Fr. Most’s Thoughts on Teaching Latin

(The following passages are excerpted from Teacher’s Manual (1) for Latin by the Natural Method by Fr. William Most, courtesy of Le Cercle latin de la Nouvelle-France)


Most Latin teachers will readily admit that Latin is not taught with very great success today [i.e., late 1950s, early 1960s]. Even after as much as eight years of Latin, students often find it quite an effort to translate fifty lines of Cicero in an hour and even then, they will not always get the sense.

Things were not always thus: for about a thousand years after Latin ceased to be a native language, it was taught with far greater success, so that students, even those of very ordinary intelligence, actually learned to read, write, and speak the language fluently. The methods used then were not very much like the method that has now come to be considered as “traditional”. Actually, the so-called traditional methods today go back only to about the 16th century. History shows a constant decline in the popularity of Latin and in the ability of students ever since that “traditional” method was introduced. To cite but a few figures: in 1910, 49.05% of the students in American High Schools took Latin. By 1934 that figure had dropped to 16.04% and by 1954, to 7%.

During the Middle Ages, students began the study of Latin between the ages of 5 and 7. The method used was the purely direct method (we do not propose here to revive a purely direct method, for reasons to be indicated later. Rather, we would use its basic principles and advantages and combine them with additional techniques suited to the difference in the age at which students today begin Latin). Only very easy materials were used for reading, chiefly dialogues. Works like Caesar, and Cicero’s orations, even when they came to be used commonly, were not attempted until after the student had spent from 3 to 5 years on easier materials. The result was that when he finally did begin to study these works, he was in a good position to gain a real appreciation of them, for he had learned by that time to read, write, and speak Latin with fluency.

When in 1444, Lorenzo Valla published his Elegantiae Latini Sermonis, he called Medieval Latin barbarous, and called for imitation of ancient models. His goal was worthy; yet, as Sandys says (Companion to Latin Studies, Cambridge, 1938, p. 850) in effect, he was really “dealing a death-blow to the natural and colloquial use of the living language, and unconsciously promoting the growth of a servile Ciceronianism”. For if his suggestion had been taken moderately, it would have been quite beneficial, but extremists came to think that ONLY Ciceronian Latin was good: for them, every phrase and word which could not be found in Cicero had to be rejected.

The truth that some failed to see is that a living language has to change and to grow. In so doing, it may become better or worse as a language, but the mere fact that it changes does not mean it declines. If it did, we should have to condemn Chaucer for changing the language of Beowulf, and we would also condemn Shakespeare for departing from Chaucerian rules — not to mention what judgment would be passed upon modern English, which has departed still farther. These extremists seemed to think that to change Ciceronian rules was to decay. Thus they would speak of Cicero as the center of a Golden Age — after him, came Silver Latin — and finally — shades of Nabuchodonosor’s statue! — would come the age of Iron and Clay — which is what the lexicographer Forcellini called the age of St. Augustine! We wonder what Forcellini would have said about the Italian of Dante, a further stage in the alleged decay of Latin!

….Schoolmasters finally went over to the position defended by Scaliger, with the result that the grammar-analysis method, the “traditional” method of teaching Latin was introduced, with its minute imitation of Cicero, having as its chief objective, to translate and parse a certain number of lines of Latin per day. It is not strange that the effectiveness of Latin teaching declined, and that the language, being forbidden to use any non-Ciceronian words, was unable to express the new concepts and to describe the new things that appeared as civilization matched on.

Formerly Latin had been a necessary tool for any man who aspired to advance himself, not only in the Church, but in any secular field whatsoever, for the lectures in the Universities, the debates in the parliaments, and the learned books even on natural science, were all written in Latin. But now that Latin had been made difficult by a too rigid adherence to Ciceronian details, and was no longer allowed to develop and keep pace with new developments, practical men turned to the vernaculars.

Latin teachers, finding one of the chief motives for studying Latin removed, had to find new objectives to uphold. It was about this time that John Locke proposed the theory that schools were primarily for mental discipline, rather than for conveying a content of knowledge to the pupils. The vague implication was that somehow the pupil would acquire the knowledge after graduation: his schooling would be merely an exercise, a mental discipline. (For a very fine study of the historical matter, cf. George E. Ganss S.J., St. Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University, Marquette U. Press, 2nd ed. 1956, pp. 218-58).

Mental discipline is still the goal of most textbooks used in today’s teaching of Latin. In 1924, the Classical Investigation proposed 19 objectives, but did not include the ability to speak Latin, and rated the ability to read Latin at sight in the lowest place. The result was that the real goals aimed at by the “traditional” method are now two: 1. mental discipline, 2. cultural values.

As for attaining cultural values, we need to face the issue realistically. Even in English, where there is no language barrier, it is difficult to convey true literary appreciation to young students. In Latin, the difficulty is increased, whatever the method of teaching used. The difficulty is especially great, however, if we make mental discipline the chief goal of Latin teaching, at the expense of what Bennett calls the “direct subjective interpretation”, that is, the ability to read freely without translating.

Conclusion: The goal chosen will determine the means to be taken. If one wishes to make Latin primarily a means of mental discipline, then he should choose the “traditional” method. If, however, one makes it his goal to teach students to read, write, and speak the language with fluency, then he will need to return to the basic principles of the method by which for literally a thousand years students were given that ability. The words of Professor Bossing relative to the teaching of modern languages apply equally well to the teaching of Latin: “For example modern languages in high school and university are at once the poorest and possibly the best taught subjects in the curriculum, depending upon the purpose one attributes to the teaching. If knowledge of grammatical form or an etymological study of language has been the prime purpose of linguistic study, then it would seem necessary to concede that modern-language teaching has been exceedingly well done. If, on the other hand, the main objective of modern-language teaching has been to give to the student easy facility in reading or speaking the language, then the conclusion is unavoidable that no subject in the curriculum has been more atrociously taught or studied. This has been because teachers have not forced themselves and their students to square their methods critically with a clear-cut purpose. Language teaching with primary emphasis upon grammar can result only in mastery of the niceties of grammatical forms. Ease in reading and speaking are psychologically inhibited by the method. Not inapplicable is the homely story of the centipede who managed his many legs very efficiently until asked how he performed such a feat; whereupon he landed paralyzed in a ditch beside the road, unable, consciously, to get his legs to act in easy coordination. There is only one royal road to a speaking use of a language and that is to speak it, just as the only sure route to an easy reading knowledge of a language is to read it. Attention to grammar should be incidental, if not omitted entirely, until facility in speaking or reading the language has been acquired.” Bossing, Nelson, Teaching in Secondary Schools (3rd ed. Boston: 1952) pp. 201-202.

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