Speak Latin and Connect

SPEAKING Latin? What an obnoxious party trick. Or are you a priest? Sounds fake.

No and no. I learned to speak Latin so I could read it more fluently. I teach Latin through spoken immersion when I can for that reason: it’s effective.

Linguistics research is clear that while ancient and modern languages are often taught differently, our brains don’t observe the distinction. When we learn through spoken immersion, our brains tend to grok more and rebel less than when presented with sentences to translate out of context–whatever the language. If all we want to do is read well, listening and speaking still matter.

And 6 years into speaking Latin, I can pick up a Latin passage of any era or author and get the gist at sight. I couldn’t work on the prolific post-classical authors I do, whose work often fills hundreds of Google Books pages with no modern critical edition, without the fluency I gained by speaking.

All that is part of my academic argument for using spoken Latin in the college classroom. And it’s true–but it’s no longer the point for me.

The point is connection, connection, connection.

Latin writers speaking to me from former times and distant worlds connect atheist me to something human but much bigger than one human life. Early on in COVID lockdown I read one of Petrarch’s letters in which he laments the loss of most of his friends when the plague hit Parma in 1348. 1348! I felt with Petrarch and compared his emptied city to the ghostly streets of the Financial District. His losses so long ago dignified mine by threading them into a history.

I might still get to that sympathy if I didn’t read fluently, but I think it’d be limited. When I don’t have to translate or pick apart sentences to understand the Latin, the language can instead impact me directly, putting images in my mind’s eye and stirring strong emotions just as reading in my first language does. Fluency removes the artificial barriers that make two human hearts foreign to one another.

It connects me more immediately to the text itself, too. I can laugh at wordplay, not just formally identify instances of it. I feel Daphne’s trembling as she flees Apollo, as Ovid meant his readers to do. Sometimes the movie playing in my mind when I understand Latin at speed convinces me I’m experiencing the story directly. Other times, the strong emotional connection sends me on a determined quest to understand what magic Ovid has used on me and I come away appreciating his crafty artistry better–that is, just how expertly Ovid is playing me and my heartstrings.

(Incidentally, it’s an incredible teacher moment to watch students react emotionally to a passage they just read at speed in the original Latin. It’s also a solid indicator of reading comprehension.)

Not least importantly, speaking fluency lets me make real live human connections that would otherwise be impossible. It’s great fun to solemnly swear to speak only Latin for a week when you all share a native tongue too. But the power of language to bring people together is clearest to me in friendships where the only language we have in common is Latin. The oath is no longer an artificial constraint, easily broken in case of emergency, difficulty, or just feeling like it. It becomes a pledge to one another: we’ll connect, against the odds. And a lovely commitment: We’re here for the work.