Picking It Back Up

Sarcophagus of the Brothers ca. 250 CE (Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

When I started university in the 90s, I took first-year Latin as an elective. When people asked me why, I joked that, “Latin was the sign of an educated man.” I was only half-joking about that, but the truth was that I loved learning Latin. After that first year I was convinced I wanted to be able to read Latin fluently, if not be able to speak it–lack of modern vocabulary notwithstanding.

For a while I even considered switching to the classics department, because I enjoyed it so much. But we all know how this story goes. I didn’t switch majors, I went on with my life, and Latin hit the back burner.

I never really thought about it much over the next few decades, as work and family life took over. Along the way, I moved to Israel and things started to change. Roman history is everywhere here, and other former Roman outposts like Cyprus aren’t far away. Every time I went to Caesarea, or an archaeological exhibit involving ancient Rome, or came across some Latin in a book, I felt a twinge of regret for never going further than I did.

After years of this I’d had enough of the regret and got serious about Latin. I picked up Wheelock’s Latin and Lingua Latina per se Illustrata: Pars I. The former I wanted largely as a reference, and the latter I decided to get after reading about it online.

Lingua Latina: The natural approach

Lingua Latina is one of the most interesting language textbooks I’ve ever read. It’s written purely in Latin, without any translations to help. It’s up to you to read and understand from the context what’s going on and what each word means. There are helpful hints such as a few pictures with words attached to them, comparisons of a new word to its opposite, or a word it’s replacing. A lot, however, depends on understanding the context.

This is a fascinating way to learn a language. It’s simultaneously enjoyable and harder than doing it with a more traditional language textbook. You know how it goes with typical language textbooks. Each chapter has a big vocabulary list with English translations, there’s a long grammar explanation, maybe a paragraph or two of really lame reading, and exercises. Rinse and repeat for 30-some-odd chapters.

Lingua Latina has all of the attributes of a traditional language textbook it just delivers them in a different way. Each chapter gets progressively harder, and they mostly involve stories about a single Roman family. Reading the stories is how you absorb vocabulary and grammar. At the end of each chapter is a short review of grammar (cases, moods, tenses, etc.), and then some exercises. There are no vocabulary lists, no lengthy descriptions of grammar, and no boring paragraphs about food in France or sports in Germany.

A sample page of Lingua Latina

You do have to read and re-read each chapter to make sure you absorb everything it aims to teach you. I refused to consult a dictionary or Google Translate until I’d read each chapter four times or more. Often through repetition I would figure everything out. If I was still having issues after that I’d then turn to a dictionary or secondary source to figure out what a word meant.

This has worked for me so far, but it does require a refusal to give up or gloss over words or phrases that seem complicated. My experience with language learning prior to this has also been helpful. I studied French in grades 6 -12, and I had to take lessons in Italian, German, and French in university to complete my major.

Sufficed to say, I know my way around language classes. I also have all kinds of words bouncing around my head that help me decipher Latin. That said, most English speakers shouldn’t have much trouble with Lingua Latina.

I’m up to Chapter IV right now, and from time to time I hope to chronicle my experiences here. I don’t really have a solid goal about where I’d like to end up with my Latin. I know I’d like to start reading Caesar after I’m done Lingua Latina. When I get to that point, I’ll reassess to see where I’d like to go next. I’m not in any hurry, but I try to keep to a schedule of 30 minutes of Latin a day. It may take me a while to finish Lingua Latina, but I’ll get there in the end.

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