Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities

I’ve long been a student of the humanities (and particularly the classics) and have recently begun reviewing over my very old and decrepit knowledge of Latin.  It’s been two decades since I made a significant study of classical languages, and lately (as the result of conversations with friends like Dave Harris, Jim Houser, Larry Richardson, and John Kountouris) I’ve been drawn to reviewing them for reading a variety of classical texts in their original languages. Fortunately, in the intervening years, quite a lot has changed in the tools relating to pedagogy for language acquisition.

Jenny's Second Year Latin
A copy of Jenny’s Latin text which I had used 20 years ago and recently acquired a new copy for the pittance of $3.25.

Internet

The biggest change in the intervening time is the spread of the  internet which supplies a broad variety of related websites with not only interesting resources for things like basic reading and writing, but even audio sources apparently including listening to the nightly news in Latin. There are a variety of blogs on Latin as well as even online courseware, podcasts, pronunciation recordings, and even free textbooks. I’ve written briefly about the RapGenius platform before, but I feel compelled to mention it as a potentially powerful resource as well. (Julius Caesar, Seneca, Ovid, Cicero, et al.) There is a paucity of these sources in a general sense in comparison with other modern languages, but given the size of the niche, there is quite a lot out there, and certainly a mountain in comparison to what existed only twenty years ago.

Software

There has also been a spread of pedagogic aids like flashcard software including Anki and Mnemosyne with desktop, web-based, and even mobile-based versions making  learning available in almost any situation. The psychology and learning research behind these types of technologies has really come a long way toward assisting students to best make use of their time in learning and retaining what they’ve learned in long term memory.  Simple mobile applications like Duolingo exist for a variety of languages – though one doesn’t currently exist for classical Latin (yet).

Digital Humanities

The other great change is the advancement of the digital humanities which allows for a lot of interesting applications of knowledge acquisition. One particular one that I ran across this week was the Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC). Specifically a handful of scholars have compiled and documented a list of the most common core vocabulary words in Latin (and in Greek) based on their frequency of appearance in extant works.  This very specific data is of interest to me in relation to my work in information theory, but it also becomes a tremendously handy tool when attempting to learn and master a language.  It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin.  Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts.  Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.  I can only think about the old concept of a concordance (which was generally limited to heavily studied texts like the Bible or possibly Shakespeare) which has now been put on some serious steroids for entire cultures. Another half step and one arrives at the Google Ngram Viewer.

The best part is that one can, with very little technical knowledge, easily download the DCC Core Latin Vocabulary (itself a huge research undertaking) and upload and share it through the Anki platform, for example, to benefit a fairly large community of other scholars, learners, and teachers. With a variety of easy-to-use tools, shortly it may be even that much easier to learn a language like Latin – potentially to the point that it is no longer a dead language. For those interested, you can find my version of the shared DCC Core Latin Vocabulary for Anki online; the DCC’s Chris Francese has posted details and a version for Mnemosyne already.

[Editor’s note: Anki’s web service occasionally clears decks of cards from their servers, so if you find that the Anki link to the DCC Core Latin is not working, please leave a comment below, and we’ll re-upload the deck for shared use.]

What tools and tricks do you use for language study and pedagogy?

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Author: Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

49 thoughts on “Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities”

  1. The vocab is substantially different but the basic grammar is the same for all of them. The later you are the more prepositions you get, but amo amas amat doesn’t change 🙂 And CURSE bloody Petrarch for saying Cicero was the only REAL Latin. What rubbish. Reading Erasmus this summer. Real Latin and not a Ciceronian period in sight. 🙂
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  2. Interesting! I will compare the list of essential Latin vocabulary to the one I’ve used all these years. High school Latin has changed dramatically since you sat in my classes. Dr. Richard LaFleur revised the Wheelock book (still my favorite). The current pedagogy includes more short stories at the Latin 1 level, with far less emphasis on grammar and syntax. An attempt to make Latin more “fun” and relevant to this generation. Our students take it more for vocabulary acquisition. However, post Latin 2 readings in Caesar, it still looks much like it did before. I haven’t taught Latin for the last seven years, but observe in classes. I enjoyed incorporating internet resources towards the end of my teaching career, but I’m old and still enjoyed simply sharing the texts of great writers with the students. Loved sitting in a circle and reading together. These resources will be entertaining for me personally! Thanks for sharing this.
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  3. If I recall correctly, the classical reached it’s zenith (with Cicero) around the first century prior to the collapse of the Roman empire and it wasn’t until about the 4th century with the creation of the Vulgate bible that ecclesiastical Latin took over as the primary spoken form. Other than small portions of “new” vocabulary in the living Latin of the ecclesiastical branch, the primary difference between them now is in pronunciation. In most pedagogical settings, it’s the classical Latin which is taught as it’s commonly considered the most refined (since the Florentine Renaissance anyway) and typically it’s writers from that period which are focused on most rather than church fathers of the later years like Augustine, Tertullius, Ambrose, Jerome, or Ignatius. Naturally, this is a highly simplified viewpoint and there are philologists who would subdivide the language in much finer gradations (Golden age: Republican, Augustan; Silver Age; etc.)
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  4. The Vatican maintains an office of Latinists who translate the Pope’s encyclicals into Latin. They also create Latin words for modern times. I’ve translated documents (mostly church dedications and descriptions of contents of sacred vessels) for local churches. As a side note, if you visit the Vatican, arrange ahead to visit the Etruscan and Villanovan ruins unearthed under St. Peter’s. Your Roman history notes come to life!
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