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.

3 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!

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