What About Grammar?

I’ve spoken in previous blog posts about the importance of large amounts of input, both reading and listening. But how do you actually understand what you’re reading? Don’t you need to learn grammar first?

Short answer? No.

In fact, not only do you not need to, it’s actually harmful to your learning.

Now, you’re probably thinking this sounds crazy, and you’re right, it does. But only because you’ve been sold a lie your whole life. Maybe you’re new to Latin, maybe you’re not, but either way you’ll have some experience in your past where people told you you had to ‘learn the basics first’, ‘understand the rules before you break them’, or some variant of this.

Well, I’m here to tell you those people were wrong. I’ve fallen for that trap myself, don’t worry: when I first started teaching myself Latin when I was 12 years old, I had a bunch of books with all the rules and a ton of exercises. I thought if I worked my way through those books then I’d ‘know Latin’.

Sooooo naive…

I was good at grammar and learning the structures. I never really struggled with them like other people I knew who were studying Latin. But it didn’t help me much with learning to read Latin as a language.

You see, the problem was that when I was learning the grammar and doing the exercises in the books, two things were happening. The first is that I was learning about the language, rather than learning the language itself. So I was learning English rules about the Latin language. Sure, it meant I could go through a sentence, and (if I knew the words) I could work out what it meant. But I was doing it like Latin was some jigsaw puzzle, a little brain teaser designed to test my mental agility rather than a language which had once been spoken across the whole of Europe and all around the Mediterranean.

The second thing that was happening was I wasn’t getting used to real Latin. Most of the sentences I was translating were short sentences designed to be exercises to practise a particular grammatical or syntactic point. That meant that they weren’t really sentences about anything, even if they tried to pretend they were part of a story. It also meant that whenever I tried to pick up an actual book in Latin, I felt like I hadn’t learnt anything, like I wasn’t ready.

But, of course, I’d never be ready until I moved on to reading.

So no, I don’t recommend learning grammar. And I don’t particularly recommend making a ton of flashcards to remember vocabulary, either. Instead I recommend input, and that’s enough. Your brain will take care of the rest.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: that’s all very well for me to say, since I obviously spent the time learning the grammar, so it’s there and it helps me understand a sentence. You’re probably wondering how you’re supposed to understand what you’re reading in the first place, if you’re not supposed to learn grammar or vocabulary. Well, more on that later…