How to learn Latin in half the time you’d expect even if you have no talent in languages.

When I was younger, I was pretty idealistic about language learning, and I thought I could do it all on my own. But when I tried teaching myself from my books, I would struggle. I was pretty good at it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t difficult, and there were so many times when I’d get frustrated because I was so sure that what I’d written was right, but the answer said something different. I wanted to be able to learn on my own, because I was shy and I didn’t have the money for a teacher anyway; but I wanted to do it without feeling like I sucked at languages.


I struggled because the explanations were often complicated, there were so many exercises I’d find it hard to finish, and the answers were never very clear about why it was one thing rather than another, and so it took me a really long time to make any progress.


Internally I thought that maybe other people were just better at languages than I was, or more confident, or any number of things. They could speak while I was still struggling, and they seemed to do so almost effortlessly. I, on the other hand, became more and more nervous, trying to hide the fact that I was so bad!


Eventually I hit a wall. I realised I’d spent years working through several books, and started a dozen more, but no matter how well laid out they were, or how easily I managed to work through them, none of them gave me that feeling of confidence that I could actually read a real sentence, because every time I tried moving from textbook to text it was like chalk and cheese, there was almost nothing I’d learnt that was really helping me to read. All the grammar and exercises I’d done had made the same mistake: they’d made me look at language learning like a puzzle, or a game with a very strict set of rules, and I felt like I’d never make progress, and I didn’t want to take another ten years.


Then I came across a journal article from the 1930s by an American Latin scholar called Paul B. Diederich. The journal article was called “Seventeen Basic Latin Endings”, and was only four and a half pages long, but it changed my world forever. It showed me that all the complicated grammar endings I’d learnt before – over a thousand! – could be reduced so that just 17 endings could account for 67.6% of all the endings I’d meet. Diederich showed me that if I put aside the memorising and focused on understanding while reading I could cover a lot more ground a lot faster. That was when I realised that reading for understanding not analysis was the key to unlocking language learning ‘talent’.


So my plan was to start reading and let the language ‘come to me’ rather than go out there to try to catch it for myself. I started looking for readers everywhere, and I read as many as I could.


But I found that I still struggled with a feeling of inadequacy, because I was always reading graded reading, and when I moved to ‘real’ Latin there was still a gap between what I was normally reading and natural Latin by Roman authors. I felt I wasn’t making the progress I needed to be really confident in the language. On top of that, it was still taking a long time, because there were so many graded readers I had to get through before I was ‘ready’ to read non-graded stuff.


I ended up getting so frustrated that I got rid of almost all my readers and determined to create my own decoded texts by putting the English and the Latin close together rather than split up over separate pages like most parallel texts. Once I’d done this I could read any Latin text almost as easily as if it were English, without a teacher, and the language started coming to me faster than it had ever done before. More than that, my progress doubled – I was able to learn in two months what used to take me years!


After working with decoded texts, not only was I able to read ‘real’ Latin quickly and with full understanding, I was finally able to get rid of my worries about not being good enough to learn a language, or not having talent. By creating my own decoded texts with the Latin and the English right next to each other, I didn’t need any special talent, because it was all there in front of me. I could read Latin confidently, the way I’d always hoped I could. I’ve gone on to try this ‘direct reading’ of the real language without graded reading first in a number of other languages, and I’ve learnt them in less than half the time! 

Now, so maybe you’re thinking, “Okay Alexander, that’s great for you, but you’re just special; you’ve been studying Latin for years, you clearly have more talent than me.” But it can and does work for so many different people. One of my students, Jessie, always insisted she wasn’t a languages person: she used apps like Duolingo religiously for half a year, and barely learned anything she could remember a day later, but after just 8 months of learning with Decoding Latin she tested herself and found she could remember over 2,000 words in Latin, without ever having studied a word of it before coming to me, and without trying to memorise anything. This was such a big change from what she’d ever experienced before, she told me she couldn’t stop learning even if she wanted to, it was that exhilarating!


Maybe you’re wondering whether you have to practice and repeat a lot in order to learn that much. Well, I used to think that practice and repetition was the way to go. I tried flashcards, writing down, interval training, everything. The problem was, I found it really hard to keep going, because it was difficult and pretty boring. But then I found out that if I read a large amount of material pretty quickly, then I kept coming over the most common words and phrases and structures over and over again, so there was no need to repeat. I didn’t need to practise or repeat because I got enough practice just by reading.


One objection you might have is one I’ve heard a lot before: “It has to feel difficult and structured to work”. Sure, I used to think that the only way to learn was to take a structured, carefully graded plan and work through it from start to end. But once I discovered the advantages of reading a lot, it still helps to have a plan of what you want to read, but I find I get more out of it as long as I’m interested and consistent in reading, and structure and difficulty don’t really matter that much. In fact, they can be a hindrance because they make it feel too regulated, and take away some of the genuine interest.


So now I’ve shown you how you can learn Latin no matter what your level of talent. Pretty exciting, right?

Alexander WestenbergComment