The Busy Student’s Method for Learning Latin

benefits of learning latin

It seems to be a rule that those who want to learn Latin are always very busy. I’ve taught fellow graduate students who have had to cram Latin homework between full-time studies, part-time work, and family meals. I’ve taught middle schoolers for whom Latin lessons vied for attention with sports, music, and math worksheets. I’ve often struggled myself to find time for keeping up my own Latin reading, not to mention making progress in it.

Now, none of these difficulties should keep anyone from learning Latin, for the gains far outweigh the cost of the labor. I’d learn all my declensions and conjugations over again simply to hear Aeneas raise the courage of his shipwrecked men (Aeneid 1:198–207). And I’d labor twice as long for the privilege of re-reading Calvin’s masterful Reply to Sadoleto in its original.

But I would be the last to claim that these privileges are cheaply purchased. They come at a great cost, and especially a cost of time. The question before the busy Latin student, then, is how can I make the wisest investment of the short time that I have?

The Slower, Harder Method for Learning Latin

In learning Latin, all roads lead to Rome, but not all roads are equally smooth and straight. The method most frequently used today starts with cramming grammar and vocabulary and then progresses right to laborious translation of unadapted classical Latin.

The advantage of this method is its emphasis on grammatical analysis, which is a useful skill in its place. But the disadvantages can be shown by asking a simple question: How many who have learned Latin this way currently read it for pleasure? Or with a fluency anything like that of reading English? In my experience, very few. And why? Because this method doesn’t actually teach reading, only analysis. It gives helpful strategies for explaining a sentence’s parts, but does not allow a direct encounter with that sentence’s meaning. The Aeneid is a grammatical puzzle to be solved, not an epic poem to be recited. Or to put it another way, Latin is always deciphered, never simply heard and understood.

Therefore, if this common method is chosen as the road to Latin reading, the trek will be much more long and arduous than it need be.

The Faster, More Effective Method

The safer, quicker, and more delightful path is what many call “living” or “active” Latin. These names can be misleading, for the point is not that Latin is to become a living language again, such that one could order a pizza in it. Nor is this method brand new, though its proponents are often quite creative. Rather, it represents an eclectic borrowing from many centuries of education, from Roman grammar catechisms to Humanist colloquies, as well as from the modern discipline of linguistics and the experience of those who teach living foreign languages. The main idea of the method is that the goal of learning Latin is fluent reading comprehension, and in teaching Latin we should adopt the means best suited to that end.

Not surprisingly, the first among these means is reading itself. For example, in one popular textbook, students begin from the very first chapter reading paragraph after paragraph, and by the end of the book have read nearly three hundred pages of good Latin prose. The second volume gives hundreds more pages of practice, gradually increasing the difficulty until students are reading unadapted Livy and Cicero with success. The two textbooks come with a variety of excellent supplements, and using all these resources, a good teacher should be able to lead willing students to fluent Latin reading over the equivalent of four college semesters. This is just one illustration of this method’s focus on reading: for more, consider this article on the concept of “extensive reading.”

The second, and sometimes more controversial, aspect of this rise of “active” pedagogy is the use of spoken Latin. Speaking Latin is becoming more popular each year: consider this article on the movement and this list of opportunities to speak Latin (and Greek) this summer. And as this article persuasively argues, this growth is for good reason. Spoken Latin is an easy way to encounter and practice grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, and even better, to internalize it. Moreover, producing their own Latin gives readers better insight into the mind of Latin writers and they choices that they made.

In addition, speaking Latin is simply fun, which makes it no small help to us as we persevere in learning it. And the tool of speech allows the teacher nearly infinite options for creative learning: singing, skits, games, conversations, debates, recitation, and so on. Sometimes these activites can take on a life of their own, but when Latin speaking is kept subordinate to the goal of fluent Latin reading, it really is an excellent tool for building that fluency. I intend to do plenty of Latin speaking with the students in Davenant’s May 21-29 Intermediate/Advanced course, as does Jonathan Roberts in his July 6-14 Intro course.


So for busy Latin students, I cannot recommend a better use of time than a “living” approach to learning Latin, one that uses extensive reading and creative speaking to arrive at the goal toward which all Latin instruction should be aimed: the reading of real, historic Latin texts with profit and with pleasure.

211 thoughts on “The Busy Student’s Method for Learning Latin

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