This piece was written for Jesus College by Dr. Melinda Letts, Classics Tutor at Jesus College and Harris Manchester College, and Oxford Latinitas Project Senior Member
Over the past few decades Latin has gone from being a subject routinely taught in British schools to a comparative rarity. Oxford started teaching classical languages from scratch in 1975, when ab initio Greek was introduced, and Latin followed a decade or so later. This laid the foundations for the present situation where increasing numbers of young people can come up to study Classics with no prior knowledge of one or both languages, and take them up as undergraduates. Learning even one ancient language from scratch while coping with the rest of Mods is a challenge, and for those brave souls who go on to study the second language for Greats, the bar is even higher (Jesus student Jenyth Evans graduated in the summer of 2019 having done just that, as well as learning Old Irish; she is now back at Jesus pursuing an MSt in Medieval Studies).
At the same time, changes to the structure of A-levels mean that even those who have studied Latin and Greek at school arrive at Oxford needing language instruction if they are to transform themselves from high-achieving school students delivering on a relatively narrow range of linguistic challenges into undergraduates capable of interrogating diverse ancient texts for themselves and bringing new insights to the writings of the past. Whether ab initio students or those with A-levels behind them, these are the potential classical scholars of the future; and superior language skills will continue to be crucial as future generations take up the baton of bringing ancient thinking to bear on contemporary problems. The lure of the ancient world continues to draw students in, as is clear from the popularity of the Latin teaching provided in state schools by the charity Classics For All; but we no longer regard that world through the rose-tinted spectacles that allowed previous generations to admire its cultural artefacts without questioning its social practices. In fact, the keenness of some extremist groups to appropriate classical authors in support of unsavoury views points to the need to continue producing classicists with the language skills to refute such claims.
At Jesus we place a strong emphasis on language teaching, with Mods students receiving 2.5 hours per week in their first two terms (when they also get 2 hours a week from the Classics Faculty), rising to 4.5 thereafter. We also encourage all our classicists to benefit from the immersive Latin teaching given in Oxford by the Oxford Latinitas Project (of which I am Senior Member). The OLP runs several classes a week, all delivered in Latin, one of which I teach myself. It also organises termly mini-conferences and an annual Septimana Latina, a week-long course in 9th week of each Hilary Term held at the Accademia Vivarium Novum in Rome. The Accademia is an extraordinary institution where Latin is used for everyday interchange as well as discussions of philosophy, literature, and history, and the teaching of ancient metre through music and song. The effects are transformative. After the OLP’s one-week course there, students show a marked improvement in understanding, and above all greater confidence in tackling, Latin in both spoken and written form.
Jesus students who have attended the Septimana Latina speak glowingly of the lasting impact it has had on their Latin. It is clear that this immersive week could benefit all our students, and we are actively seeking ways of achieving the goal of enabling all Jesus Classics undergraduates to have this potentially life-changing experience.