A brief survey of Latin learning resources – Catholic World Report

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When it comes to preserving or even renewing Latinity, we have the tools and then some.

A brief survey of Latin learning resources – Catholic World Report
Detail from “The Visitation in the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry; the ‘Magnificat’ in Latin” (c. 1412-16) by The Limbourg brothers (Wikipedia)

Complaints by people without power, Elizabeth Anscombe once observed, are a waste of time. So rather than protest too long and too loudly about the ongoing liquidation of the Church’s Latin inheritance, laymen might be better off taking direct action. If the bad news is that many Catholic institutions and prelates are undermining their own foundations, the good news is that independent scholars, autodidacts, and homeschooling parents now have at their disposal educational resources beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations. While books and technology are no substitute for a robust and faithful Catholic culture supported by a truly committed leadership, at least such tools lie within the sphere of influence of the ordinary person.

For those who would make a personal effort to sustain something of the Latin legacy, the first question pertains to which program should be used. Within the Latin teaching profession, there are rather intense pedagogical debates. Some swear by the grammar-translation methods, others insist upon immersion, and no doubt other theories have their partisans. At the risk of minimizing the very important issues at stake, I will opine on the basis of my own meager knowledge that any effort at Latin is better than none at all. Moreover, since not everyone has the same inclination and aptitudes, or is in the same situation, what might work for one person may well prove frustrating and useless to another.

Those, for example, who have a lengthy commute time may be especially interested in audio materials, of which there are plenty. I can attest to the merits of the Great Courses series Latin 101: Learning a Classical Languagehosted by Professor Hans Friedrich Mueller, as well as those of George Sharpley’s Teach Yourself: Beginner’s Latin. Both are introductory listening courses with accompanying supplemental books. His imposing name notwithstanding, Mueller exudes quirky American Midwestern humor, and through his mastery of corny witticisms takes the listener on a survey of grammar which is simultaneously rigorous, insightful, and entertaining. We discover that pone is the form of the verb ponere we must use if we are to command, “Put the dagger in Caesar, O Brutus,” learn to love chanting noun cases, and are introduced to the meaning and structure of the classic Christmas carol “Adeste Fideles.” Largely performed by British actors, Beginner’s Latin is a living language system which follows the adventures of a monastic novice as he and his friends become embroiled in a murder mystery; the reader is treated along the way to numerous excerpts and phrases of authentic Latin prose and poetry, from the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett to the love poetry of the Roman Catullus.

There are, of course, numerous online resources as well. In particular, the reader might consider the Satura LanxYoutube channel and podcasts, produced by an Italian teacher who treats a range of topics from basic grammar and idiom to analyses of excerpts from Seneca and Cicero. My particular preference is for her series of simple lectures about the history of Latin literature, which ranges from primitive inscriptions and pagan rituals to the Golden Age of letters under Augustus, to the Church Latin of saints such as Augustine. Each “Simplices” lecture is simple enough to be understood by someone with a basic knowledge of grammar, yet also includes at the very end one or two short phrases of authentic Latin, followed by an explanation (in Latin) of what the phrase means. All of this is rooted in Stephen Krashen’s theory of active language learning, which suggests that learning occurs more effectively when the material used is engaging and interesting to the learner.

Of course, the plethora of Internet sources should not make us forget the necessity of appropriate print materials. Having become a household word in homeschooling circles, Memoria Press produces rigorous and reliable books, workbooks, and supplements, which are especially user-friendly for the overworked mother who has little time for acquainting herself with classical languages. On the other hand, Wheelock’s is a classic originally aimed at World War II veterans getting an education via the GI Bill, and is appealing to ambitious, self-starting learners. Meanwhile, some Catholic headmasters swear by the Henle’s Latin series, wherein Father Robert Henle’s systematic exposition of grammar is inflected with pious meditations. Among those daring souls pursuing the immersion method, Hans Ohrberg’s Familia Romana has become the go-to instrument; composed entirely in Latin, yet assuming zero initial knowledge on the reader’s part, this charming, original work of historical fiction progressively cultivates the reader’s grasp of the language, until at the end he is treated to the characters’ rather sophisticated discussions of war, peace, food, and poetry. A great many Ohrbergian supplemental materials exist, from the student’s Companion to abridged Ovid myths to an illustrated, simplified revision of a 19th-century collection of Bible stories.

The preceding survey barely scratches the surface, and is meant to give the reader a hint of what an enormous range of easily accessible Latin aids are now available. This survey leaves out the hilarious videos of Scorpio Martianus, the intense Cambridge Latin series, the extraordinary Father Reginald Foster’s Ossa Latinitatis Sola, and a great deal of copyright-expired free matter floating around in cyberspace. When it comes to preserving or even renewing Latinity, we have the tools and then some.

All this brings us full circle, back to the deeper matter of the decline in Catholic culture and community. Whether parents send their children to a classical Christian school, or choose to select a Latin program for homeschooling, it is important that Latin not be treated as a fetish but instead recognized in the home as integral to the history and life of the Church. For their part, adult learners would do well to find and engage others interested in classical language study. A circle of plucky, like-minded friends consistently working through some tattered old book is liable to accomplish far more than a lonely consumer equipped with DuoLinguo on a smartphone.

Those who have gotten basic grammar down may, perhaps, even seek out a conventiculum, one of the numerous Latin immersion camps which have sprung up throughout the world. As with any endeavor, encouragement and companionship are key – Non est bonum esse hominem solum.

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