The Decoding Latin Story

If you’re reading through this blog, you might be wondering who I am, and why I make such bold claims about how to learn Latin, so today I thought I’d take a little time to answer that question. Hopefully my story will inspire you to dig a little deeper with the Decoding latin approach!

My goal for this website is to help two types of people. For those who are beginners, you’ll get all the steps needed to learn Latin easily and on your own, if you want to. For more experienced people, you’ll get the tools you need to turbocharge your learning and take you to the next stage in your fluency. I want to show you that the only way to build fluency is through comprehensible input, and the only way to get good input is through what I call the ‘Decoding Method’.

So who am I? I’m a Latin, Philosophy, and Social Justice lecturer and an academic researcher from Sydney, Australia, and I’ve spent years learning the best way to acquire a new language. I’ve taught Latin to people of all ages, from 5-year-olds all the way up to 85-year-olds. When I learnt Latin using the method I talk about on this website I discovered a whole new love for the language, and I’ve never lost that feeling of being so excited at just understanding a totally different language as if it were English.

I started as an idealistic young student who thought that learning a language meant being able to pick up or hear any piece of that language and understand it. Believe it or not, I really wanted to be a spy when I was a teenager, and I thought if I could just learn Latin first, then I could use this knowledge to help me learn other languages, like French, Italian, Spanish, and others. So I figured I just needed to learn all the grammar rules, and then I’d know Latin – that’s what all the books seemed to imply!

I wanted to be able to pick up and read any book in Latin without needing a dictionary. But no matter how many grammar rules I learnt I still didn’t know the words, and the vocabulary never fell into place – and, to make matters worse, the grammar rules just made the Latin even more stilted, making me approach it like a puzzle, not like a living language This meant that I felt frustrated and even dumb, because I knew people could learn to read, write, and even speak a language, but whether I was trying to learn Latin or any other language – I got a smattering of Italian, Spanish, Greek, and even Ancient Egyptian along the way – I never felt like the language was part of me. I felt like I’d failed.

The problem was that without vocabulary there was no way I was ever going to be able to read Latin, because I just didn’t know what was being said, and memorizing the words on their own was boring, difficult, and took up too much time. Plus it was so demotivating always to be reading artificial Latin written as exercises to practice.

Then I came across a book in a secondhand book sale, that was published in the 19th century by a guy called James Hamilton, and it had Latin texts in an interlinear translation, with each English word printed directly underneath the Latin. This meant you could read an original Latin author as easily as if you were reading English! I learnt that Hamilton’s system claimed to be able to teach you Latin in six months, all the time reading complete Latin texts, and absorbing the vocabulary along the way. I started finding all the old Hamiltonian system books I could find and reading through them, and my understanding skyrocketed. That was when I realised that the best and fastest way to learn a language was through reading large amounts quickly, without wasting time on exercises and rote learning.

My plan was to read through Hamilton’s course and finally accomplish fluency in reading. I read Hamilton’s interlinear Gospel of John, and then his Historiae Sacrae, and I was pretty excited by my progress. But each book was hard to find, and so I lost a lot of momentum in my learning (I’ve collected a number of them here). Plus the print quality wasn’t great, and it was really slow going trying to read through without someone to guide me in the Latin word order, because Hamilton’s books changed the Latin word order to fit the English, which meant that reading it in the original Latin was still sometimes a challenge.

I ended up getting frustrated and decided to find a way to create the materials I needed for myself. I developed ways to make my own interlinear books, and found that if I translated phrase by phrase, rather than word by word like Hamilton did, then the natural Latin word order seemed to fall into place. Using this method, which I called Decoding Latin, I found myself absorbing the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax almost effortlessly, and ten times faster than I ever had before. I took this method to my students, and watched as their own reading ability soared, and their confidence grew as they found themselves reading more and faster than they ever thought possible.

After creating the Decoding Latin materials, I was not only able to read Latin – and yes, even use that to help me with other languages – I realised that I wasn’t a failure, and that everyone can learn Latin. I’ve learnt to relax a lot more, and not get so hung up on all the rules, and I’ve found I love Latin all over again, and I can pick up any Latin book and understand it without struggling through it like a puzzle.

I never did realise my dream of becoming a spy, but I found a love of language learning that I reckon will be with me for life. What’s your story? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Alexander WestenbergComment