Where Latin Lives
With Pope as a Guide, Colleges Help Revive ‘Dead Language’
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
May 4-10, 2008 Issue | Posted 4/29/08 at 4:48 PM
“Usus autem linguae Latinae Nostra in vita cotidianus fere, immo perpetuus adhuc fuit,” “Using Latin has been an almost daily, indeed, a constant feature of my life,” Pope Benedict XVI told the Latinitas Foundation in November 2005.
The Pope told the members of this Vatican institution that promotes the official language of the Church that he encouraged them “in the very warmest terms ... not only to preserve our beloved Latin language ... but also to find new ways to teach and popularize it among the young.”
Colleges are answering the call.
In Front Royal, Va., Christendom College is taking a step beyond the academic classics program. For the first time, Christendom classics professor Mark Clark, together with professor David Morgan of Furman University (now completing the Morgan Dictionary of Neo-Latin), are launching a one-week intensive Latin immersion program in June to initiate high school students into speaking and reading Latin.
The reason is not so people can go to the local coffee shop and order a bagel and cappuccino, said Clark. “We want people to actually access that treasury of Church and ancient literature. It’s like a chest up in grandma’s attic. The Church has almost two millennia of documents and literature in that treasure chest. The key to that chest is the Latin they once used.”
Clark wants students to handle the key from the start because classes will be conducted only in Latin. The methods are similar to some modern language immersion programs — sort of a Berlitz-blitz — as well as the Latin teaching traditions of the Church. Clark already incorporates what he calls “active-Latin” techniques with great success in college classes.
“Imagine being an English major and the most you could do is read one page per hour,” he said, seeing little progress with many 20th-century methods of teaching Latin that are focused on grammar and puzzling things out rather than getting students to think in Latin and write it fluently.
Yet for a millennium before them, Latin was taught entirely differently as an active and universal language of the Church and all university learning.
“Seminaries were the last bastion where Latin was taught for people to use it actively, to read, think, write and speak in Latin because they taught it in the old style,” said Clark, who was recruited by Christendom precisely to do active Latin. “It’s really a tragedy, especially for the Church, that many of the people now studying Latin are just spinning their wheels. The Church needs people who understand her language.”
Jacob Guttierrez knows the difference. He took the “puzzle out” courses then studied with Clark in California. Now teaching Latin at Villanova Prep in Ojai, Cal., he experiences tremendous success using the same active-Latin techniques from Day One.
“It forces students to think in the habit of images instead of English and words,” Guttierrez said. “We’re doing the same thing like with any child picking up a language.”
He cited the very first sentence in the textbook that begins with words already familiar: Roma in Italia est (Rome is in Italy). “Even without ever knowing est before, they’ve got Rome in Italy.” It’s a piece of cake to know what est means. After their first semester, his students can do simple creative writing in Latin.
No stranger to this approach is Nancy Llewellyn, Latin professor at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo. She believes the immersion method so important she is using it with the college’s first freshmen class during this new academic year. There isn’t a summer Latin program in place yet.
“In my class we are not so much concerned with learning to speak as with speaking to learn,” said Llewellyn.
Half her students arrive at Wyoming Catholic never having had Latin in high school, and a significant portion of that half never had any exposure to a foreign language.
Although classes have been conducted exclusively in Latin since October, typically students like Judiann Dalimata who were unfamiliar with the language can already speak an elementary Latin.
“Lots of us speak Latin outside of class,” said Dalimata. “We’re reading passages from the Vulgate. It’s definitely good because some things in Latin — like Peter is petra, which means ‘rock’ — you don’t get the same idea from English. It’s good to learn Latin so you can better understand Catholicism.”
Students are also getting familiar prayers, chants and the Mass in Latin.
“Learning language is a natural activity because it’s something we do when we’re very young before we’re capable of abstract intellectual processes,” Llewellyn said. “We do it naturally, simply and frequently as play.”
Consequently, she explained that trying to make acquisition happen in harmony with nature means immersion, physical activity, speaking, singing and play. “In classes we try to recap in an accelerated way the natural sequence of events, which happens in the acquisition of our own mother tongue.”
Even little children can learn Latin this way. Clark’s 10-year-old son already speaks simple Latin. By the time he’s 12, Clark said he will be perfectly fluent in Latin so that he can carry on a conversation and read a Latin book like any English one.
Not all approaches use the same method. Joseph Almeida, director of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Summer Ancient and Biblical Languages Institute, explained the intensive 10-week college-level summer Latin courses from beginning to intermediate follow “a crash method” that leaves the students well primed for reading books.
At Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., Dan Nodes, chairman of the Classics and Early Christian Literature Department, said the eight-week summer course is for motivated and capable college students with the main emphasis on comprehension and understanding structure with emphasis on grammar, syntax and learning how to read original texts well.
Michael Towle, a youth ministry coordinator at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Belleville, Ill., took Ave Maria’s intensive summer course while studying for his master’s in theology. Through the professor he saw the language very rich and filled with life.
Towle felt he met the goal of being able to read and think in Latin.
“Not only was I able to think in English then recreate that in Latin,” he said, “but I was also able to think in Latin and recreate in English.”
There’s another point the teachers of the different methods made. Llewellyn put it succinctly. “As teachers in Catholic institutions,” she said, “we’re all trying to bring our students … first and foremost to read and understand the Latin Mass, Latin Bible and the great poems, like Stabat Mater.”
She capped the discussion just as concisely: “The ultimate and primary goal of all Latin instruction of every kind, whether immersion or traditional method,” she reasoned, “is still one and the same: to read Latin texts with understanding, appreciation, and love.”
And, as the Church would remind us, Ad majorem Dei gloriam (all for God’s greater glory).
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
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