Welcome to the FAQ page for
LIMEN, a Latin teaching portal
If you have a question whose answer you cannot find here or on the LIMEN page itself, or if one of the answers here raises a follow-up question, please ask it using the Contact Form!
Q1: What's with the name? Answer
Q2: Where are all the grammar lessons and activities? Answer
Q3: Many of the practices and materials at LIMEN emphasize comprehensible input (CI). If learners only encounter language they already know, how will they learn more? Answer
Q4: Some of the practices and materials suggested here seem frivolous. What’s the deal? Answer
Q5: Some of the compelling Latin materials I’ve found exhibit non-standard usage. Why would I use them? Answer
Q6: My own Latin isn’t very good. If I speak to my students or write sentences or stories for them in subpar Latin, won’t that end up hurting more than it helps? Answer
Q7: Many of the practices mentioned here involve speaking Latin. How do you respond to the following objections to speaking Latin? (Note: All 12 are objections JSB has heard.) Answer
Q8: What about aspects of Latin programs other than the language itself: grammatical and literary terms, derivatives of Latin words in modern languages, history, culture, …? Answer
Q1: What's with the name?
The Latin word limen (LEE-men) means threshold, the place from which one embarks on a journey or at which one enters a home. By extension, it can refer to the entire dwelling to which it leads. Limen can also be used poetically for the starting line of a race. I hope that LIMEN will serve both as a starting place for your journey of teaching Latin rapturously and as a familiar place where you can come to dwell among supportive materials, resources, and ideas.
Q2: Where are all the grammar lessons and activities?
All the practices suggested at LIMEN support learners’ acquisition of Latin grammar. It’s important not to confuse grammar with grammatical terminology. Anyone who can understand a language implicitly knows the grammar of that language. He or she may not be able to talk about the grammar explicitly, but this doesn’t mean he or she can’t understand the language. The fact that hardly any English speakers can identify a reduced relative clause in English doesn’t mean that practically all English speakers don’t actually know English.
If a Latin program’s goals include being able to talk about Latin using the terminology of descriptive grammar or of literary studies, this can be taught in addition to the language itself—ideally, after students can understand the Latin itself. LIMEN focuses on the teaching and learning of the language itself, because this is an area in which many Latin teachers have received little training.
For more, see “Teaching Latin to Humans: How to Honor both the Language and the Learner,” the other sources in the Theory section, "What Everyone Should Know about Second Language Acquisition," and "Grammar Is Not a Skill, or, What Does It Really Mean to Know a Language?"
Q3: Many of the practices and materials at LIMEN emphasize comprehensible input (CI). If learners only encounter language they already know, how will they learn more?
Great question! Learners can understand lots of things that they haven’t already learned or acquired. The idea is for input to contain some language that learners have not yet acquired, but can understand in that instance because of context or because they have quite recently been told what it means. What’s important is that being told what it means is not what brings about acquisition of the language; rather, repeatedly understanding the feature of the language in a target-language context is what accomplishes acquisition.
There's more to CI--see the recommended sources in the Theory section--but that's the basic idea.
Q4: Some of the practices and materials suggested here seem frivolous. What’s the deal?
Which ones? Do they involve students’ hearing or reading Latin that they can understand? If so, they’re helping students acquire Latin. Do they make students want to keep hearing and reading Latin? If so, they’re helping students acquire lots of Latin.
Q5: Some of the compelling Latin materials I’ve found exhibit non-standard usage. Why would I use them?
Although the ideal is to read content that is comprehensible and compelling and displays classical usage throughout, the reality is that very few such texts exist. This means that a learner who has already read these few texts, or who does not have access to them, must choose between (a) texts written by expert Latinists (whether native speakers or not) that he or she cannot understand, and (b) compelling, comprehensible texts whose Latin sometimes departs from classical usage.
Because acquisition of a language cannot happen without comprehension, texts in category (a) are of minimal use for the purpose of acquiring Latin. (Yes, a teacher or other aids can slowly help someone understand, for the moment, what is being said in a text, but this does not result in increased ability to comprehend Latin in general.)
This leaves the texts in category (b), whose comprehensibility means they at least have the potential for supporting Latin acquisition. The occasional departures from classical usage, while unfortunate, are not likely to lead to irreversible acquisition of “bad Latin,” assuming that learners encounter plenty of instances of idiomatic usage over the course of their Latin-learning journey. (The Humanists of the 15th-17th centuries were deathly afraid that the modeling of non-classical Latin by teachers or the production of non-classical Latin by students would lead to permanent deficiencies in students’ Latin. Modern research in second language acquisition shows that fossilization of non-native language patterns is much less likely than the Humanists thought, and that non-native-like language patterns can be "crowded out” of a learner’s brain by sufficient encounters with native-like patterns.)
Q6: My own Latin isn’t very good. If I speak to my students or write sentences or stories for them in subpar Latin, won’t that end up hurting more than it helps?
- For every mistake you make, students will have encountered many instances of Latin words, phrases, and sentence structures that support their development of a strong Mental Representation of Latin.
- Fossilization of “wrong” language is much less likely than many people fear. Even if students internalize something from you that conflicts with what they end up hearing from others or seeing in texts, their Mental Representation of Latin will become more and more native-like when they encounter more and more native or native-like Latin.
- Every little bit helps. If you say Salvete! and your students understand, you’ve done more for their eventual acquisition of Latin than if you hadn’t said it.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't do things that will improve your Latin!
Q7: Many of the practices mentioned here involve speaking Latin. How do you respond to the following objections to speaking Latin? (All of these are objections JSB has heard. For a positive take on speaking Latin, see "The Persistent Perks of Speaking Latin" and the links from that article.)
Objection 1: “We can’t speak Latin because we don’t know how the Romans talked."
- We’re not trying to speak how the Romans did. We’re trying to let students hear Latin whose effect on their brains will help them read Latin texts and, if students choose, will help them communicate with others who know Latin. In other words, our speech (and writing) attempts to reflect the salient norms of extant classical prose, informed by both of our wide reading of texts and our participation in a long, continuous tradition of Latin writers and speakers whose writing and speech are based on those norms.
Objection 2: “Teachers who speak Latin will model mistakes for their students."
- Please see the answer to Question 6 above. Also note that the concern that students will internalize mistakes they hear rests on the premise that spoken input really is efficacious for building learners' mental representation of a language. In other words, if the internalization of heard errors is truly a problem, then it is evidence that spoken input "works." In any case, the modeling of non-standard Latin is a practical concern that can be mitigated by teachers' improving their Latin.
Objection 3: “Speaking Latin isn’t a goal of my course."
- If you only do things that are themselves the ultimate goal of the course, your course isn’t actually necessary; people can just do whatever the ultimate goal is. But most teachers have their students do lots of things that aren’t themselves the ultimate goal of the course—verb synopses, memorizing paradigms, diagramming sentences, . . . . If, like most teachers, you do things that are intended to lead efficiently to the ultimate goal of the course, I recommend speaking Latin as an efficient way to help students develop the Mental Representation of Latin without which they cannot read Latin.
- See also Nancy Llewellyn's thoughtful treatment of this issue on behalf of SALVI, as well as Susan Thornton Rasmussen's "Why Oral Latin" and Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg's "Oral Latin: 'Loquimur Quo Melius Legamus' - We Speak to Read Better" on pp. 8ff of this issue of Amphora.
Objection 4: “Speaking Latin takes time away from reading Latin."
- So does conjugating verbs, taking vocabulary quizzes, translating from Latin into another language, and listing uses of the subjunctive. Unlike these things, however, interacting in Latin is a high-efficiency way of supporting a person’s ability to read Latin as Latin. Here are several ways in which this is the case.
- Speaking Latin can actually lead to reading more Latin than one could otherwise, because of the role Latin interaction can play in improving reading fluency. I visit many Latin classrooms in my job as a teacher trainer and coach. In general, the classes in which Latin is spoken (a) spend more class time reading Latin and (b) read more total Latin than classes in which Latin is not spoken.
- It is possible that speaking Latin would unnecessarily take time away from reading Latin if what is meant by "speaking Latin" is oral drills whose purpose is that students quickly exhibit a high degree of productive accuracy. This is not what LIMEN advocates.
- Many of the things that happen in a Latin class other than reading Latin--e.g., classroom routines, basic instructions, and comprehension questions--can be done in Latin. This allows students to hear and internalize Latin without cutting into time devoted to reading.
Objection 5: “Speaking Latin might help auditory learners, but what about visual learners?"
Although differentiation in instruction is important, the stark distinction of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic "learning styles” is illusory. Moreover, research such as that cited in the articles linked below indicates that, while learners may have varying strengths or preferences in different modalities, attempting to target these in instruction makes no difference in eventual outcome. What may make a difference is what modality is most suitable for the particular subject area. For instance, dance is most likely to be learned kinesthetically, regardless of learners’ generally preferred modalities. Languages other than sign language are fundamentally oral-aural, the written word being basically a representation of sounds. Allowing learners to hear Latin, besides leading to a much higher volume of input, takes seriously that the oral-aural modality is primary in language. In any case, students in classes where Latin is spoken also get plenty of visual input in the form of reading, projected text and images, and realia.
If you are still troubled by the concern about visual learners, make sure that you ask just as earnestly, "Written translation may be useful for some students, but what about kinesthetic learners?" and "Dictionary work may be useful for some students, but what about auditory learners?"
Objection 6: “What do you say to those students who take Latin because they 'don't want to have to speak another language'?"
- "No problem! No one is going to force you to speak a language you don't want to speak. You will hear me and others speak Latin in ways that you can understand and that relate to your interests, because this is a well-researched, efficient, and enjoyable way to internalize a language. You may even find yourself wanting to join the conversation! Either way, you'll be happy to know that this course isn't really focused on your ability to say or write things in Latin, but on your ability to understand Latin texts, to interact with the products, practices and perspectives of Latin users by reading the Latin they have written, and to experience some of the brain benefits of knowing multiple languages."
Note: There are several considerations here, related both to the specific reasons for which a learner does not want to interact in another language and to how “speaking Latin” manifests itself in our classes:
- This sentiment often comes from having had bad experiences in language classes. We should acknowledge the harm that such experiences have done and create better experiences.
- LIMEN does not promote forcing learners to speak Latin. LIMEN promotes teachers’ giving students opportunities to hear Latin in meaningful ways, for the sake of helping students internalize the language more deeply and more quickly than they could otherwise. In an environment of trust, these opportunities often result in students' producing and interacting in Latin, too.
- The brains of people who are reluctant to speak another language still process language in basically the same ways as the brains of people who are eager to speak another language. Even if learners don’t have an initial desire to interact in Latin, we owe it to them to (a) educate them about how the brain works and how language works and (b) create an educational setting that honors their brains and the nature of language.
- Students who enter a course with no desire to interact in Latin may be pleasantly surprised by how much hearing Latin helps them read Latin.
- The reasons a student takes a course are important. Nevertheless, if we as teachers have good reasons, rooted in research and experience, for using certain teaching tools, we should do so, making clear to students why we are doing what we are doing, soliciting feedback from students, and taking that feedback seriously.
Objection 7: “Speaking Latin requires inventing words for modern items."
- Actually, one can talk about most of a person’s interests, feelings, hopes, fears, activities, observations, and relationships, as well as literature, history, science, and most other topics, without ever making up a word. If one does wish to mention something of recent invention, one can consult a dictionary (e.g., this one) of Latin terms for modern items—terms which are carefully constructed to follow classical conventions of word formation, or, often, taken directly from the classical corpus and repurposed—or one can refer to the item in the vernacular. Either way, these words will make up a minuscule percentage of the words used in Latin communication. Along the way, listeners will have heard heaps of classical Latin words, phrases, and sentence structures whose internalization will serve them in their future reading and other communication.
- For helpful background, commentary, and counsel, see Patrick Owens's lectures "De verborum delectu" and "The Lexicon Morganianum," as well as the second half of Terence Tunberg's essay "De Latine dicendi normis quas scriptores recentiores (vel neoterici) servasse videntur."
Objection 8: “Teachers who speak Latin in class are anti-English or fail to take advantage of students' known language(s)."
- Many teachers who speak Latin in class use the students' first language (L1) or another language students have in common to establish the basic meaning of a Latin word or phrase. This allows students to understand well enough to then develop a more thorough understanding of the word or phrase as they encounter it in further speech or reading. Many Latin-speaking teachers also use L1 to check for comprehension, to provide brief grammar explanations, to discuss the language-learning process, and to do other things that have a place in language and literature courses.
- See also: Justin's position statements on the Why & How of 1st Language Use and the Why & How of Target Language use in class.
Objection 9: “People who speak Latin look down on people who don’t."
- I haven’t seen this myself, but I’m sad to hear that it happens. It has nothing to do with whether or not speaking Latin to students is an efficient way to help students develop a Mental Representation of Latin, though. And it wouldn't make speaking Latin a bad thing any more than some baseball fans' derision of soccer makes baseball a bad thing.
Objection 10: “People who don’t speak Latin look down on people who do."
- I have seen this. It can be a hassle to deal with outside the classroom. But whatever pain or annoyance might come from it dissolves promptly in the classroom, where my students' success assures me that I’m on the right track. And the mere existence of naysayers can hardly be a reason not to do a thing.
Objection 11: “Speaking Latin will cause it to morph into a new Romance language and the classical language will be lost."
- People have been speaking Latin every day since whenever the last native speaker died and this hasn’t happened. I’m not worried that it will happen anytime soon. It could hypothetically happen if a huge community with no interest in anything that has been written in Latin started using Latin as its main means of communication AND all the people who are interested in what has been written in Latin abandoned that interest AND all manuscripts and printed editions of Latin texts were destroyed. (Without this destruction of texts, the rise of a new Romance language would not cause Latin to cease to exist any more than the evolution of French, Portuguese, Italian, or the other Romance languages caused Latin to cease to exist.)
Objection 12: “If students start hearing and speaking Latin, they might have so much fun with it that they won’t want to read Latin."
Yes, I have actually heard this one. Some thoughts:
- If students don’t want to read Latin, the real reason won’t be that something else is so fun, but that either (a) the Latin they do read doesn’t interest them or (b) the Latin they try to read is so hard for them as to make the attempt feel useless. The solution is to provide students with texts that interest them and to do what it takes for students to be able to understand and enjoy these texts, which includes giving students a volume of customized input that is hard to create without speaking.
- In courses for which students are receiving foreign language credit, teachers have an ethical obligation to do what it takes for students to develop a Mental Representation of the language. In courses whose goals include that students can read a language, teachers have a practical obligation to do what it takes for students to develop a Mental Representation of the language. Hearing Latin is a high-efficiency way for this to happen.
Q8: What about aspects of Latin programs other than the language itself: grammatical and literary terms, derivatives of Latin words in modern languages, history, culture, …?
All these are worthy of study. Some of these, such as historical and cultural information, can even play a big role in understanding Latin texts. But because these things are learned by different mechanisms than languages, they are not currently addressed at LIMEN. If a program’s goals include learning these things, they will need to be addressed explicitly. Ideally, though, class time in a language course will still be used for things that require a proficient speaker’s presence, with extra-linguistic topics either addressed in at-home assignments or treated in the target language once students can handle it.
I do hope LIMEN will soon be able to offer lesson plans that embed the learning of cultural elements in the learning of Latin and vice versa. In the meantime, check out Jessie Craft's impressive Roman Minecraft videos and this new hub of ideas and resources for teaching Latin language and cultural elements in combination.