Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

Latin is a Language (Not Quite as Dead as Can Be)

In my column for the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I shared the new discovery that’s helping me to learn Latin: Duolingo

For a couple of years at secondary school, I studied Latin using what was then considered a revolutionary new system.

The Cambridge Latin Course tried hard to make learning fun and Latin funky. The first year’s course book had a bright orange cover – very right-on in the 1970s, when I chose to paint my bedroom walls bright orange too.

The course revolved around the story of a real-life family, headed by Lucus Caecilius Iucundus, a rich banker, living in Pompeii just before the devastating eruption of Vesuvius.

Call me suggestible, but Lucus Caecilius Iucundus and his family came to seem very real to me, and I cared about them.

When I changed schools at the age of 14, to my regret Latin was no longer an option.

Now, decades later, I’m making up for lost time with a very 21st century route to fluency: a free app called Duolingo. With an estimated three million users globally, Duolingo aims to please its students wherever they are in the world.  Thus I find myself translating surreal conversations featuring New York, Philadelphia, Boston and California, none of which existed when Latin was a living language.

screenshot of Duolingo's Twitter home page
Duoloingo’s Twitter home page indicates its popularity

Having always wondered what happened to Caecilius and family, I decided to investigate. To my surprise, our experimental texts have since become a classic teaching method, celebrating 50 years in print. The particular book I used, albeit now published with a less startling coloured cover, is currently Amazon’s #1 bestseller in Latin.

cover of first book in Cambridge Latin series showing Amazon bestseller orange flag
I was astonished to find my old school Latin textbook is currently a bestseller on Amazon – bestseller n the Latin category, anyway!

Even more surprising is that Caecilius and family have since featured in an episode of Dr Who, which my daughter kindly found me on Netflix. Their adventure opens just as Vesuvius is making ominous noises, portentous of imminent eruption and mass destruction. What becomes of my chum Caecilius? You’ll have to watch it to find out. (Here’s the link to its IMDB page: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1173173/)

But I have one remaining question: had I had been able to persevere with my Latin studies, would Dr Who have popped up in the A Level textbook? Now that would have made Latin cool.


PS Added Duolingo fun can be found on this alternative Twitter account: @shitsduosays, which highlights the more bizarre and surreal phrases it teaches you. Here are a few screenshots to whet your appetite:

screenshot showing the phrase "You are already dead" screenshot of phrase "Were did those horses learn French?

tweet in response to a phrase "This is a matter of life and death" saying "Duolingo owl, I only missed a day, oh god I'm sorry"

 

Posted in Family, Travel

The Benefits of Speaking a Foreign Language

Luxembourg City road train
All aboard for a multi-lingual tour of Luxembourg

Our Easter motorhome trip across France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany provides the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to my daughter the importance of learning a foreign language. This is  something I’ve been keen to impress upon her ever since the British government rescinded the rule that made it compulsory to study French to the age of 16. 

Although I’m not fluent in any language other than English, I know enough French and German to communicate effectively in all the countries that we traverse this holiday. Even though many of their population will be far more proficient in my language than I am in theirs, I take pains to at open every conversation with a few words in one of the native tongues.

As always, the people I speak to are pleased to hear a tourist make an effort, no matter how feeble. When our camper van runs out of water on the Luxembourg border, I’m able to ask very politely at the nearest  campsite if we may fill up our tank there, even though we’re not stopping overnight, and I negotiate a reasonable rate. The gnaediges Frau in charge is devastated when the freezing temperature prevents her standpipe from cooperating, “because you took the trouble so ask me so nicely in German”.

When continuing cold weather in Trier saps the life out of the motorhome battery, I’m able to accost the nearest motorist in an appropriate manner to ask for a jump-start.

Understanding the  local road signs enables me to navigate effectively whenever roadworks stump the satnav. My husband is surprised when I explain that Einbahnstrasse means “one-way street”:  he’d thought it was just a very common road name. He’d also been wondering why so many signs from different towns directed us to the unmapped resort of Umleitung. “That’s German for ‘diversion’,” I tell him.

Porta Nigra in Trier, Germany
Husband and daughter dwarfed by the glory that was the Roman Empire

Even so, I’m happy to opt for the English language setting on the Luxembourg City tourist train commentary. It’s accessible in any one of eight languages at the touch of a button.

On the upper deck of the open-top tourist bus in Trier, plugging my complimentary earphones into the socket on the panel in front of my knees, I flick to Option 1 for English and instruct my daughter to do the same.

On the hour-long sightseeing drive, pleasant music plays during breaks in the heavily-accented commentary. We pass breathtakingly ancient attractions: a 2,000 year old Roman bridge, still strong enough to withstand 21st century motor traffic; an amphitheatre with such precisely planned acoustics that it’s possible from the back row to hear a match struck centre stage; a beautiful Roman bath-house whose high arching walls alternate layers of brick and stone simply for decorative effect.

In between the music and the commentary comes the odd practical, deadpan aside  that makes my husband and I laugh aloud:

“Please refrain from throwing anything off the top of the bus.”

What kind of tourist are they expecting? I look around for the Visigoths and Vandals that ransacked the Roman Empire, but there are none (or if there are any, they’re hiding).

Suddenly I realise my daughter did not laugh, despite this being the kind of comment that would appeal to her slapstick sense of humour. I ask her why she’s not amused.

“Well, I can’t really understand much of what the lady’s saying, because her accent is so strong,” she sighs. “All I’ve understood so far is ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’.”

I peer down at the socket for her headphones. It looks as if she’s got it set to the right channel: 1. When I borrow one of her earphones to double check, I realise what’s happened. I may not speak this language, but I know it when I hear it. She’s inadvertently tuned in to Channel 7, which looks very like Channel 1 from this angle.

“That’s Dutch!” I inform her.

“OHHHH!”

Enlightenment spreads over her face and finally she starts to laugh.

“No wonder I couldn’t understand it.”

Fortunately, our hop-on, hop-off bus ticket allows us unlimited trips within 24 hours of purchase, so we go round again, this time with Laura tuned in to the English commentary. And she’s careful not to throw anything off the top of the bus.