There a million of these pieces online and I suspect the fact that, when it comes to learning the languages – that is, becoming able to access the heart of the ancient world[1] – there is far, far, too much talking about doing and not enough actual doing. I am loath to add to the troth. In my defence I shall keep this general (there will be no shilling for specific books) and, hopefully, useful. Why me? Why listen to me? First, I think it is clear I have proved my proficiency across both our classical tongues time and time again, from philological excision to spontaneous composition. Unlike some people writing these sorts of guides I actually know the languages. Second, don’t. Don’t listen to me. Just grab a book and read ffs.  

What are we going to do here then? We will skip the usual rigamarole about why you ought to learn Latin and lay out how to learn Latin beyond the paltry level of an ex public school boy. Most guides, like this one, will not get you very far. If you want the ability to pick up and read a broad variety of texts from antiquity to the present and exhibit some philological acumen, you are going to have go a bit beyond the parse-and-hope-and-oh-fuck-it-check-a-translation method.[2] The real trick is to ensconce yourself in the language and use it productively. Anyway, the plan is to produce one of these for Latin and, if there is demand, one for Greek and then a final one on how to develop that technical philological sense. If you can’t handle papyri and epigraphy, you don’t know the languages; if you can’t feel your way through an Umbrian inscription, you don’t know…you get the idea.

Before we begin, I need to leave the inevitable disclaimer. There are untold riches online nowadays and there is no way I can cite even a fraction of what will make people happy. I am not aiming to be thorough, quite the opposite. If you have any arguments with this piece, ok, I accept your wisdom. You are right.

Laying the grammatical foundations

Pick a book. It really does not matter. I said I do not want to talk about specific books and that is true but to some extent it can’t be avoided. The Cambridge Latin Course is perhaps the most well-known series in the anglosphere but it is human faeces wrapped in the flayed skin of an elderly care home patient. It has not one, not two, but five (5!!!) volume at god knows how much and simultaneously fails at teaching both grammar and discursive reading. A tremendous feat! I have never met anyone who used this course with passable Latin. There’s a new course called Suburani but this is like the Cambridge with the pictures in colour from what I can see. Avoid courses designed for modern schools. They are shit, they are expensive, and they are designed to operate in a rapacious manner that benefits from risk adverse school boards weighed down by sunk cost fallacies.

America does better here. Wheelock’s is much maligned, but it will present and explain the grammar, give you ample exercises, and some extra readings. It is much better than any modern British equivalent. It will suffice for stage one. I am a little unsure as to what else is used over there.

Do I have any actual suggestions? It does not matter, really, what book you use for this stage. Nothing will give you a working vocabulary.[3] Nothing will present you with enough exercises. Nothing will give you enough reading practice.[4] The aim is to find something cheap (so fuck off with five volumes Cambridge you vultures) that will give you the rudiments in a clear manner. If you are willing to read from a screen there are any number of out of copyright books (available on GoogleBooks or Archive.Org etc) that would work very, very, well. Something like this is great.

Take this phase seriously, for however long it lasts. You are unlikely to finish a textbook outside of a classroom setting. I am told that is statistically the case at least. But you ought to at least try. What do I mean by seriously? You should be writing out and reciting grammatical paradigms and you certainly should be thoroughly learning your principal parts. OK, we’re done right? After all, in the contact of a modern university you have completed a textbook (nominally) and should now be ready to tackle real texts.

Theoretically you could do something like cram the 1200 or so most common Latin words and then tackle Pharr’s Aeneid commentary for students. This is somewhat in line with modern pedagogy, at least in the universities.[5] It would be unpleasant; you would not really be reading in any meaningful sense but decoding. Let’s move on.

Learning how to read

How many people do you know who are good readers? How many in a foreign language? I do not think I have ever met an ESL familiar with the length and breadth of English literature, and yet we expect to throw fledgling Latinists out of the nest and towards the summit of the language’s literature.[6] No, you need experience in reading Latin. You need a chance to consolidate the language and developing an intuition for the rules and patterns and sounds before you can tackle great literature and the problems of linguistics.

Your next step involves broad, easy, reading. Again, there are a number of freely available options online (take a look here) but I am going to suggest Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina. This is a much lauded, little read, textbook and I am not going to sit her singing its praises (it has been reviewed ad nauseam) but I will briefly defend putting it here. It is an excellent book and entirely in Latin but I suspect that people stall much more often than its partisans would admit. Having spent some time with another textbook beforehand should give the neophyte Latinist a margin of safety whilst working through this. At the very least it should make the early chapters a more pleasant experience. I also expect the vast majority of people do not do the exercises. This is a mistake; at least give them a go. This likewise applies to the second volume, Roma Aeterna.[7]

This is not the place for a lengthy discussion on how to best use the text. There are many online and besides the textbook is, I think, fairly intuitive and works wonders providing you are willing to revise and re-read. There is also this fantastic playlist which really brings the text alive.

Many complain about the difficulty jump from Familia Romana to Roma Aeterna and recommend you step away from the textbooks and pick up some of Ørberg’s editions of texts. You can do this, but if you have already done a textbook and been assiduously attempting the exercises and re-reading whenever you get stuck this should not be a problem. At the very least, start by reading some of freely available readers linked above and then returning to RA. If you lift weights deloading is a very good analogy.[8] Remember the idea is to spend as little (time/money) on textbooks as possible. [9] Sadly this book is somewhat less served in terms of audio/visual resources online but I think the recordings of lessons using it, available here, should be somewhat helpful.

Let us shoot the elephant in the room. I have not once mentioned comprehensible input or terms like grammar-translation. The debate is tiresome, not least since it is dominated online by one side. I do not care. You should not care. Use every tool available to you. The combination of a solid grammatical framework, lots and lots of easy reading, and a functional vocabulary (Lingua Latina gives you something like 2000 base words) will set you on the right path.

Aside: Spoken Latin?

“Active” and “passive” are not binary oppositions but fundamentally reinforce one another in any language learning. In fact, much of the torturous inheritance of traditional methods of instruction in the Anglosphere is because the British system was traditionally geared towards prose and verse (“long and shorts” i.e elegiacs) composition. Good writers are good readers are good writers. I believe you absolutely should try your hand at oral Latin (at the very least you should make aural Latin a part of your study. Maybe this is something I will write more on later, but for now some quick tips.

I am old enough to remember having to physically go to Latin speaking circles in cafes with bitter coffee and dodgy pubs and physically interact with people. I suspect COVID-19 has all but killed the last of these places and you’d be much better off looking for rooms via Reddit, Discord, ClubHouse etc. In a way this is a shame – I formed friendships that have lasted well over a decade and been conducted (almost) entirely in Latin but at least the digital economy offers modern convenience. So, yes, I would encourage you to hop on and get started. I am told that most people are incredibly welcoming. I have yet to receive an invite 😦

How do you actually get started speaking? How do you go from “there are pirates in the Adriatic who are desirous of theft and rapine” to asking how someone finds the weather? We did it the old fashioned (read inefficient, circuitous etc) way: we mined dramatic authors like Plautus and Terence, the letters of Cicero and Fronto, read “phrasebooks” and just went at it.[10] You should be able to speed up your own route to speaking by making use of textbooks specially geared towards it. Traupman’s Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency is a common choice and certainly not a bad one, though some of the neologisms therein are monstrous. I often hear Berard’s Vita Nostra bruited about and though I have only read the sample it too seems sound. Both of these are more accessible and cheaper than common recommendations like the Assimil and if you really like you can save even more money by aiming at old public domain versions (search around for colloquia). I advise you to have a look at how other people have done it.

A huge part, perhaps the largest, of conversing is listening well. As Zeno of Citium said we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.[11] This is another area where the internet has ­immeasurably improved things: there are a large number of fantastic podcasts and other resources, so much so the only one I will directly recommend is Satura Lanx. The hostess speaks incredibly well and has a series dedicated to beginners. This is your best starting point. I am openly partial to Scorpio Martianus and Legio XIII but I am unsure as to how approachable these are for beginners.

What to read: the cursus textum

I recently read an institutional blog post from someone recounting their experience teaching a graduate survey of texts and how the thought of that made them so anxious they burst into tears. I am not going to comment on that, and I admire the way they stepped up and made some innovative changes to their pedagogy. It is overall a story of triumph. I want to talk about avoiding that feeling. After all, Latin literature is a vast corpus that exists pretty much up until the present day. How do you situate yourself in it? How do you develop a good base from which to spring to and fro?

Previous ages solved this issue in that there was a more or less stable cursus textum that you could follow before being released onto Latin at large. This idea has fallen out of favour. The texts themselves are often considered boring or only to have appealed to boys. More esoteric criticisms point out that many of these selections were made for the training of British civil servants during the empire or as preparatory work for prose composition. Sure, ok. It does not matter.[12] The simple truth is some texts are simply easier than others – who is starting beginners on renaissance humanist letters or Prudentius? Who?– and some texts are more influential and therefore pay dividends down the line (Caesar and Cicero became canons of style for a reason).

To recap, if you have followed the suggested path, you have a) seriously tackled a grammar focused textbook and diligently applied yourself to mastering the paltry vocabulary contained therein. You then b) picked up the Lingua Latina series and should therefore have a sizeable working vocabulary and a much more intuitive sense of the grammar and syntax. Sure, you will not be ready to edit an OCT any time soon, but the language feels comfortable. Now you can stay comfortable and indulge in any of the many readers, Ørberg’s or otherwise, but you must take the training wheels off sometime.

There are many snake oil salesman on this bird app telling you that you can achieve Latinity without any struggle or effort – this would have been news to the Romans! What survives is often the equivalent of our Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes etc and you can see how many native English speakers can comfortably tackle such authors. You will need to expend some effort but by now you are more than ready for the task (which is after all a very pleasant one).  In fact, thanks to Roma Aeterna, you have even had some small exposure to the authors you are able to tackle.

Start with Caesar. In fact, you want to spend some time hitting Caesar, Nepos, and Cicero before you break out onto verse and the broader Latin world. Caesar’s Gallic Wars are, I think, on the whole easier than his Civil War and definitely more interesting. It has been the neophyte text since time immemorial and there are several freely available commentaries. This one by Steadman comes well recommended  though like the Ørberg edition it only covers a small part of the text. You might find the in usum delphini series more helpful.[13] These texts are written entirely in Latin and cover a very wide variety of authors. Next pick anything by Nepos, though I think his Life of Pomponius Atticus may be one of the best introductions to the aristocratic milieu of the late Roman Republic. I think I myself read his Hannibal first and then his Cato from an old 1920’s school text. Either way, he is a good, clear, author, nowadays seldom read which much to offer. Finally, Cicero. His pro Caelio is the standard introduction though the internet seems to prefer his Catilinarians (also good). Either option is fine. Cicero is much maligned on the internet for all his rhetoric brilliance and effusive influence, but you owe it to yourself to spend a little time with him and now you will at least have the rare distinction of actually having read some of his work beyond the excerpts in a textbook next time people are pulling out the tired “hur durr where is the verb!! Dur!!” meme.

That’s effectively it. Traditionally at this stage you would start reading expansively whilst honing specific aspects of the language in your study. We will eventually come to that, but I want to write something similar for Greek first.  

[1] Look we’re not going to indulge the archaeologists and historians here. Yes, these are very important subfields of the Classics and you are not a Classicist in any meaningful sense if you are able to do nothing but read literature…but the languages offer an unparalleled access. There can be no argument here. I am sorry that they are difficult.

[2] Very few texts, all said and done, even have translations.

[3] You need around 1200 or so words to start comfortably reading. Most textbooks seem to top out around 500.

[4] Learning to read a language is not the product of any one book but a library.

[5] Probably not because Latin is taught by people who hate Latin and students, but due to the fact that most beginners of Latin nowadays start ab initio at a university and there are all sorts of administrative problems with which to contend. Could you create good Latinists running through Moreland & Fleischer’s Latin: An Intensive Course and then jumping into the Aeneid? Yes, absolutely. Would you create many? Hmm.

[6] I wish I could spend more time on this point…

[7] I am old enough to own a CD rom of the exercises lol.

[8] Stuck? Stop, go back two chapters. Re-read. Consolidate. Come back to it.

[9] I am not cheap, but I remember what it was like to work minimum wage jobs while being a student. Save your money for books that you will read and re-read like Lingua Latina or student editions of classical texts.

[10] I just checked and it turns out Meissner is available (legally?) online: enjoy!

[11] δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

[12] There are many excellent works on the history of classical scholarship (Sandys, Wilamowitz) but few know of or read histories of classical education (including myself). Christopher Stray has produced a few books/articles on the schooling system in the UK and I do pretty consistently recommend Waquet’s Le latin, ou L’empire d’un signe which looks at Western Europe more broadly.

[13] Named such because they were collated for the education of the son of Louis XIV (he died before reaching the throne). The heir apparent of France was referred to by the title dauphin (dolphin, hence delphinus latine) due to an odd condition appended to the sale of an manorial estate.


One thought on “How to Learn Latin Well

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s