“Active Latin:” Confusion & Clarification

If you’re within the first years of speaking Latin in the classroom, I urge you to avoid using the term “active Latin.” In a nutshell, referring to “active Latin” is problematic, and just might lead you astray from what you intend to be doing.

A few years ago, some began recognizing the confusion “active Latin” was causing. This confusion is summarized below, with observations of people interpreting “active Latin” to mean that…

  • …Latin was to be spoken all the time.
  • …English was to be avoided, if not eliminated.
  • …students had to speak and write Latin.
  • …grammar had to be taught/learned in Latin.
  • …teaching in such ways meant that one was providing input (I) that was understandable (C) to the student.

**Before I continue, let it be clear that doing or not doing any of the bullet points is not the focus of this post. Instead, the focus is on this particular combination, how it’s referred to as “active Latin,” and its implications.**

When looking at the bullet list, it doesn’t matter what “active Latin” ever meant originally, has meant over time, or now means. What matters is that this confusion led to more emphasis on output, and a more polarized view of teaching Latin, in general. In particular, the combination of the first bullet points above doesn’t cause the last. Due to this confusion, there’s a problematic association with “active Latin,” and CI, which may or may not be provided under the listed circumstances.

Quite plainly, then, just because you’re speaking Latin, doesn’t mean you’re providing CI…

ACL Classical Outlook
This confusion works in reverse, too, such as an assumption that when teachers are talking about providing CI, they’re also talking about speaking Latin all the time, avoiding English, requiring student output, teaching grammar in Latin, etc. This assumption has major implications.

In fact, in the latest issue (Volume 94, Issue 2) of ACL’s Classical Outlook devoted to “active Latin,” the first article begins from a point of confusion. Tom Keeline’s thoughtful article includes common language discussed regarding speaking Latin in the classroom in a movement frequently referred to, albeit far too broadly, as “CI.” That common language includes certain phrases and concepts, such as best practices, inclusive vs. exclusive, and reading vs. decoding, used as evidence in the article of an “all-or-nothing proposition tinged with moral dimensions” (p.57). However, these phrases and concepts are also classified as “active Latin.” That is, the “active Latin” label has been applied to what research-based practitioners speaking Latin in the classroom are talking about. Some very well might identify with that label, but many (most?) don’t. To highlight additional confusion, there’s also an insightful statement on page 60 that falls short of a strong connection to current Second Language Acquisition (SLA) understanding:

“In brief: speaking Latin does not somehow confer on you magical abilities to read ancient Latin texts as easily as you’d read an English newspaper article, or at least it hasn’t done so for me.”

I don’t know of anyone advocating for such a feat, but otherwise, of course speaking will not cause one to acquire and then be able to read Latin easily. That’s what we mean by confusion amidst the use of “active Latin,” and why principles of language learning are important (see below in the next section). To explain the example, we can recognize that the teacher speaking is providing input. So, it’s not the teacher, rather their students who are in a position to read Latin with ease—because they’re listening, and receiving input. That position will get better over time if students continue to understand what is said (i.e. CI, not just I).

This is all to say that readers of the latest Classical Outlook might take away a very different sense of what’s currently going on within the movement of speaking Latin in the classroom using research-based practices, but maybe not. Peter Anderson, Gregory Stringer, and Justin Slocum Bailey all agree that “active Latin” is problematic. N.B. I recommend reading Justin’s article for a look at the similarities across various authors using “active Latin” differently. Then again, Justin cites Wingate’s 2013 Classical World article, a source with nearly identical points of confusion that I’ve summarized above in the bullet list. Were readers led astray, resulting in our observations of confused teacher practices several years later? If so, with the latest Classical Outlook, what do the next several years have in store? The term “active Latin,” if not the sole culprit, has played a large enough role in the confusion already. I suspect that it will continue as people continue using the term, which means it will be years until much enlightenment. But who’s using the term, anyway?

“Active Latin” Elsewhere
As it turns out, “active Latin” isn’t really used much, if at all, outside of university settings and other post-secondary programs, and certainly not outside of the Greek & Latin community (i.e. “active German,” or “active French,” etc. aren’t things). If pre-collegiate teachers are using the term, it’s because they’ve heard it from someone else, etc. (I’m pretty sure I used it once, too). This is important because research-based teachers undergoing a paradigm shift are being influenced by SLA and modern language teaching practices, and there’s no equivalent “active Latin” to be found. Like the proprietary “reading method,” Latin teachers at times just kinda do their own thing, sometimes reinventing or switching out different wheel sizes leading to a wobbling cart that doesn’t make for a smooth ride.

Therefore, I recommend caution when reading or listening to anyone using “active Latin.” I’m not saying they’re a bunch of Jon Snows, rather, that amidst such confusion, caution is a good word. In fact, I’d say that as long as what anyone writes and presents aligns with your principles of language learning, then “active Latin” is just a vestige, and will disappear over time without much impact. Granted, that does require you to establish principles of language learning first, which can get tricky. For example, communicative language teaching (CLT), and comprehension-based communicative language teaching (CCLT) are current approaches. However, if you define “communicative” simply as “speaking,” then the principles upon which to evaluate practices will be flawed (i.e. reading is also a communicative act. As long as there’s a purpose to reading, listening, any writing, and maybe speaking, such as learning something, creating something, or doing something for entertainment, then language is said to be communicative. Speaking is not a requirement, and certainly not by students. The *ONLY* undisputed requirement is input. Beyond that, who knows.).

John Bracey suggested those years ago that instead of “active Latin” we just call it…”Latin.” I agree, but when a distinction does need to be made, such as for papers, presentations, panels, or other P words, I propose the following out of many suitable replacements, which you might have picked up on throughout this post:

Speaking Latin [in the classroom]
“Active Latin” has led some astray into thinking their students *must* speak and do other things…more actively. The way it’s used doesn’t tend to specify the perspective, suggesting that all Latin is active, both on the part of teacher/students. “Speaking Latin,” though, could be used to refer to the way a teacher teaches, not anything the students do. That is, since most of the paradigm shift talked about these days concerns teachers updating their own practices to align with modern research (though still based on 600 year old ideas), it’s appropriate to say that “speaking Latin in the classroom” addresses the biggest difference teachers face.

Yet that biggest difference isn’t necessarily the most important.

Once we disassociate”active Latin” from the false assumption that CI is provided just by speaking more in the classroom, the focus can then turn to how to make that input (I) more understandable (C), not only by speaking but also writing/adapting texts given to students. That would be a more productive endeavor.

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4 thoughts on ““Active Latin:” Confusion & Clarification

  1. “To speak Latin or not to speak Latin in our classrooms?” This is not the question. The very question is: HOW to speak Latin and WHAT ABOUT to speak Latin. If we speak Latin talking about aeroplans, hobbys and pop stars – it’s true, this is useless and not important in the way to Latin texts. So everything depends on the subjects and topics not on the question “to speak or not to speak” or “is speaking Latin necessary and obligatory to be able to understand Latin texts or not”. Moreover, if Latin courses start to be named according to real content, e.g. “Latin grammar with elements of ancient culture” or “basics of descriptive grammar of classical Latin according to language description standards from the nineteenth-century linguistics, simplified for the use of a former classical middle school student”, the term “active Latin” or “living Latin” will no longer be needed and the courses of “living Latin” can be simply called as “Latin courses”.

    • I appreciate the comment, but you’re talking about an entirely different topic regarding purpose and specific content. On that matter, I find this part of your comment out of touch with the reality of the USA K-12 public school context:

      “If we speak Latin talking about aeroplans, hobbys and pop stars – it’s true, this is useless and not important in the way to Latin texts.”

      In my experience, this is THE way to connect Roman content to students of all backgrounds and interest in Classics. That is, using the most frequent Latin vocabulary by first discussing what is familiar (answering the questions “Who am I/Who are we?” before moving into Roman content answering “Who were the Romans?”), students build up mental representation of the language. Perhaps your students have had intrinsic interest in Latin and the Romans. I don’t teach students like that.

      Furthermore, the topic of how discussing particular modern content leads to reading ancient unadapted Latin texts is irrelevant to most, and only slightly relevant to the smallest handful that will continue to university programs. This is not the post for that discussion. Please see this post to discuss goals, purpose, and content: (https://magisterp.com/2017/04/21/reading-unadapted-ancient-texts-whose-goal/), thanks.

  2. Totally agree that the term Active Latin is very confusing and should be avoided. I think “Living Latin” however could be useful, following Mair Lloyd’s definition in her thesis (http://oro.open.ac.uk/48886/), in spite of the fact she is thinking of a totally different reality, of college and university courses in the UK. I wonder if “active practices” is not also useful, to mean specifically classroom activities in which the students are expected to produce language (such as writing about a known story based on pictures), opposed to when they are reading or listening (which is certainly an active practice in the brain, but more connected to “traditional” Latin study).

    • “Living Latin” seems to refer to a community of Latin speakers somewhere, yet I have no expectation that students will ever join that kind of community. I don’t think the term contributes much, pedagogically.

      To be clear, because now I am talking about doing and not doing the bullet points, I do not subscribe to the expectation that students produce language. That would be, as noted in Lloyd’s paper, a Socioculturalist view, or something closer to Skill Acquisition Theory (Skill-Building). I certainly create opportunities for interaction, but even then I still don’t expect any output. I encourage and celebrate it, but don’t believe it has much to contribute to acquisition, especially within the first years. But if a teacher wants to refer to that kind of teaching, one major point is that those terms already exist in the literature. Even “active practices” would be an invention, perhaps leading to the same kind of confusion. In fact, there’s a bit of confusion in how you just used it.

      For example, it would be more helpful first to distinguish terms representing a teacher perspective (e.g. active [teacher] practices) from anything describing what students do (e.g. listening, reading, writing, speaking, drawing, etc.), instead of mixing the two perspectives with a single term, causing more of that confusion.

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