Hills­dale’s Active Clas­sical Lan­guages Club. John James | Courtesy

While senior John James searched for the words to describe his title within the Active Clas­sical Lan­guages Club, he rattled off a number of terms, all in Greek, before set­tling on one that he said trans­lates to some­thing like “prince” or “chief speaker.”

The growing club offers members a chance to speak, rather than just write, dead lan­guages such as ancient Greek or Latin, so they can practice a skill often ignored in classes. 

“The idea is sort of to get the lan­guage into habitual use, gen­er­ating sen­tences rather than merely rec­og­nizing them,” James said. “It’s a dif­ferent function in the brain, if you can rec­ognize words in real time as someone is talking to you.” 

Members of the Active Clas­sical Lan­guages Club gather every Thursday at 8 p.m. to practice Latin and half an hour later to practice Greek. About five to 10 stu­dents attend weekly.

James said he was inspired to ded­icate more time to spoken lan­guage both by a three-week spoken Greek intensive that he par­tic­i­pated in this summer and by Pro­fessor of Clas­sical Studies Joseph Gar­njobst, who empha­sizes spoken Greek in his classes. 

“It’s an exper­iment,” Gar­njobst said of his unique approach of teaching Greek. “Bringing Greek to active use gives the stu­dents one more tool to absorb the lan­guage. They have a better idea of the thought behind the text when they use the lan­guage actively.”

He said he began this exper­iment in the 2015 fall semester, with rewarding results.

“We had an impromptu Pla­tonic dia­logue in Greek on the rela­tionship between honor and virtue,” Gar­njobst said. “We were able to do that because of a semester and a half of work. That makes it worth it right there.”

Last year Anne Begin ’17 reaped the ben­efits of spoken Greek by working with some members of the club to create and practice Greek vocab­ulary lists. Now Begin, who majored in the classics, is fur­thering her studies at the Uni­versity of Cal­i­fornia, San Diego. She said she improved her lan­guage skills by working with other stu­dents here at Hillsdale.

“Being a part of a com­munity like that is always very fun because people know dif­ferent things and are inter­ested in learning dif­ferent things,” Begin said. “With classics, there are so many dif­ferent facets that you can spend your whole life exploring.”

Gar­njobst said studying clas­sical lan­guages has intrinsic value, but can also provide a com­bi­nation of tech­nical and problem-solving skills that are valuable in the work­place.

“Those together are a big win,” he said “They bring problem-solving skills to the table and find solu­tions where they were not pre­vi­ously apparent.”

He said that while some classics majors go on to attend graduate school or teach at the primary or sec­ondary level, most do neither. 

“Some marry and raise a family,” he said. “If they’re bringing their liberal arts edu­cation into raising children, that’s a success.”

James said club events are in the works, men­tioning a field trip, such as shopping, that would involve instruc­tions spoken in Greek. The club may ded­icate a day to trans­lating Koine Greek, using a familiar text from the Bible. The club has worked with fables from easy Greek readers.

“Those are great because you know when everyone gets it,” James said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, the punchline makes sense now!’”

As a classics major who said he will likely teach in the future, James explained that speaking Greek aloud helps a speaker to under­stand the lan­guage better, taking the lan­guage from a code to be trans­lated to a more acces­sible means of thinking and speaking.

“One of the main objec­tives is to get common words – like ‘to be’ verbs and pro­nouns – to have their own slot in your brain rather than an English equiv­alent that you translate.”

For alumni like Begin, clas­sical lan­guage skills translate into a better under­standing of the modern West.

“By studying the Classics, you have access to so much of Western lit­er­ature because every­thing is built on clas­sical authors,” she said. “Reading Homer, you’re getting back to the foun­dation of things like the ‘Aeneid’ and then ‘Par­adise Lost’ and Dante, all that stuff. So much of what you read  – even in the modern world with things like Harry Potter – all harkens back to the classics.”