Satagere Tamquam Mūs In Matellā
Q & A with Nancy Llewellyn, host of our February 8 Latin Tweet Up
- What made you want to learn to speak Latin?
I started Latin when I was a senior in high school. Going into my first Latin class, I had already had three years of German and two years of French with a wonderful teacher who taught by immersion. The disjunct between the way we treated French in French class and the way we treated Latin in Latin class was really very noticeable. I couldn’t understand why it had to be that way, since Latin and French are both, in the end, simply languages. When I asked my Latin teacher about it, he smiled and told me “nobody speaks Latin.” I didn’t pursue the point at the time, but I couldn’t help thinking “well… the Romans spoke Latin! Why can’t we?” Gradually the idea grew in my mind that it just had to be possible to teach and learn in Latin class the way we did it in French class, and obtain similar results. I finished a third year of French before I went off to college, and at the end of that time I could speak and write the language decently (if not at a native-speaker level) and read an abridged version of Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet. By contrast, even after completing a traditional college major program in Latin I still didn’t have skills at anything like that level. Not even close! It was only when I started to speak Latin that the door to fluent reading really opened for me.
2. Who is/was your favorite magister?
Two Vatican Latinists, Fr. Reginald Foster and Fr. Cletus Pavanetto (Pontificia Università degli Studi Salesiana), have been really formative influences on me. I was in Rome the summer after I graduated from college when I first met Fr. Foster. I had just an hour to sit in on his summer school class and it changed my life completely. I had thought for years before I met him that it had, somehow, to be possible to speak Latin conversationally, but Fr. Foster was the first person I ever saw actually doing it. I was thunderstruck, and decided on the spot that I would move to Rome and not come back until I could speak Latin too. I ended up spending over three years in Rome studying with Fr. Foster at the Gregorian University and also with Fr. Pavanetto at the Salesianum, where I got a Master’s Degree (a Licenza, to be precise) under Fr. Pavanetto’s direction. That entailed writing a thesis in Latin and defending it in Latin too – an idea that, when I first enrolled, I found both incredibly scary and, also, exhilarating.
3. What is your favorite Latin expression?
I’ve always been fond of Petronius’ satagere tamquam mūs in matellā, literally “to be as busy as a mouse (running round and round) in a chamber-pot,” which would be more or less the equivalent of “to be in a pickle” or, even better, “to run around like a chicken with its head cut off” – something I find myself doing pretty frequently!
4. Why do you think a student of Latin should learn to speak it colloquially? In other words, what are the specific benefits of being able to speak Latin as opposed to just reading it?
Everybody who takes Latin wants to read it. But for the great majority of language learners (myself included) fluent reading skills only develop after acquisition, and acquisition has to happen through the ears and mouth, not just the eyes. That’s a matter of natural law: just consider the experience of every baby and small child! We encounter our first written words (not even sentences, but individual words) on the strength of a couple of years of total-immersion experience in our native tongue, and only after we have achieved a certain proficiency in speaking. Adult learners, of course, have the benefit of adult cognitive faculties absent in the child, but if adult cognitive faculties were really important for language learning, how could small children learn language at all? Among adults, there are of course a fortunate few for whom the experience of reading is so vivid that they can acquire in silence, off the page, but most of us still need aural input, and we need to go through the experience of making oral output. And all that is prerequisite to learning how to read. Let’s be frank here: when most people talk about Latin and say “just reading it,” they really mean just translating it, don’t they? And translation is an utterly different process from real reading. How many people take Spanish or French for the purpose of turning Cervantes or Molière into English? There are lots of wonderful benefits to learning to speak Latin, and it’s just plain fun, but the big reason in my view is to learn to foster true, fluent, joyful reading.
5. What do you think of the Vatican Latin Exam?
I haven’t actually seen the exam and have only the news reports’ description of it to go on, but I think it’s wonderful that the Vatican has taken this initiative and I very much hope it prospers. That said, it would be an excellent thing if it were in the future to be geared primarily to spoken Latin or, at the very least, to Latin-to-Latin reading comprehension exercises, without recourse to translation in German or English or any other language. Vatican support for Latin is absolutely essential if it’s going to regain the place it ought to have in mainstream education, both in Europe and in the USA.
6. What do you think about the current trend among schools at all levels of reducing Latin in the curriculum?
I think it’s the predictable result of decades and decades of nearly universal application of a false standard of language proficiency; a standard that does not require that Latin be taught as a real language, or help people taking Latin develop practical, demonstrable skills comparable to the skills others acquire in the modern languages.
7. If you can study colloquial Latin anywhere, why go to Rome?
There’s a lot of good science out there supporting the common-sense idea that people learn faster and retain what they learn much better if the learning takes place in the context of a vivid sensory experience. What could possibly be a more vivid background to learning Latin than the sights and sounds of Rome?
8. What do you see as the future of colloquial Latin outside the Vatican?
I hope the day will come when teachers of Latin everywhere use the same methodologies as their colleagues in other languages do, and as a matter of course. Since all of those methodologies require speaking ability, it follows that oral Latin will have a very bright future if the idea of treating Latin as the language it is truly takes hold.
9. You obviously started speaking Latin before the advent of the Internet in the 1990s. How (if at all) has the Internet changed the world of colloquial Latin? Do you notice any impact from social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)?
Internet media have had the same effect on Latin speakers as they have had on speakers of any other language. It doesn’t have the human value of live, face-to-face communication, but it does bring together people who would never otherwise interact with each other. Compared to the old days of snail mail and print advertising, the Internet moves information around faster (by several orders of magnitude) and makes worldwide audiences available to individuals at little or no cost! The Internet revolution is a real revolution, because it has brought historically unprecedented power to the individual. That’s great news for Latin because its future life is dependent right now on the actions of a relatively small number of people. Most of them are academics, and none of them, to my knowledge, is a media tycoon.
–Nancy Llewellyn is an Associate Professor of Latin at Wyoming Catholic College .. She holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, an M.A. from Università Pontificia Salesiana, and a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College. As a doctoral student, Dr. Llewellyn created SALVI, a non-profit educational corporation dedicated to promoting the speaking of Latin, and was honored by UCLA with a Luckman Fellowship for Distinguished Teaching. Dr. Llewellyn has taught Latin and Classics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and conducted research in digital library resources at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Under the aegis of SALVI, she conducts Rusticatio Virginiana, an annual spoken-Latin workshop in the greater Washington DC area which attracts teachers and students from around the country.