Studying Latin Grammar in Latin

When I started researching classical education, the first thing I noticed was that the old Latin Grammar textbooks taught the Grammar in Latin. The first textbook I studied was William Lily’s “Brevissima Institutio” which was the textbooks Shakespeare studied when he was a child and referred to in several of his plays. My Latin skills were weak at that time, having studied in modern Latin programs, and I found it strange (and annoying!) that the Latin textbooks would be written in Latin. Then I realized–our English Grammar books are written in English. Duh.

Today, I cannot imagine not teaching Latin Grammar in Latin. It makes absolutely no sense why a teacher who is fluent in Latin, and is charged with the task of leading students to become fluent in Latin, would not immerse the students in the language from day one, just as a child is immersed in his native language. There is no easier way to learn the language than by immersion–especially when that immersion is accompanied by a teacher with a book of well-organized grammar rules.

Unfortunately, today, men who are eager to appear to be experts in Latin misunderstand the purpose of teaching Grammar in Latin and try to create “living Latin” classrooms where the students are led to speak using Latin. This is foolishness for a number of reasons.

First, the teachers are not Latin masters. They are accountable to no evaluation and no one actually knows if they are speaking the language properly. They are often just stringing together words and phrases that happen to be Latin, but this is not intelligent. It’s equivalent to having a child taught English by having a foreigner string together English words and phrases with no regard for English usage. Avoiding this is the reason children are sent to school in the first place. Teaching Grammar in Latin does not mean attempting to speak in Latin in the 21st century. Teachers may have done that in the 17th century, but Latin was a living language at the time, and they were raised in that tradition and were accountable to a society that continued using the language in the religion, in politics and in education. This is not true today.

Second, the fluency we desire in students in the 21st century is fluency in actually reading and interpretating the works of the Latin masters. I explained in my talk, How to Read Latin and Why Modern Students Can’t Do It, my experience with students who have been in Latin classes for years and cannot comfortably read real Latin writings. That teachers are allowed to get away with the results they do is a mystery to me. It’s straight from “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Third, if we want to understand how the Latin masters themselves studied foreign languages, we should not look at how the Romans learned Latin, but how they learned Greek. We find that they did promote immersion in the language to be learned, but they immersed the students in the writings of the masters of those languages–not in artificial textbooks or “living language” classes led by non-native speakers. Students followed the “Ciceronian” method of translating the unknown language into the known language, and continuing back and forth until the vocabulary and usage of the master was mastered.

Fourth, the reason why the old textbooks taught Latin Grammar in Latin was because the schools continued to require Latin to be used as the language of all students while at school. When the Christian mission of the universities was abandoned the Greek and Latin languages were no longer considered a priority, and students were permitted to speak in their native languages. Before this, it was necessary that everything be written in Latin so that students be kept from the use of English in school as far as possible.

Lastly, and most importantly, teaching Grammar in Latin provided the students with an abundance of examples of every rule learned in the Grammar, and all of the vocabulary necessary for academic conversation and examination. This was a necessary part of developing and maintaining the academic culture, of which Latin was the chosen language.

In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, I like teach Grammar in Latin, because it proves my sincere interest in preserving historic Latin content and methods of instruction. Our Latin Grammar courses teach directly from the Latin Grammar of the Jesuit Grammarian Emmanuel Alvares, whose work was recommended by the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum in 1559–when the language was actively spoken among Catholics in the Church and schools. I do not believe time should be wasted on “living Latin” because there are no masters of the Latin language on hand to provide the guidance to students in the use of real Latin. It is much wiser to have the students immersed in the Latin of the masters and learn their vocabulary and style from them rather than a modern teacher.

Want to study Latin Grammar in Latin? Enroll for free in Latin Grammar I in the Academy Study Center.

God bless your studies,

William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy