How to Learn Latin: the Reginald Foster Method at Ealing Abbey

For almost twenty years I have had the privilege of watching people teach. I have seen lessons in every subject of the curriculum and with pupils from 3 to 18 years of age. For a time I graded those lessons according to Ofsted criteria, sometimes those observations were part of SIAMS inspections, mock-Ofsteds or performance management. I am now, I must say somewhat ashamed of some of the things I said, or feedback I gave. My own changing ideas about what constitutes learning and good education have been documented here on this blog (see here for example). I now believe profoundly in traditional, didactic, teaching methods, in a knowledge based approach to learning and in memorisation. Memory, not discovery, enjoyment, discussion or even skills, is the basic building block of learning. The memory that is significant for learning is semantic, not episodic.

Throughout my adult life I have also attempted to be a learner, few of us would reject the title of ‘lifelong learner’, but actually very little of that learning has been the sort of knowledge based learning that I now hope to see in schools. Most of my learning has been experiential, episodic.

The last two weeks have changed that.

I studied German and Latin as a teenager, Greek and Hebrew at theological college, Welsh and French as an adult. I haven’t become fluent in any of them.

When I started this blog two years ago I put as one of my life goals the improving of my Latin. I have faithfully over the years made various attempts to learn verb tables, declensions and conjugations but never to very much effect. I have prayed Office and Mass, when possible, in Latin, but needed to read translations in advance, in parallel translations, or for reflection afterwards.

Some time ago I had read about the method of teaching Latin developed by Reginald Foster, a Carmelite friar based for much of his life in Rome and known variously as the Latin-Lover, the Pope’s Latinist or just Reggie. I had also read Fr Daniel McCarthy’s Tablet columns in which he reflected on the Latin of the Collects of the Missal.

Regular followers of Twitter and this blog will know that I have become somewhat obsessed with the writings of St Augustine of Hippo (see here), notably his exposition of the psalms and his Confessions. There are numerous translations of the Confessions available and I have read 7 of them in the last year. I wanted very much to read him for myself in the original text.

So it was that I booked for the two week Beginners’ Latin Conference at Ealing Abbey. You can read the details here.

It has been an amazing experience. I am enormously grateful to the remarkable class teacher, Laura Pooley (who is also a professional opera singer), to Fr James Leachman OSB and Fr Daniel McCarthy OSB, for their organisation of the conferences, to Clare, the ever cheerful administrator and the monastic community at Ealing for their warm welcome and the joy of praying with them. It was great fun to be part of a learning community with excellent fellow students, Sybil, Domenico, Terry, and Ann and from the Intermediate and Advanced classes Tym, Daniel and their teacher, another Daniel. Our camaraderie and fun made the whole experience the joy it was. It was great to be with some serious academics and in an international group. There was a wonderful generosity of spirit.

Laura is one of the best teachers I have ever seen. She has superb subject knowledge, was immaculately well prepared and had a seemingly endless supply of patience and good humour as well as determination and grit. This blog is sub-titled ‘Serious Christianity’. Well, I can tell you that this was Serious Teaching. It was fantastic. I haven’t experienced anything like it in my adult life. My brain hasn’t hurt so much since I was at school.

Teaching takes place for ten weekdays from 9:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. There are short breaks and apart from them the working through of material is relentless. Ludi, homeworks, are set for each evening and the middle weekend. To be honest I didn’t do these as throughly as I should. I had arranged a busy family time for the weekend, as had others, and we lost time, as a result, getting back into it at the start of the second week. Another year I will ensure that the two weeks can be given over to nothing else. A group of us from the course also went to see the entirely appropriate Imperium on two evenings, but this also meant lost learning time.

Laura provided a workbook of material for the lessons. Anyone interested in the current pedagogical debates in British education would recognise these as ‘knowledge organisers’. From the start fragments of classical Latin texts are used, Vulgate, Ovid, Horace etc.

The Foster method is fascinating pedagogically. Reggie does not believe in chanting and verb tables. The aim is to learn things by heart but to do so by constantly analysing texts and by translating from English into Latin. ‘Swallow the dictionary’ is a frequently used phrase, and ‘develop a Latin mind’. If you want to know more, a book of his method is now available:

Ossa Latinitatis Sola Ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque: The Mere Bones of Latin According to the Thought and System of Reginald

And there are numerous podcasts of Reggie and websites that refer to him.

It is extremely hard and often slow work but it does come. I have learnt more in a fortnight than I have ever learnt in a language before.

Reggie himself never taught intensive courses like this. His teaching, his ‘Experiences’ were over much longer periods, allowing far more of the ludi to be done in between classes. That is what I will now spend the next year doing, hopefully before attending the Intermediate class next summer, and the Advanced in 2020.

Being a pupil again in a classroom, getting things wrong, not having done enough homework, experiencing the best teaching, becoming part of a learning community have been an incredibly rich experience for me and will inform my educational work and my articulation of knowledge based learning.

The fortnight was made an even richer experience for me by being able to share in Matins, Lauds, Terce and Vespers most days with the monks at Ealing Abbey. They sing the Office beautifully – at some pace – mostly in English and with great prayerfulness and a lovely Benedictine simplicity and lack of preciousness. Although there wasn’t much time it was good to have conversations with some of the monks. Fr James and Fr Daniel were kindness itself to me and deeply generous.

The guesthouse, like the Benedictine Studies and Arts Centre where the course was held, is a late Victorian house in the grounds of the Abbey. Meals are provided in the guesthouse which is fairly typical retreat house accommodation – shared bathrooms and no two pieces of furniture matching. For the course the Ossa book is not needed but the Cassell’s Latin-English, English-Latin Dictionary is essential.

As a way of learning Latin I recommend these conferences without reservation, they are a powerful and intense experience. I have a lot of work ahead before I will be able to read Augustine in the original, but, then, if I am serious about being serious …

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3 Comments

  1. Richard, this is an excellent review – how energetic you are posting it so soon after your return home. I notice that you also produced a fulsome review for Reggie’s website. Very best wishes, Tym (Tym.marsh@gmail.com)

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