On Teaching and Learning Classical Languages: A Reformation of Reason and Method

Classical Pedagogy

Mr. Carter Ehnis, M.A.

Last year, I began rereading the works of C.S. Lewis. As I worked through Surprised by Joy, I came upon the oft-quoted passage where Lewis tells of his first encounter with Homeric Greek: 

We opened our Books at Iliad, Book I. Without a word of introduction Knock read aloud the first twenty lines or so in the “new” pronunciation, which I had never heard before…He then translated, with a few, a very few explanations, about a hundred lines. I had never seen a classical author taken in such large gulps before. When he had finished he handed me over Crusius’ Lexicon and, having told me to go through again as much as I could of what he had done, left the room. It seems an odd method of teaching, but it worked. At first I could travel only a very short way along the trail he had blazed, but every day I could travel further. Presently I could travel the whole way. Then I could go a line or two beyond his furthest North. Then it became a kind of game to see how far beyond. He appeared at this stage to value speed more than absolute accuracy. The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek.1

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

This encounter is dear to many classical language teachers because it depicts both the reason and method for learning ancient languages. While classical language teachers often recognize the value of Lewis’ experience, they have difficulty explaining or applying it. I would like to attempt such an explanation.

The Reason for Teaching Ancient Languages

The rationale that many teachers give to justify the study of Latin are surprising. Even classical Christian organizations are confused about its purpose. Common explanations include, “Latin helps you learn other languages,” “It will improve your English vocabulary,” or “Latin’s systematic nature will be good practice for a profession.” While these reasons are legitimate benefits of learning Latin, they ultimately fail to provide a compelling rationale that is anything more than utilitarian, which is never what Classical Christian Education was designed to be.

Applying this rationale, why do we not include coding in our curriculum? That area of study also teaches one to be a systematic thinker, and it more directly prepares one for the workforce. Or why not learn French? Arguably, French has an even closer relationship with English and millions of people still speak it across the world. In the end, the impetus for learning an ancient language like Latin or Greek cannot simply be utilitarian.

Learning Ancient Languages as a Liberal Art

What, then, is the primary reason for teaching Latin? The teaching of ancient languages (and particularly Latin) has played a primary role in the liberal arts tradition, specifically regarding the trivium—the grammatical arts. As defined elsewhere, a liberal art is an ‘art,’ in that it produces something, and ‘liberal’ in that it creates freedom from the tutelage of others—that is, it facilitates the ability to learn. As such, learning an ancient language is vital for one’s education because such a study enables him to abstract principles and apply them to other areas of life. 

A student who learns Latin or Ancient Greek well can apply the principles of grammatical structure or language acquisition to a variety of endeavors. This aspect of learning an ancient language is what modern classical Christian educators are primarily concerned with. It is this aspect to which they are referring when listing reasons such as “learning Latin helps you learn other languages” or “it prepares you for other professions.” These are all valid by-products of learning an ancient language, but they cannot stand alone. 

Learning an ancient language as a liberal art cannot, in my view, be the only reason we take up such an endeavor. Again, a student’s time would be much better spent learning a modern language or computer programming, both of which will teach applicable skills that are transferable elsewhere.

In The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, Clark and Jain argue that the historic teaching of Latin and Greek simply as a ‘grammar’ (that is, a part of the trivium found in the liberal arts) was never the sole purpose for teaching and learning these languages:

The notion that the primary goal of studying classical languages is something other than the reading of classical texts would have been foreign to earlier generations. Thus the great poets, philosophers, and rhetoricians, as well as the Scriptures and the Fathers, are the classical syllabus…all the claims of the way Latin study aids linguistic development and sharpens analytic reasoning skills…should not be overlooked…The fact remains, though, that the long-term goal, even if it is unattainable in the short term, is that of the northern Renaissance humanists of the sixteenth century—ad fontes, reading texts in their original languages.5

Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education

Clark and Jain correctly point out that learning these languages cannot solely be a matter of learning “analytical reasoning skills.” Simply put, we must learn Latin and Ancient Greek because we must read the authors in their original languages to immerse ourselves in the Great Tradition. 

A truly classical Christian education, therefore, focuses on ancient languages because it is also a Humanist activity—that is, it is concerned with morally guiding the student by immersing him in the classical authors via their original languages. Erasmus of Rotterdam, one of the leading proponents of Humanist education developed during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries wrote with rather fiery language: 

I have no patience with the stupidity of the average teacher of grammar who wastes precious years in hammering rules into children’s heads. For it is not by learning rules that we acquire the power of speaking a language, but by daily intercourse with those accustomed to express themselves with exactness and refinement, and by the copious reading of the best authors.

 Erasmus as quoted in William Boyd, The History of Western Education

For Erasmus, content precedes grammar. Erasmus represents the Humanist movement wherein the educators of the time wanted to recall the ratio, or reason, for learning Latin and Greek. 

In speaking of Alexander Hegius, another important educator of the Humanist movement in the Netherlands, William Boyd writes, “In Latin he aimed mainly at a reform of the methods of instruction by making grammar subordinate to the appreciation of the poets and the moralists.” Hegius was also trying to refocus education on the content itself, rather than the rudimentary instruction of grammar. 

From these historical examples, we can see that learning Latin or Ancient Greek was never solely a matter of learning their grammatical structures. Rather, Christian educators of the past were primarily concerned with students knowing Virgil, Homer, or Saint Paul as the greatest examples of poets and philosophers. Just as the educators of the Humanist movement were trying to recall the original authors of the greatest works ever written, we too should be instructing our students so that they can read these authors and take part in the Great Tradition.

A Method That Works

One reason for relegating the learning of ancient languages to a utilitarian exercise may have something to do with teachers not believing that students can actually be taught to read the great authors successfully. This leads us into our discussion of method. Recall Lewis’ quote from the beginning:

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle.6

Most American language teaching for the past 150 years—especially ancient language teaching—has consisted of lessons in puzzle solving. Rather than creating students who can read the classics, the method merely produces a formulaic approach to language.

Just as Erasmus and Hegius were fighting the propensity to focus on grammar rather than content, we too have a similar battle. A teaching method arose during the nineteenth century that sought to boil down a text to its grammatical analysis.7 The result of such a method has led to generations of students who cannot actually read Virgil or Homer fluently. To achieve Lewis’ results, we would be much better off following Erasmus’ advice of copious amounts of reading and speaking.

The Comprehension Hypothesis

Closer to our own time, linguistics during the mid-twentieth century started to cultivate a science around second language acquisition. Such theories developed by linguists like Stephen Krashen led to a rebirth of method in language learning. Of course, these linguists were not primarily concerned with applying their methods to ancient languages, but within recent years, certain classical educators have found that these “new” methods work far better than those they had growing up.

Krashen developed a language learning theory that was based upon the concept of “comprehensible input.” The “Comprehension Hypothesis” simply states that “we acquire language when we understand what we hear or read. Our mastery of the individual components of language (‘skills’) is the result of getting comprehensible input.”8 The theory is simple enough: to learn a language, the student needs to have as much comprehensible language material as possible to gain an implicit knowledge of the language’s structure and grammar. This method is unsurprisingly based on the principles of how we learned our native language. We were not taught to speak English by using grammar drills or singing verb charts. We learned our native language by being completely immersed in it.

This method can be taken to extremes, especially when teaching an ancient language. After all, it is far easier to do complete immersion in a modern language than in Latin or Ancient Greek. However, the principle still applies, and it has shown to be quite effective.

Practical Steps

Over the course of a students’ educational career, introduce them to as many original-language texts as possible. At the beginning stages, read many simple stories, and increase in complexity. Once the student can understand those stories, he will have begun to cross the Rubicon of language learning.

A good place to start is with the Lingua Latina per se Illustrata series by Hans Ørberg. After this, there is a plethora of resources including beginner readers (e.g., the novellas by Andrew Olimpi), novels (e.g., the Harrius Potter books by Peter Needham), and video series (e.g., the Lingua Latina Comprehensibilis series by Luke Ranieri).

Along with this “gradual reading approach,” speak in the language whenever it is profitable. This is not because we are interested in teaching ancient languages as spoken languages, as if we want the student to be able to order coffee in Latin. (As fun as this may be, chances are this won’t be happening any time soon!) Rather, we are concerned with the student’s ability to read a text well. Speaking is simply another means by which the student gets maximum comprehensible input. Over time, the student will acquire the structural components of the language because he has both heard and spoken it in the classroom and read it numerous times.


This dynamic method for teaching ancient languages creates students who can immerse themselves in the great authors of the Western tradition. Not only will the student have an improved knowledge of English vocabulary or know a good method for language learning in general, but he will also gain intimate knowledge of some of the greatest works ever written.

As with Lewis, we want our students to visualize and internalize the “picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges” sung by Homer eons ago. Indeed, Lewis made the crucial step of seeing the naus in his mind, not the ship. This process is what we should adopt, not only for ourselves, but also for the students we teach.

The imperative of including the study of ancient languages as an essential component of one’s education, rather than relegating it to an elective, lies in its capacity to empower students to actively engage in the Great Tradition. Fortunately, however, not everyone must become an expert in Latin or Greek to benefit from their study. Due to a plethora of excellent English translations, students can still meaningfully participate in the Tradition. But for those who seek an education wherein the learning of Latin or Greek plays a crucial role, you will share the imagination of Homer and Virgil in ways you could never imagine.

  1. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.), 140-141.
  2. I am deeply appreciative of my friend and colleague Jonathan Robert whose article on a similar topic can be found here: https://ancientlanguage.com/classical-schools-not-classical/.
  3. Christopher Schlect, “What is a Liberal Art?” in Principia 1, no. 1, 91; See Schlect’s article for an in depth discussion and definition of the liberal arts.
  4. Erasmus as quoted in William Boyd, The History of Western Education (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1952), 176.
  5. Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press), 39-41.
  6.  Lewis, 141.
  7. See Thomas Raymond Siefert, “Translation in Foreign Language Pedagogy: The Rise and Fall of the Grammar Translation Method,” Ph.D. diss., (Harvard University, 2013).
  8.  Stephen Krashen, “The Case for Comprehensible Input,” in Language Magazine (2017), 1.