the vocab a mess.

The grammar presentations in the first edition are cramped, and not particularly user-friendly. They are followed by the usual Grammar-Translation exercises. The formatting in the second edition improves some of the first issue – grammar is presented more readably and with better formatting.

My own experience with RG is really using it as a post-introductory refresher for reading. I haven’t taught from it, and I probably wouldn’t choose to do so. A graded reader is a great idea, but it needs to be incredibly well-formulated if it’s to meet fundamental pedagogic needs, and those require very careful sheltering of vocabulary and scaffolding of grammatical structures, and a ton of repetition. RG doesn’t accomplish this, because it chooses (for some good reasons) to use as much original classical Greek text as it can. This is commendable (students do need to grapple with original texts early, and not with merely ‘composition Greek’), but at the same time difficult (most of our literature that classical Greek students aim to read is ‘high literature’, they need ‘easy’ Greek for pedagogical reasons).

For these reasons, I wouldn’t recommend RG as a primary book for introductory learners. I think it makes a great supplementary reader for introductory learners at least into a second semester, or as a great source for post-introductory learners who should be getting some more extensive reading in. For this purpose, the second edition text + vocabulary book by itself should be sufficient.

There are some follow-on volumes that tackle (1) Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles, and (2) Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato, as well as a (3)rd Anthology volume. I haven’t read my way through any of these but if I do I promise to give them their own review.