Learning Latin, for Fun and Profit

Father Joseph Faulkner aims to convince his Nebraska high-school students that as well as being useful, studying Latin can be ‘fun and cool.’

Father Joseph Faulkner's Latin class at St. Cecilia's High School in Hastings, Neb., plays a Latin-speaking game.
Father Joseph Faulkner's Latin class at St. Cecilia's High School in Hastings, Neb., plays a Latin-speaking game. (photo: Zeny Nguyen)

LINCOLN, Neb. — Father Joseph Faulkner, a priest of the Lincoln Diocese, is teaching Latin to his high-school students by actually speaking to them in Latin and “throwing them in a little bit above their heads.”

“I’m trying to lower the fear level; I use the language of John Paul II, ‘Be not afraid,’ getting people to not be as fearful of the language,” Father Faulkner, who teaches at St. Cecilia High School in Hastings, Neb., told CNA Dec. 10.

“And I don’t generally correct them at this point; we don’t correct 3-year-olds when they use incorrect grammar; we applaud them for using the right words, and we give them the grammar eventually.”

The priest has been giving simple commands in Latin in his classroom; using a lot of demonstrative definitions — pointing and gesturing; tossing balls, indicating who threw to whom; and is now adding in simple reading comprehension, using both pictures and English sentences.

Father Faulkner’s method of teaching Latin is meant to be an approximation of a “toddler intuition of teaching,” which was inspired by a discussion he had in seminary about the inflection of Latin words — the fact that their endings change depending upon their function in a sentence.

“The problem is: The word is the word; it is the way it is originally written, but then it really does decline, it breaks down, and gets chewed up and spit back out mama bird-style,” as the word is used different ways in sentences. “So when I pick up the ball, I have to change it. When I give it to someone, I have to change it.”

To deal with this challenge that Latin has, Father Faulkner is “trying to ‘trick’ kids in to learning declensions without knowing they’re doing it,” because “declension just blows an English speaker’s mind. … All we’ve done so far is the nominative (the subject case), but the students don’t even know that.”

This is how children begin to learn their first language, he said. “Kids acquire nouns first; then they begin to get possession: ‘my ball’; then ‘me do (something)’; and, finally, ‘I do (something).’ They get there bit by bit, and you slowly add more.”


Learning English Better Too

By sneaking declensions past the students, Father Faulkner hopes to avoid a dual problem: either losing students who are frustrated by the task or students “just beginning to translate” word-for-word without intuiting the function of the word in a sentence. “It’s getting people to begin to read it, not [just to] translate it.”

“If we do that, then they can actually understand their own language better; because, really, this isn’t just about Latin. It’s probably as much about learning your own language, such as English, better. The reason we can’t speak a foreign language is that we can’t speak English.”

Father Faulkner said, “It’s funny, because all our kids understand how to do ‘he, him, his’; they just don’t think they’re doing anything. They can’t explain what’s different; they just do it. The difference among who, whose and whom is lost on them, but once someone gets that, they can go back and say, ‘That makes sense; now I understand why that’s doing that.’”

Learning how Latin works allows for a better understanding of English. “It allows a person to recognize this is going on in our language, and you start to speak better English, making better sentences — putting ideas together better — and that’s even without the vocabulary boost, which Latin will also do.”

The students have recently started making family trees and composing simple sentences in Latin expressing familial relationships. Father Faulkner considers it important to have his students have experience speaking, hearing and writing the “dead” language, because “if you skip the listening and speaking part, then you’re just translating.”

“The brain grasps a language better when it’s speaking and reading and writing.”


The Classical Tradition

Father Faulkner’s class is called “Classical Languages,” and this is his second year teaching it. The previous year was limited to etymology and word roots from Latin and Greek, “but I found last year that you have to understand that crazy little thing, declension, to understand why the name for king is ‘rex’ but the adjective in English is ‘regal.’”

In this second year of teaching the class, he said, “we started with a discussion of linguistics and phonetics” so that the students could understand how languages work and change, and then began “the Latin ‘immersion’ path … but it truly is a section of a bigger class that involves word origins and the classical tradition in the English language.”

“I can’t say it’s working yet; we’re just starting it. It’s an adventure.”

The current class is composed of 10 students, most of whom are seniors. “We’d like to have sophomores taking this class so they have room to grow” into a second year of the class. “And we want them to do it before they’re seniors, because it will help their ACT/SAT scores — that’s just the general helpfulness of Latin. But if you want to get to second year, sophomore year is really the time to start.”

The current effort at the school to introduce Latin is an attempt to “get the ball rolling with interest” in having a richer Latin program at St. Cecilia’s, as the school is working to “widen our culture base, our academic and intellectual bona fides.”

The small school is working to revitalize itself, offering a Latin program that won’t be found at other area schools, “and it’s an exciting thing for us to do that. … We have this new little program cropping up, but I know Bishop Conley has said, ‘Can we get this rolling in other places?’”


Bishop Conley

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., told CNA that “Father Faulkner’s Latin class is a wonderful idea,” saying that while “education is becoming rote and mechanized … Catholic schools can engage the imagination and the creativity of students.”

“Catholic schools can engage the soul. St. Cecilia’s is doing that. So are all the Catholic schools in our diocese. Catholic education offers worldviews and opportunities you can’t find anywhere else.”

Bishop Conley went on to discuss the value of learning Latin, noting that “classical languages open our minds to classical ideas, to the cornerstones of Western culture. Latin is the key to encounter with St. Thomas Aquinas, with St. Augustine and with Virgil. Knowing Latin helps us to know ourselves, and Father Faulkner has found a way to get students excited about Latin.”

Father Faulkner affirmed that in “learning Latin, you get this skeleton key that helps you understand so many things: not just Latin texts and the modern languages that come from it; but there are a ton of little cultural things in English conversation: Latin phrases or references that only really make sense in their original Latin context.”

“Having that skeleton key to open that up is an amazing gift” that is rarely offered to students today, he said.

“We should be trying hard not to lose … the common possession of Roman Catholics for thousands of years,” a cultural treasure that opens up the Tradition of the Church. “Even a little more knowledge of what’s happening in our prayers, in our history, would be huge.”


Having Fun

Father Faulkner considers the class a success so far: “I’ve heard the kids love going home and showing off to their moms that they can speak Latin. That’s good. If you’re bragging on your Latin at home, I’m feeling good about this class.”

“One thing has struck me, as we sit on the floor, play games, giving simple little instructions … what I really like is, in the beginning, they said, ‘Learn Latin? Not only is that not useful, but that’s got to be really hard and awful.’”

“And, suddenly, to see them having fun — they were tweeting something funny in Latin the other day. … They want to share that and are just getting excited about the language, playing with it on their own. It’s so great to watch them do that, especially having gone from fearful, and this is useless and impossible, to this is fun and cool.”

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