The Cambridge Latin Course: Failure and Survival

My first Latin lesson was in a classroom constructed almost entirely of asbestos. The boys (it was a boys’ school) called the block ‘The Cowsheds.’ I was 12. That year, my school became an early adopter of the Cambridge Latin Course. Like asbestos as a building material for schools, The Cambridge Latin Course was as misconceived as it was innovative. In order to survive, the course, and its early students, had to jettison (you could say, ‘betray’) its founding philosophy.

The first lesson was supposed to start with the teacher playing a tape. Our teacher had had difficulty furnishing himself with a cassette player, so he read the opening pages of the course himself. The school’s three full-time Classics teachers had all retrained to use the ‘authentic’ pronunciation propounded by Sydney Allen in Vox Latina (there is a copy of Vox Latina on Google Books). Nevertheless, their vowels were reassuringly English. That struck me as one of the good things about Latin. The tapes, when we heard them, were read in a (to us) grotesque and almost impenetrable Italianate accent.

Then one turned to the book. Or pamphlet, rather. Each unit was divided into something like ten modules, and there was a stapled pamphlet for each. The first ones had orange covers. Little pictures like a comic, with legends along the lines of ‘Caecilius est pater’ and ‘Metella est mater,’ mimicked the ‘do and say’ method used by some modern language teachers. It described a household in Pompeii. Conveniently, there was a slave, whose name slips my mind, and a fetching ancilla, who presumably performed the same kinds of service for the head of the household as a Swedish au pair.

a fecthing ancilla

A fetching ancilla: but what is the mistress saying to her? The Cambridge Latin Course made slavery seem cuddly.

This approach got you interested in Latin. When an enemy of Latin told me,

Latin is a dead language,

As dead as dead can be,

It killed the ancient Romans,

And now it’s killing me,

I was surprised. Latin was fun. I looked forward to the next unit, with differently-coloured pamphlets.

The pamphlets contained fairly huge vocabulary lists, with ostensibly lexical items like ‘ego sum=I am,’ ‘id est=it is,’ and ‘ita vero=yes.’ (Did first century Romans really not have a word for ‘yes’?) At the end they would slip in a little grammar. For example the singular of a second declension noun. Terms like declension were eschewed though. Vocative was ignored. Nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and ablative were forms A, B, C, D and E. The unconventional order together with unconventional names made these snippets of grammar impossibly confusing for a student to use in conjunction with any ordinary grammar book. But who cared? We were learning grammar by osmosis.

Eventually were given a reference grammar. Very patchy in coverage, the term ‘reference grammar’ indicated that the manner it which was supposed to be used was quite different than the use of Kennedy’s ‘primer.’ It was to refresh the memory. No one thought of learning paradigms, because they had been picked up by hearing, reading, and a quick scan of each pamphlet’s grammar section for the week or so during which it was on one’s hands.

This, of course, failed. In our fourth year of Latin it was time for the exams which one takes at 16 (at that time in England and Wales called O-levels, where O was for ‘ordinary’). In keeping with the presentation of Latin as familiar and personal, the set texts were selections from Catullus, and from Pliny’s letters. We were of course wholly unable to translate these with that grammar we had absorbed by osmosis from the entertaining pamphlets, and vaguely Mediterranean-sounding tapes. The teacher provided a translation, and any boy of reasonable diligence could get it by heart well enough to pass his Latin O-level.

The following year I started my A-level. It immediately became apparent that whereas a boy who had studied under the old system (which the school had abandoned the previous year) could construe and translate easier passages of Sallust, Caesar, Tacitus, Vergil and Ovid, we could not. The Cambridge Latin Course had spent four years convincing us that Latin was a great subject. Now we had to start learning it, hindered by our vague knowledge of bits of mis-ordered and mis-named paradigms. The idea that the tenses and moods of the Latin verb could be set out in tabular form, or that there can be said to be five declensions, was a revelation, and very helpful. I assumed the Cambridge Latin Course would die. It flourished by keeping its engaging materials, while gradually abandoning its core ideals.

Where did it go wrong? The spoken element was admirable, and there should have been far more of it, not less. A few minutes of a tape cannot compare with imbibing a language by hearing daily. But a catastrophic mistake was to remove the attempt to teach us to write Latin. What is the logic of teaching Latin like a living language, if you remove all writing skills, presumably on the basis that they involve learning a little syntax? Finally, for adults (even for 12 year olds), learning an inflected language without a little rote learning of accidence does not work. I picked up German from the TV, but I have read a few tables of articles, adjective inflections, and verbs and memorised them.

You could say the Cambridge Latin Course changed my life. It ensured I was not put off Latin, but it left me with lot a remedial work to do which probably changed the course of my school and university career, and which for a while caused me to go to the opposite extreme and adopt vigorously traditionalist attitudes towards philology and the learning of ancient languages. I did, and to some extent still do, resent the wasted years. But school was like that generally. If the Cambridge Latin Course is now helping students learn Latin well, it must be valued and praised.

Note on the Cambridge Latin Course today

This has  been a review of the Cambridge Latin Course as it was in its early days. Here is the homepage of the Cambridge Schools Classics Project, including the now-mature Cambridge Latin Course, which has to a great extent learnt from its youthful mistakes.

5 thoughts on “The Cambridge Latin Course: Failure and Survival

  1. I would be interested to know what you would recommend for students to begin learning Latin that are in the second and third grade. Would you recommend the Cambridge system today?

    Mike Porter

  2. hello, wonderful info!

    I attended a Northern Grammar in the 1970’s and remember ‘Caecilius est pater’like it was tattooed upon my derrière. I also remember he was ‘en culinar’ and there were twins, Loqax and anti Loqax. that is the extent of my learning s from 2 years of Latin study. I would love to see the oranges palest again. I am SHOCKED, SHOCKED I tell you to learn there was a tape!!! how different life might had been!, Dena

  3. I I have started studying the Cambridge course for fun as an adult and I find it very disappointing I’m afraid they in my opinion they have it completely wrong this is not Latin that they’re teaching but English using Latin vocabulary. I don’t believe there is any point in recreating a Latin history loaded with English 21st century PC mores. It’s almost like horrible histories in Latin very disappointing.
    when I studied Latin many many years ago I really felt I was absorbing the atmosphere of ancient Rome and what a thrill it was! The magic is lost!

  4. Having been hopeless at French at school, I am finally, as an older adult getting on like a house on fire, learning Latin as an adult. Using, guess what ? Gwynne’s Latin. Seeing all the tables of declensions, verbs, etc laid out in the reference section was scary at first, but he walks you through every step of the way in the early chapters and the charts mean you can see the word endings patterns, which makes learning easier, so progress is fast and accurate.. It also lets you remind yourself of the stuff you thought you knew but didn’t ! As soon as you have a few basics under your belt, he carefully explains, step by step how to tackle translating in both directions. Look for the verb first, for example. There are good reasons for that, which he explaind, and the first question that I got wrong was because I didn’t do that !!! Another positive about his book is that, unlike some, he gives the answers so you don’t have to buy a seperate answer book.
    Another good Latin course is “So you really want to learn Latin” by Nicholas Oulton, which also has you learning what you need, and is perhaps better laid out ( Gwynne really could have done with a layout editor ) Oulton’s books are probably the better choice for school pupils ( he taught Latin at a private school I think) and he has videos on youtube that are worth listening to whichever course you do. I thought of buying his books instead but there are three books in the course and you need the seperate answer books as well, so. It’s all more expensive than I can afford. I will just have to do it the hard way !
    Once I get enough of the basic verbs and nouns in my head I am thinking of trying to track down a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer. I remember it from my younger sister doing Latin at school in 1971. It has much more in it than any of the modern books ( and Mary Beard says her school teacher told them that once you knew everything in it, you knew Latin !!) but I wouldn’t start with it, without a teacher as it needs someone to guide you around a bit. It was designed for class teaching. It has the advantage that it follows the traditional learning order for verbs, and the spelling that I am used to. A lot of the other Latin books are from the US and use a different order for presenting verb endings which I find confusing if also using uk books. ( If you are in the US and want that approach , then you might want to have a look at Wheelock’s Latin, homeschoolers seem to like it )
    Hilliard’s exercises books sound useful for me too, for more translation practise, if I can track them down. At a pinch, maybe there are pdf’s available online, as there are for Kennedy’s older versions of the primer.

    • I was surprsed to receive a commnet because this blog is long neglected.
      Old copies of Kennedy or Hilliard are no doubt freely available from some of the vendors active on, and amazon.

      It is possible that what some are calling the “active” method for learning Latin can work these days because there are so many resources available. Not only residential courses, but also a lot of spoken Latin online. Evan der Milner has done a lot but is by no means the only one. There is at least one online course It is also being used in Oxford University. What the active method requires, according to some of its proponents, is a large amount of “compreshensible input”. This is the method evolved for modern languages by Steve Krashen, and promoted by Steve Kaufmann and others. I’d highly recommend listening to any of Steve Krashen’s presentations on Youtube.

      Dr Krashen makes the distinction between language learning and language acquisition. Learning the “old-fashioned” way certainly works. It is difficult to say whether it works because of what one learns, or because of the passive aqcuiisition which takes places while one is learning. Probably a mixture of the two. Reading a page of Latin and not understanding it is not really helpful and probably counter-productive. Reading and thinking you have understood it because you have read a parallel translation is no help at all. But reading and partially understanding perhaps could work.

      However one is learning–and Dr. Krashen’s ideas have not been universally adopted by modern language teachers, all methods require a regular investment of time, aiming for not less than an hour a day spent with the language in some sense, and this needs to be kept up for many months at least. If one does that, one makes progress. There are short-cuts only in one sense: those who make huge progress in a language do so through immersive experiences. Immersion largely means spending many hours every day with the target language. Measured in weeks, their progress may be astonishing, but measured in hours, they are just like everyone else! Some people are a bit quicker than others. As far as I can see, those who appear to pick up languages effortlessly are putting in the time and effort. They seem to be those who can drop fear and embarassment, and pay attention to what people are saying.

      A good tutor can help. There are several out there but you rarely find them in Google results until you get past the first couple of pages of large commercial outfits. Also in UK look at

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