Active Latin – paper presented to Oxford Classics Faculty

This paper was given on 1st February 2021 as part of a seminar series called Teaching Classical Literature in Oxford, organised by the Languages and Literature sub-faculty for faculty members to present talks about how they teach different Greats papers. All Classics faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates were invited. Armand D’Angour spoke first, sharing his perspective on ‘Teaching Latin Core in Latin’.


The aim of this paper is to provide some wider context for the discussion about using spoken Latin in the classroom, by describing what we are doing at Jesus and Harris Manchester, and why. I’ll begin with the ‘why’.

We all know there’s a language deficit, that arriving at Oxford with Latin and/or Greek is one of the markers of privilege in our student body, that learning ab initio is incredibly hard work and really gets some people down, and that all this affects people’s degree outcomes.

We know that state school students tend not to have access to language learning opportunities, and that this has got worse since the requirement to study a modern language to GCSE was removed from the curriculum.

We also know, from good evidence, that learning about the ancient world is something that excites many people, and that school children are interested in learning Latin, and that when they do it has a beneficial effect on their other work.

I myself did my graduate study late, and when I returned to Oxford after an absence of 25 years the language issue was one that struck me very forcibly, thanks I suppose to the starkness of perspective afforded by returning after a long absence: you notice what has changed, perhaps more than you do when you live through the changes. I noticed that students were struggling with the languages much more than used to be the case, and I also noticed that there was no sign of their being any less keen on studying them. On the contrary. They were as keen as ever, but there was this gap between what they wanted to be able to do and what they actually could do. No matter how hard they worked at the languages they just did not have the time, and this seemed – and seems – to me to be very much related to changes in how the A-levels are structured, though I don’t want to address that in any detail today.

So I was happy to find that there was a way in which I could be useful, and I was pleased to be able to teach MILC twice and then to take up my job at Jesus, and later to add the job at Harris Manchester as well. And I’ve been very grateful to Armand for his delegatory style, which means that so long as I get the results he has let me get on with what I want to do. And what I want to do is, of course, get the results, because students deserve nothing less; but really most of all I want to help students find reading their texts rewarding rather than a chore. And I suppose if I have an ambition it is to get to a point where my students completely stop talking about the need to ‘translate’ their prescribed texts and talk instead about ‘reading’ them. And of course I’ve thought hard about how to get from here to there – how to make language classes not just productive but enjoyable (on the latter note, one rather unexpected, measure of success was when a year or two ago one of my students about to sit Mods told me how much they were going to miss Friday afternoon prose comp classes. As these are 2 hours long I had always been slightly worried that students might not list them among their favourite classes, so this was a particularly pleasing bit of feedback!)

I had wanted to try introducing some spoken elements into my teaching, if for no other reason than that it immediately increases the amount of Latin which students encounter in the classroom, and gets them manipulating the language for themselves; but I didn’t know how to do it, and I felt – like many of us, I’m sure – a lack of confidence in my own ability to keep anything like that going in a classroom. I wasn’t sure what to do in between salve and vale. So when in 2018 I was presented with the chance to go on a study week where nothing but Latin would be spoken, the entire time, in the classroom, at meals, on walks and visits to local sites, I didn’t hesitate. I jumped with both feet. And it was only as I was on my way to the first session that I realised I hadn’t any idea how to say anything meaningful at all in Latin. I had been learning, reading and writing this language for more decades than I care to admit, and throughout my education my main experience of giving voice to it had been the recitation of grammatical paradigms. No teacher had ever asked me to read aloud other than when quoting a passage in an essay or to demonstrate that I could scan the verse. That felt like a huge gap, and I wanted to rectify it in my own teaching.

But that’s more than enough about me. I want to turn to why I feel so utterly committed to giving students the best possible language skills. I have three propositions which I will briefly address. in turn:

People want to study the ancient world.

People should study the ancient world.

People should study the ancient world on their own terms.

After that I want to say move on to the ‘how’, and say a few things about the active method.

People want to study the ancient world

My own empirical evidence tells me this all the time. It’s completely unquantifiable, of course, but almost every time someone asks me what I do – those casual conversations with taxi drivers, the window cleaner, shop keepers, people you meet once at a party – when I tell them what I do their eyes light up and they say ‘Oh, I wish I’d done that, I wish I’d learned Latin at school, it must be so interesting to be able to do that.’ Or take the steady stream of cultural artefacts about the ancient world: plays, films, novels, poetry, museum exhibitions and so on. It’s natural for people to want to understand the past, and clearly many people do.

For quantitative evidence, one can do worse than turn to the website of UK charity Classics For All, which has met so much demand from state schools for help with introducing classics that they have had to set up 14 English regional networks as well as a Welsh and a Scottish national network. Since 2010 , they say, ‘we have introduced classical subjects – Latin, classical civilization, ancient history and Ancient Greek – to over 920 state primary and secondary schools, reaching more than 60,000 pupils, many in areas of high socio-economic deprivation. Demand from schools to offer classical subjects has increased fivefold since the charity began in 2010. Even in such a challenging year as 2020, with so many schools resorting to online learning due to the pandemic, we are still on track to reach our annual goal of 100 new schools offering classics to their pupils.’[1]

People should study the ancient world

I’m guessing we all agree about that, otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here trying to figure out the best ways of enabling it to happen. Being able to think critically about the past is an important part of being able to negotiate the present with wisdom and move forwards with clarity of vision – using what Edith Hall and Henry Stead, picking up on a driving metaphor used by Tom Paine, call the ‘rear-view window’.[2] It reminds us that we are not the best people there have ever been, we are just the people who are now, and we will be judged by those who come after us.  And at this time in history it seems to me more important than ever that we remember that. To quote Hall and Stead again, ‘The study of ancient Greece and Rome, if taught imaginatively, can play a transformative role in contemporary society’.[3] So, for my money, that widespread interest in learning about the past is a good thing.

Classics For All has also got some interesting data on the benefits. According to their Impact Report 2010-2020, ‘there is increasing evidence that the study of classical subjects helps to:

  • Raise pupils’ aspirations and achievement. Widening access to classical subjects can improve social mobility giving pupils the confidence and skills to progress to higher education.
  • Improve grammatical understanding and communication skills, enriching pupils’ vocabulary by helping them to decode unfamiliar words.
  • Enhance the learning of Modern Foreign Languages, familiarising pupils with linguistic structures and patterns that make them more confident language users.
  • Build cultural capital. Learning about classical history, literature and ideas enhances young people’s cultural understanding, giving them new perspectives and reference points.’[4]

It seems to me beyond unacceptable that these benefits should be limited to a privileged few – especially as learning Latin can, it seems, actually be a driver of social mobility. According to a recent review of available evidence, ‘The majority of findings support the claim that Latin helps with vocabulary, comprehension and reading development for English-speaking pupils. The specific impacts on Special Educational Needs pupils and in socio-economically challenging areas are particularly noteworthy.’[5] .

People should study the ancient world on their own terms

When I read an ancient author I interpret and respond to the text myself, but if I’m really going to learn from it I want to discuss it with someone who’s reading it from a different point of view – with a different interpreter, if you will. And I don’t achieve that if I translate it for them; nor do I if I send them to someone else’s translation. So I want as many students as possible, from as many perspectives as possible, to be able to read the ancient material we ask them to study; and then, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t read the languages, I want there to be a truly diverse set of published translations available. Unless a critical mass of people know the languages, we, and our descendants, will become increasingly dependent on a dwindling number of translations made by an increasingly small and privileged body of translators, and the range of perspectives informing their reception will become narrower and narrower rather than wider and wider.  

Relevant here is the interesting work being done by Nicolette D’Angelo on how  contemporary debates about important issues get distorted by lazy conclusions drawn from unexamined assumptions about ancient evidence. This happens for a variety of reasons, but one of them is misinterpretation – sometimes wilful misinterpretation – of the text. Nicolette’s work on Hippocrates shows what happens when people take a text and use it to further a particular agenda. Obviously inventing plague narratives as clickbait in the age of Covid is far less horrifying than the misappropriation of ancient material to support loathsome ideologies, but it comes out of the same basic space: people appeal to the authority of ancient authors, take from a text what they want to take from it, and make it say what they want it to say. So in my opinion our most fundamental duty to those coming up behind us who want to and will continue to want to study ancient world – not just those who are already here as students, but also those who will come later –  is to give them a set of critical skills which includes, for those who want it, the ability to read the languages with confidence and so read ancient texts for themselves critically, bringing their own lived experience to bear on them and refuting the arguments of those who wish to use them for undesirable, or even simply misguided, aims.

Enough on the ‘why’; I now turn to the ‘how’.

Active Latin

We live in an age in which the humanities are struggling for space with STEM subjects. It is frankly unrealistic to expect anything but fewer and fewer students to arrive at this university with previous experience of learning ancient languages. That means that we’re going to have to continue to teach them ab initio, and we’re going to have to get better and better at it if the study of one or both ancient languages is to be meaningful.

I’m not suggesting Active Latin is a miracle, or even a panacea. There may be people who just wouldn’t respond to it. But we know that there are very few people who respond well to the grammar-translation method when they start it at the age at which they have to start these days. I need to admit at this point that I speak from a position of good fortune because I learned both Latin and French at the age of six and have no memory of having to work at them. But I didn’t start Greek till I was nine, and I do remember having to work at that, and I remember finding it difficult, and even the difference those three years made in my response to the grammar-translation method is immensely instructive for me when I think about it now as a teacher. We know that ‘variation in language learning is conditioned by age’,[6] but we also know that immersive learning ‘has an enormous effect‘ on data related to language learning—an effect that has been described as ‘large even relative to fairly large differences in age’.[7] We know that if we really want to learn a modern language the thing to do is to go and live in the country concerned and switch off Google translate. We know that effective language acquisition depends on four elements: listening, speaking, reading and writing, in that order.[8] All this applies to Latin. As I say to my students, ‘This is a language. It’s a means of communication. It’s not a fiendish code dreamt up by Cicero 2,000 years ago in order to make the lives of 21st century undergraduates miserable. Treat it as a language and it will reward you.’ The trouble is that that we traditionally teach only two of the four skills, and the two that we omit are the two that should come first.

Here I want to tackle the idea that learning languages is a specialist skill that only some people have. I don’t believe that. Language is communication, and communication is what humans do. If we don’t communicate, we die. It’s a fundamental human skill. To quote Justin Slocum Bailey in a recent Eidolon article, ‘Hearing and speaking a language are primary mental acts, in the sense that the human brain has parts and processes dedicated to them.’[9] What is not a fundamental human skill is the ability to find pleasure and profit in studying grammar tables. (I include the word ‘pleasure’ because I confess to being one of the sad minority that do enjoy studying paradigms and spotting patterns in them, but I know it’s a minority interest and I never expect anyone else to enjoy it!) Grammar tables should be there for reference, not as the first thing you have to do. That sort of language learning is fine if you are very young. At the age of 6 if someone tells you to chant conjugations and principal parts, you do it, just as you chant your alphabet and your multiplication tables. At the age of 18, or 25, or 50, or 70 as some of the people I taught last summer were, that doesn’t come nearly so easily.

It has been suggested that students from less privileged backgrounds might find using Latin in the classroom intimidating. My feeling is that it is a teacher’s job to be alive to anything that makes students feel nervous, and to help them. Every year I have students who are reluctant to say anything in class – even in English! – and I expect every other teacher here has similar experience of students not wanting to say anything, feeling nervous of giving a presentation, and so on. Good teachers know that students sometimes feel these things, and help them to develop confidence in doing them. But it would seem to me strange to deny students a method that has proven ability to help them learn, on the grounds that it might at first seem scary. And I think we can help that by demythologising Latin – by continually emphasising that it is above all else a language.  We would not expect to teach someone French or English without a speaking element, after all.

I want to conclude this section by emphasising that Active Latin is a method for teaching Latin. It is not a ‘conversational Latin’ module intended for examination (which would in any case be an impossibility in Oxford); it is a pedagogical tool, a means to an end, and that end is that students should be able to read Latin texts with fluency and confidence.

Active Latin at Jesus and Harris Manchester

Our current programme looks like this. As of last term, all our Year 1 and 2 classicists are given Active Latin classes. We use the term ‘Active’ rather than ‘Living’ Latin because I take the point made by Patrick Owens and others that Latin isn’t actually living. It stopped developing at a certain point, or points, and we are working with it as it was when it stopped developing. On our Active Latin menu are the following – and all of this represents adjustments to existing provision (i.e. we didn’t put in any extra hours). 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 in Michaelmas 2020 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 me): 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 me): 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 by me 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 in Latin, using a coursebook designed specially for that purpose.

Additionally all students participate in weekly Oxford Latinitas Project classes appropriate to their level, and one of our Jesus 3rd years has recently taken over leadership of a weekly international Vergil reading and discussion group.

Does it work?

For us at Jesus, hard data is not really yet available, though last year we saw some pleasingly high marks in the Mods language papers – all in the 70s or high 60s, with a couple in the 80s – and that includes students from other colleges whom I had taught either at Jesus or in OLP classes, among them Althea Sovani, the 2020 winner of the Chancellor’s Prize for Latin Prose Composition, who had arrived in Oxford in 2018 not knowing – as she herself likes to say – how to write a single sentence in Latin. Clearly we need to build more hard data, and we will be able to do this as more students go through the process. But meanwhile there is already hard data on how speaking and listening aids the acquisition of foreign languages, and on how the active method benefits Latin students.

In terms of softer data, I can share some feedback from my students at Jesus, which I got from an anonymous Google Forms survey I sent them. It’s only one term’s worth of feedback, and it’s only seven out of the eight who were asked to respond. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging.

Active Latin at Jesus feedback MT2020

1.     Has it helped your Latin? (7 responses)


2.     What’s good about it, and why? (7 responses)

  • Active Latin helped to bridge the gap between learning a modern, ‘living’ language and the (at times daunting) process of starting with Latin.
  • Active Latin trains to be more spontaneous and tightens your grammatical accuracy. It is a tiring mental activity at times but the hard graft pays off after practice.
  • I feel generally more comfortable with the language. I have a greater understanding of Latin idiom, sentence structure and the nuance of words.
  • It’s really helped in fluency of reading and has helped to to begin to read it as Latin rather than translating it as I go along.
  • It forces you to address your weaknesses in the grammar rather than skim over and grasp a general understanding of a text.
  • Allows you to arrange sentences quickly with the correct syntax; improves vocab a lot because it allows you to make connections between words without resorting to English, rather than passively learning off a vocab sheet.
  • I feel much more confident in my use of the language in reading and especially writing/ speaking

3.     What would you suggest we change, and why? (5 responses)

  • Less emphasis on colloquial Latin and more on recasting ancient texts using known grammatical rules, constructions and vocabulary.
  • In the unseen classes, maybe spend more time ordering the words into an English word order: I found it helpful but felt that we didn’t do enough of it.
  • The early sessions feel very much like the deep end, perhaps a more gentle entry would build confidence early on.
  • Make sure people in the same class are at the same level, otherwise the classes can drag a little. Maybe a bit more variation on texts used.
  • More active Greek, maybe more casual/ interactive uses of active Latin – maybe like the dies Latinus.

4.     Ideas for the future? (4 responses)

  • Earlier intervention in first year and taster sessions at interview
  • I think it would help if we could do the same for Greek.
  • This might not work but one thing to try is a conversation with the text less involved in the discussion – speak more slowly so there’s less ‘iterum quaeso’, but if we leave out Familia Romana, it would force us to think of our own way of saying things on the spot. Would take longer but could be more effective.
  • See above

5.     Anything else you want to say? (4 responses)

  • One thing that may be of interest is that I also noticed consistent use of the ‘Familia Romana’ book helped me to develop reading fluency just as much as spoken capability.
  • Active Latin is a challenging enterprise but one that is richly rewarding.
  • I’ve really enjoyed it so far!
  • I think that active Latin has helped my ability to read Latin, write in Latin and think in Latin immensely and I have enjoyed it very much.

Unintended consequences

All change carries the potential for unintended consequences. For example, it has been wisely pointed out that if Oxford began to use Latin in the classroom private schools might begin drilling their students in Active Latin, which could both increase their advantage at Admissions and eventually lead to Oxford graduates dominating classics teaching in private schools. This and other potential unintended consequences need careful thought. One immediate suggestion I would offer is that experience of Active Latin must not be allowed to become a criterion at Admissions. Another would be working to help state schools access Active Latin via the outreach work we do through projects such as OxLAT and the Iris Project, and through new outreach programmes and partnerships. Other mitigating strategies will be able to be devised if we keep asking ourselves ‘what could go wrong?’


One final word. I’ve heard various criticisms of the active method, including that it’s weird and wacky, that it’s just a bunch of odd people dressing up in togas and showing off, that it mangles Latin by encouraging the invention of ridiculous words for modern things, that it’s elitist. I don’t have time to address all of those criticisms in this presentation, but I do want to address the final one. It could not be less elitist. It is the ultimate leveller. It doesn’t require any previous experience of learning languages except the one our brains are primarily programmed for – listening and speaking – and it delivers rapid and effective results. It doesn’t set up barriers around scary grammar; to quote Justin Slocum Bailey again: ‘Are gerunds and gerundives, jussive subjunctives, and indirect questions really that much harder to process than personal pronouns? Not if you hear every day, est tempus scribendi; nunc est legendum; quaeso finem faciatis and quis scit quota hora sit?’

On which note, tempus est mihi finis faciendi! I hope I’ve given you a sense of why I think teaching Latin in this way is the best thing we can do to keep fresh insights being brought to bear on Latin texts, and why I am enthusiastic about this pedagogy. And I will just say that all of this applies to Greek too. The OLP has had a Greek track since Michaelmas 2020 and we intend to introduce it at Jesus and Harris Manchester as soon as we can.


Footnotes :

[1] https://classicsforall.org.uk/get-involved/trustee-recruitment. Accessed 8.2.21.

[2] Hall, E. and Stead, H. (2013); ‘Is the study of the Greek and Latin classics elitist?’Pre-print of a paper delivered at Manchester Lit. and Phil. Society, p.3.

[3] Hall and Stead 2013:2.

[4] https://classicsforall.org.uk/what-we-do/why-classics. Accessed 8.2.21.

[5] Bracke, E. & Bradshaw, C. 2017. ‘The impact of learning Latin on school pupils: a review of existing data’. The Language Learning Journal. 1-11. Quoted in Classics For All Impact Report 2010-2020, p.2.

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5857581/ Birdsong D. (2018). Plasticity, Variability and Age in Second Language Acquisition and Bilingualism. Frontiers in psychology9, 81. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00081

[7] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/at-what-age-does-our-ability-to-learn-a-new-language-like-a-native-speaker-disappear/ quote is from Joshua Hartshorne, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[8] https://www.cgcc.edu/literacy/resources/four-basic-language-skills

[9] Justin Slocum Bailey (2017). ‘The Persistent Perks of Speaking Latin’. Eidolon, 23.Jan.2017. https://eidolon.pub/the-persistent-perks-of-speaking-latin-ba55fd5fe51f. Accessed 8.2.21.

He continues: ‘Speech thus differs from reading, a relative newcomer among human activities that needs to conscript several brain processes focused on other things, such as spatial recognition, in order to link marks on a page or screen with meaning.’

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