Building a Virtual Latin Community Online
In early 2007, I started to investigate online Latin provision. It rapidly became apparent that the Classics community had been somewhat slow in taking full advantage of the newer aspects of the web. Some sites were excellent, such as the Cambridge Latin project, but this material could only be accessed by paying for it. There was a dearth of quality material available for free.
It was immediately evident that anyone interested in spoken Latin, would find little to assist them, either online, or offline. There were also few online audio resources offering comprehensive educational material for the autodidact. Only 12 months ago, looking for Latin audio online involved serious googling, with much of the material hidden away in obscure corners.
A few Latin speaking groups existed, scattered around the world – mostly in Europe and the USA, with the SALVI website promoting spoken Latin in the USA, and the Circuli Latini having their own site, mainly centred on Europe, but not exclusively. However, most of the Circuli appeared at this time to be non-functional, and their websites were antiquated. The courses taught by Father Foster, the efforts at the University of Kentucky under Dr Tunberg, the work done by Licoppe, Eichenseer, Stroh etc, have had a significant impact on an entire generation of Latinists, and without these efforts, we would not be where we are today. However, these pioneers, until recently, conducted their teaching work, for the most part, ‘offline’.
Laura Gibbs has been a beacon, and an exception to this, setting the trend with her pioneering work in promoting audio Latin online through her valuable series of blogs and associated websites.
Another pioneering site had been set up by SORGLL, to promote the oral reading of Latin in the restored Classical Pronunciation, but the sound files were not downloadable as mp3’s, limiting their usefulness to students.
Finally, on Textkit, an important discussion thread, called “Latin Audio” had developed in 2006.
http://www.textkit.com/greek-latin-forum/viewtopic.php?t=5880 A similar discussion had taken place on the Google Latin language list at around the same time, where it was proposed that a committee be set up, to make a Latin audio course. Nothing came of this. Another proposal had been put forward at Sourceforge, for a collaborative project. Once again, nothing emerged from these attempts at setting up collaborative projects.
It soon became apparent that the naysayers outweighed the small number of activists, and that, furthermore, there were very few Latinists with an interest in oral Latin per se. A collaborative project of this nature was bound to fail, as the pool of potential co-workers was miniscule.
The reason why this was the case soon became apparent – reading Latin correctly in the Restored Pronunciation, requires an innate knowledge of the vowel quantity of every word. Any attempt to produce materials in any other pronunciation, requires a rather thick skin, as Laura Gibbs can attest. This has put most people off from even putting a toe in the water, and probably accounts for the dearth of audio materials. The piranha critics have particularly sharp teeth.
Very few Latinists have heretofore made a point of acquiring this knowledge, as they had not learned their Latin auditorily. Most Latinists, confronting this hurdle, did not leap it, but, following a long tradition within the academic world, simply stepped around it. Those few who took the trouble to focus on spoken Latin still needed to mark up every text meticulously for vowel quantity before reciting, very few having developed an innate feel for quantity. Even those who have some facility, would rather not risk having their skin ripped to shreds, and have chosen not to publish audio materials online.
Despite the epidermal dangers inherent in embarking on such a project, it was resolved that new students would need to be exposed consistently to correct quantity from the very beginning of their learning, using an online audio course – and in this way, a new generation of Latin readers and speakers would be able to arise, who would be able to speak Latin with correct quantity, and read Latin aloud with correct quantity from an unmarked text, having learned the quantities intuitively from the very beginning of their Latin studies.
The general outline for the beginning student, given by Comenius in “Classis Vestibulari Informatio” (ODO pg 373) still holds true:
“ Meta primae Latinae Classis, est ut puer…Latinum sermonem
1. Pronuntiare legitime
2. Legere expidite
3. Scribere accurate….
…Primum ergo libellum percurrant solius lectionis et rectae pronuntiationis causa: hoc modo – Legat praeceptor unam et alteram pagellam, clare, distincte, lente…praeceptor diligenter attendet pronuntiationi, ut plane recta sit et accurate: ideoque non praefestinata, sed lenta.”
Gradually, a plan emerged: An online course would be necessary, modelled if possible after a modern immersive language course. The first step would be to republish the Sorgll material as mp3, and I secured permission to do this from Robert Sonkowsky. Without this initial support, this entire project that eventually turned into ‘Latinum’ would probably never have got off the ground, as it was the Sorgll material that initially gave ‘Latinum’ its value, and set the benchmark.
Fortunately, a textbook was discovered that enabled the aims of ‘Latinum’ to be furthered – George Adler’s “A Practical Grammar of the Latin language”, using Ollendorff’s well tested methodology. This technique is very intensive, auditory, and so well suited for conversion into recorded lessons. Only minor tweaking was needed to produce an effective audio course for spoken conversational Latin, and in May 2007, the first lessons from the course, went online. As of December 2008, the complete course is not yet available in audio, but already comprises some hundreds of hours of audio, and subsidiary materials.
The goal of Latinum is explicit – to build up and recreate a community of Latin learners who are actively able to communicate in Classical Latin. The methodology of Latinum is influenced to a high degree by Krashen’s language acquisition theory, in particular his notion of “comprehensible input”.
The next plank of the programme, was vocabulary learning. To this end, a website was set up called Imaginum Vocabularium, which contained photos of objects that are used in day to day life, with the Latin words for the objects superimposed. Also, specialised audio files were produced on ‘Latinum’ for accelerated vocabulary learning.
The final plank, was to create a place where Latinum’s budding Latinists could experiment with communicating and writing in Latin, in a stress free environment. It had been observed that people occasionally had made attempts to write in Latin in the various online for a that dealt with Latin, but a censorious attitude tended to prevail, and because the focus rapidly moved to grammar, and not to the content of what was being communicated, people did not generally persevere.
I realised that through Latinum, I had an effective feeder mechanism to help ‘grow’ a new Latin language site along radically new lines. Such a site, I decided, would need to be totally in Latin, even the site architecture. NING provided a framework I was familiar with, (through my membership of EClassics) and also provided a useful tool for translating the site into a new language. I opened a new site, called Schola, and made my first attempts to render the site into Latin. The site grew rapidly, and within weeks, had more members than the long established “Grex Latine Loquentium”. I set the site rules – no correcting anyone, unless asked, taking my cue from Krashen, and a firm rule of ‘Latin Only’. John Doublier eventually took over the delicate task of translating the website into Latin, until his stroke in November 2008, by which time over 50%of the language file had been translated. John surmounted such hurdles as how to render ‘widget’ in Latin (adminiculum, in case you wondered), and any number of tricky modern terms associated with web 2.0.
In December 2008, NING added the facility for a real time chatroom – into which anyone visiting the site is immediately thrown. A chatroom environment is very useful for developing language skills – one’s language productions are ephemeral, and in this environment, it is possible to correct, revise and re-state what one is trying to say. More experienced Latinists can help less experienced ones, and, most importantly, meaningful communication can be engaged in. Language serves a social purpose.
Moreover, only a few locations in the world have Latin speaking groups – the chatroom provides a realistic alternative for Latinists with a desire to communicate and actively use their latin, wherever they are. One is also able to, should one wish to, chat in Latin every day. Actively using the language in this way should lead to rapid progress.
The final goal, is that this online activity should spill out into the real world, encouraging the formation of new Circuli Latini, Latin lecture societies, etc. There is some evidence of this happening already, with users advertising on Schola to set up new Circuli in the San Diego and Philadelphia areas towards the end of 2008, and the London Circulus having being resurrected.
As the year ends, a wider array of free Latin resources are now available online than ever before. Of particular note, is the daily news service Scorpius Martianvs.
There are still not enough high quality resources – for Latin to have a chance, there needs to be enough content available in audio and video to compete to some degree with other entertainments that are available in other languages. The daily news service in Latin is a very important contribution towards this goal. The University of Kentucky has also begun to post videos of Latin conversation online, although this resource could easily be developed into something more useful – for example, a regular audio programme of lectures in Latin, would have a bigger impact than the current selection of videos. An annual or termly Latin Address on an academic subject, along the lines of the lectures at the Gresham College, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=86QEAAAAYAAJ would be a good start.
Ultimately, I would like to see an entire school curriculum available online, in Latin, and a University type programme, where Latin departments would publish lectures online, in Latin, either using Youtube, or their own websites. More news programmes are needed, to build on the excellent work of Nuntii Latini, and Scorpio Martianvs and the text based Latin news blog, “Ephemeris”. Before these things can happen, we need to build up the small group of people who are even capable of producing such resources – the numbers of whom are pitifully small at the time of writing. The Grex Latine Loquentium has I believe approximately 230 subscribers, Schola has 680 at the time of writing (and increases by around 10 a week). The Latinum Podcast has several thousand users, with over 2.7 million audio files having been downloaded since coming online. It is clear that there is a demand for audio and audiovisual materials in Latin, and a large and growing number of people across the globe with an interest in Latin as a language of communication and culture, in the widest sense of those terms.
We are, it appears, at a crossroads in the online provision of Latin. If teachers and lecturers rise to this challenge, to provide meaningful, relevant online audio and audiovisual content in Latin, then Latin will not wither and die, but will rise with renewed vigour, both within the halls of academia, and out in the world at large.