Thursday, December 10, 2015

Latin is a Dead Language, Right?

For the following post, the views expressed here are mine personally and may not reflect those of the Latin teaching community nor of the spoken Latin community. 

Anytime I tell someone that I am a Latin teacher, I feel like I am immediately going to have to be on the defensive based on the onslaught of comments which I will receive: "Wow, they still teach Latin? Isn't that a dead language?", "Why would anyone want to take Latin? No one speaks it any more," or "What use does Latin have in the world today? Students should take a language which is actually useful." My favorite comment is "Wow, you teach Latin? You must be REALLY smart." You get the idea.

Many of you may find it shocking that I am in complete agreement that Latin indeed is a dead language but not in the sense which most people mean. According to linguistics, a dead language is one which is still in existence but no longer serves the purpose as one's mother/native tongue. By that definition, then I have absolutely no qualms with calling Latin a dead language. That does not mean, however, that I think that Latin should not be taught on the basis of it being a dead language, because by that definition, I could probably venture to say that Yiddish is a rare mother tongue today. Does that mean that Yiddish should no longer be used or taught as a spoken language? That I should allow it to become extinct? Should my friend Evan Gardner, the founder of Where Are Your Keys?, desist in his attempts to save indigenous, Native American languages from extinction purely because they are no longer anyone's primary language for communication? 

I am going to go one step further with this: I am a firm believer that Latin should be taught as a modern, living language like any other (If you have read the About Me section, you know that I was once one of the BIGGEST opponents of any type of spoken Latin, but now I am a huge advocate of it). Although I do not oppose the teaching of classical texts/culture, I oppose us as Latinists solely isolating the language to the classical period, because in my opinion, it pigeonholes us. There is SO much Latin literature which exists outside of the classical period - in fact, classical literature comprises only 1% (at the most) of all surviving Latin literature through the ages! 

Here is a statement which may shock folks: Students actually wish to speak Latin. How do I know this? Because they are constantly asking me "How do I say X in Latin?" This shows me that students indeed wish to interpret their own world with the Latin language. What kind of message am I sending if I say to them, "Latin is not spoken," or "The Romans did not have X, so we cannot say that"? It simply perpuetates the myth that Latin is different and hammers another nail into its coffin. Latin as a spoken language did not stop with the fall of Rome - Latin was spoken throughout the ages and still is today! However, as schools unfortunately have been transformed from centers of learning into now factories and production centers, schools have shifted their goals from teaching students to become lifelong learners and citizens to becoming manufacturers of a future workforce for the global economy. Anything which is not deemed as preparing students for college or a career immediately out of high school is cast aside.

As you read those last two paragraphs, I bet a number of you just scoffed at the idea of Latin being taught as a modern language and find all of this misguided. Quite honestly, I expect that kind of response from Latin teachers, because nothing divides the Latin teaching community more than the idea of speaking Latin (which saddens me). But some of the biggest opposition which I get for wanting Latin taught as a spoken language is from modern language teachers, and quite honestly, a number of them are CI/TPRS teachers. 

At NTPRS this summer, I thought, "If anyone will applaud the use of CI/TPRS to teach Latin, it will be at NTPRS." Considering that 45 Latin teachers were in attendance, I felt that we would be seen as a language of equal footing with the others. I could not have been more mistaken. Instead, for the first few days, we Latin teachers were viewed as a curiosity and novelty, with a kind of "How cute that these teachers want to use CI/TPRS to teach Latin" and "Why would you want to teach Latin with CI/TPRS? All you do is read poetry and philosophical works" attitude. But to be fair, for most modern language CI/TPRS teachers, the Latin teachers whom they know are probably perpetuating the traditional grammar-translation, Latin-is-different stereotype (Ginny Lindzey, thank you for pointing that out to me), so I am sure that we were a shock to the system at NTPRS. By the end of NTPRS, though, attitudes had definitely changed, thanks in part to Justin Slocum Bailey presenting Latin as a modern living language during the Cocktails and Coaching hour. Attendees began to view Latin as a viable language for CI/TPRS. In fact, as a result, TPRS Publishing will now be coming out with a Latin version of Brandon Brown Wants a Dog in spring 2016! 

But for now, the idea of Latin taught as a modern language remains a dream for me, because so many things would need to change (teacher training and knowledge, university Classics departments). Due to current trends in Latin education, therefore, I find myself relunctantly teaching Latin still with a end goal of students reading classical literature by the end of their 3rd year of the language. Slowly, however, things are changing. The number of spoken Latin events in the country are increasing, as many Latinists have grown weary and jaded with the idea that Latin is only a read language and wish to experience Latin as a living language. I have attended Rusticatio for the past six summers and am probably a solid Intermediate Mid/High Latin speaker (Advanced Low on good day). I have been through two separate 8-hour ACTFL OPI Famliarization workshops to see how these speaking proficiency levels can apply to Latin. I would love for there to be an ACTFL OPI in Latin eventually one day.

For those of you who believe that Latin should only be set in the classical period, consider Erasmus' treatise, Ciceronianus. NOTE - it was written in the 1500's, which shows that even then this debate/tension occurred, but even more, about what Erasmus writes eerily mirrors the debate among Latinists today about "modernizing" the language.

For more information about Latin as a living language, see below.

Web Resources
Video Resources
Nancy Llwellyn's interview on Living Latin

Luke Henderson's TedX talk on "This is Not Your Father's Latin Class"


  1. Dear Keith,

    Thank you for this thought provoking post. A few things jump out at me:

    "According to linguistics, a dead language is one which is still in existence but no longer serves the purpose as one's mother/native tongue." That definition, while common, is deficient. From a linguist's perspective it would not necessarily matter that there are outliers who have Latin (or Ancient Greek or Biblical Hebrew or Sanskrit) as their mother tongue. For, in fact, there have been many people throughout history who have grown-up speaking an ancient (and otherwise dead) language. My children, who grew-up speaking Latin, are a case in point: when our daughter spoke fluent Latin better than English at age 3, no linguist ceased describing Latin as "dead". What is more important, from the view of linguistics, is that *the language no longer change*. A language, whose morphology, syntax and idiom have ossified is appropriately described as a dead language.

    "Latin should be taught as a modern, living language like any other" Are you suggesting that we should help the grammar, syntax and idiom of Latin to change with the times? Would that advance the pedagogical goals for your students?

    If Latin itself (qua language) is not different, are the goals for the Latin student different? Frequent goals for modern language courses are primarily to become fluent in the language in order to converse with native speakers of that language and perhaps even travel to the region where that language is spoken. Are those goals consonant with why we (or why our students) study Latin?

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts in such an eloquent post.

  2. Keith, I am so glad that you shared this; of particular relevance to me was your reflection about how Latin teachers were welcomed/perceived at NTPRS. This is a good reminder for me to consider what I REALLY believe (not just what I want to believe) about CI and what kind of a teacher can be successful with it!