BMCR 2006.04.30

Nunc Loquâmur: Guided Conversations for Latin

, Nunc loquamur : guided conversations for Latin. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2005. 72 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm. ISBN 1585101869 $14.95.

Experienced language teachers commonly have a file or two full of handouts that they have prepared to supplement assigned textbooks. Beginning instructors are at a disadvantage here, but with McCarthy’s Nunc Loquâmur they may get a head start. As the author remarks in the preface (p. 3), the format of guided conversations which is applied throughout this work comes out of his many years of experience teaching English as a second language in Japan — which, being a Japanese native myself, I can imagine being as challenging as, if not more than, teaching Latin to students in the United States. McCarthy has valuable experience to apply to the teaching of Latin, and this booklet published by Focus can become a useful addition to the Latin teacher’s bag of tricks. The Latin in the book, though not entirely free of errors (see below), is sufficiently clear and straightforward for beginning language students, and the subject of the conversations and illustrations accompanying them are of such a kind as to create positive class atmosphere as well as encourage discussions on relevant linguistic and cultural issues.

Nunc Loquämur is clearly intended to be used as supplementary material to more traditional textbooks, not a systematic introduction to the language in its own right. The format of each lesson, of which there are 30 in the book, is as follows. First there is a short, complete sample conversation of about four to five lines, followed by a couple of conversations which are exactly the same as the sample except for a few blanks where one has to change names and grammatical forms according to cues provided. Students are then encouraged to reproduce the conversations on their own without cribs, and the lesson finally ends with a section where they are instructed to come up with another conversation of their own or report that of other students. The format overall is suitable for work in small groups or pairs.

The lessons are on subjects typical for beginning language courses, the first lesson being on greetings and self-introduction, the second on introducing acquaintances, the third on asking an unknown person for his or her name and so forth, progressing eventually to conversations on time (9),1 shopping (16 and 17), what jobs to do in the future (30), and so forth. Some of the lessons are concerned with specifically contemporary subjects such as the internet and e-mail (29), and as a matter of fact no lesson is exclusively concerned with the ancient world. The Romans on the other hand do make their appearance in some individual conversations, often in a humorous manner as when one gladiator is introduced to another in the arena (2.Ex.) or Cicero excuses himself in a phone call, claiming to be too busy saving the republic (8.3).

The relaxed nature of the subject matter as well as the de-emphasis on grammar2 make this book suitable for use as occasional relief in the toils of elementary Latin classes. One can easily envision beginning high school or college Latin classes using the book once or twice a week as a mental stretching routine. Not only do the lessons provide an opportunity for easy linguistic exercise, but they can also lead to discussions of ancient history and culture. When I did lesson 8 with my students, for example, one illustration showing an ancient battle scene (8.1) gave rise to an animated conversation on Greco-Roman attitudes toward nakedness, and another showing Apollo and Daphne (8.4) allowed me to expound on mythology as well as Ovid (whose work happened to be assigned shortly after in the same class). The material in this book is generally conductive to relaxed, spontaneous activities and discussions, which can be a useful relief from the more traditional drills if applied in moderation.

The book is prefaced by the author’s justification for and explanation of the format, a paragraph of acknowledgements, and suggestions for classroom use. This last item is based on the author’s long experience as a language teacher and will likely be useful especially to beginning Latin instructors. After the lessons, which form the bulk of the work, comes a Latin English Appendix consisting of all the cued conversations written out in full with English translations on the side. Finally there is a very useful list of external resources. Aside from Traupman’s famous Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency, the listed resources are all internet dictionaries and specialized word-lists on such topics as geographic names. The Neo-Latin word list, however, opens a blank page (likely due to the webmaster’s error) — the index page should have been listed instead. Since McCarthy very commendably steers students towards the possibility of using Latin in ordinary conversations on contemporary quotidian subjects, I feel that he could have also mentioned a couple of links to the flourishing world of living Latin.3 There is no mention either of other standard printed resources used by Latin writers today, which admittedly are difficult to obtain and may be beyond the scope of beginning Latin students but may still be of use for teachers who wish to check the most authoritative sources.4

One likely complaint against this book is that the tasks set down for the students are too easy. As the author himself says, they are a “plug and play” (p. 3) affair that quickly becomes routine. They will likely bore the brighter students even in the first year, especially as what needs to go into the blanks is often exactly the same as the given cues. ESL students in Japan (who inspired McCarthy to resort to guided conversations; p. 3) may find this kind of secure environment comforting, but I suspect that most American college students will feel that they are not being challenged enough — mine certainly did. On the other hand, it is easy to make xerox copies in which the cues and/or other supplied portions of the dialogues are deleted, and thus make the material more suitable for adventurous students. Or, as McCarthy suggests in the preface (p. 4), students may be invited to create variations with the help of additional drawings and pictures prepared by the teacher or the students themselves.

Another area of possible criticism is the imperfect attention given to copyediting. This results sometimes in incorrect or inelegant Latin expressions, such as duo (leg. duas) ampullas (11.2) and et quoque mihi (leg. et mihi quoque, vel sim. : 1.Ex. etc.). Some of the errors have been noted and revisions announced by the author in his website but a careful perusal reveals more. The website itself, when I last checked it, inexplicably lacked the author’s e-mail address to which one could report the errata, so I will list what I found in a footnote.5

Still, the book is a welcome and useful addition to already existing Latin pedagogical resources. I am sure students will find occasional escape from the traditional routine of grammatical exercises provided by this book delightful, and the book does provide some solid information on standard Latin expressions for elementary conversation. One must acknowledge that at present there is often a yawning divide between the world of spoken Latin and that of classroom instruction. rberg’s Lingua Latina per se illustrata is an exception, and another beginning textbook forthcoming from Bolchazy-Carducci6 may follow suit, but university as well as high-school curricula in Latin language still tends to be dominated by the more traditional approach exemplified by Wheelock and Moreland-Fleischer. To be sure, I would never deny the usefulness of old-school rigorous grammatical training — I am myself forever indebted to Moreland and Fleisher for introducing me to the Latin language and the profession of classics. On the other hand, it is all too common to find students of Latin complaining that they never learn how to say the simplest things like greetings or self-introduction in spite of the immense amount of time spent in memorizing vocabulary and grammar. There do exist today good resources for those wishing to start using Latin in ordinary conversation,7 but they are all geared toward advanced students who already know the basic mechanics of the language well. McCarthy’s Nunc Loquâmur, with its basic sentence structures and emphasis on the commonest expressions in ordinary conversation, fills this gap admirably and I hope that in the coming years it will help many elementary students get a glimpse of the world of spoken Latin.


1. Here and below the citation numbers refer to lessons. Whenever possible I will make the reference more specific by adding Ex. (= sample) or another number which indicates that assigned to a conversation within that lesson.

2. See p. 3.

3. E.g. SOCIETAS CIRCVLORVM LATINORVM, a list of spoken Latin communities around the world, and Latinitas, probably the most extensive resource on Latin conversation and composition on the web, though, since it is all written in Latin, navigating through it may present a challenge for beginners.

4. Such as: Egger, C. (1957) Lexicon nominum virorum et mulierum. Rome: Studium. Egger, C. (1977) Lexicon nominum locorum. Rome: Officina Libraria Vaticana. Egger, C. (1992-1997) Lexicon recentis latinitatis. Rome: Officina Libraria Vaticana. Helfer, C. (1991) Lexicon auxiliare: ein deutsch-lateinisches Wörterbuch. Saarbrücken: Societas Latina. Smith, W. and T.D. Hall (2000: repr.) Smith’s English-Latin Dictionary. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci.

5. p. 3 Robet Patrick > Robert Patrick; 2.3 Avrioviste > Arioviste; 3.Ex. Itâliâ > Îtaliâ; 8.2 Phaëton > Phaëthon; 8.4 Appollo > Apollo; 11.1 … tria chiliogramma > chiliogrammata; 19.Ex. callidumst > calidumst, but caletur better; 27.Ex. Aliquem potionem > Aliquam p. Also perh. 1.2 Johannus > Iohannes; 4.3. Martin > Martinus.

6. M. Minkova and T. Tunberg (forthcoming in 2006) Latin for the New Millenium. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Caruducci.

7. Of which the most widely available, of course, is Traupman, J.(2003) Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci. Also useful is Albert, S. (1987) Cottidie Latine loquamur. Textus de rebus cottidianis hodiernisque. Saarbrücken: Societas Latina. Dr. Stephen Berard of Wenatchee Valley College has been preparing Vita Nostra: Subsidia ad Colloquia Latina, which has an extensive range of vocabulary and exercises.