How to Read Any Latin Text Without Learning Grammar First

When I first found out just how much I loved languages and learning languages, I got really excited. I picked up books on a ton of languages, books that promised to teach me ‘Latin in three months’, ‘Painless Italian’, and so on. I was like a kid opening presents on Christmas morning, I literally had this feeling of excitement every time I bought or started a new language book. I thought I knew what to do, that there were two stages to learning a language: studying it, and then practising it. The first stage was all about studying the grammar, memorising the words, and so on; but the problem with that picture is you never leave that stage, and never really engage with the language directly. I really thought that If I just worked through a whole book ‘the right way’ then I’d be able to go from there to seamlessly absorbing the vocabulary.

But I was struggling to work through all the books that just kept piling up. I started tons, finished some, but I never got to that point where I was able to go from step one – learning and studying the language – to step two – actually engaging with the language. Inside I was struggling with this idea that I had to ‘delay’ the actual language to get through whatever book I was trying to work through, and so there was always this feeling of anticipation, of looking to the future when I could say ‘oh now I can start actually reading Latin’, but there was never a feeling of actually getting there. The problem was that none of these books were able to provide me with the grounding in actually encountering real Latin, or Spanish, or Italian, or whatever it was I was learning. All they did was give me a bunch of rules that said ‘this is how Latin works’, throw a set of exercises at me, and then somehow that was supposed to prepare me for engaging with a real piece of foreign language. After two years of Italian study at university I bought a copy of Pinocchio, sat down to read it, and got so frustrated that I couldn’t even make it past the first page.

That was when I realised that, as interesting as all my previous study was, it had basically been a waste of time, because it couldn’t help me read a single page of a children’s novel, and I certainly couldn’t speak it. I pulled back a lot of my language study and returned to Latin, my home-base. I realised that the fastest way to pick up the words and the rules is by engaging with the language straight away, and that the best way to do this was by reading a lot. Reading didn’t make any demands on my shyness because I didn’t have to try speaking with anyone, and it didn’t make any demands on my budget in comparison to a class, so it was the perfect thing for me, ‘cos I was always pretty nervous letting people see how bad I was, and I certainly didn’t have the money for a teacher.

So my plan was just to read as much Latin as I could. So that I’d come across so many more words and phrases that way than I could ever have got by ‘normal studying’, that I just couldn’t help but learn them. The trouble was, there wasn’t a lot of material out there to make this very easy. For a long time the best thing I could find were parallel texts, but the English translations were often far too floral to make comparing with the original something I could do with any speed. It made reading a slow, difficult process. Even when I found interlinear books, I couldn’t find enough of them to keep up with the kind of fast reading I knew I needed to do. In the end I decided to start making my own texts by cutting and pasting the Latin and the English together, side by side, and then going back and reading on my own. Although it took a lot of initial work, once I went back and started reading, I found that very quickly my understanding soared, just like I’d planned! All of a sudden I was noticing things without having to try to remember them, and I was finding I could come up with the Latin words and phrases I needed almost instantly.

Reading stopped being a puzzle, and I started seeing whole phrases and their meanings at a glance. For the first time in my life I had the feeling of ‘arriving’ at the language, of leaving step one far behind and jumping straight into the language.

The cool thing is, it didn’t just work for me, it works for all kinds of people. I’ve taught people of all ages and backgrounds, and time and again I’ve seen that moment of realisation and excitement when they realise just how easy and fun reading Latin can be.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, but I have to read simple stuff before I can read ‘real’ Latin.” Well, I used to think that too. I tried so many times to read Latin books – I tried Caesar, Cicero, Tacitus, Seneca, Harry Potter, Winnie The Pooh – and I struggled so much I thought I’d never be able to do it. But no matter how many graded readers I went through, the ‘real’ Latin never got any easier. But then I realised that I could read advanced texts, using interlinear and decoded texts, and that if, instead of worrying about each individual word, I concentrated on just reading lots, all of a sudden no text seemed advanced anymore!

Maybe you’re thinking, “I have to learn the words first, then start reading/writing/speaking.” Well, I used to think that too. At one time I thought the best thing for me to do was to sit down and go through a list of the two thousand or so most common words in Latin, and memorise them. The problem was, it was easier said than done, not to mention pretty boring. I also found I wouldn’t always remember the words when I came across them in reading, even if I knew them on their own. Then I realised that I was remembering words a lot better that I learnt in context, because the rest of the sentence and the story helped to gel the words in my mind, and I learnt words way faster than ever before.

Maybe you’re thinking that none of this matters because speaking is the only pleasure in language learning. Well, I used to think that speaking a lot – the immersion approach – was what I needed to learn Latin. Easier said than done, because there weren’t that many Latin speakers around! But over time I realised that reading and listening a lot is immersion, and it’s a much more efficient form too, because you can pick it up wherever you are, and you don’t need to go out and find other people to speak Latin with... which is hard!

So that’s how you can read any Latin text without learning a single grammar rule first. Isn’t that awesome?

P.S. If you want an easy way in to reading decoded texts, try this out!

Alexander WestenbergComment