Words and Rules in Latin Learning

I always wanted to be a spy. I would read all about spies, I watched movies about them, I even hand-wrote a training manual called the Espionage Files.

Now, you’re probably wondering what on earth this has to do with Latin. Well, in a very roundabout way it’s the reason I’m writing this blog post right now, all these years later.

You see, I tend to be both a driven person, but also a person who likes overarching principles, connections, ‘foundational’ skills which make a whole lot of other skills easier, and so on. So because I loved spies, I knew I had to speak at least a few languages - after all, all the best spies could speak other languages fluently! But because of my tendency towards principles and connections, I moved to Latin as the ‘foundational’ language which would make most other European languages easier.

i know, it was weird. Side note: I was right, it has helped me learn other languages, but that’s not the point. Nevertheless, tip of the hat to you, young 12-year-old Alexander ;-)

Anyway, I started teaching myself Latin as a gateway language. Now, I know that’s probably not the best idea, but it was a good thing I did, because I love Latin, and it’s also done a whole lot of good for me over the years.

But because of that same tendency towards principles, I naturally gravitated towards grammar when learning. I figured that if I knew the skeleton of the language, then all I needed to do was learn the words. And, to be fair, I could pick up the grammar principles very quickly. So it seemed to me I just needed to knuckle down on the grammar for a bit, then the rest would fall into place.

Now, I should clarify here that when I said I was hung up on grammar, that doesn’t mean I was a stickler for exact rules - I preferred a ‘good enough’ approach where I got the feel and the general principle of a rule, and went with it. And to be fair to 12-year-old me, there is some value in that approach. To this day I can puzzle my way through a number of languages I don’t know, simply because I can pretty quickly and easily see how the language is working, meaning I only need to do the painstaking work of looking up every word. Huh. ‘Only’…

But that’s the point, I had it back to front. It took me years to realise that far and away the single most important part of learning a language is words, not rules. The very fact that I can get a feel for the rules pretty quickly shows that it’s not the main game - all those pesky words are. Plus, while I may be able to puzzle through with a dictionary, if I knew the words, it’d be easier to puzzle through what was happening structurally than to puzzle through the actual meaning. You know, what the sentence actually says?

Of course, ideally you’d learn both. On the one hand, you’d get the words you need while on the other picking up a feel or understanding for the structure and style of the language. This is why I’m such an advocate of deep, extensive, constant reading, without worrying about the grammar, or getting everything right. Sure, I know you can learn flashcards with Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) which will put the words into your long-term memory, but you don’t learn all that many, and there’s no real connection with the language. Instead something like the Goldlist method or just straight reading through you into the language directly.

So, words or rules? Ideally both, but if you have to pick one, words. Every time.