IT is the world’s most influential language.
Yet it is one we have all probably consigned to a dusty and possibly terrifying memory of struggling with its conjugations, declensions and gerunds.
Those of us who may have endured our years of GCSE or ‘O’ levels in Latin may well have amo, amas, amat imprinted on our minds, but little else.
After all, many would consider Latin a ‘dead language’, and if not, one perhaps confined to the more elitist academies and schools.
But not so says Robert Parker, a course tutor at Gladstone’s Library, whose crash courses in Latin have been proving very popular for the past six years.
“Latin is making a huge comeback,” declares the retired lawyer. “There was a low point when the requirement for GCSE was just a modern language and the teaching fell in state schools.
“The educationalists wanted to get rid of it. But it is terrific training for analytical thinking and synthetic thinking – you have to break things apart and create your own verse – there is a great deal of logic to Latin. And it forms the structure to so many other languages.”
While Latin is still a bedrock of classics teaching at Oxbridge, it is in the classrooms of state schools that there has been a remarkable rise in its teaching in recent years.
According to the University of Cambridge Schools Classics Project, the number of state maintained secondary schools offering the subject to pupils has shot up from around 100 in the mid -oughties to more than 600 today.
Interest in the two Latin courses hosted by Robert at Gladstone’s is also growing, with a diverse range of students flocking to pick up the basics of the language among the evocative setting of the Grade 1 listed building.
He has just finished teaching ‘Latin in a week’ which enables complete beginners to move quickly on to the point where they are able to read short extracts of poetry and prose.
A second course ‘Latin Second Steps’ then takes them on a journey through the classics, again all in a week, where they apply their language skills to studying the texts of the classics such as Livy and Ovid and the Aeneid, an epic poem of nearly 10,000 lines written by Virgil that tells the legend of the Trojan, Aeneas.
Such classical literature, Robert says, adds colour and excitement to Latin beyond those mundane grammar tables. “That was my reason to study it in the first place – so I could get at the classical literature,” he recalls. “Other people might get hooked on the language itself and they often become editors of Latin text, which is a highly skilled vocation as it is has been handwritten and copied by eye.
“You can’t do one without the other, but it is only once you get on top of the Latin grammar that you can read the literature.”
Roberts, himself, was a pupil at Gladstone’s and attending an introductory course to the Hebrew language sparked a love affair with the library.
“I kept on coming back and I got to know a lot of people. Then it was suggested to me that a Latin course would be a great idea. We launched it in 2011 and most years we’ve got a cap of 15 students.
“We don’t’ do the frills and fancy words – people need to look up those themselves. But they get the essential elements and the grammar and the clauses and the tenses.
“It is enough for them to recognise what they are looking for.
“The groups tend to have their own character and they are always good fun. We’ve had all types of people joining us – this time we had a minister and in the past we’ve had a 15-year-old from the village here in Hawarden, who asked his mum if he could come and learn some Latin.”
The OxLAT scheme, funded by Oxford University’s Classics Faculty is helping to maintain the revival by offering free tuition for pupils in state schools where there is no Latin provision.
But with only two PGCE courses in the country the supply of teachers is small and Roberts admits: “For teaching you need people who are graduates in Classics but you have to attract people to go into teaching – if there is a demand then the supply will return.
“But Classics are on the up again. For example, we had the “Friends of Classics” whose driving force was a guy called Peter jones who wrote for the Spectator and did a lot of promotional work.”
While outside the Catholic Church there is little spoken Latin to be heard, the language lives on in the many mottos that we come across from day to day as well as insignia and artefacts.
Not least those of ancient Rome, which Robert has had the privilege to work on in his role as a volunteer at Oxford where he translates papyrus. He has incorporated the work he has completed on three Roman manuscripts into his teaching at Gladstone’s.
“My belief is that you learn Latin by doing it – so we get around the table together and translate it into the English.”
And he adds: “Before we start, I ask all the students how much Latin they have done and what they want from the course. One lady who came last year was rather timid - unlike some of the people we get here she hadn’t studied at any higher level.
“But she sang in a choir and her rationale for coming was that she wanted to know what she was singing, which I thought was lovely.”
l Latin Second Steps’ is being hosted by Robert at Gladstone’s Library from Monday, September 4 to Friday, September 8. For booking details ring 01244 532350 or email email@example.com.
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