I received this sad email from one of my students:
I wanted to talk to you because I feel like I’m having more trouble this year compared to last. I’m able to figure out a sentence, but the fluency of being able to read or hear a sentence and understand its meaning immediately is not there. I’m spending hours just reading a small section. What could I do to improve that? Part of it is that I don’t know much of the vocabulary and I’m having to look up each word. Is there a good way for studying vocabulary when it all seems overwhelming? And how do you know which words to study to be able to read Latin well out of all the words in a text that are sometimes used only once? Also, I’ve noticed in Caesar’s Wars that even when I’m understanding the majority of a sentence, I’m often confused about how each word is broken down to get that translation.
Here is my reply:
As for your questions about Latin… those are tough. I will tackle them one by one.
You said that you are spending hours reading a small section. You are not alone. I asked the students in another Caesar class today if they were having the same trouble. They are. All of them are. Don’t feel bad about that. In fact, I am convinced it is not you. More on that in a minute.
You mentioned that the vocabulary is overwhelming. I get that. I am intensely studying Greek right now. I feel like I spend all of my time in the dictionary and little time in the stories. Just keep one of these sites open as you work. You know them already.
Whitaker’s words: http://archives.nd.edu/words.html
Here’s the thing. You will never stop learning new words.
Henle Latin teaches students about 550 words.
Lingua Latina by Hans Ørberg teaches students about 2,000 words. (This is why it is both harder and better than most Latin courses.)
But, the Latin language itself possess about 75,000 words! If you learned 10 new words a day, it would take the next twenty years for you to learn all of the words. Fortunately, there are no new words coming into the Latin language. You might actually be able to reach this goal. I have no intention of ever reaching this goal. This is why I am constantly looking words up in class. Just get used to looking things up. There is nothing shameful about doing so. It’s a good habit to develop.
By the way, you will never learn all of the words in your own language either. English adds, or creates, roughly 100 words a day. And, English, by some estimates, already has over 1,000,000 words! If you learned 10 words a day, you would learn all of the English words that exist today in only 273 years. But, don’t forget, English adds about 100 words a day.
Back to Latin. Here is the dirty little secret Latin teachers rarely tell. You will probably never feel fluent in Latin. Don’t be discouraged, there is a way. I will come back to this in a minute.
As soon as students learn the basics of Latin, every Latin program I know tosses students into the Roman classics. Students begin reading Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil. You rarely hear about any other Roman authors. The problem is, jumping from First Year Latin to Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil is like jumping from Frog and Toad to Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Henry James. In other words, in their eagerness to get students into the Roman classics, teachers tend to skip easier books.
Here is another dirty secret Latin teachers never talk about. The Latin classics were never the common language of the Romans. The classics were written by elite snobs for elite snobs. Even the many of the Romans would have had a hard time reading the classics, just as most Americans struggle with Shakespeare. “Classical Latin” really only existed for about 100 years, from roughly 50BC to 50AD. Worse, it really only existed for the wealthy few. It was never the language of the people.
There is an easier way. Next year, I hope to lead my students down the easier path. After Lingua Latina by Hans Ørberg, students should read the Vulgate – the Latin bible. It is tough (in places), but is far simpler than any of the stuffy Latin “classics”. Next year, when I am no longer physically in the classroom, I hope to develop more online courses. I hope to follow the path I am recommending. Instead of going from basic Latin to the heartbreaking, time-consuming “classics”, I hope to take students from basic Latin to Biblical Latin. Then, from Biblical Latin, I hope to lead students into Italian, Spanish, and French. I can’t wait. Still working out the details…
Save yourself some time. If you want to read the “classics” find a translation. Read them in English.
I have checked your work for years. You are one of the best students I have. You are brilliant. And, yet, you struggle in the Latin classics. Well, guess what? It isn’t you. It’s the system. It’s broken and no one will admit it. My advice? Get the basics of Latin down. Go through the grammar (Visual Latin). Read a novel in Latin (Lingua Latina). Read the Bible in Latin. After that, abandon Latin. Go learn Spanish, French, or Italian. Go learn something fun. Come back to the Latin classics when you are old and bored. If you want to. I doubt you will.