How Modern Learning Methods Can Breathe New Life Into Dead Languages

Every person alive today comes from a long, unbroken line of humanity, since well before the advent of recorded history.

Our ancestors, themselves the products of a long evolutionary chain with its own twists and turns, lived their own, unique lives which led unknowingly to the life you’re leading at this very moment.

You owe your life to your ancestors, as your offspring and your offspring’s offspring will surely owe to you.

Languages, too, are products of a long lineage. With the exception of pidgins, creoles, and sign languages, all human languages owe their current existence to the world’s first spoken language, which likely originated over 100,000 years ago.

Similarly, the modern, living languages of the Western World owe much in particular to two so-called “dead” languages, which form a large part of the common cultural backbone which Western languages and cultures share.

These languages are known as Latin (or Classical Latin) and Ancient Greek (not to be confused with Modern Greek).

Latin and Greek were once the premiere languages of science, philosophy, and high culture in the West. In their heyday, great minds used these languages to communicate complex and innovative ideas. When they were no longer actively spoken, these languages were used to evoke the cultural power of ancient Athens and later the Roman Empire. To know Latin and Greek meant knowing how to access the knowledge of the past, and how to create new knowledge for the future.

Times have changed, however, and that is no longer the case.

The Modern Limits of Ancient Languages

The ubiquity of Latin and Greek eventually gave way, after some time, to the ubiquity of English. English has become the “go-to” language of science, politics, and mainstream culture, leaving Latin and Greek to languish in a much more limited, confined space.

If Latin and Greek are learned at all anymore, they are learned in the confines of a classroom. They are learned by students who are forced to pore over dusty grammar tomes and declension tables, in the hopes of deciphering the speeches and written works of long dead men.

In these classrooms, Latin and Greek are no longer used to speak, or communicate. Instead, they are treated as “codes,” used to crack difficult, archaic texts which most learners have little possibility (if any) of relating to.

This is how I learned Latin, the language I will be discussing for the rest of this article.

I learned Latin not from a person, like I would learn a living language, but from a book.

I, like many of my classmates, spent years of my young adult life learning to distinguish the nominative from the accusative, and the locative from the vocative. In that time, I learned hundreds of words; or rather, I rote-memorized them, retaining them long enough to pass my exams, after which they were mostly forgotten.

I did well in Latin class, surely, but it didn’t amount to much in the long-run. Like the rest of my classmates, many of whom actively struggled with the material while learning, I now hardly remember any Classical Latin at all.

Ironic, considering that Italian, my native language, is essentially Modern Latin!

Not only that, but I know how to learn languages. Sure, I speak 13 languages now, decades after I last set foot in a Latin class, but even then I was having success with languages like English, French, and German at a much faster rate than I ever was with Latin.

Why was that?

Dead or not, Latin is still a language; why should my results with Latin be materially different from the languages I’ve learned since?

Fortunately, I think I know the answer, and it all depends on how you approach the language!

Procedural vs. Declarative Knowledge

Nowadays, when you learn a language, one of the primary focuses is learning to speak that language in order to communicate verbally with others. As part of an exchange of verbal information, speaking is complemented naturally by listening.

That same language will also typically have a written form. Writing allows you to record information so that communication can take places across an indeterminate period of time. The means of accessing this information is, of course, called reading.

In a modern language with a writing system, developing all four of these skills—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—is an efficient way to gain mastery of that language. Development of these skills builds your procedural knowledge of the language at large, meaning that through these skills, you learn how to make the language function for your communicative needs.

Remove any one of these abilities, and you lose exposure, context, and a medium through which to mentally acquire the language.

The problem with Classical Latin nowadays is that it is only typically written and read (mostly just read). Since the language has no native speakers, and there are no extant recordings of native speakers speaking it, the only way to authentically process Latin is through reading its texts.

Without the involvement of the other skills, written language is reduced to mere words on a page, with much less nuance than its spoken counterpart. Since processing written language is not a creative endeavor, developing procedural knowledge is much less of a priority; instead, one can develop declarative knowledge, the same type of passive knowledge that helps you remember dry facts, like the capital of Iceland (Reykjavík)  and the date of the Normandy Invasion (6 June, 1944). There’s no skill involved, just memorization.

It is through this limited, declarative context that the traditional way of learning Latin (called the “Grammar-Translation” method) was developed. Since written texts are the only native materials in Latin that can be studied, they are the only things that are studied. The method is all about reading texts and drilling grammar, reading texts, and drilling grammar. This continues ad infinitum, until your reading abilities are at whatever level deemed appropriate by whichever academic context you are currently in.

This, in my opinion, is why the traditional method fails. Learning a language solely through reading strips the natural learning process of multiple other contexts that it would normally use to acquire language. Furthermore, an overreliance on grammar drills strips the languages themselves of their original humanity; as the saying goes “one learns grammar from language, and not language from grammar. The traditional method tries to teach language from grammar, and that is why it fails.

So, how do we fix this problem? How can we learn Latin, or even any other dead language in a way that doesn’t cost years of our time, energy, or sanity?

Simple. We treat the dead language as if it were a live one!

4 Tips for Learning Dead Languages: A Livelier Approach

To learn a dead language effectively in the modern day, you need to apply the same active learning methods as you would to any living language.

Here are my four best tips for acquiring classical languages like Latin, with a modern spin!

Tip 1: Recognize Your Reasons for Learning

We’re long past the days of needing to learn Latin out of any kind of true necessity. The language is no longer a lingua franca; unless you study classical philology or live in the Vatican, you can get by just fine without it.

In short, learning a classical language like Latin is completely optional. Moreover, it is a completely optional challenge. The problem with optional challenges (like skydiving, ghost pepper-eating, and language learning), is that they’re really easy to back out of if you don’t have strong enough reasons to stick with them.

So, before you start your Latin endeavors, you need to arm yourself with strong reasons to actually learn it. These reasons must also work to keep you motivated over the long-term.

I encourage you to make up your own reasons, but here are a few general ones for Latin which may be useful to you:

  • Learn about Your Own Language: If you already speak a Romance (i.e. Latin-descended) language, then this one’s obvious:knowing Latin will help you better understand how your language works, and how it evolved into the language it is today. Even if your native language isn’t evolved from Latin, it will still bear some similarities so long as your language is part of the Indo-European language family. English is doubly impacted by this, as it is an Indo-European language that, though not descended from Latin, contains a heavily Latin-influenced vocabulary due to the invasion and occupation of England by the French-speaking Normans from 1066 onwards.
  • Learn Specialized Vocabulary: For hundreds and hundreds of years, Latin was the language used to discuss science, religion, politics, law, and philosophy. Many of these terms have survived to the modern age, and can be found sprinkled throughout any written text or spoken conversation that takes place in these specialized domains. Knowing Latin will offer you insight into these terms, and help you better operate within these jargon-heavy topics. I’ve even used a few choice Latin expressions in this very article to help get my points across. Can you find them?
  • Access the Foundational Elements of Western Culture: Knowledge of Latin will give you access to the most important monuments of literature, philosophy, poetry, and history. Reading through the works of the great minds of the past can help you understand your place in history, and learn to admire their values, and simultaneously avoid their mistakes. Furthermore, the language will connect you to two-thousand years of tradition, from antiquity to the Renaissance, helping you understand your place in human history.

Tip 2: Listen and Read at the Same Time

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to beginner language learners is to start exposing yourself to the language by reading and listening to any text simultaneously.

This is easy for living languages, as they have actual native speakers who can record themselves reading any text aloud.

For dead languages, this gets a bit more complicated, though not as impossible as you may think.

While there are no longer any native speakers of Classical Latin, there still exist many classical scholars who have been willing to record themselves speaking the language aloud for the benefit of others.

Their accents are not fully authentic, of course, but, that’s one of the beauties of learning ancient languages—any accent goes, so long as you can understand what you are listening to!

For Latin, a good resource to start you off listening and reading is called Familia Romana, which is part of a larger resource called Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. The resource contains a series of graded texts that introduce you gradually to more complex language forms. MP3 Audio versions of the very same texts are available for streaming on the publisher’s website, or for purchase through sellers like Amazon.

Tip 3: Use Modern Learning Resources Made for Classical Languages

The traditional method of teaching classical languages was, of course, supported by a range of materials that were created with this method in mind.

We’ve already discussed the shortcomings of the method itself; it stands to reason, then, that the learning resources that were borne from the traditional method have similar pitfalls for the modern learner.

Grammar-translation-based resources are dry, academic, and painfully boring. The language they teach is butchered, picked apart, and divided among a thousand-and-one declension tables. As a result, the language learning context they provide is far from natural.

Fortunately, there has been a recent upsurge in materials that address the failures of the past, and try to involve Latin learners in an experience that is more enjoyable and in-tune with how the brain acquires language.

Good modern resources for classical languages include anything with:

  • An engaging story, or stories
  • Words and examples taken from everyday life
  • Visually pleasant design and illustration
  • As much use of the target language as possible

For Latin, I’d recommend starting with:

  • Hans H. Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata.
  • Latinitium.com, and its edition of the novel Ad Alpes – A Tale of Roman Life, by Professor H.C. Nutting.

Tip 4: Use the Language Actively in Your Everyday Life

An essential part of modern language learning that is absent from the traditional method is actually using the language actively and creatively as part of your everyday life. Instead, everything remains passive and disconnected from you and your life, making it inherently less interesting.

If you’re learning a classical language, I urge you to reconnect the language to your life experience, by using it creatively and functionally.

What do I mean by that?

I believe you should:

  • Write notes, messages, journal entries, shopping lists, and other texts in the language.
  • Speak the language with other classical language enthusiasts at meetups or classes. (Latinitium regularly posts news of Latin-speaking group events, like this post for summer 2018)
  • Always look for ways to communicate in the language. Beyond speaking and writing notes, you can contribute to the Latin language Wikipedia or the Latin subreddit on Reddit.com

Using the language actively and creatively in the above ways will help turn the language into a procedural skill in your mind, as opposed to a disconnected collection of facts and tables. It is this active use that will keep your language fun and engaging, and help you use the language in a functional way within your own life, even thousands of years after the language was last spoken natively!

Conclusion

Though they were once languages that held the highest prestige amongst the people of the Western world, Latin and Ancient Greek have since been reduced to a low-priority academic subject that is communicated through boring and outdated language learning methods and strategies.

This is unfortunate, as Latin and Greek hold much cultural and linguistic value that can be applied to the modern context. Everything from language history, to specialized vocabulary, to the West’s greatest cultural achievements can be better appreciated from the point of view of the dedicated classical language learner.

To unlock this latent value, we must look past the dry and ineffective academic models of the past, and turn to a method that revives these ancient languages, and makes them relevant to the lives of living, breathing, modern day citizens of the world.

If you wish to make this happen in your own life, you must employ a series of tips that will help you absorb these dead languages in a manner much akin to how you would absorb a living one.

In particular, you must:

  • Determine your underlying reasons and motivations for learning
  • Read compelling, natural texts with accompanying audio
  • Rely on modern resources that avoid the older, traditional methodologies
  • Use the languages actively and creatively in your day-to-day life.

If you can do that, then you will gain access to the wealth of cultural riches that these languages have provided over the past two thousand years of human civilization, and be able to bring the work, thoughts, and ideas of the ancients to bear in your own life.

Written by Luca Lampariello

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