0 responses

  1. While the author of the original piece made a nice attempt at scholarship, he received the response of a true scholar and pedagogue in Dr. Owens. I am not a scholar, rather a “philosopher” in its ancient acceptation i.e. a seeker of wisdom, and the original piece struck the tone of another (very) modern attempt hell bent at political correctness with no truly academic attempt at nuance, distinction and historical understanding. Sophos Owens, Bravo!

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  3. Hans Ørberg bowed to convention in how he wrote his book, as we all do to a greater or lesser extent. By convention, I do not mean “prejudice” – I will try to make this clear. One small example is the treatment of foundlings in high Imperial Rome. If not left to die, they were destined “ad servitutem aut ad lupanar” – to servitude or to the stews. This isn’t some late decadence – on the contrary, the practice was only abolished in the 4th century. You will not find this in Ørberg, who wanted to immerse the student in Romanitas, but who had to accommodate this laudatory aim to the mores of mid-century Scandinavia. It was not so much that Denmark was prejudiced against the “farming” of girls to become prostitutes, as that the matter could only have been introduced as a _moral_ teaching, rather than an anthropological one. Nor was Ørberg free to ignore convention. He was, after all, writing in order to educate the youth… And you too, who wish to acquaint the student with Rome, that ancient and rather alien culture, will have to square that culture’s mores with those of your own culture – that of the Young Adult sensitivity reader, among other things. So you will problematise the problematic, even if it’s problematic ipso facto , because even though – of course! of course! – it’s bad, nevertheless, convention requires that this clearly be signposted throughout, lest the youth be corrupted.

    • It behooves us to read LLPSI with three cultural horizons in view, at a minimum. That of 2nd century CE Rome, that of mid-20th century Denmark, and that of us as readers. All textbooks invite us to at least that conversation – how do we read LLPSI as a cultural product of Ørberg’s time and place, and how do evaluate Ørberg’s work as a work.

      Similarly, practically every ancient language textbook I have read contains considerable ‘omissions’, mostly because they tailor to young adult learners. The story of the Minotaurus, for instance, is a common enough episode, but scant mention of Pasiphae and the Minotaur’s conception. Nor of the widespread practices of slave taking and slave making, nor of sexual exploitation, and so on and on. Do all textbooks need to include all such things? By no means. But we should note when and why they omit them.

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  6. I am honored that this blog saw it fit to respond to my comment at all, let alone at a length greater than that of the other posts in the series.

    The writer makes some very good points in his response; others, however, are not so very good. At the start of a new academic semester, I regret that I don’t have the time to litigate every errant point in a blog post. Nevertheless, some of the assertions do require a response.

    In the post he claims that I was mistaken about the version of the Bible used in LLPSI and continued, “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)” — I was not mistaken about the version of the Bible used in LLPSI. The writer is correct that Ørberg mentions the quotation on p.40 of Latine Disco. It is worth reading exactly what Ørberg says there: “Lydia shows Medus the little book that she has brought with her and reads aloud from it, and in this way you become acquainted with **the oldest Latin translation of the New Testament, used by St. Jerome in the 4th century in his Latin version of the Bible** (the so-called Vulgate, Vulgāta, the ‘popular’ version).” (p.40 Hans Ørberg, Latine Disco. 2005, emphasis ** added). Ørberg makes it clear here that the reading present in the text is taken from the Vetus Latina. In fact, I checked the readings in the VL and vindicated my assertion (and that of Hans Ørberg). In case anyone is interested, I will list the relevant VL codices at the foot of this comment.

    The writer also contradicted my assertion that “There are not ‘repeated appearances’ of Christian overtones in the book.” He writes, “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: […]” And he lists four or five places where Christ or Christianity is mentioned. Alas, I’m reluctant to point out that the writer has created a false equivalency between the words “overtones” and “references”. By his thinking, the writer might also make the bizarre statement that Mein Kampf has “Jewish overtones” or The Gulag Archipelago has “Communist overtones”.

    In my initial reply I said, “we don’t have as much evidence for the attitudes of the lower classes.” To which the writer makes a lengthy retort regarding some legitimate sources for such information, but he then includes the literature 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” — I suspect that the average reader of this blog will not need me to point out that I did not deny that we have “evidence for the lives, practices, and beliefs, and attitudes of the lower classes”, so this entire retort is a strawman. Furthermore, a comment on a blogpost is hardly the place to explain why Plautus and Phaedrus are unreliable sources for the mores of the Roman lower classes, except to point out that they are primarily interpreters of (often lost) Greek literature. Similarly, it should surprise no one that the literary elites’ (e.g., Cicero, Pliny, Apuleius, etc.) perception of the lower classes are not reliable indicators of the actual attitudes of the lower classes. So, I stand by my rather moderate (and near universally accepted) statement that we don’t have as much evidence for the attitudes of the lower classes.

    In regard to the depiction of women in LLPSI, the writer makes the following observation, “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.” — To judge previous ages by anachronistic ideologies is presentism. For my part, I would no more call Romans “capitalists” or “racists” or “homophobes”. The current zeitgeist, whereby one must assert judgement over others – past and present – for their perceived wrongheadedness, allows for much moral posturing but very little room for actual intellectual discourse. Be that as it may, the retrofitting of such ideologies onto the interpretation of the remote past is not a useful hermeneutic for discovering Truth or cultivating young minds.

    The writer then takes aim at my 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. […] This is pure fantasy and I have no idea how he came away with this from anything I wrote.” — No, I never wrote that. Rather, I posited rhetorical and hypothetical questions based on what the writer had said. As a bookend, I added that I suspected that there was some confusion and that perhaps the writer did not actually believe what he seemed to be suggesting. From the other comments to his two blog posts, it appears that I was hardly the only reader left with such an impression. So, does it not appear more reasonable for the writer to offer a simple clarification of his position in light of readers’ comments rather than ridicule his readers? I am, nevertheless, encouraged that the writer has disavowed the position that I deservedly lampooned.

    Finally, the writer issues his Parthian shot, “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.” — This is a fantastic calumny, which, any writer truly ‘willing to acknowledge when he is wrong’, would rescind immediately. I certainly didn’t engage in name calling of any kind. And if I distorted anything, I did so in good faith and by accident. But perhaps the writer means something quite different by his words – in fact, it is conceivable that he means the exact opposite of them.

    The Vetus Latina codices that represent the selections referenced in LLPSI Ch.28:
    Codex k (Wordsworth, 1886)
    Codex a (Belsheim, 1984)
    Codex c (Belsheim, 1888)
    Codex b (Belsheim 1904)
    Codex q (White, 1888) p.118-
    cf. etiam Hetzenauer, 1906. p.901-

  7. I’ve noticed that there’s a weird discomfort among historical language teachers, even CI-based, who engage with these types of issues empirically. That is, in the discussions I’ve seen, one side says “hey the overwhelming consensus of research is…” while the response usually involves accusations of (to quote a prominent Twitter account) “zealotry” or (to quote a particularly offensive account I saw this morning) “Krashenfellatores.”

    Which, in my observation, leads the conversation to take the form of arguments with climate change deniers or flat earthers. Am I a zealot for insisting that the earth is round? Am I a Newtonfellator for saying that engineers should take into account the three laws of motion?

    If the accusation is “zealotry” how do you compromise with someone who’s incorrect? “Yes,” you must say, “I am sorry for being disrespectful. Perhaps the earth is both flat and round!”

    I’ll admit that it’s not the reading that I like to do, but I recommend to CI teachers, who encounter these frustrating complaints, to be armed with some of the latest research. Like, literally copy and paste the link to the latest article (Krashen or otherwise, since, shock and awe!, there is more than one person out there studying about this) and say “I understand where you are coming from, but my approach is based on the latest research.”

    (Incidentally, as I’ve become more aware, it’s also the way language had been taught prior to the 18th century, as well)

    Bringing it back around, what I’m trying to say is we gotta stop treating this like a discussion about literature or philosophy. Most of us love our books and our humanities discussions, but education (and indeed language acquisition) is a science now! (and no philology does not count) We really need to start treating it like that.

    Thank you, Seumas, as always, for being far more polite than I want to be.

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  9. I am pleased to read here a moderate and reasoned debate on difficult issues and nothing of the hysteria of ‘cancel culture’ etc.

    Nevertheless I find many of your comments, while understandable, to be revisionist. We cannot change the past. Orberg was a man of another age and the Romans he wrote about of a much earlier time. While we have our own viewpoints, it is arrogant to assume we are superior to people coming before us and can look down god-like on what we perceive as their weaknesses. How will we be viewed in a hundred years, a thousand?

    When I was at school corporal punishment was as common as in FR. Yet I would hesitate to say we are now morally superior to the generation that went through WW2. There have been changes but not all are improvements (cf. the obesity crisis).

    Yes there are challenging aspects of Roman life, e.g in the ‘marriage scene’ in the beginning (as we have it) of Petronius or the fact that someone like little Iulia would probably be married off at twelve. But in this context, rather than getting upset about the past, we could rather reference the present facts that many girls get married at eight in Yemen, and the legal age for marriage in Iran and Nigeria is nine.

    We can express our disagreement with Orberg or ‘Iulius’ just as we can with say Athens had a very limited democracy but like all societies, and our own, it’s a case of work-in-progress.

    • I am not entirely sure what sense of ‘revisionist’ you intend to mean here. In any case, all work of historiography involves some element of historical revisionism – not that we are rewriting the past itself, but we are reinterpreting our evidences for the past to construct what we always hope to be a more accurate depiction of that past, insofar as it is accessible to us. Neither Gregory nor I are interested in pretending untrue things about ancient Romans, nor about Ørberg and his historical context. We instead seek to present historical data in ways that elicit critical reflection and discussion, not unquestioned and unquestioning face-value.

      As for the questions of morality, I think in part this can only be argued with some consideration of one’s broader position on ethics. For myself, I am not convinced that humans of this present age are in some way morally superior to those of the past. However, there are aspects of the past that I think we ought to find morally repugnant. One of the clearest cases of this is slavery. While we ought to go to lengths to understand how ancient Romans, and others, thought about enslaving humans, and how slavery operated in their society, this does not mean we need to suspend all judgment and simply say, “well, times were different”. Society and its practices were different, yes, but only some form of moral relativism can consider that a justification for saying it wasn’t morally bad for Romans to practice slavery as they did.

      Our particular concern, in terms of LLPSI, is to recognise and highlight the difficulties with what is often implicit, unchallenged, and uncritically presented in the book. For any particular teacher, learner, or learning context, different aspects of these may be points of contention. Some of them, we would posit, ought to be points of contention. All of which a skilled instructor can use as teaching points, to enhance our learners apprehension of the historical context of Latin in the Roman eras, beyond the presentation of the textbook itself.

      • There’s certainly a difference between critically examining the past and simply judging it by modern standards, which may or may not be superior. Maybe marrying off women at 14 is repugnant, or maybe encouraging them to slave away under florescent lights until they’re 35 before starting a family is repugnant. Maybe our system of democracy is better than Athenian democracy, or maybe democracy itself is evil, as Plato thought, and we are worse off for implementing it more thoroughly. If you think the answer is just obvious and that anyone who doesn’t see it is a monster, then it is you (the general ‘you’) that is the moral relativist.

        The only implicit, unchallenged assumptions are the modern ones. Students are in no danger of being transformed into Romans simply because one book they happen to read did not ‘highlight its own difficulties.’ It might actually be good for them encounter a different worldview–in its own words, and without the coddling of a teacher.

        • It’s unclear to me how much of your comment is generalising and how much is pointed. I certainly agree that both the past and the present are subjects capable of critical examination and deliberation. Nor do I think that students are in any “danger of being transformed into Romans” due to reading one book. The teacher’s role, and I strongly suspect my friend Gregory would agree in this response, is not about ‘coddling’, and the perception that we are advocating that is a chronic misreading. We recognise, though, that especially younger, school-aged, students do not necessarily have developed abilities to read and engage texts critically. Facilitating the development of critical thinking and engagement is precisely one of the tasks a teacher ought to be engaged in.

          What is apparent, is that there is a long and well-established tradition within classics of implicitly and uncritically accepting certain perspectives on the past, in a way that underwrites biases towards, e.g. militarism, Great Man history, elitism, sexism, and that the reception of antiquity in the field of classics has been hand in glove with discourses of colonialism and empire, slavery and race, gender inequality, and so on, especially in the 16th century onwards. I’ve met countless students who “love Latin and love Rome” because they uncritically glorify Rome as an idealised world, in which they project white, male, elite superiority and supremacy. One textbook didn’t create that, but their own experiences of classics certainly enabled it.

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  13. I am familiar with the Chinese mini stories, I thought about translating them, there seemed to be just a few too many concepts that I wasn’t quite sure how to translate accurately. I am excited to see how people approach translating them!

    • I am familiar with the Chinese mini stories, I thought about translating them, there seemed to be just a few too many concepts that I wasn’t quite sure how to translate accurately without diverging too much from the NT subset of koine greek. I am excited to see how people approach translating them!

  14. I gave this app to my son to practice his Chinese, the non paid version, just to see how it goes. Initially he did quite enjoy the way it worked, but because of the way it encouraged payment (penalties for incorrect answers ends the study session) he quickly began to hate getting that wrong answer prompt to the point where he was scared to get the incorrect answer and within a few days he hated it.

    I am sure the experience is good a lot better if you are paying for the product, but I didn’t realise the psychological effect the free version would have on him. After I realized the impact it was having on his desire to study I stopped encouraging it.

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  16. This has been an interesting discussion. However, I think you’re closing it too quickly. What about potential theological backgrounds? If John presupposed similar theology that we see in the DSS (e.g. the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, I Enoch, Book of Jubilees, Book of Giants, etc), then there were other “sons of God” as a contextually prior assumption.

    The NT broadly assumes the literature, but within the Johannine corpus there are several allusions to it. For instance, John 10 interacts directly with Ps 81/82. Revelation 9 refers to the captivity of the Watchers in the abyss. He uses the term “Son of Man” in a parallel manner to the Book of Parables (I realize it’s too late for him to quote it). It even offers humans the status of the other beings in 1.12, though importantly the language is changed to τέκνα Θεοῦ.

    How would you fit this literature in with your interpretation? It has been an enjoyable survey, but I think you’ll need to cover belief in the existence of other “sons of God” as part of his literary background before it’s complete.

    • I appreciate your comment, though I suspect what you propose ventures into a different kind of study – the theology of sonship in the fourth gospel. Does that have bearing on what μονογενής means? I would say yes, at an interpretive and theological level, but probably not very much at a lexical level. That is to say, I’m reasonably both satisfied and persuaded that μονογενής indicates a lack of siblings, when used of persons, and that this meaning comports with its usage within John, no search for a special sense of the word is required. What is *subsequently* means for the Son to be siblingless within the theological milieu of John is the kind of question you are getting at, which perhaps I’ll take up at another time.

      I have one more post on this series to conclude, a kind of flash-forward.

      • We definitely use different theories on language and semiology. I do not believe lexical meaning exists separate from interpretive levels.

        However, I have enjoyed the blog, even if I hadn’t commented till now. I’ll enjoy your last segment 🙂

        • I don’t think I would say that lexical meaning exists separate from other levels of interpretation, but I would say that they are interrelated and yet distinct.

  17. «Can you read and process these sentences quickly, in Greek, with a reasonably clear understanding of what’s going on?»

    More more less, yes (native Greek speaker with solid background in ancient Greek and a postgrad degree in Byzantine studies).

    It’s worth noting that Byzantine and post-Byzantine Greek speakers did exactly this – they analyzed Biblical language and discussed Greek grammar in ancient Greek, even though their spoken language is attested to have been close to modern Greek. Every self-respecting Greek scholar between the late Palaiologan period and the Greek Revolution wrote a treatise on Greek grammar, rhetoric or biblical exegeses in Attic Greek, the most prominent ones being Manuel Chrysoloras, and Theodore Gaza. Quite a few of these works, published in Venice, Iasi or Vienna, are even available online.

  18. I can’t really understand it, mostly because I don’t know grammatical terms in Ancient Greek, even after 5 years of university Greek. I reckon it has to do with us not learning Greek grammatical terms in Ancient Greek, but rather in translation.

    But I do think it has a place, especially in universities. I think that university programs could (or should) start teaching from second or third semester , after first prunings, exclusively in Ancient Greek exactly in the way you are proposing. It would be difficult at first, but students focused on Greek could dial-in quite fast if done correctly.

  19. I was just wondering whether it is still possible to sign up for this class? Thank you very much in advance! 🙂

  20. Dear Seumas,

    Do you plan to offer Latin Prose Composition again in 2022?


    Aron Holewinski

  21. Catullus 1, first sentence, second line, should I guess read “hot off the press” (not “of”)?

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  23. This could be very useful! I have a suggestion (and of course it is nothing more than a thought and a tentative suggestion!) for the LLPSI-keyed reader. A usual complaint about Familia Rómána is that it introduces too many new words per chapter. Extra reading like the Colloquia Persónárum and the Fabellae Latínae helps by reinforcing the vocabulary of the current chapter and previous ones before the next step up, but the learner is still facing the same hard ridge of 20+ new words in one story whenever they start a new chapter. So instead of just keying to FR chapters, how about setting each chapter “in the gap” between one FR chapter and the next, by seeking to introduce some, no more than about half, of the new vocabulary that appears in that next chapter of FR? Obviously choosing which words to pull forward from the next chapter could be quite tricky. Ideally they’d form a group of words which is spread fairly evenly through the next FR chapter (by first occurrence). Ideally also they’d include words which are known to cause problems for FR readers, where it seems it might be worth someone taking another go at introducing the word. But of course there would be plenty of other considerations, such as what would simply fit best into the story of that “interstitial” chapter.

    • A good suggestion, not quite sure if I’ll implement it, but what I would like to do is take vocabulary from across the range of FR chapters, and then pull them consciously through subsequent chapters for more exposure. I’m also thinking about the balance and difficulty of new vocabulary needed to tell a different story.

  24. have you finished any Greek chapters already? I would be interested in paying money for early access.

  25. Thanks – interesting as always. Perhaps I could counter with my experience of ‘forgetting’ Latin and Greek. After my BA degree in Classics (heavily linguistic-based) I read neither language at all for 14 years (pretty busy getting involved in financial regulation in London UK and singing evensong – but that is a different matter.) I then decided it was time to teach Latin and Greek. so took a year out to get a teaching qualification. I focused on Latin to start with – not much of a problem to get it back up to where it had been previously, although to be honest, it was never particularly fluent. Vocabulary came back very quickly. Greek was entirely different. I started Greek two years after Latin at school, but it was a much slower process to recover it. I had an enlightened Head of Department, so I took a second year Greek set of 14 year olds and built up my skills with them. I did find on the first two and three years that, on reading Greek, I could read through a sentences and not recognise a particular word: then a couple of seconds later I KNEW what it meant.

    Didn’t stop me from ending up teaching undergraduates full time for twelve years, but has given me an interest in what it means to learn and/or acquire languages.

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  34. What an amazing opportunity! Alas, just one of those times I can’t swing the time or $. Since you are recording the class, I’m hoping you’ll offer it either again or as a product.

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  37. I’ve only followed a bit of this discussion on Twitter and was hoping to see a well articulated debunking of the whole C2 business. I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve posted. The discussion did make me think about the state of Latin and Greek teaching over here in SE Europe where I live. Latin is still a regular school subject in high schools in most countries of the region, but it’s done in an outdated way which boils down to doing grammar drills and a bit of elementary reading. There’s *zero* expectation of developing any speaking, writing or listening skills; those simply do not exist in the curriculum (the legacy of the “dead languages” discourse). The same was largely the case during my university studies at a typical traditional Central European university. G/T was the norm – and in hindsight, I’m now astonished that none of us questioned it at the time. (I suppose it’s true to say we didn’t know any better.) I don’t think anything has changed in the intervening twenty years since I graduated, which is to say that 99% of the currently employed Latin teachers are wholly unqualified for the job under the C2 criteria, as they are nowhere near that level – and that includes university-level teaching staff, I’m quite certain. And you’re made a good point: the same is often true for teachers of modern languages, let alone Latin & Greek.

    However, as much as I bemoan some of its deficiencies now, I still wouldn’t say that G/T is a flawed method. I think it does quite well what it’s supposed to do within the parameters of traditional curriculum, and I actually happened to enjoy that approach at the time. (The focus, concentration, analytical thinking it requires… There’s something to be said about that. Also, to me, as an extreme introvert, G/T felt like a soothing balm, as weird as that sounds.) It’s the expected outcomes / goals / targets that should be discussed, since the choice of methodology ultimately depends on them. Would a student who wants to be able to read the Greek New Testament benefit much from conversation classes in Attic Greek? Why would a scholar of medieval epistolography be expected to order a pizza in perfectly fluent Latin? (Never mind who from.) I realise that’s how and why, in spite of occasional attempts at reform, educational systems circle back to G/T when it comes to teaching classical languages, at least round here; there’s been no change in the desired outcome that would warrant a substantial reform of the curriculum.

    Having switched to teaching EFL years ago, I’d love to do nothing but discuss 19th century English poetry with my students, but some of them need (and *want*) only B1/B2-level business English that they need for office work. I could be elitist about it and either refuse to work with those clients, or insist on a syllabus that wouldn’t cater to their needs (the latter is a mistake I was prone to making at the beginning of my career). So, not only are the C2 Latin & Greek fantasies elitist, there’s something awfully totalitarian about them. In their absurd maximalism, they actually take the learners and their needs completely out of the equation. When teaching is concerned, that’s the gravest sin of them all.

  38. Excellent post, Seumas! We need more CI, not less, and should accept that mistakes are part of the process, both for teacher and learner. We don’t (shouldn’t) expect perfection when learning/teaching modern languages, as you so eloquently pointed out. We should strive for excellence, but be humble enough to recognize we will fall short of it at times.

    Ben Kantor has some excellent aids on his site. I hope to sample them in time. Do you have a link to the Hebrew immersion videos you referenced? I checked his Koine Greek site and didn’t see one there. Perhaps he has a separate site for Hebrew?

    Pax tibi, ειρηνη σοι, שלום לך!

      • Great, thanks for the link to Ben Kantor’s Hebrew video. I also found that he does have a separate website for his Biblical Hebrew materials (which also branches out to Biblical Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Akkadian), https://biblicalhebrew.com/. Great stuff. Looking forward to exploring it and his companion Koine Greek site, KoineGreek.com.

  39. This is written not as a line-by-line response to Seumas’ excellent piece above. Really, it’s the bigger explanation of where I’m coming from that Twitter’s platform just doesn’t allow for. I don’t write it as the end-all-be-all of the conversation, certainly. I hope it continues, and I think the interactions — even and especially the strong and snarky disagreements — have been fruitful to the whole. I say this later, but I’ll just flag here, too, that I apologize when my snark went too far.

    Let me start with three anecdotes from some of my language-learning experiences.

    When I was learning Latin, I was in a class where the students were reading the Cupid & Psyche passage of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. The class took place 99% in Latin. We would come in, the professor would ask someone to read the first sentence from our assigned passage, the student would read it, and the professor would say, “good. Are there any questions? What happened in this sentence?” The method was incredibly simple, and yet the process of reading and putting in other words over and over again meant that we had to know what was going on in the text, from a grammatical to a high, rhetorical and content level. That was known as the hardest class. The Latin was gruelingly tricky. The professor would chuckle and say that after this class, anything else you read in Latin will be easy (he was right). From the pedagogical perspective, one couldn’t help but admire the professor. He never had the air of one showing off his knowledge, but it was incontestable that he not only loved Latin. It had seeped, after many years, into his bones. I was delighted and honored to help run conventicula with him for a few years.

    Another anecdote. Elsewhere geographically in my path of study, at a different program, I was taking greek courses on the Cappadocian fathers. The reading’s were not easy. The Cappadocians love a rhetorical flourish and complex structure and very technical terms. In contrast to my Latin professor, this professor couldn’t speak Greek if someone threatened to burn his rare collection of Chinese poetry in front of his eyes. This class was grammar-translation out the wazoo. We weren’t asked to read in the original Greek. Just the English trans., thank you. And yet, for all that, the professor was not only charitable, funny, and qwerky. He was also — and I know this beggars belief — incredibly fluent in Greek. All these terms are getting rather technical, so I ask patience from the SLA folk. What I mean is, this professor knew the Greek in and out, with incredible care for nuance of syntax and word-choice. For nearly every word, he could tell you — and often did tell us — a philological history of its use across other authors and genres. He was aware of puns, figures of speech, and, obviously, grammar. It didn’t matter if we read from our assigned passage, or if he was randomly reminded of some other passage or author that he would take down from the shelf. He would read — no English translation to hand— with ease and care. As I described him to a friend, he’s fluent. He’s just a mute.

    Third anecdote. While learning Kthobonoyo (a form of spoken, classical Syriac), I’ve run into professors, instructors, monks, and scholars who are all indisputably, unequivocally, hands-down Native-Speakers fluent in Syriac. There are several reasons why this is possible, and the context of spoken Kthobonoyo are complex, and for the sake of space I’ll just say that Kthobonoyo is what Ancient Greek and Latin communities dream of when they’re on shrooms and their vision passes from this world into the next. There are parents who speak it to their kids; kids who speak it to their parish priest, priests who deliver homilies to an understanding audience; I’ve seen bishops switch from speaking Arabic to speaking Kthobonoyo (!!!) in order to get a point across. One professor and I were speaking Kthobonoyo, and he was speaking way too quickly for me to keep up, and he would use these high-level idioms, and he would ask me these intricate questions — everything you don’t do according to CI principles. And I would reply to him in Kthobonoyo, “Please, you gotta slow down, I’m still learning the language. I want to be able to speak like you, but could we start with simpler things?” But since I was able to speak at all in Kthobonoyo (unlike the other students who only had a grammatical understanding of the language), he thought I must be able to speak just as well as he can, and went on talking like to me like I was his son.

    (I’ve had many experiences in-between, too. I’ve had conversations with people in languages where I knew they were thinking in English, not Latin, for instance. I’ve had classes in Greek where I knew I had better comprehension of the Greek than the professor, who was looking at a Greek-English translation to get by. And so on.)

    What each of these anecdotes have in common is the level of mastery of the teacher. We can speak poetically about the mastery of anything as a life-long goal that’s unattainable until we die — I think there’s something obviously true in that sense of the term.

    There’s another sense of mastery, however, and here I’m going to ask that the SLA folk grant me some leeway in the terminology so that we can all get a basic sense of things. When you look at the three anecdotes, what they share is not a pedagogical method; they don’t even share their relationship to the language (some are native and some aren’t; some just read). And yet, they all possess a near complete grasp of the wide complexity of the language (at a morphological and lexical level). In other words, they are lazy-chair-with-a-cool-drink comfortable with the grammar, including all the weird things that most students never encounter; and they are monk-memorizing-the-full-psalter-and-maybe-the-NT familiar with the dictionary.

    Or, in the vein of you-know-it-when-you-see-it definitions, here’s another way of thinking of mastery: You’re friend who teaches second year Latin or Greek at the Vivarium is sick, and he’s asked you to take his place until he gets better, and you go to teach there, and instead of mercilessly eating you alive the students trust you with their souls.

    Mastery and pedagogy interact with each other, certainly. My Greek Professor, for instance, who has never spoken Greek, never has to worry about producing Greek, and so he never has to ask himself about the proper way to compose any number of sentence structures in Greek. He’s a mute-master. Such masters exist everywhere — and of necessity when the language pronunciation is truly unknown to us, like Ugaritic, or when the corpus of writings is extremely limited, like Old South Arabian, the masters of those languages are mute of brute necessity. And certain kinds of pedagogical methods require a greater, more flexible exercise of mastery. A Latin master who has never produced a single sentence in Latin may have a panic-attack if asked to, precisely because of his mastery. He is so aware of the variety and nuanced involved in producing anything in Latin, and he will want to get it right. The Latin rests inflexibly in his head like etchings in a stone, not like a quill posed over parchment.

    However, one of the main points here is that mastery of a language and pedagogy can come apart. The possession of one does not say anything as to the possession of the other.
    And from my vantage point, the recent evolution in pedagogical method has not clearly and indisputably correlated with a recent explosion in mastery. If anything, the flexibility of thought required by the pedagogy (and in some cases, its fittingness to the way that humans learn) has actually produced the illusion that mastery has developed along with it.

    It should be obvious that there is certainly no necessary connection between mastery (as I’m using the term here) and pedagogy, precisely because I can use the Best Pedagogy Eva™ to teach students something I completely made up. If someone with truly malicious intent wanted to introduce chaos into the Latin community, they could use CI, for instance, to teach students the present, passive participle in Latin (something which does not exist), and those students — thanks to the power of the pedagogical method — would have a better grasp of this false Latin than would students learning pure Latin through the most gore-your-eyes-out-with-a-spoon painful grammatical-method. What makes for better learning, in other words, does not mean what is learned will also be better. In fact, inasmuch as better pedagogy allows for greater affinity between the learner and the language, it is actually the case that the imprecisions of understanding and the corrupting influences of outside languages will have an outsized effect on the learner. When it comes with the greater and better pedagogies, the instructor must handle with even greater care, and hold himself to an even more scrupulous standard.

    In sum, the ineffectiveness of the grammar-forward approach actually mitigates the errors the instructor might make, and the effectiveness of CI & co. raises the stakes — and, I think, requirements — for the instructor.

    It’s this disharmony between pedagogy and mastery that strikes me nowadays. Unlike the previous generation of teachers — who showed a primary desire to obtain mastery —, what I see is a lot of advertising and huzzah’s over particular pedagogical methods (which blow grammar-translation out of the water, sure) but not a enormous concern for the mastery as the pre-requisite for the careful use of those methods.

    What sometimes is claimed at this point in the conversation is something like “hey, we’re all still learning,” or, “Hey, I haven’t really mastered the language till I die.” And I think it would be hubristic and silly for people to start calling themselves masters (no hipster ever calls himself a hipster, right?). What also tends to be said (certainly not all the time) is also something like, “hey, I just don’t have the time or situation where I could achieve such a level of mastery, because I’m already teaching the language or [insert some other totally understandable reason].”

    Really, it’s not that achievable-mastery is unachievable in general. We all know the examples from the previous generation, about whom questions of mastery never occur to us precisely because they have so clearly achieved it. Rather, achievable-mastery is just not achievable for me, right now, because I gotta make money today (and I will learn to recite poetry in Esperanto before I teach through some grammar-forward method required to get a job in most classics programs, assuming I have the credentials to apply, and they hire me, and, and etc.).

    Here’s a thought experiment (and you have to put your best Greco-Roman-Tragedy hat on for this one): What if the re-discovery of better methods of teaching languages arrived, but, for many people, too early. What if there’s been a mis-alignment in the stars, if you like, between when many people found better methods of teaching and when they were ready to use them? Is this a possible account of the discontinuity between the enthusiasm among younger instructors and the cringing of the old ones (and yes, they cringe)? And is this tragedy all the more antique by the pressures and tensions that material necessity lay upon many great souls and good-hearted instructors who need to make a living, are too old to apply for the University of Kentucky or the Vivarium, yet still desire something better for their students, a future of language learning that they believe in? Are we at the same place as Aeneas, building a home too early, seduced by the promise and wealth of Carthage?

    It would be absurd here to wet the tip of one’s quill and begin to name of the heroes and zeroes, and I do sincerely apologize for crossing that line. Actually, I do role my eyes at particular instructors, but — and I apologize and recant from having done this in public — those issues are what the demigods and furies of Twitter want me to write about, but my hearth and my books teach me another path. (They don’t overrule duels and such, to be clear, but, you know, nothing so vulgar as a Tweet).

  40. This all seems sane and was very informative. Thank you.

    Two notes:

    1. The Eulalia project (https://site.unibo.it/eulalia/en/project) attempted to create CERF-like standards for Latin education; I don’t know what they’ve come up with (the project just wrapped up and I couldn’t go to the concluding conference), but there’s something comparable out there.

    2. You concluded “That suggests to me that it is a methods problem, though it’s not only a methods problem. But PhDs in Ancient Greek could be C2 proficient active users of the language, if we designed our education systems to produce them.” This seems directly on target to me. I don’t have anything to add about methods or elementary ancient Greek education, but it’s worth keeping that the goal of PhD education is to produce a researcher about (a) culture(s), not (just/simply) a reader of texts. (Also worth keeping in mind that amount of time doing language instruction in graduate schools seems to be dropping over time: less translating in class, less assigned reading, shorter exam lists, and dropping/limiting prose comp requirements.) So, chronologically speaking, achieving C2 might be possible in a decade of university BA/MA/PhD education, but it’s competing with other goals.

    • Right, on point 2. I totally understand that the point of a PhD program, as they’ve been designed, is to produce a researcher, not a language user. I just think that within a PhD program that is specifically focused on language and literature in an ancient language, C2 is neither unrealisable nor that much of a stretch. I think that can be done without sacrificing research competence.

      • I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you didn’t understand that. It was a half-formed musing on priorities in graduate education. I’m somewhat less confident than you that it can be done; what goes to make room for more language instruction? Will students accept it? (Those questions are not answerable in the abstract, I think.)

        • The thing to realise is that you would have to shift how you do things, rather than cut one thing to make room for another. If students reach B2 at the end of a college program, B2 is functional fluency – they should be able to read/write/listen/speak to the level of an average native speaker without college education, someone who completed high-school. That is already a high degree of language proficiency. What do you do with C1 students anyway? You tackle *content* in the medium of the language. A good graduate program that intended to include language proficiency in its outcomes would work to teach its content through the medium of the language – “module on Josephus? We’ll be reading large slabs of Josephus, and then we’ll be discussing Josephus in Greek and you’ll be writing papers on Josephus in Greek, and I’ll be giving you some lectures on Josephus in Greek”.

          Granted, PhD programs are not set up like this, I can’t genuinely imagine students or professors signing on for this unless it was baked into the ethos of a college or university. In which case it would become totally possible.

  41. I would be thrilled to see instructional materials aligned with CERF standards for Ancient Greek.

  42. Is there evidence that students of Biblical or Ancient Greek fall into that trap of thinking masculine always marks male? Being from a slightly older generation, perhaps I am out of touch, but intuitively, it does seem obvious that the shift in English of how the word “man” is understood in English might impact how the language of textbooks is received by students. If true, perhaps the English textbooks need some minor revision to cater for this shift in English. (I can’t imagine the same problem occurs for speakers of other languages such as Spanish. I don’t know about German though?)

  43. So your intro Familia Romana classes run once a week on Wednesdays from 1/25 to 3/21?

    I am an adult interested in learning Latin. Can I attend or is this only for minors?

    Chris Seberino

    • This particular course isn’t running this coming term, I’m surprised that its page is visible.

      My intro Familia Romana courses normally run weekly, and they are for adults.

  44. Hello I am Interested in signing up. What is the likelihood that the class would be canceled if there are not enough participants. I have had an interest in learning Greek for a while 5+ years. Specifically Koine Greek for the New Testament and Early Christian texts. But I have a love for philosophy and literature so Aristotle, Plato, Homer, and Aeschylus interest me. I am a Catholic priest so I have had training in Latin, Italian, and Spanish.