Two years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a study abroad program with The Paideia Institute in Italy. I spent five weeks in the Roman heat living, breathing, and speaking…Latin. Yep, that’s right. Latin. Why, you might ask? Well, as a third-year Classics major, I couldn’t pass up the chance to finally speak the language I had been so dutifully studying for so long. Hours and hours spent conjugating verbs and declining nouns, forming comparatives and superlatives of adjectives and adverbs, memorizing the 30 relative pronouns, sussing out which of the 112 cases of the ablative was being used (such fond memories…). So, naturally, after years of rote memorization, I was excited to finally put it to use!
Except I couldn’t. Those five weeks were the most challenging five weeks of my life. Mentally drained from the language and physically drained from the heat, I squeaked by in the shadow of my Harvard and Princeton counterparts. My peers weren’t better at Latin than I because they went to Ivy League schools. No, they were better at Latin because they already had years of experience speaking it. The Eastern United States has taken a renewed interest in Active Latin in recent years. (Active Latin programming seeks to incorporate spoken Latin in the classroom. Renaissance 2.0, anyone?) Students are learning Latin as young as Kindergarten out there. I didn’t even know Classics was a discipline until I got to university.
I remember asking a classmate a few weeks into my first ever Latin class why we hadn’t been doing any speaking. She reminded me that this course was titled “Introduction to the Reading of Latin, Part I.” I remember thinking, “How am I supposed to learn the language if I don’t know what it sounds like?” And was I right.
In 1995, Merrill Swain published a study about the importance of comprehensible output in second language acquisition, widening the scope beyond Stephen Krashen’s sole focus on comprehensible input as the best practice for SLA. Swain argues that producing a target language (i.e., output) enhances both fluency and accuracy — fluency through a ‘practice makes perfect’ approach, and accuracy through ‘noticing’ gaps in one’s language, ‘testing hypotheses’ about how the language works, and engaging in ‘metalinguistic reflection.’
I know that the only way to get better at Latin is to begin by producing output.