The Ultimate Guide to Starting Latin.

This page has all my thoughts on language (mostly Latin) learning and links to what I used to prepare for my Latin exams as a PhD student in theology. Because of the kind of person I am, I probably explored resources more than the average person. Thats just me; you don’t need to do that to pass Latin. Anyhow, I’ll tell you my story along the way and end with some comments on discouragement. The resources here cover both Classical and Ecclesiastical Latin, vocab, and other goodies, tricks, tips.

 

The Great Debate: Learning by the Natural vs Grammatical Method.

This will be an eye opener once you compare both styles of textbooks. For over a century there seems to have been an informal debate among Latin teachers (Greek too?) on the best way to teach latin. Your options are the Grammatical Method vs the Natural Method. 
  • Grammatical Method. This is what most students in seminaries and colleges get when the take a class in Greek, Hebrew, Latin. Each week you focus on a new section of grammar. Often there are practice sentences each week focusing on the grammar at hand. Vocabulary is learned along the way. At some point in the course the instructor will start giving out reading passages… if there is time. Perhaps reading and exegesis is left for a subsequent course.  For example,  “This week we learn nominatives, next week genitives,” so on and so forth.
    • PROS: The reason this is so popular is because many introductory grammars are written this way, and it is easy to assign various chapters into the allotted 10 or 15 weeks of the course. It is EASY to be organized about the language from a teacher’s perspective… easy to know what you are doing at each step… what concepts the student should have a handle on by what point…. what is easier to tackle first…. etc… Furthermore, because many students don’t know grammar, this allows the teacher to teach analogous English grammar concepts so that the student “gets grammar” and can then understand the grammatical discussions that need to be had about the target language (i.e Greek, Hebrew, Latin ).
    • CONS:  The long standing complaint here was that children don’t learn language this way so something must be wrong (see below however). It is also—to use a technical phrase—freaking boring.  The amount of work a student must put in learning odd grammatical terms, memorizing lists, and struggling does not repay the student in terms of the entire reason they took the language class – to read classical or ancient literature! This can produce extreme discouragement for learners at the first couple of stages in a course.  Others have protested that after two or three courses under the grammatical method, many students still can’t read passages in the target language. Finally…. when approached this way many students will never get experience doing what they must do in the exam setting — “putting it all together.”
  • Natural Method. The natural method encourages the student to begin reading & speaking from day one.  It has been suggested by some teachers that the student must begin reading the target language as soon as possible… so as to catch the nature of the language. Somehow the brain pieces together things as one goes along. Vocabulary and grammatical concepts are discussed along the way as they are encountered in the passages.  Lets address the cons first:
    • CONS: First, it should be mentioned that even though children don’t learn language by the “grammatical” method, they also don’t start reading at first. They learn to completely speak their language with a deep proficiency even by kindergarten years and only then do they begin figuring out how to match written language to their natural spoken language. The student of a dead language is trying to do both at once, so it’s not quite “natural.” Another challenge here is that literature does not come watered down for beginning students. Someone very experienced has to carefully water down passages or author passages appropriate for the student at each level. Few authors have the confidence to write or re-write Latin, Greek. Even the simplest passages in the target language will have things that can confuse beginners. It is also difficult to organize a course, and homework surrounding prose. How will the student learn grammar in her own language and the target language? Again, given that many students will be using classical languages for exegesis or careful passage analysis, grammar is important. One needs to have more than a mere gist of what is going on  in a passage.
    • PROS: as already mentioned, the student gets to what they took the class intending to do – read Latin, read, greek, etc..  They get to start week one… reading Latin stories. Boom! By the end of the course the student has spent hours and hours reading … not merely translating practice sentences. The student is more likely to pick up the “flow” of the language or the varieties of different genre’s in a language in a way that practice sentences won’t reveal. Bottom line, if you want to learn how to ride a bike you need to get on the bike and pedal, fall, pedal, etc…
  • Fortunately there are now resources available for both methods and a student can supplement. In all likelihood, students trying to cram Latin, Greek, or German for graduate work are going to get a course of the “grammatical” sort and will have to supplement with natural method sources on their own – if their teacher doesn’t do it for them.

 

And Now.. a Story About Brain Strain & Vocabulary

I met two students at a theological conference. I really did. One said to me that he took his Latin proficiency exam three times while his buddy passed it on the first time. What was the difference? The student suggested that his buddy had focused on learning piles of vocabulary while he had focused on mastering infections (i.e. the way the word endings change for parts of speech). There may be something to this, but it is not as simple as that. From my own experience here is what happens. When you are attempting to read a sentence, if you don’t know what words mean, you must go look them up – mid sentence. There you are trying to hold in your mind the meanings of various words. Now you are trying to get into inflection, and spelling and … and.. and… mayday mayday. One’s operational/active memory can only hold so much at one moment (i.e. recall how you can’t keep more than 7-9 numbers in your active memory at one time) – the same applies to vocabulary meanings held in memory during sentence translation. If you’ve already learned the words, your mind can reallocate that active memory to grammatical translation, overall meaning, etc.. Heck, you may be able to guess the meaning of the sentence if you know enough of the vocab words .. wink wink….

No really, context is huge for comprehension. If you can pick up on the context of a passage because you recognize the words, you’ve grasped an essential part for deciphering the meaning.

Bottom line: POUND OUT TONS OF VOCAB. If you learn enough vocabulary it frees up your mind to focus on grammatical parts.

Enter the Vocab Frequency List.

How should one learn vocabulary?  You’ve only got so much time in your course. Any good grammar book will focus on teaching you the words that occur more frequently in a target language. People began creating these frequency lists in the early 1900’s (earlier?) and they can be found around (some are below). Personally, it seemed that after learning the vocabulary for Moreland and Fleischer, I had covered most of the vocabulary that was in a Latin vocab frequency book I purchased. So a good grammar should do both.

  • Diedrich-Lodge latin frequency vocab list. At the turn of the century it was calculated that this list of words showed up frequently in classical and medieval texts. Learning these words would allow one to recognize 85% of the words in most classical and medieval texts.

Vocabulary Advice

Learning vocabulary can be made easier, but not easy. It is important to know how your brain works. (1) MENOMNICS: Say it with me Neurons that Fire Together Wire Together. If you can learn a vocabulary word along with something else, you will remember – sometimes after the first time. When a student in Greek said she remembered the interrogative ποῦ (where, whither, to where) by thinking of “poo” (i.e. poop that you want know WHERE it is so you don’t step in it) it immediately stuck in my head. It took zero effort to remember it.  (2) VOCAB APPS: QUIZLET is a flashcard app that is free. What makes it better than other apps —> You can find other students vocab lists that go with various textbooks. Seriously, go look for your textbooks vocab lists.. teachers and students have made these lists many times over (you aren’t the only one using your book). This can save you HOURS of time rather than writing out your own cards (yes some people think it helps to learn the word to write it out; I don’t disagree… but is writing it once, versus looking at it a few more times going to make that much difference?). More importantly, the hurried student can download a list and get memorizing immediately. You can be walking out of class memorizing the vocab for this week before you reach the cafe. … rather than putting off vocab till mid week because you don’t have time to pick out or write out cards.  WARNING: at least make sure the list has all the words you need for that lesson, and they are spelled right. 19 times out of 20 they are… but sometimes they are not. Some peoples’ vocab cards are carefully done with all the inflection marks and so on.  CEREGO is an app with a little extra.. a little extra that may get built into other apps by the time you read this. This app allows you to put away cards and words you already know (it does it for you) and more efficiently focus on words you aren’t getting. Thats gold. This speeds up your memorization process. Cerego maps out your progress, and uses algorithms to warn you, based on how long ago you used the app, when you are likely forgetting words versus when you probably have then down cold. The ideal app would have both features.

A picture of the language shelves of my library. 

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A Word (only a short one) about Pronunciation

Many students ideally wish to learn things the right way. They might hesitate at first because they wish to make sure they pronounce Greek or Latin the right way. The rigours of making it through your other graduate work will probably disabuse you of this fetish before long. Easy fix. You’ll pick up pronunciation listening to your teacher and watching videos online. For the average student there are only a few pronunciation differences between Koine or Erasmian pronunciation in Greek or between Classical and Ecclesiastical pronunciation in Latin. Most grammars and instructors will point these out day one. This will fix itself after a few weeks and you won’t think about it after long.

If you are going to work in the Vatican where pronunciation matters, you won’t be reading this blog anyhow.  Here is a picture of an ATM machine from the vatican that used latin.

For most people who intend to work with the language might consider this question. When are you going to be reading Latin or Greek aloud for others? Rarely I assume.  If you can read and comprehend Greek, or Latin, most instructors are going to give you a high five and be glad the legacy lives on. Yes there are the purists who are really in to pronunciation and vocal inflection. Bless. The person on the street is going to stand in awe however you pronounce it. For most students – I say get the basics, and get going… this will sort itself out as you go along.

Ecclesiastical vs Classical Latin

The resources below are for both Classical Latin and Ecclesiastical latin. Latin can be found in use from the classical period, through the Medieval/Ecclesiastical period and down into the Modern Enlightenment era. Sure; styles vary. and individual writers make Latin harder/easier.  For example,  Younger theologians who have done work that required them to translate ecclesiastical Latin have remarked to me that the Vulgate is easy to read; Aquinas is easy to read; Augustine is more difficult due to the quality of his Latin and the Dun’s Scotus is very difficult to read due to his poor quality of his Latin.

However, more than one instructor says that when beginning … getting started is more important than fretting over deciding about classical vs ecclesiastical book. If you are taking a class your prof will pick the book so you won’t have this choice. If you are studying on your own I would say go with Lingua Latina for the natural method (see below) and Wheelock for the grammatical (because there are so many youtube videos to help the self learner … despite people’s complaints about wheelock).

The point however, is that there is enough overlap between both forms of latin for the beginner.. just get started.  Differences/nuances will naturally come out later as one gets into more advanced language.  It is in the style and vocabulary that ecclesiastical Latin will differ from Classical (and of course from classical Latin poetry).

Tools To Learn Latin With.. and Some of My Own Story

I have listed below tools that I personally used. They also happen to be tools that I believe are pretty widely used. I think the natural method books are way more interesting, but likelihood is that you will be assigned a grammar style book as your primary learning tool.

GRAMMATICAL STYLE BOOKS (natural method books are further on down)

  • Moreland and Fleischer – this was the book I used for my first class. I bought a used copy but I think its back in print. What you need to know about this book is that it was created for learning Latin quickly (not necessarily easily) especially for grad students. The authors intensive Latin to grad students and authored the book around this context.  It isn’t designed for high school kids learning latin.  Think of April Wilson’s book German Quickly.
    • Answer key to Moreland and Fleischer’s Latin Grammar. If you look hard enough you can find a second answer key as well.
    • I tore out the back. M & F have a grammar guide in the back. I tore it out and carried it around like a sort of grammar quick reference.
  • Wheelock’s Latin 7th ed – After I took part of one summer course I forgot much latin and took a second course later. I took a live video course with the Erasmus Academy (see below). We went through Wheelock even though MOST of us were seminary or theology PhD students. Wheelock is THE most widely used Latin grammar. I can’t imagine how much cash the family has made off this book. As of this blog there are 7 editions. I took a class using this book but my prof suggested going with edition 6 because you could get it for so cheap and its not like they haven’t created a quality book by the SIXTH edition!  
    • Answer Key – because Wheelock is so popular, you can find answers from teachers, and answer keys around. If you work with an older edition this is more likely.
    • NOTE: because the book is so widely used, you can also find the most resources that go along with Wheelock. Whole video courses online teachers have made for high school students who they are teaching from Wheelock.
    • Dale Grote’s – A Comprehensive Guide to Wheelock’s Latin. You can buy this book for $20. If you look hard you can find Grote’s old pre published copy in text online .. like here.  This is sort of like having complete notes of all the things a teacher says that aren’t in the grammar book. Grote explains all the basics of grammar for English students who may not know otherwise. If you are doing Latin on your own; I’d get this. I have it as a google book.
  • John Collins Ecclesiastical Latin  – so here you have latin grammar focused on ecclesiastic texts. This doesn’t mean that if you are learning latin for theology that Wheelock’s won’t work for you as a beginner. It will, however, have Christian theological vocab and passages Wheelock won’t even though there will be much gramatical overlap

NATURAL STYLE BOOKS

  • Lingua Latina – allow me to introduce you to an amazing set of books. Click the link and then click the Google Books preview on this page. This is a full blown latin course at several levels that has the student reading latin from day one. Only Latin. This is probably the highest quality natural learning set of books out there. It has a polished feel to it. I think a Latin student should grab at least the first book and read through as much of it as they can if they are taking a class with a grammatical style grammar.
  • Latin by the Natural Method – many people have good things to say about Fr. Most’s books. I used chunks out of vol 1 and 2. I can’t attest to what these books are like once one has gotten beyond the first year, but many people have only good things to say about this book set. Several of the readings in this set are ecclesiastical in nature unlike the other two natural latin books above and below.
    • (FREE) All three original PDF versions of Most’s three volumes are available online at a French latin teaching website with many others resources. SEE HERE
  • Reading Latin – Peter Jone’s Reading Latin was republished in 2016. It has the same sort of feel as Latin by the Natural Method… so it gets the student reading latin from day one with a running story they can follow much like Lingua Latin. Again I worked through only the first few chapters, but liked it very much. Using all of the resources above gave me a rich set of easy beginning latin to read. 
  • 38 Latin Stories – this book supplements Wheelock but it has readings in latin the first of which are very simple. It’s only a little book.

Why I Disagree with My First Language Prof.

The first classical language I took was Greek. My prof suggested to NOT use multiple textbooks but to stick with just one. I disagree:

  • If you are really struggling to learn the language on your own, my may desperately need practice sentences for certain grammatical concepts and the answers to those sentences to see if you are getting things right. This is especially for the grad student who may feel very much on their own. This is a reason that having 2 or 3 grammars and the answer keys helps. You just can’t wait till the next course to find out that you were wrong four days ago. Graduate life is too fast paced, especially if like me your course is only 10 weeks long.
  • Second, some authors explain concepts better than others. Someone may have a chart or a diddy, or a song or an explanation that just helps the concept to CLICK.
  • Warning… you can waste time looking for other books. I still think having multiple books helps.

I Wish the Latin Vulgate Bible Was Organized by Grammatical Concept.

Here you go … thanks Dr. Laura Gibbs.

Online Courses – Check This!!

I took my first latin course in a classroom. I finished most of it but withdrew 80% of the way through. I then took a second course using Wheelock through the Erasmus Academy. I find both courses equally helpful. I did not feel one or the other was better.

  • Erasmus Academy – As a student at Fuller Seminary, not every language was offered every summer. I met the founder of Erasmus (Peter D. at an ETS conference as we were eyeing the same book). He invited me to check them out. The course I took was taught by Ben. DeSmidt, who was a real classics prof with years of experience. We met live by Skype each week and worked through Wheelock 6th ed. Ben provided video recordings of his lectures after we were done. I felt as if the weekly work was more helpful, and the exam was a bit easier. The cost of the courses were less than I would pay to take the same course at Fuller, so it was a real deal.  I would absolutely recommend Erasmus for the graduate student looking for a language course. NOTE: I do believe learning in a LIVE synchronous class or a live face to face class is the BEST way to go… unless you’ve already learned several languages. You’ll have questions every day that you need to ask – and if you try to learn on your own you won’t be able to. 
  • New Saint Andrews Latin Course Online – I’ve seen a few students talk about this resource. It is not free but it is an entire Latin course with high quality vocabulary cards and instructional videos. I tried it when it was brand new. I found it enjoyable, fresh, nicely done… but for some reason it didn’t lock me in more than working through a textbook.
  • Latin Per Deum (see below) has a video course now I believe.

Latin Instructional Video’s – Keith!

  • Dr. Keith Massey’s Lessons.  Keith Massey explains Latin in a way that is somehow calming. He has 45 or so videos of core Latin Grammatical concepts. Dr. Massey takes it nice and slow in his explanations. I often would watch throughout the day or just listen to him in my car driving.
  • Latin Per Deum – Dr. David Noe gives you hundreds of videos 4min or less where he exegetes a passage of Latin. Goldmine. The only problem here is that not everything will be aimed at absolute beginners. Just keep coming back.
  • latintutorial.com Latintutorial.com has high quality, clear, and succinct grammatical videos.
  • For Wheelock- if you simply google, you’ll find various latin teachers entire video courses out there.

Handouts for Individual Grammatical Concepts

Classical Texts Online

  • The Latin Library – online texts of the books of 54 classical authors.
  • Downloadable Loebs You can download the entire Loeb Classics library in PDF format! (Scanned by Google)
  • Perseus Digital Library at Tufts… welcome to the world of professional classics. You took your first course on how to swim. This is the Pacific ocean.
  • Aquinas.cc – The Aquinas Institute has been working on new translations of Aquinas’s works. They have put online a side by side Latin/English parallel of their translation. They’ve done most of the Summa, Contra Gentiles, and other works

Dictionaries & Lexicons

In my fist Latin class Andrew Selby advised us to purchase the Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary as a first time dictionary. I also found that the Collins Latin Concise dictionary (2nd ed) was nice and small with ample extra resources for a good all in one book. Both are quite affordable on Amazon and the size of a regular paperback rather than a large dictionary. The Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin by Leo Stelten was also recommended for those doing theological work and find the above to dictionaries insufficient in their definitions.

  • lexilogos.com/english/latin_dictionary.ht This site has several links to dictionaries including Perseus.
  • online-latin-dictionary.com   This is an excellent dictionary. Not only will it find Latin forms, it will give you a link that allows you to see the full paradigms and declensions for the word you’ve searched.
  • Whitaker’s Words is a magical little tool that teachers warn one not to use until they’ve gone through their course and learned the forms on their own. This is also found online here.

Free Older Latin Grammars & Textbooks

So … as a post-Enlightenment human, you think everything new is great. However, homo sapiens have been speaking latin for over 2000 years. They’v had latin down for centuries. Today all educated people learn to use computers – at one time they all learned Latin. So you’ll find piles of public domain books with all.the.same.Latin in it. For what its worth, during my first class, I was required to get Allen and Greenough’s Latin. I used it some… some… it felt really thorough. The formatting is the most off putting thing  about older texts.

Moving Beyond Grammar to Reading.

In my own life it has taken at least two quarters/semesters to get enough language under my belt to pass an exam at the graduate level. There are “graded” (i.e gets harder and harder) reading books for any language out there.

  • Reading Latin – by Keith Sidwell has many texts and explanations of the contexts and uses of those text from a Medieval world context.
  • The Vulgate – for Christian readers this is an obvious place to turn. You’ll have a crutch if you know the Bible verses in English because you’ll know what is going on in a passage before you start.
  • 38 Latin Stories – this really belongs earlier. You can start reading this during year one.

Advice on Discouragement

Learning languages can be the worst.  This is from a guy who somehow can look back now having taken Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Modern German, Latin, and Logic (instead of French). So get this. I took Greek for two semesters at Dallas Seminary. I forgot everything. When I did an MA in philosophy I retook the first two semesters of Greek and then another two. When my wife went to law school I took a semester of Hebrew. I forgot everything except for the first verse of Genesis I’d memorized. When I was accepted into the PhD program at Fuller it was probationary to my taking and passing Hebrew 1 and 2 the first two semesters. Which I did. I took German one summer and didn’t pass the German exam (that is while I was taking Logic instead of French). I later took German again and passed my exam… while I was taking an graduate logic course instead of French. I took most of a Latin course using Moreland and Fleischer before dropping it. Later I took a second course, did all of Wheelock online with Ben Desmidt. I passed Latin.

Find Motivation. I found motivation in the fact that if I learned latin I would have 2000 years of western literature open to me. Learning Latin was like coming home. All kinds of odd terms and scholarly phrasing lost their mystical nature as I learned their mother tongue. German was exciting because it was a real world language and it was  a spoken/living language. Greek/Hebrew of course allow you to read the Bible or again delve into the classical world. I also found motivation in having paid money for a course. For me…that was a motivation to learn Greek during my philosophy MA when it was not required.

Study With Others. Find someone who seems to know their stuff. Study with them. Verbalizing will help you remember content. Teaching others will help you learn content.

Everyone else is stressed and is hiding it. If you are a graduate student trying to pass language exams, remember that you are surrounded by people with the same fears and anxieties. Many of them don’t show it on their faces, and you probably don’t show it on yours, even though you may be bleeding with anxiety on the inside.

Suddenly one day you will have passed. I remember thinking that high school graduation would never come. Then one day high school was over. I remember the years of college; suddenly it was over. Would I get a masters? Then I had two, and then three. Most of my years doing PhD work have been emotionally agonizing – and struggling through language was part of that pain. I remember thinking that I would break down and cry right in the middle of campus… if I passed my latin exam. I did.not.believe.I.could.ever.pass it. I just knew it was going to take two or three attempts. Somehow I passed on the first try.  Suddenly I was standing there reading an email saying “You’ve passed”  rejoin the human race and get on with your life.

(Perhaps I should point out for some readers, that at Fuller—and many other schools—one has to pass a reading exam. This is a bit different than a professor who has been teaching you all quarter, knows what the class can handle and gives a test aligned to what has been taught. This was someone else handing me something to read and then grading it. My having passed the final exam of a Latin or German class did not count. [I won’t comment on it here, but from my experience in the instructional design world, there is merit to having separate/ external evaluation.]

Some of you have it harder. I recall meeting some students in the DeSmidt class who said they only had to pass the class and they got credit. No additional exam was given by their own institution. Must be nice. Other schools wanted only two languages. Must be nice. Ours wanted three. Several friends took language exams in languages that they spoke natively. Must be nice. I only spoke English. Then again I had things going for me that others did not. My point is you are surrounded by people struggling with the same things. You can do this. If you don’t pass. Do it again. Many of the most successful people around you are not people who sailed forward (I do know a few sail forward people)… but are people that just kept moving forward despite troubles.

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