“Whether Speaking in Latin Is a Worthwhile Pursuit for Latin Learners?” Thomas Aquinas’ Forgotten Quaestio

Editor’s Note: While surreptitiously rooting around in the Vatican Archives, an employee of one of those organizations that opposes spoken Latin and the principles of the natural approach (which we mention here), discovered a forgotten quaestio of none other than Thomas Aquinas, defending the use of conversational Latin contra the Grammar-Translation Method’s dogmatic adherents. Fearing for his job and the damage such a discovery would do to the Grammar-Translation Method, this anonymous employee turned this remarkable manuscript over to us. The original is now under lock and key in the ALI archives to protect it against vandalism. We have translated it and present the Angelic Doctor’s thoughts on conversational Latin for the very first time here, in English, since those needing to be convinced of the utility of spoken Latin probably can’t read Latin anyways. Certain elements may be edited or updated for the modern reader’s ease of understanding. We have included Thomas’ footnotes as hyperlinks.

Objection 1. Latin is a dead language; therefore, learning to speak it today is pointless. Spoken Latin has no modern, real-world application. Students will never need to order a hamburger in Latin or cancel their Verizon subscription in Latin.    

Objection 2. Spending precious class time on speaking Latin is frivolous. It takes away from useful activities like lectures, translation exercises, and drills. 

Objection 3. This emphasis on “living Latin,” “oral Latin,” or “spoken Latin” in Latin classes is mere faddish, newfangled pedagogy. It is a departure from the established traditional methods of Latin teaching and learning.

Objection 4. Latin is already hard enough. Asking students to speak it is ridiculous.

Objection 5. If students get too comfortable speaking in Latin, they might forget about grammar, and that would be a bad thing. They would trade formal knowledge of the language for an intuitive grasp.

On the contrary, speaking Latin in the classroom is one of the best ways for students to get a sufficient quantity of comprehensible input, the key ingredient for fluency. 

I answer that, Today there is a growing number of young Latinists around the globe. Latin is still a  spoken medium for lively intellectual exchange, as the Scorpion has shown. Many successful Latin teachers and learners attest to the value of hearing and speaking Latin to support the overall goal of reading fluency and comprehension. Since, as the Linguist himself makes clear, the only factor empirically shown to facilitate fluency in language learning is extensive exposure to comprehensible input, it is doubtful whether many of the standard classroom activities and homework assignments (e.g., grammar drills, translation exercises, and vocabulary memorization) are worthwhile. They might teach students the mechanics of Latin, but they do little if anything to aid comprehension. The Latin-teaching world is finding this out slowly but surely, and the recent surge of interest in Latin has a lot to do with the belated discovery in quarters of the classics world, due in large part to the work of the Teacher (requiescat in pace), that there are better ways to learn a language than the stale “grammar-translation method.” Hearing and speaking Latin is one of those ways.

The grammar-translation approach is based on the faulty premise that we learn languages by memorizing grammatical forms. But when we remember how each of us learned our native language, we can see that this is clearly not the case. We did not study our mother tongue; we absorbed it. The intricacies of the language were embedded in us as we learned to make sense of relevant messages. We only became aware of grammar in hindsight, and by that point our study of grammar mostly just confirmed the rules that we already intuitively knew. We are capable of understanding messages quickly and deeply when we focus on meaning instead of parts. (Think about it: You are reading this paragraph phrase by phrase, not letter by letter.) 

Speaking Latin in the classroom provides large doses of comprehensible input, broadens vocabulary and usage, sharpens reading skills, creates a lively atmosphere, and forges a sense of community through interaction. In short, there is no reason not to speak Latin in the classroom. Well, perhaps there is one: Teachers and students ought not to attempt it if they are afraid that one day it might come naturally to them.

Reply 1. The common claim that Latin is “dead” is up for debate. Latin has been continuously spoken for more than two thousand years. Long after it stopped being anyone’s native tongue, it continued to be the international language of learning, and it was spoken in the academy, the courtroom, and the Church. However, we should clarify that speaking Latin today—although fun and enriching—is a means to an end, not the end in itself. The purpose is thoroughly practical and pedagogical: Interacting in Latin is a wonderful way to build vocabulary and hone comprehension. No one expects students to use Latin to get around town—unless that town is Vatican City, and the students in question are withdrawing cash from an ATM with Latin text display (which they can, thanks to the venerable Teacher). Nevertheless, our conversations in class revolve around the content we read, not random subjects. We interact in Latin because it trains us to think in Latin and discuss great texts fluently in their own idiom. This in turn strengthens reading comprehension. 

Reply 2. Speaking Latin in class need not take time away from other classroom activities. Our instructors teach lessons in Latin—starting with very basic sentences, accompanied by visual aids and in an engaging format—thus maximizing instructional time by creating an immersive Latin environment. When they feel comfortable doing so, students are encouraged to ask questions and respond in Latin. Nothing is forced. As noted above, this approach gets students used to thinking in Latin from the first lesson. They have a massive advantage over learners who have to constantly translate between Latin and English in their heads. Furthermore, as the Linguist has demonstrated, the fixation with grammar and rote memorization does not help, and may in fact hinder, language acquisition.  

Reply 3. Speaking Latin in the classroom is a return to tradition, not a departure from it. Historically, interactions in Latin were normal and vital to Latin learners’ success. For more than a millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin remained the medium of instruction in academies throughout Europe. It was the ubiquitous scholarly language. To understand lectures, students had to comprehend spoken Latin at a high level. To graduate, they had to demonstrate mastery of Latin oratory and debate. The discontinuation of oral Latin practices in the classroom is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it is to the detriment of both teachers and learners. Because teachers do not feel confident speaking in Latin, they cannot model natural communication in the language for their students. Because students are not accustomed to hearing Latin regularly, they do not get the amount of comprehensible input they need to master the language. It is a vicious circle: Yesterday’s uneasy Latin learners become today’s uneasy Latin instructors, producing a new generation of Latin students who will never reach fluency, and on and on.

Reply 4. Latin has been unfairly stereotyped as a frustratingly difficult language due to its case endings, flexible word order, large vocabulary, and precise grammar. Unfortunately, Latin teachers often contribute to this reputation by talking as if Latin were fundamentally different from modern languages. They rarely expect their students to master Latin, and certainly not to the level where they might be able to converse freely in it. However, this has more to do with bad methods than any innate quality of the language. The grammar-translation method has only produced mediocre results in language acquisition, as the Linguist’s research has borne out. After years of Latin study, most students today—if they are lucky—can do little more than translate short passages of simple text from a narrow range of authors, and they will need to consult a lexicon constantly. Why? Because the prevailing teaching paradigm equips them to identify the components of the language rather than comprehend meaning. To master Latin, students need to read and hear a large volume of interesting content in the language. Speaking Latin in the classroom is one way to provide this. 

Reply 5. Knowing grammar is not the same as knowing a language. A thorough knowledge of grammatical rules, while necessary in fields like linguistics, philosophy, and law, does not actually contribute to fluency. In contrast, getting lots of comprehensible input by hearing Latin does. In short: one can know all of the grammar and still not really know the language, and one can be completely ignorant of grammar and be fluent. Unfortunately, the emphasis on grammar and vocabulary memorization in Latin teaching has misled generations of learners. Not only does it waste time that could be spent on useful activities—like reading large portions of Latin text or interacting in Latin—but it thwarts the brain’s natural ability to process information better when it appears in a meaningful context, rather than disembodied and divorced from setting.

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