Sunday, November 20, 2011

When in Rome

I remember a TV comedy sketch from way back (can't remember what show) about people who go back to ancient Rome in a time machine. When confronted by Roman soldiers one guy says proudly that he got top grades in Latin at school and he would do the talking. So he said proudly "voco, vocas, vocat, vocamus, vocatis vocant" (present tense of the verb to call) to the puzzlement of the Romans. That summed up what Latin meant to many school pupils of the past; endless recitations of verb and noun declensions without any understanding of what it was for.

I belong to one of the last generations who learnt Latin at school as a matter of course. Latin was simply an integral part of your education though few of us ever realised why. I studied it for four years but learnt very little, though I must admit I'm tempted to try again some time since I now see the point and would be highly motivated.

That's why I was intrigued to read an article in Mind/Shift, Can an Online Game Crack the Code to Language Learning, about a Latin teacher in Connecticut, Kevin Ballestrini, who has created a language learning game for Latin that has really caught students' imaginations. In the game students are taken back to ancient Rome to solve a mystery and where their progress through the game is dependent on them mastering various features of the language. Another fine example of how education can learn from gaming to make learning more compelling. The virtual environment makes ancient Rome come alive and the language has at last a clear relevance that we never had access to.

Another student observes a huge difference in how the game format has helped her learn this obsolete language. “I took Spanish for four years and I don’t think I’ve learned as much as I have in that class as I have in just two months,” said Caroline Scheck. “I can write sentences because we’re using it like we’re writing a story. As a child, you’d learn Latin by people speaking to you in sentences. You know how sometimes in languages you just learn words and then later on you use sentences? This time, we’re just learning it as if someone was speaking to us.”

They may not be as good as we were at identifying the ablative absolute (Hic rebus dictis: these things having been said - I'll never forget that!) but they can actually use the language in a constructive way.


  1. Wow! Maybe I should brush up my Latin...


  2. I took two years of Latin by correspondence in high school and I have never regretted it. (By the way it's Vocatis not Vocatus)

  3. Thanks for the correction! Changed the post accordingly.