Chloë is a final-year Classics BA student, taking both Latin and Greek. She explains what it's really like to learn ancient languages at university...
Why did you choose to study ancient languages?
"It’s mandatory on my course. I came in with neither Latin or Greek, so that meant I had to finish my course with both. I picked up Latin in first year, then Greek in second year.
The fact that they’re compulsory made me want to pick this course, as it was more like a challenge.
I want to go into academia, and I need the languages, so I thought it’d make me more determined to do well in them."
What were your expectations of learning Latin and Greek?
"I was quite worried. I’ve done modern foreign languages (I did French and Spanish GCSE, then a Spanish A level), but they’re nothing like Latin or Greek. I knew it was going to be a lot of work – that was the expectation I had!
It’s not easy, but it’s a lot more rewarding than I expected it to be. With modern foreign languages I’d enjoyed them, but not as much as I’d enjoyed doing the ancient ones.
Because it’s so intense, it’s equally as rewarding as it is difficult!
I struggled with the speaking and listening aspect of modern languages, which you don’t have to do with ancient languages. I also did English language A level, which I think helps a lot because of the grammar that you study.
It’s constantly stimulating, which is quite nice. I really try and encourage people to do Latin and Greek. I think they’re great."
Which is your favourite language?
"I think Latin, because the alphabet being the same as ours helps a lot. But I like Greek because it’s different, it’s like nothing I’d ever done before, whereas Latin is quite similar to Spanish and French."
What was it like picking up Greek in your second year?
"I think because I had to do everything online (due to Covid-19), that made me more scared. But having done Latin helped with the Greek. It is a lot of work doing both!"
What's the staff support like?
"I think the staff are brilliant, to be honest.
Last year I was struggling with the jump from beginner to intermediate Latin, so Lynn Fotheringham, one of the Latin lecturers, helped me catch up. I ended up doing quite well on the module and I think it was because she was so willing to support me.
The lecturers are always asking how we’re doing with how much we have to translate each week, and if we feel we need more or less.
The expectation is to do the work and do well, but they’re also willing to alternate based on how you’re coping."
What kind of things have you learnt?
"In Latin, in first year, we did grammar. You’d have sentences to do each time, then we’d have little chunks of text that we’d gradually get onto. Then when you go onto intermediate, it was ‘Here’s the text we’re reading, here’s how much you have to read’.
In terms of teaching, you’d have a thematic lesson, which is two hours long, to talk about the themes in the text. We have a grammar lesson for things that we need to go back over, and we also do practices with unseen pieces.
With Greek, it was grammar in first year but it was like a story, so there were quite big chunks of text to do each week that gradually got longer and longer."
Tell me about the texts you've studied…
"We did Virgil's Aeneid in intermediate Latin, which I’d read in English, so I had a vague idea what was going on!
We’re reading a novel in Greek at the minute, called Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, that I’d never heard of before, but it’s actually really good, I’m really enjoying it. And we’re doing Elegies by Propertius in Latin, so I’ve heard of the poet but not read that many of his poems."
What transferable skills have you gained?
"I want to go into academia, and I want to specialise in the areas of sex and gender. I think ancient languages are useful for that, because I’m aware I’m applying my own bias when I’m translating things. That’s quite nice because I’m going to place my own feminist interpretation on pieces.
Generally, I want to learn more modern languages. I think it’s nice to be able to go to countries and be able to speak the language, so I think the skills gained for general language learning are quite useful. I also think that my written English has got better since I’ve started to understand grammar in other languages."
I see learning ancient languages like a puzzle, and I think that helps with problem solving. I have better initiative now, because I know how something fits in Latin and Greek and that can transfer to the everyday.
Any tips to share?
"Do the homework that you’re set. The staff tell you to do a certain amount each day. If you just do the homework, that’s enough to get you through and do well. They set you homework based on knowledge of what helps. I went above and beyond and burnt myself out and it was wasted, I could have just done the homework.
Also, have a second book to write down the vocab that you don’t know. If you write it in the same notebook that you’re writing all your grammar in, it’s easy to lose it.
You can get primers for grammar (that’s more for second and third year) and they’re so good. I bought one for the second half of last year and thought ‘Why did I not buy this sooner?!’. They’re amazing.
Learning both Latin and Greek is not as bad as it sounds! I still have time to do things. I still have time to do my other work, go out, and spend time with my friends. If you're prepared to put the time in, you’ll reap the rewards."