Players gonna play, haters gonna hate, and Latin students gonna translate… Taylor Swift lyrics, to improve their grammar and vocabulary.
Cambridge academic Steven Hunt, who has taught the classical language for 35 years and trains teachers, says using popular songs such as those by Swift could enthuse a new generation.
Many have learned the subject through Lucius Caecilius – a banker who lived in Pompeii in the first century AD – who features heavily in Cambridge Latin Course textbooks.
However, Mr Hunt says he is “horrified” that he once taught stories about Caecilius’ family which trivialise slavery and stereotype female characters, in a new handbook on the subject.
He cites other ways of getting people to engage, including a university lecturer asking students to translate the chorus of Swift’s Bad Blood – “Cause baby, now we got bad blood” – to “Quod, care, nunc malum sanguinem habemus”, and a YouTube channel imagining how the Frozen song Let It Go might have sounded in Ancient Rome.
Students can also improve their understanding of grammar and vocabulary through reading and writing Latin fan fiction, his Teaching Latin book says.
It also argues that the way the ancient world is represented in common beginner textbooks can include misleading stereotypes.
“Students need to see themselves in the textbooks and they also need to see the other – the marginalised, the little heard and little seen,” Mr Hunt says.
A 2021 Language Trends survey from the British Council revealed a “stark divide” between private and state schools for classics teaching, with 65% of independent schools offering GCSE Latin and one in three offering Ancient Greek, compared to 9% and less than 2% of state schools respectively.
Addressing the diversity of pupils taking the subject, the academic says he believes it is improving, but while “Latin’s role as the gatekeeper to an elite education is over… involving more students, especially in state schools, remains a problem”.
He continues: “At the school level, there are three main challenges: to increase access, to attract and retain a more diverse body of students, and to improve the representation of the diversity of the ancient world itself in school resources.
“The challenge for teachers in the years to come will be whether they are prepared to grasp these opportunities to present the subject differently, and widen the appeal for students, or whether they prefer to stick to familiar routines.”