A week of spoken Latin at SALVI’s Rusticatio Californiana.
by John Piazza.
That’s right, Latin only, for an entire week. I honestly did not think it was possible for 19 people to speak only Latin for a single day, much less a week. What would we say? I remember thinking that I could hardly speak a sentence in Latin without racking my brain for verb and case endings. “is this one of those –ibus words?” “Should I use an ablative absolute?” When I attended Reginald Foster’s notorious program in Rome last summer, spoken Latin played a relatively minor role. Nancy Llewellyn, the organizer of this experience, had spent more than a few years studying with Reggie, and decided to take the spoken aspect a step further, drawing from theories of modern language acquisition.
It was a Thursday that I first set foot on the grounds of the Silver Penny Farm, a rustic building in Petaluma originally built by the Hearst family, and now owned and rented out by the San Francisco Catholic Diocese for retreats and other events. It is surrounded by sheep pastures, with a gazebo and swimming pool in the back yard. I walked in and introduced myself to the small group of people who had arrived already. Everyone was speaking English, as the Latin-only rule would not be imposed until the next morning. This was a day for us to get acquainted with each other, and the program in general, while we could still adequately express our thoughts. Friday morning, however, was very quiet. The silence was broken only by the sound of silverware clinking, and the occasional “ita” (yes), “ubi est…”(where is…?), and “quomodo dicitur Latine…” (how do you say in Latin…?). By that afternoon, however, people were already becoming more confident, and a few even attempted a joke or two.
Activities consisted of high-energy spoken exercises in the morning, and reading groups in the afternoons. The morning sessions were extremely effective in getting us all to be comfortable with basic phrases, as well as giving us some verbal ammunition for our free time together. In the afternoon reading exercises, we would take turns reading passages, and then “translating” them, which, in this setting, meant describing the passage in simple Latin, or simply changing the word order. We also went on a few field trips.
I think it was in the unstructured times that we really learned to become comfortable with the language, and began to make it our own. Even the most mundane chores offered unique challenges. Cooking duty with Andrew Gollan, the co-leader of this group, was always an adventure, because the kitchen is full of things for which we did not know the Latin words, and we had to follow his cooking instructions (in Latin, of course). Shooting the bull with classmates also had its difficulties, but we all gradually got to know each other. By the end of the course, we had all achieved a level of proficiency and confidence with Latin that none of us had anticipated. We had come so far in such a short time.
On the final day, I found it very strange to talk with my classmates in English as people left the parking lot, for we had all come to know each other in Latin. In English, it was as if I were speaking to different people. At root, however, we had all made a significant connection—in Latin. In sum, this was an unforgettable Latin experience, and highly recommended.