I’ll address teaching grade school students, and then high school students.
I started teaching Latin to Catholic grade school students five years ago. Admittedly, the course is not demanding since we meet only for 40 minutes once weekly (on Saturday mornings). But from the outset I never intended to concentrate, as is typical of Latin instruction, on grammar, or, shall I say, the memorization of grammar. Here was, and is, my game plan, as published in my parish bulletin:
The instructor is Mr. James Thunder, a parishioner, an attorney and a writer on public affairs. He has studied Latin, French, Chinese and linguistics. He initiated the Chinese language program at the University of Notre Dame where he double-majored in theology and government. He relied on his knowledge of Latin in writing his thesis, Aquinas on Marriage, for his M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. In teaching Latin, he (1) utilizes methods used in teaching modern languages; (2) prepares students to study other languages; (3) builds their English vocabulary; (4) helps students appreciate the Latin heritage of the Latin rite of the Catholic Church; and (5) has students read passages from the Latin-language Bible.
In our classes we have covered the following:
• Greetings: This is conversational and introduces students to the imperative. It also introduces students to how a Latin word changes depending on whether one or more persons are being addressed.
• Introductions: Every student is given the Latin version of his or her name by which he or she is addressed by me or other students. This is also conversational and introduces students to the vocative case. It demonstrates to students how Latin words change depending on their case, that is, how a word is used in a sentence.
• Imperative: The use of this mood is common in everyday speech and I teach it early – well before most curricula. We use “dog commands” and prayers to introduce students to it.
St. Augustine and St. Monica by Ari Scheffer
Additional ways I teach Latin as though it were a modern language, include:
• Directions (right, left, straight ahead);
• The names of rooms in the home; and
• Family relationships (mother, father, etc.)
When we study the names for parts of the body from head to toe, this introduces students to Latin nouns -- which are always memorized with two cases (nominative and genitive) -- and it introduces them to the notion that nouns in Latin have gender (masculine, feminine and neuter). It also introduces students to the roots of English words, particularly English words used in medicine.
We sing songs, including a Latin translation of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and of course Latin hymns. Songs are enjoyable because of their rhyming schemes. The students enjoy other examples of rhyme, such as a Latin translation of “Cat in the Hat.”
We also read out loud from Latin translations of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” Winnie-the-Pooh, and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” And we read Bible stories.
When the students read, they pronounce words that they have never seen before. They grow comfortable, and good, at this. This is also an exercise in using the pedagogical tool of proceeding from what is known to them (stories they’ve heard before in English) to what is unknown to them (seeing the same stories in Latin).
I want to show students how Latin is used in today’s world, so we have explored:
• The names of the 88 constellations;
• The scientific classification of plants and animals, including new dinosaur species and hominids;
• The scientific classification of clouds; and
• The Ordo Missae, the Latin language Mass in the ordinary form.
They have gone online for an introduction to Chinese and Arabic, not only to hear the sounds of these languages but to see how they are written without a Roman alphabet. Ah, yes, we English speakers use the Roman alphabet and Arabic numbers.
The Legend of St. Augustine by Filippo Lippi
We follow the Catholic Church’s liturgical year – with Scripture, hymns, and prayers for the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. This is what they’re hearing in English in church, in school (if they attend a Catholic school), and at home. And we follow the news of the day by reading and/or listening to five-minute news reports on a Finnish radio station reproduced on a website.
By the time the students have read, listened to, and sung this much Latin, they are eager to study grammar. Grammar is not a drudgery but a key, a Rosetta stone, a computer code, that allows them to unlock meaning. They are equally eager to begin thinking in Latin by reading a Latin text that uses the “Natural Method” (also called the “Direct Method”), learning grammar and vocabulary intuitively through context: Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata
Let me address the next step, teaching Latin to high school students who are Catholic. As you have just seen me describe, I use the Bible, Latin hymns, Latin prayers, the Latin Mass, to help teach Latin to Catholic gradeschoolers. But what about Catholic high school students? Unfortunately, their texts do not use the Bible, Latin hymns, Latin prayers, the Latin Mass – even in Catholic high schools. Rather, they will receive the same “classical” education in Latin that has been taught for centuries.
This is heavy on grammar, light on Latin roots of English words, and above all heavy on pagan Roman authors: General (and later Emperor) Julius Caesar’s history of his military conquests in Gaul (now France); Virgil; and Cicero. And they may read the poets Horace and Ovid, the historians Livy and Sallust, and playwrights Terence and Plautus.
Fine. If we want our Catholic high school students to receive a classical education, then they can read these authors. To be practical, Latin language contests and Advanced Placement examinations expect this. But cannot Catholic high schools march to a different drummer?
For example, where are the high school level Latin textbooks that draw on Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), bishop of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of Grace, author of the magnificent Confessions and City of God, and lengthy works on Genesis and the Psalms, and dozens of sermons and letters? He was regarded in his own time, not only a master of the Catholic Faith, but a master of the Latin language, even by the pagans. Consider, for example, the availability to high school teachers of Latin of the 1984 text, in Latin, with English language footnotes detailing Augustine’s extensive use of Latin rhetorical devices: J. Campbell, The Confessions of St. Augustine: Selections from Books I-IX.
And also consider the availability to high school teachers of the 2012 book by Peter G. Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns
. Many of these hymns are from the Roman Breviary, the daily, indeed hourly, prayer of the Church.
And also consider the availability of numerous texts in Latin of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.), the “Angelic Doctor.” He wrote in very fluid, precise Latin.
I say this: Catholic high school students who take Latin should become proficient in reading the language. They can become proficient by reading the Roman pagan authors about Roman wars and gods and goddesses and philosophy. But they can become equally proficient in the language, and learn their Faith at the same time, by reading Augustine and Aquinas -- and Ambrose and Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux and Bonaventure and Duns Scotus and Anselm and Thomas á Kempis and Thomas More.
(If that is too big a dose of philosophy and theology, Catholic high school students can read St. Albert the Great (1200-1280 A.D.) who wrote about botany, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, zoology, physiology, and more, and Roger Bacon (1214-1292) who wrote on physics, optics, mathematics, and more.)
In an earlier day, Catholics who attended college, particularly Catholic colleges, might have read these authors in English. That’s not true today, whether they attend secular or Catholic colleges. At least we could make it possible for students in Catholic high schools who study Latin to read them.
Let the AP exam be revised, or an alternative one be created, for Catholic students who become proficient in Latin by reading the authors in the one thousand years after classical Rome.
Spero columnist James Thunder is an attorney who practices in the Washington D.C. area.