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Active Latin at Jesus College

Over the past couple of years we have been moving steadily towards closer engagement with the spoken element of Latin teaching. This stems from our commitment to giving our students the highest quality language teaching, and is based on the philosophy of active language acquisition, which, in line with neuroscientific evidence on how languages are acquired, gives equal weight to four key elements of language learning: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Through discussions with Faculty colleagues, with the Oxford Latinitas Project (OLP), and with Classics professors at Cornell University, who had already introduced spoken Latin to their pedagogy, we have been generating ideas about how to make all these paths to language acquisition more widely available in Oxford. The Cornell discussions were particularly fruitful in providing insights into what really works for students, and helping us shape our own new programme: Active Latin at Jesus.

The point of using spoken Latin is not to achieve conversational fluency, but to make it easier and quicker for students to achieve the reading and comprehension skills that will enable them to engage critically with ancient texts. Conversational fluency is nice for those who enjoy conversing in Latin, but it is not and should not be seen as the main goal of Latin speaking in the Classics classroom. Though Latin is not a living language, but one whose natural development became fossilised over time, this does not make it any less responsive to the full range of skills involved in language acquisition.

Elements of active pedagogy that we have been introducing since 2017 include asking students to read passages of Greek and Latin aloud before beginning to translate, providing Latin synonyms rather than English equivalents in the glossaries to unseen passages, and encouraging students to message each other in Latin as a way of normalising active use of the language. Jesus students have been participating in OLP spoken Latin classes, study days and conferences, including the many online events that have flourished since Covid-19 restrictions were introduced.

Now, as of MT 2020, all Jesus classicists in years 1 and 2 participate in weekly OLP classes appropriate to their level, while one of our 3rd years has recently taken over leadership of a weekly international Vergil reading and discussion group. In addition, the following classes in College represent adjustments to existing provision. All are taught in Latin except for the Latin Writing class.

  • Latin verse reading (taught by Armand D’Angour): this class teaches metre through listening to and speaking poetry, using verse texts set for Mods. It takes the place of the metre teaching that would have been delivered anyway, and is mandatory for Freshers and Moderands, and optional for 3rd years and Finalists. In Trinity Term we plan to hold a Recitation Competition, with an external judge, prizes for winners in different categories, and (Covid permitting) a celebratory dinner for all participants.
  • Latin prose reading (taught by Jenny Rallens of the OLP): the class focuses on reading, listening and ensuring a full understanding of particular texts (parts of the Mods prescription and, for Freshers, texts taken from a specially designed coursebook).
  • Latin unseen comprehension (taught by Melinda Letts): these classes (one for Freshers and one for Moderands) use pre-Mods or Mods passages as appropriate. In each class the week’s passage is read using the Active Latin method: finding synonyms, paraphrasing and summarising the Latin, and ensuring a good grasp of the sense of the passage. After the class students send in a written translation for marking. Effectively, this takes the method used previously (translation first, followed by discussion in class) and turns it on its head.
  • Latin writing (taught by Melinda Letts): this class is, of course, prose composition under another name. Taught in English to enable full discussion of technical matters, it draws on the Active Latin method by encouraging students to collect synonyms and idiomatic phrases, and teaches critical dictionary use.
  • Beginner Latin (taught by Brian Lapsa of the OLP two days a week and Melinda Letts on the other three days): supplementary to the Faculty classes that are provided to all Latin beginners, our class consists of an hour a day of reading and discussion using a coursebook designed specially for that purpose.

Already we are seeing very encouraging results. To hear our students read Latin verse aloud, to read their written Latin compositions and messages, to chat with them before and after class, and to hear them speak with confidence during classes, provides daily evidence of their steadily increasing linguistic proficiency, confidence, and enjoyment.

The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed that this is all about Latin. Rest assured that Greek is not being overlooked; the OLP is already running a Greek track, which has developed into two Greek language classes and a Greek reading class this term. We aim to develop a similar approach for Greek at Jesus in the future.

Through our Active Latin project, we are pioneering ways of ensuring the best possible Greek and Latin language teaching for our students – and, crucially, making the teaching of ancient languages fit for purpose for the 21st century. With more and more students coming to Oxford with no prior experience of the languages, the continuing study of the Greco-Roman world is going to depend on the ability to make Greek and Latin accessible to everyone, not just a privileged few, so that new generations of classicists have the skills to read and interpret ancient texts for themselves and bring the light of their own lived experience to bear on them, rather than depending on translations and interpretations made by other people.

In 1974, Jesus College pioneered the admission of women to what had previously been exclusively men’s colleges; it was a bold experiment, and there was no shortage of nay-sayers warning that it would fail, but its proponents knew it was essential to the future of the University, and so it proved. It was known at the time as ‘The Jesus Plan’. Active Latin at Jesus will grow into a new Jesus Plan with the potential to have a similarly radical impact on the future of Classics at Oxford.

One Comment

  • CLIVE MADEL

    I have always been a firm believer in the idea of incorporating spoken Latin (and Greek) into my teaching and have longed for a course which includes this very important element of language learning. Indeed, my PGCE thesis back in 1980 was based on this view (although it was treated with some derision by my tutor). Glad to see the emergence, finally, of a course which recognises its value

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