Would the Real Latin Please Stand Up? 1/2
I was fed up. I’d been doing so well, I’d been feeling so confident. I’d worked my way through a fair chunk of yet another Latin books, and had been doing pretty well at the exercises, if I do say so myself. But now I knew that didn’t really mean anything…
You see, I’d fallen for the trap of thinking that there wasn’t really any difference between the Latin I’d been working with in my exercise book, and the Latin I’d find in when I picked up Caesar, or Tacitus (never been much of a fan of Cicero. Treachery, I know…).
To put it simply, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, where you do pretty well when you’re working with a book, or in class, but as soon as you try to read an actual text by an actual Roman, you flounder. Well anyway, I had this problem. I’d tried to read Cesar, and I couldn’t even get through a page, it was so hard. I didn’t know the words, and the long sentences was throwing me.
What I’d discovered was the first problem of learning Latin (or any language, really): the problem of artificial Latin. You see, the exercises in my book weren’t wrong: they had all the right words, all the right grammatical structures, and so on. But they weren’t right either.
The problem was that these exercises weren’t natural: they were designed to highlight and practise a particular grammatical point, or particular vocabulary. The sentences were usually too short, or if they were long, they were needlessly complicated.The vocabulary was also too limited, giving me a false sense of confidence that I was recognising words without looking them up.
It’s kind of like learning English and expecting P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens to read like Enid Blyton. It’s just not going to happen.
All this means that when you get up to Latin that’s not designed for beginners, but just designed to communicate an idea, you get stuck.
In short, there’s no way around it, you have to read real Latin.
But what counts as ‘real Latin’? Well, I’ll discuss that more i n tomorrow’s post, but here’s a good rule of thumb: if the sentences are numbered, it’s probably not real Latin. If it’s ‘specially tailored with only the most common words’, it’s probably not real Latin.
The second problem of learning Latin is finding real Latin: I’ll talk about that tomorrow!