Learning Latin was once one of the cornerstones of a good education. Unfortunately, learning that language has fallen out of style in recent decades. If you do want to learn, the odds are that you’ll have to learn on your own. Fortunately, there is a fairly simple path towards greater Latin fluency.
Start Looking at Grammar
Before you pick up your first Latin textbook, you’ll want to spend some time studying your English grammar. Latin is actually a fairly structurally precise language, but you’ll need to remember all of your parts of speech if you hope to translate everything accurately. Building any kind of vocabulary will require you to spend some time knowing your various cases and declensions, something that’s hard to do if you don’t know them in your mother tongue. It’s not a bad idea to keep a traditional grammar book by your side as you go about learning Latin.
Find a Good Textbook
Once you have your grammar down, you’ll need to seek out a Latin textbook. As lovely as some of the computer programs out there are, the most reliable resources for Latin translation are still in print. If you’re looking for something tried and true, Wheelock’s Latin is still used in college courses across the English-speaking world. It’s a bit dry and relies a great deal on rote memorization, but it’s a great introductory text for those who want to familiarize themselves with the rules of Latin.
If you’re not too proud to start with something easier, high school students have been using Ecce Romani volumes one and two for decades. The book is definitely on the simple side, but it does help to introduce vocabulary with a number of memorable and easy-to-parse stories. It may not be up to snuff for many serious language learners, but it is nonetheless a delightful text that can really help novice readers to quickly build up their confidence.
Work on Vocabulary
Now that you’ve got a useful textbook, you’ll want to start building up your Latin vocabulary. One of the most wonderful things about Latin is that it’s formed the basis for some of the most widely-spoken languages in the world, many of which have loaned their words to English. If you already know a few Latin roots, you may be able to suss out the meanings of several words without much difficulty. You should, however, always consult your dictionary to make sure you are translating the words correctly – false cognates abound.
The downside to Latin is that Latin’s many endings often mean that several seemingly-identical words are actually wildly different words in different declensions, cases, or number. Because of this, you’ll need to know the context of a given word before you can adequately translate it.
Move towards Translations
Your final step should be to work with actual Latin translations. If you’re using Wheelock, for example, you should get a few bits and pieces of real Latin to translate during your exercises. Catullus is an incredibly popular choice for many new translators, as it uses a wide range of vocabulary but tends to be very grammatically consistent. Even that Latin Vulgate Bible can be a good project, especially if you are already familiar with other translations. The more real Latin you read, the more proficient you will become.
Latin can be an easy language to learn, but definitely one that’s difficult to master. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of others in online communities or to take a step back and try an easier project if you get frustrated. Once you gain a basic command of the language, you’ll notice that a wealth of new reading material will become available. Enjoy your journey towards greater fluency!
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