Dead language or not, you can still reap plenty of rewards from learning the Roman tongue. Read on to learn how.
First, why you want to learn Latin?
Are you sure you want to? Latin is not for the faint of heart. It is not a “fun” language that you pick up on your weekend trip to Italy, either.
You’ll need perseverance, grit, dedication, and patience.
Do you want to be able to chop up a sentence to articulate why it “sounds” incorrect? Do you want to attend a High Solemn Mass on Sunday and know what’s being said? Do you want to dive deep into the Classical world and the Roman half of Western Civilization? Do you want to better understand terms from biology and medicine? Or do you want to become a snob (my favourite reason)?
If you’re learning it to find some quick phrases to impress a lover, or you’re writing a book with magic in it and need to name your spells, there are easier paths to take. A good Latin Dictionary will be more than enough for this.
But if you’re looking to be able to speak, write, read, and hear Latin in conversation, then you must be intrinsically motivated and you must have good reasons for learning it. Otherwise, you’ll quit.
Whatever your reason for learning Latin, don’t start before you write it out!
Even Fr. Reginald Foster, who wrote, edited, or reviewed every Latin text which had the pope’s seal at the bottom (former Latinist for the Vatican), made his students sign a written contract for his free Latin classes. It’s serious work. Verba volant, scripta manent. Fantasies float away. Written promises makes you commit.
So ask yourself, what do you wish to learn from Latin? How do you plan on using it? These questions will provide a benchmark for your progress and will help you pick which path to Latin you should take. And then write it out.
Also, don’t rely on others to make the case for you, including myself! There are plenty of Latin apologetics out there, like this, this and this. But since they don’t tell you how they learned Latin, you may not accrue the same benefits!
Okay, enough lecturing. Let’s move on.
Second, pick the method which’ll give you the benefits you want.
The natural learning method, the old school grammar method, the immersion method – all of them have benefits and drawbacks. Let’s go over them.
Learning for Grammar’s sake.
This is what you should do for Oxbridge, snobbery, SATs and study. Get yourself a copy of the Cambridge Latin course, or Introduction to Latin by Shelmerdine. Spend half an hour in the morning every day working through it. Write out the lessons. Answer the practice questions. Teach yourself.
These books are straightforward and simple. I myself used Shelmerdine for my first year Latin in university. British middle and high school students use the Cambridge Course. They’ll guide you through Latin grammar.
By the end of it, you’ll be able to pull apart a sentence, explain the function of each word, and explain how everything fits together. Your understanding of Latin grammar will prove to be a springboard for understanding European languages like English, French, and German. Plus, when you try to pick up Japanese or Hindi, you won’t take as much time slugging through the grammar differences there.
When I first started out, I tried to get through Wheelock’s Latin. But the text was not organized simply, and moved from here to there, so I eventually stopped studying Latin altogether (but only for a while!). It’s a decent textbook, but I wouldn’t recommend it over the ones I mentioned above.
Also keep in mind that the masters of this method, like Dr. Mary Beard (a renowned Classicist) can’t actually read through a new Latin text from start to finish the way that you are reading through this blogpost. They say so themselves! It’s an open secret among classicists. Only take up this method if you want the grammar benefits, not if you want to read Virgil in the original.
Learning for the Church’s sake.
Congratulations! You just hit the jackpot. The church has been teaching and using Latin for 2000 years. You have plenty of resources to help you, and you’ll be using Latin weekly too!
The Latin textbooks I mentioned above use Ancient Roman stories, settings and subjects for vocabulary. Those are fine and dandy, but are not the most helpful for mass or reading Laudato Si in the original. You’ll want to learn vocabulary that you’ll actually hear around you instead.
First, this Catholic blog is a great place to go for free resources, textbooks, and tips. Check them out. Stella is a much better help with the subject than me.
Second, sing in Latin. Can you remember the French/Spanish you learned in school? I can’t. Can you remember the lyrics to the songs you sang in school? I can.
Singing has been the way that humans have memorized stories for a very long time. It’s older than writing. I may not be able to memorize The Aeneid, but I have (more or less) memorized the Mass in Latin – all because I’ve listened to it as an mp3 file on my iPod (I enjoy listening to Gregorian Chant).
The Natural language acquisition method is probably going to suit you better than the grammar method I mentioned above because you will actively be using Latin, not just deconstructing sentences.
This is a book written by Fr Most for seminarians and new students of Latin. You can get it for free here, along with teacher’s guides and answer keys.
Lastly, learn Italian pronunciation.
Ecclesiastical pronunciation is Latin as an Italian would read it aloud. So if you learn how to read Italian (aloud), you’ll learn how to read ecclesiastical Latin as well. The alternative is restored classical pronunciation, which is what modern linguists believe Latin, as spoken by Cicero and his contemporaries, sounded like.
Learning for Virgil’s sake.
If you’re learning Latin because you harbour dreams of reading Cicero in the original, or hearing the steady rhythm of Virgil’s Aeneid, then the Dowling Method is the method for you. It’s also the best method in my opinion. You not only learn grammar, but you also learn how to speak, listen to, read, and write in Latin. Nobody can honestly claim that they know Latin if they can’t talk with it. It’s probably also the quickest way to learn Latin too.
The two best books for this are Lingua Latina and the Fabulae Syrae. These are fascinating books written entirely, ENTIRELY, in Latin. The books use context to teach you the meaning of words. Chapter 1 starts out with simple sentences and grammar. But by the end of the book, you’ll be reading Cicero and Virgil. Literally. The last few chapters are from Roman authors.
Regardless of which program you use, do the following:
Daily practice. You can’t cram a language. You’ll forget the words and the grammar. Set aside, say, 1 hour every day to work on your Latin. I used to rise one hour early every day to do this. Doing this is calming, and you won’t forget the words. Review what you learned the day before, read through the textbook, and do the exercises.
Next, Join groups! Join facebook groups, join discord chats, and find tutors. Reach out! Ask for help. And participate online.
Immerse yourself. Listen to Quomodor Dicitur (a p, check out Scorpio Martianus, listen to Gregorian Chant.
Enjoy it. Do some exploring on your own. Pick up a random book in Latin at the library and see how many words you recognize in the span of 3 pages. Try and apply what you’ve learned around you. If there’s a grammar error that you see, write out why you think it is wrong. Test yourself.