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One of the problems that students of all ages have faced and continue to face during their education is that the language used to transmit and teach knowledge is often not their mother tongue. The most obvious example of this is the English language. English is now indispensable to access a decent level of higher education. Its dominance over all other languages is absolute. So much that in some disciplines it is easier to teach in English than in the ‘national languages’. Just think of medicine, where for years there have been many difficulties in translating terms and expressions used by an English-speaking scientific community that must deal with patients who do not speak English.
English is only the last among the scientific languages that have dominated the European continent. Before came German and French and, before them, Latin. Latin was the uncontested ruler for centuries and centuries and has not yet ceded all its rights to these young contenders.
In the Middle Ages, a good education had to pass through a good knowledge of Latin. The vast majority of the population could neither read nor write, and those who had to deal with this language had a not good command of it. But the monasteries were centres of excellence where Latin was well known and taught.
The Benedictines were particularly strict with monks who made mistakes in grammar or pronunciation. Monks used Latin not only in reciting daily prayers but also in carrying out daily activities. There was an urgent need to teach the best possible Latin as soon as possible to all young people entering the monastery. At that time, nearly all available Latin grammars were in Latin. Therefore, a well-prepared teacher with excellent command of the language was required to overcome this impasse.
One of the most interesting teaching texts to come down to us is the Colloquium Aelfrici, written at the end of the 10th century by Aelfric of Eynsham (c. 957 – c. 1010). Aelfric was one of the most important Old English authors. He was not only a preacher but also a teacher at Cerne Abbey (in present-day Dorset). There he wrote the Colloquium. The Colloquium was a dialogue between a magister (a teacher) and a group of pueri (the teacher’s pupils). It was to be learnt by heart by the students and repeated aloud so that they could put into practice what they had learnt during lessons.
As we said, the monks used Latin in everyday communication. So, the dialogues written by Aelfric’s creative hand were not primarily about religion and liturgy but everyday activities such as fishing, farming, agriculture and hunting. In this way, as in a modern English book, through these dialogues, one refined his knowledge of the language by memorizing vocabulary and learning syntax patterns that he could then revise independently.