What is Dead May Never Die: Learning Dead Languages at Yale-NUS
story | Avani Adhikari, Staff Writer
photo | Wang Xing Hao
With as much liberty as the pixelated connection would allow, Wang Xing Hao ’21, also known as George, sat down to answer my questions on a sunny morning in Rome for him, but a rainy evening for me in Singapore. “Everything is done in Latin here—even ordering food in the cafeteria.”
No, George has not travelled back to Ancient Rome. A Philosophy major on Leave of Absence, he is currently in modern day Rome, taking part in an intensive one-year program dedicated to immersing students in Latin and Ancient Greek. George hopes to learn more about the language of the classic works that impact academic fields to this day.
With classes until 9 pm, six days a week and all the lectures in Latin, the point of this school called Accademia Vivarium Novum, is to create an environment for learning dead languages in an immersive form that is unavailable anywhere else in the world. “When you are trying to study Spanish or French, you can just go to Spain or France to get the full language immersion. That’s not possible for a language that has been dead for thousands of years. This program is trying to recreate that experience.”
What makes someone fly all the way over to the other side of the world to go to a place where you must talk to your roommate in Latin because that is your only common language? I talked to George to find out more.
Ed: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
A: What spurred you on to study Latin?
G: I always thought from high school that Latin was cool because it was used for over a thousand years as the common language of writers and philosophers and now it’s gone. The fact that learning Latin was painted as being very difficult made it even more interesting. I just thought—I must try this, because by learning this I could access the cultural repositories of thousand years.
A: Has studying a dead language changed your perspective on how you view things?
G: Sometimes I see something that is really funny in Latin and want to make a pun, but people don’t get it. For example, the Latin word for pizza is “placenta” but it just, doesn’t work in translation you know?
A: Do you dream in Latin?
G: No. English and Chinese only sadly.
A: What was the hardest part of studying a dead language?
G: For modern languages you can watch movies and listen to music to get more exposure but dead languages don’t really have that. You just have academic texts which come with a different grammatical structure. I guess this program is trying to replicate that because now I have to learn to use it in day-to-day context you know. It’s funny but I only learned the words for “yes” and “no” after coming here because the narrative stories we study don’t really have that.
A: Is studying Latin in a college environment, especially at Yale-NUS College, different? Do you have any particularly memorable moments that stuck with you?
G: I actually tried learning Latin in High School but couldn’t really get into it you know. Studying at a academic environment, I guess, has helped. At Yale-NUS, our class had four people, so we got personalized attention. We are all really good friends, which also helps because we would all just make jokes and puns and that’s really nice.
A: Do you think other people should study Latin? If so, why?
G: It is kind of like the foundational studies. You know in the humanities we always study from the start. Not like science where new things render old obsolete. We read PPT [Philosophy and Political Thought] and LitHum [Literature and Humanities] from the start because themes, patterns, ideas recur throughout the time. By reading these texts in their original language, you get the full effect of what they mean. Translation can obscure something even as it allows you to understand something.
Like pre-chewing food, the nutrition gets lost and the taste is weird and is kind of gross. If you look at the translation and original text side to side, you see a lot of differences and I think if people want to access that they should read it.
I say if you are interested in understanding culture and where they come from, give it a shot. It’s not half bad.