This post is a part of my Personal Development Project for May 2016.
I got hit by a new wave of language lust the other day. Every other week or so I get an itching to study some new language, usually unprompted and without a sensible reason. This week’s sultry provocateur: Latin.
I try to trust myself and give in to these weird cravings as often as I can. And so within moments of being overwhelmed with a sudden desire to learn Latin, I was browsing Amazon to see what resources they had available.
I saw lots of textbooks, workbooks, grammar references, and parallel readers. Same old, same old. But there were so many things to choose from, and each book seemed to have its own pros and cons. And so it made me wonder (hypothetically, of course!). What exactly do I want in a Latin textbook? Or rather…
What does “learning Latin” mean to me, and how do I do it?
Today I’m going to think about what “learning Latin” would mean for me, and then outline a plan for how I would go about doing it. This is mostly an exercise in critical thinking, goal setting, and problem solving (just for fun because I’m a total nerd), but by the end of it I may end up jumping in and learning some Latin! So let’s get started. What does “learning Latin” mean? How do I do it?
The 4 skills of language acquisition
When learning a living language, we typically have to learn four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. You have to work at acquiring each skill.
But Latin is a dead language, as we all know. Nobody speaks it nowadays (except for people in the Vatican. Supposedly.). So that means I can toss listening and speaking out the window. That leaves two skills — reading and writing. But I can’t think of why I would ever have to (or even like to) write something on-the-spot in Latin. I just don’t care about writing in Latin. So that means I only have to learn one skill if I embark on learning Latin: reading.
So for me, “learning Latin” means “learning to read Latin”. Cool. What do I want to read? Well, classical Roman philosophy is interesting, but I mostly care about Medieval and “New Latin” (stuff written in 1300-1900) texts.
I want to learn to read Medieval and “New Latin” works in the original.
Clear and simple goal. So how do I achieve it? What’s the best way to study Latin so I can read Medieval and Early Modern texts?
Roughly, my idea for learning would be:
- Familiarize myself with the grammar.
- Supplement grammar study with some light, easy reading to get exposure to “real” Latin.
- After I feel comfortable with an overview of Latin grammar, jump right into reading what I’m interested in.
- Input all new/unknown words into an SRS (a “spaced repetition system” like Anki or Memrise) program to review daily.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 ad infinitum.
It seems too simple, right? Well, it is and it isn’t.
The cool thing about reading is that it’s about recognition. You just have to be able to recognize words in context. Ideally, I’d do this not by drilling or memorizing Latin grammar, but by training myself to recognize the patterns of Latin grammar.
Latin has this thing called “cases”. English used to have them too a long, long time ago, but it lost them. Almost all of them, anyway.
What’s the difference between “I” and “me”? Have you ever thought about it? There’s no difference, really. It’s just grammar. Very crudely put, you use “I” at the beginning of the sentence and “me” at the end. “I” is a subject pronoun. “Me” is an “everything else” pronoun. The same thing happens with “he” and “him” (“she” and “her”, “we” and “us”, “they” and “them”). Grammatical cases make words change depending on how they’re used or where in the sentence they fall.
If you’re interested in understanding more about grammatical cases, check out this article.
So anyway, Latin has 6 cases and 5 declensions (sets of words that take the same case endings). They’re usually organized as follows (the vocative case is excluded in this table):
If I’m trying to memorize Latin grammar, this is a great way to organize this information. Everything is grouped by declension. But the thing is, I don’t want to memorize Latin grammar. I just want to be able to recognize it. I just want to read!
The grammar should be organized differently. It should be put together in a way that I can learn to recognize patterns of meaning. Here’s a quick table I put together to illustrate my point:
(Note: I purposefully ignored the difference between long and short vowels. They aren’t always marked in texts, so I’m assuming I won’t need to know the difference in order to differentiate meaning.)
See, I just looked for patterns and condensed them into this nice little chart. I can take all that information in the first picture, and turn it into two small tables like this one. Easy enough, right? Let’s look at what all this data means though.
What do singular nouns in the nominative case look like, generally speaking? They end in -is, -es, and -us, it seems. So if I see a word that ends in vowel + S, I could very well assume it’s the subject of the sentence.
Singular nouns in the genitive case often end in -i, it seems. Singular nouns in the accusative characteristically end in a vowel + M. Singular nouns in the ablative case will always end in a vowel. And so on.
The idea is to look for patterns, come up with associations to help you remember them, and then let experience fill in the gaps. There’s no need to group nouns by their declensions unless I plan on memorizing them. Since I want to recognize meaning, the best plan is to group things based on their meaning, and learn to recognize the patterns.
Getting started reading
So this is the beginning of my plan: get familiar with the grammar. I have to get a sense for the logic of the language. It should take me some 2-3 weeks of reviewing everyday to get comfortable with the grammar. I’d supplement the grammar overview with easy reading — either with free resources online (short and simple myths in Latin) or maybe with Orberg’s Lingua Latina book. This will help me put the grammar into context, it will make it more real. It will also help me start learning vocabulary. And then, after I’m satisfied with my understanding of Latin grammar, I would just start reading what I want.
I’d get a dual language text for, say, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and then begin reading with a dictionary. I’d write down every word I don’t know (and an example sentence using the word in context), and then input it in an SRS program to review daily until I know it. And I would keep doing this over and over.
Maybe it sounds boring or crazy, but I did something similar when I was learning Portuguese. I ordered a couple books that I was interested in reading in Portuguese, and I went through with a dictionary and made flashcards for all the words I didn’t know. After about a month of this, everything got unbelievably easier. Only one or two words in every sentence were new to me because most words repeated themselves. After about two months, I was only making one flashcard every other page or so. And I was engaged in what I was doing because it was still interesting for me. The book was interesting, and I loved seeing how much I progressed.
I think I could very easily be reading St Augustine and Thomas More in the original within 3 months if I wanted to. The real question is do I want to? Do I want to commit to learning Latin?
Some final thoughts
Language learning is personal. I estimated that it’d take me 3 months to be happily and comfortably reading St Augustine in Latin if I committed to this plan I laid out. But it may take others more time, or even less. We all have different strategies for learning. Especially when it comes to languages, learning is a very personal matter. Only you know what’s best for you.
I laid out this plan because I didn’t love any of the textbooks out there for learning Latin. I wanted to see if I could come up with a better strategy. If I do end up committing to learning this language, I’ll use the strategy I presented here, and then report back with my findings.
It’s fun to think through problems and come up with alternative solutions. But sometimes we feel cornered into thinking that if we spend time coming up with a new solution to a problem, we have to implement it. We feel obliged because otherwise we just “wasted our time”. And this pressure sometimes keeps us from thinking at all. It’s a form of Resistance.
I feel no pressure to learn Latin right now. If I want to, I have a strategy lined up. In fact, if I ever want to learn in the future, the work of “getting started” is already done. And if my interest in Latin dies tomorrow and never returns, that’s fine. Because thinking through how I would ideally go about learning Latin was an exercise in problem solving and critical thinking. Both of those skills are easily transferable. Problem solving and critical thinking are valuable things to practice.
After all this, Latin is still a pretty sexy language.
I’ll definitely be spending some more time with it. I’ve already got Excel open to create more condensed grammar tables.
I also suddenly want to create a similar “hypothetical” plan for learning Japanese to compare and contrast. Phew, this is going to be a fun week. A heartfelt bonam fortunam to me…