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You are Never Too Old to Learn a New Language

On reasons to learn Latin and strategies that help you succeed.

Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.

An avid reader of language learning memoirs, I was surprised and thrilled when I came across a book that features two unlikely protagonists—a 60-year old woman and a dead language—and makes their encounter unputdownable and unforgettable. Our guest today is Ann Patty, the author of "Living with a dead language: My romance with Latin". She has kindly agreed to answer our questions.

Ann, your book begins with a question asked by incredulous friends: “Why on earth would you want to learn Latin at your age?” Why indeed?

I found myself living in the country with way too much time on my hands. I needed a challenge, something that would be more like a job than a hobby, something that would engage me the way my work had for so many years. I also longed for a source of structure and discipline. It took me a couple of years to figure out what I had missed in life, what was first on my “bucket list”. I hit on Latin, and it clicked.

As a former editor and publisher and a mature woman, what strengths did you bring to your Latin learning enterprise? What kind of learner did you turn out to be and did you surprise yourself at any point?

I brought to the task a large vocabulary and a solid knowledge of grammar, which helped a lot, because I understood the parts of speech, gerunds, participles, etc. And I had plenty of time to study. What was surprising was how hard it was to memorize at my age (I turned 60 during my second semester). I had been an A student in high school and college, but now I had to work really hard to be a middling B student. A classmate convinced me to make flash cards for the vocabulary, which helped me a lot.

Now, six years in, I’m finding that reading and re-reading texts in Latin really helps me stay inside the language. Sometimes I read stories in adapted Latin, of which I know 90% of the vocabulary. Lately, I have been reading myths from Ovid, modified by contemporary teachers. Then I re-read the original Ovid.

What are your proudest accomplishments in Latin?

I am most proud that I have learned enough Latin to teach. I teach a class for teens at a local library and for adults at a local community college. Since I was given a free education by auditing classes, I’m thrilled to be able to give it back the same way. I’m still taking a fall semester Latin class every year. I figure I still have four or five years to go to get where I want with the language. Also, I love being in class with young people. I’m also very happy to have found a new community, with the Living Latin movement, where Latinists meet up to speak Latin and learn teaching strategies.

Do you have the same visceral response to Latin poetry as you do to English?

My response to Latin poetry is more analytical than visceral; perhaps that won’t be the case after another few years of study. I’m still at the point where it takes me quite a while to really get a handle on a Latin poem. What delights me most about Latin poetry is the way the language allows the poet freedom to place words in an order that reinforces meaning. My favorite device is what I’ve come to call “figura mimetica”. For example, in the Aeneid 1:128 “disiectam Aeneae, toto videt aequore classem [he sees the fleet of Aeneas scattered over all the sea]," the fleet is on the opposite side of the sentence from the word scattered, so the phrase forms a verbal picture of a scattered fleet.

What have you learned about yourself while writing this book?

I began writing the book because my friends were tired of hearing me go on about Latin. I needed an interlocutor, which became my computer screen. Writing a book kept me more deeply engaged with the Latin language and Roman history. As I wrote about a dead language, the dead in my own life began entering the book, and surprising links emerged. Not only my did my long deceased mother show up, but also a dear, long-dead friend, not to mention my defunct publishing career. I did not expect that a study of the ancient past would illuminate my own individual history and I did not realize until then that I was belatedly honoring one of my mother’s wishes for me, and drawing closer to her by doing so.

My mother had a Catholic education and had won the Latin Medal in her last year of high school. She always wanted me to take Latin, but I chose French instead. As I was writing about the subsidiary role of women in ancient Rome (even in the Latin language), images of my mother kept coming to mind. I began to understand more deeply that our differences were more due to circumstance than temperament. We both loved Latin. My anger and disappointment in her turned to compassion and identification. Ex post facto, we share an ancient language. When my brother gave me her Latin medal, a Roman galleon with Virgil embossed on its sail, I realized in some way, she has been on this journey with me.

What are some of the advantages of learning “a dead language” and is it a good label for Latin?

Latin is not really a dead language, but a zombie language, that pops up all over. Latin and Fake Latin have appeared in comedy for decades, from the Road Runner cartoons, to Mad Magazine, to the opening credits on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO. Latin is frequently called upon to create neologisms. When a word was needed to signify the opposite of transgender, "cisgender" was coined. This was clearly inspired by the Latin "transalpine" and "cisalpine", meaning on the other side of the Alps and on our side of the Alps, respectively.

Anyone who reads will often come across Latin phrases. Many of our best writers know Latin and use it to good effect. Latin can express things with great economy: "mutatis mutandis" (with those things needed to be changed having been changed), his "dictis" (with those things having been said) to name only two. Many Latin phrases—per se, ad hoc, curriculum vitae, alibi—are used so frequently they aren’t even put in italics, and many of our abbreviations such as et. al., viz, q.v., AD, BC, AM, PM, etc. are Latin. Many, if not most, car models have Latin names: Volvo, Audi, Fiat, Stratus, etc. Latin seems to imbue them with a “classic” feel.

Latin continues to thrive because it is ubiquitous and immortal.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia (Carole Raddato)

Ann Patty’s website

Aneta Pavlenko's website


Patty, Ann (2016). Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin. New York: Viking.

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