Some time ago, my students and I finished reading First Year Latin by Robert Henle.
I read this book every year.
First things first. Praise where praise is due.
First Year Latin by Robert Henle will take you to a New Testament reading level. Sort of. More on this in a bit.
Every time I start learning a language, I have one primary goal. Within six months, or so, I want to be able to read the New Testament in the language.
Why do I try to read the New Testament in the language I am studying? There is a reason.
Since this post is about First Year Latin by Robert Henle, let’s focus on Latin.
To read the New Testament in Latin, you need a vocabulary of about 1,000 words.
Since the New Testament is written at an elementary, perhaps middle-school level, these 1,000 words will become the foundational vocabulary on which you will build the rest of your knowledge.
The Bible is a perfect first Latin reader for many reasons.
First, it is repetitive. Truly, truly, I say unto you, the same words are used again and again.
Second, the background doesn’t really change. Everything happens in Judea, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth. With the steady geography comes some steady, and basic vocabulary. You learn the words for hill, road, village, lake, sea, city, wall, house and so on.
Third, the characters rarely change. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, John, Herod, the apostles, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Sprinkle in a few Romans from time to time and you are good to go.
What does all of this mean?
It means that you will be encountering the same words again and again. And again. Repetition is the perfect way to absorb new vocabulary.
Fourth, the New Testament is filled with subjunctive sentences.
Try learning the subjunctive while reading a few examples from a textbook. That’s like trying to learn about married life from a book. Have fun with that.
On the other hand, the New Testament is filled with the subjunctive mood. It’s all over the place, and… it’s in context. Learning the subjunctive in the context of a story is a bit like learning about married life while being married. It just makes sense. I mean, it’s still confusing and all, but if you are going to learn about it, this is the way to do it.
Back to First Year Latin by Robert Henle. This book will take you to the New Testament. That it is the goal (one of them) and that is a good goal. Any book that gets you reading the New Testament in another language is worthy of your time. So, kudos to Mr. Henle.
That said, I am now going to leave the reservation.
I have taken thousands of students through this book. I have spent thousands of hours grading the work of students plodding their way through this book. And, I have received hundreds of emails from what I call “Henle refugees”.
I have received hundreds of emails from tearful mothers who don’t know what to do because Henle Latin shattered their love of Latin and because Henle Latin shattered their children’s interest in Latin.
I have also received five or six emails from parents reprimanding me because I am too hard on Henle Latin. Here is one: https://dwanethomas.com/not-happy-with-me/
When it comes to First Year Latin, the fans have their thousands and the haters have their tens of thousands.
Actually, the fans seem to have their dozens. Maybe.
Soooo… why? Why the hate?
I believe it is, in part, because Latin is hard. In fact, I recommend students start with Latin Lite before they attempt Latin. What do I mean by Latin Lite? I mean Spanish, French, Italian, or any of the other Romance languages. Start with one of those languages and then study Latin. After learning Spanish, you will find Latin so much easier. Best of all, if you never make it to Latin… you will still speak Spanish.
Latin is hard. This has nothing to do with Mr. Henle. Not his fault.
Henle Latin takes a grammatical approach to the language. Again, not Mr. Henle’s fault. The book was written in the mid-1900’s. Every Latin book took the grammatical approach back then. Well, every Latin book in America. This is the academic approach. The problem is, the approach doesn’t really work.
Don’t believe me? How many Americans take a foreign language in high school?
I will give you a clue.
ALL OF THEM.
How many bilingual Americans do you know?
Crickets. Crickets. Crickets.
Mmmm-hmmm. I rest my case.
First Year Latin by Robert Henle takes the academic and grammatical approach to Latin. I am not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings… but, don’t be surprised when you finish the book and you can barely read in Latin.
There is another reason the book is not as effective as we would all like it to be. First Year Latin teaches students about 500 Latin words. This falls way, way, way too short.
You need about 1,000 words to read the New Testament in Latin. You need about 3,000 words to be able to speak fluently in a language. It’s a simple math problem. First Year Latin just does not provide enough ammo for the fight.
In contrast, my favorite Latin book, Lingua Latina by Hans Ørberg, equips students with about 2,000 Latin words. By chapter 28, students are reading straight from the gospel of Matthew. With ease.
By the way, Henle students are often annoyed to find they can’t read Lingua Latina fluently after completing First Year Latin. Again, it’s just a numbers game. When you show up to Lingua Latina, you are about 1,500 words short.
Again, credit where credit is due. Henle Latin does teach the grammar of Latin. In fact, it teaches the same grammar that Lingua Latina teaches. This is good. This simply means you need to catch up in vocabulary.
As far as I can tell, First Year Latin has two major goals.
The secondary goal is to get students to a reading level in the New Testament. Empowered with a vocabulary of 500 words, students are left a bit short. They do have the grammar. They just lack the vocabulary.
The primary goal of the book is to give students the ability to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
This, by the way, is the reason there are so many morbid words in the book. Students never learn the word for sister. But, by the end of First Year Latin, they do know how to say kill, attack, assault, capture, conquer, danger, do harm to, enemy, hostage, hurl, repulse, slaughter, sorrow, sword, and wretched.
They also know how to translate the sentence: “There were dead bodies floating in the river.”
I wish I were making this up.
Here is the saddest part. I teach Second Year Latin as well. After completing First Year Latin students still are not ready to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Again. Numbers game. You just need more vocabulary.
Here’s the thing. If you have to read First Year Latin, I can help you. I take students through the book every year. In the spirit of ripping the Band-Aid off quickly, we read the entire text of First Year Latin in… well… the first year.
If you have to read the book, I can help.
But, if there is any way you can avoid the book, I recommend a completely different approach.
It’s still Latin. It’s still going to be difficult.
But, I get the emails. Every single day, I get the emails. I’ve seen the damage. I’m telling you, Henle Latin could destroy your interest in Latin. Lingua Latina could ignite it.
If you can, skip First Year Latin by Robert Henle.