Why Joanna Thornhill (SF24) Made Learning—and Teaching—Ancient Languages Her Mission

May 14, 2024 | By Margaret Wilson Merritt (SF22)

Joanna Thornhill (SF24) was fascinated by ancient languages even before attending St. John’s. She studied Latin during high school in Los Angeles, where she learned of the college by listening to “The Partially Examined Life,” a philosophy podcast featuring Annapolis tutor Dylan Casey and Wes Alwan (A93) among their hosts. “When I was in my senior year of high school,” she recalls, “I thought, ‘St. John’s sounds like a good one.’” The rest, as they say, was history, and Thornhill wound up matriculating at the Santa Fe campus. There, she began learning a second language—ancient Greek—and today, she boasts the rare distinction of not only proficiently reading ancient Greek and Latin but deftly conversing in both with fellow linguaphiles.

Joanna Thornhill (SF24)

Thornhill’s mastery of classical languages was swift, but by no means smooth. Toward the end of her freshman year, COVID-19 swept the world and brought in-person learning to a halt. Rather than continuing the Program remotely, Thornhill decided to do a gap year while taking online courses in ancient Greek and Latin. By the summer of 2022, she was participating in Triodos Summer School, an ancient Greek immersion program in the Peloponnese. She had also by this point gained fluency in Latin, which she defines as being able to peruse texts with ease. (When it comes to classical languages, Thornhill explains, “you can’t have the same kind of fluency [as in a modern language], but you can have a clear understanding of written and spoken word.”)

St. John’s has proved instrumental for Thornhill throughout her language journey, which came full circle once she began working as an instructor at Triodos as well as the Ancient Language Institute’s Greek Bible Camp in 2023. Through the Program she was introduced to Greek studies, and many of the school’s de facto classroom texts, including works by authors like Virgil and Descartes, were originally written in Latin. While reading these works in their original form, Thornhill says, one “can experience the whole history of the language and culture because it stays relatively similar through thousands of years of usage—[they’re] unlike languages like English; we can’t simply read Beowulf without knowledge of Old English.”

Naysayers might argue that learning ancient languages isn’t as beneficial to society as mastering contemporary ones. Thornhill, however, views her work as a way of building empathy for people who are different from us, whether they exist in the present or lived thousands of years ago. It’s easy to overlook the humanity of past generations, but Greek and Latin-inscribed texts—whether a long preserved Platonic dialogue or an etched prayer to Asclepius to relieve indigestion—can remind us.

Now completing her senior year Thornhill doesn’t know which career path she intends on pursuing following graduation, but she does know she wants to continue teaching ancient languages. “Learning—especially learning about how other people communicate through time—can make you more thoughtful and open,” she says. “It makes you see the similarities and keeps us informed, and I think that is an intrinsic good.”

Watch Thornhill converse in fluent Latin with Charles Bergman from the Office of Personal and Professional Development in Santa Fe.