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Latin, Classics, and Different Learning Styles

Chapter IV – Auditory Learning and Aural Activities

Hmm, at first the notion of Latin and ancient Greek offering material for auditory learning and might seem a little odd and tricky to fathom. They are not exactly spoken in the modern world, save Latin in the Vatican City, so one does not find oral and listening exams on the syllabuses. A Classics teaching colleague of mine once jokingly imagined what Latin conversation would look like compared say, to a French conversation class. I forget exactly how it went, but it was roughly as follows:

FRENCH - Je voudrais achéter un kilo de tomates s’il vous plaît, et puis donnez-mli une nouvelle brosse aux dents.

I would like to buy a kilo of tomatoes, please, and then give me a new toothbrush.”

LATIN: ubi Romani venerunt, cenam parabamus. deinde, postquam oppidum oppugnaverant, villas arserunt et uxorem meam abduxerunt.

When the Romans came, we were preparing dinner. Then, after they had attacked the town, they burnt the houses and stole my wife.”

(No reference to the start of Carry on, Cleo, of course!?!)

Joking aside, surely speaking and listening just cannot help us with ancient languages. Far from it, not only are there several groups on Facebook one can join for conversational Latin, there is plenty of material in Classics – Latin, Greek, and Classical Civilisation – that lends itself to being taught through speaking and listening. Equally, there are plenty of activities that can help pupils learn these marvellous subjects.

Let’s Hear IT!

Many ancient texts were intended to be read, recited, and/or performed. There is so much more to a text than learn the grammar and translate the words on the page. Precisely what a performance would look like of a Greek tragedy, a Pindaric ode, the first performance of Horace’s Carmen Saeculare, or a reading of the Aeneid by Virgil, cannot be reconstructed with any certainty. However, some fantastic and highly plausible efforts have been made.

Teaching for the second time the Bryanston Greek Summer School run by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, I was fortunate to witness and hear Professor David Raeburn (New College, Oxford) give a dramatic reading of one of the most chilling choruses from Euripides’ Bacchae. Powerful and backed up by his incredible knowledge of Greek accent and pitch, one felt one had been given a taste of how an Athenian citizen might have felt witnessing a full chorus in the Theatre of Dionysus at Athens.

The Iliad and the Odyssey were composed orally to be performed to an audience. The repetitive scenes and stock epithets might look rather dull on the page, but to hear them is quite different, reinforcing the traits of characters and emphasizing themes of the text.

Latin and Greek are beautiful languages to listen to and I believe, whether it is in the exam or not, this should be part of teaching them in the classroom. This is why there are so many reading competitions across the UK. The chance for pupils to recreate something of the performative aspects of ancient texts.

Listen Up!

There are plenty of listening activities that can be used to facilitate the learning process and which also make it fun.

I used to use dictation with some of my classes. We regularly read aloud, but rather than simply reading out what they were about to translate, I occasionally threw in a bit of extra spice and read it aloud myself while they produced the Latin text, listening carefully. They had to note down the text and then translate it. How close had they come to what I had said? And if they discovered something wasn’t right when translating, how did they employ their knowledge and understanding of Latin to correct their version of the text?

They found it surprisingly fun, a variation on the modern language listening exercise. Before translating, a quiz would follow asking for examples of difference, cases, tenses, prepositions based on what they had heard. We would then usually discuss how importance hearing, reading, and performance were in the ancient world and how well-trained ancient ears were to learning and experiencing through listening.

I would also do the same with vocabulary tests, reading out the words, rather than presenting them with my usual typed stinkers. I would always ask them for derivatives and this method encouraged them to think about the relationship between the Greek or Latin word and the English derivative in terms of sound, not just spelling. A fun variant on this was the vocabulary or grammar quiz relay. I would ask the first question and whoever gave the correct answer was allowed to form the next question and pose it to the class, and so it continued.

We would sometimes do some acting. If a story had some dialogue they would get into groups, sort out a short performance and a translation, but would have to perform in Latin or Greek and then tell me what the story was about.

Finally, I would like to just briefly talk about Latin conversation. Yes, conversation. I would start with phrases such as greetings, saying one's name, and asking where someone lives. It can be developed further and tailored to Latin and Greek vocabulary. It was great fun, and once a class was confident with these phrases, I would give them five minutes to do a kind of 'speed-dating' activity to practice these conversation phrases with as many different people in the class as they could.

If you teach Latin and Greek, use auditory learning methods and let the performative nature of the ancient world come to life.

(I include a link to my Latin Conversation Lesson presentation, which can be found in the resources section of my profile:

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