The Power of Beginning Latin
When I first opened a Latin textbook, as senior high school student in Greece, this is what I saw: Ovidius poeta in terra aliena exulat. I was immediately captivated by these words, by my intuitive understanding of their meaning, and by the poet’s nostalgia, understated in the terse Latin. I immediately wanted to learn this magic language and tell others about the power of Beginning Latin.
Sixteen years later, now in a terra aliena myself, I teach Latin at a large state university. Many of my students hold full-time jobs, support families, pay mortgages, and some are older than me. They all begin Latin with curiosity. Some hope that it will be an easy ‘foreign’ language since they will not have to converse in class; others take it for word-building; only a few have studied Latin in high school. Despite their different backgrounds, my students face common challenges as they brave the two semesters. Their mental itinerary is that of the English speaker flexing her mind to an inflective language, and years of teaching have made this landscape familiar and welcoming to me. Every year, faces register the same confusion at the idea that verbs contain their subjects; that nouns and adjectives have genders; that word order in a sentence is practically free. Every year I see their initial confusion give way to comfort and even pleasure, as they realize that these abstractions are reducible to a few word-endings, soothing and reassuring in their repetitive regularity.
The day of the final exam for the second semester is always hard. As they leave their paper and we say our goodbyes, I know I will probably never see most of them again. I am always torn between idealism and a sense of futility. I know better than fantasizing that I will see them all in third semester Latin, and yet I do. By the time the last of them is gone and I am alone in the empty classroom, reality has sunk in. I realize that everyone’s Latin experience cannot and should be what I experienced all those years ago. My students have other courses, other epiphanies waiting for them. Yet I believe that they have been touched, if for a moment, by the discipline and creativity of Latin and by its deep connection to their own language. Latin will be returning to them unexpectedly, long after they have forgotten their nouns, their word-endings, and their teacher. In the end a tempered idealism prevails, and I return to the fall semester ready to take on my new crop. I enter the classroom with a secret they do not yet know, confident in the power of Beginning Latin. This I believe.
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