How to learn Latin (2019), part one: Motivation, Goals, & Habits
Learning Latin is the best decision I ever made. Being able to read fragments of Ennius, laugh with Plautus and Terence, be chastised by Seneca Minor, dazzled by Cicero and moved to tears by Ovid — people separated from us by over 2000 years — is today a precious experience out of the ordinary.
After many years of teaching myself and many others Latin, I have come to believe that anyone can teach themselves Latin, given enough time, the right strategy, and material. In this article series, I aim to outline the most important aspects for learning Latin on your own from the motivation, goals and habits to material and language learning techniques. My hope is that you will find something here that will help you, whether you are an autodidact, student, or teacher trying to improve or plan a course or homeschool curriculum.
This is a three-part article series and in this first article, I will discuss motivation, goals and habits; in the next study materials and in the last one study techniques and support.
MOTIVATION FOR LEARNING AND TO KEEP LEARNING LATIN
Two thousand three hundred years ago, Livius Andronicus invoked the Camenas and penned the first epic in Latin — his adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey–Odyssea.
With those words thus began, one could argue, Latin literature — at least the record of it.
Imagine every piece of Latin text that has been written after those words. For Latin was not only the language of Cicero and Virgil. It lived on beyond the horizon of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire as a vehicle for that most precious of things: Human thought and expression. Latin was the language of Ausonius, Augustine, Heloise and Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, George Montmouth, Erasmus, Melanchthon, Cartesius and Linnaeus, and many, many more. Imagine being able to read all of that and connect with them.
Some twenty years ago, I was out walking with my father in the Old Town of Stockholm. We happened upon a big rock outside the House of Nobility. It had a golden inscription on it. It was in Latin.
I understood nothing but was absolutely fascinated.
This encounter sparked a burning desire in me to learn the language written on that rock in order to unlock the treasure of times passed.
Quorsum haec? So why all this?
Because when embarking on a long journey it’s paramount to remember where you started, where you are going, and what sweet things lie across that steep hill and vertiginous mountain. Read on.
WHAT IS YOUR MOTIVATION FOR LEARNING LATIN?
Learning to read Latin literature spanning over two millennia takes a long, long time. You can learn to cope with texts, translate, and even speak Latin conversationally in a much shorter period of time. But if you want to learn to read Latin literature from Ancient Rome and beyond, well, it takes a lot of time and work. That is why having a strong motivation is so important.
So why do you want to learn Latin? Why are you learning Latin?
Since learning Latin takes much time, effort, and patience, it is important to find a strong motivation, a long-long-term goal, your dream — something that will keep you going even when the flame of novelty, so to speak, has died out, and that magic is all but gone.
This is where people who have a strong well-defined motivation keep going where others may lose hope or are attracted to a new pursuit.
If you are already well on your way learning Latin, defining your motivation/your dream is still useful. It will keep you moving forward.
1. Learn Latin, step one: Find your why
Sit down with a pen and paper. Put on some music and write in large letters on your paper:
Write down, without judging, every reason and motivation that comes to your mind. Some will be obvious, others less so, some glorious, some less so.
Look over the paper: What’s your dream? What are your motivations for learning Latin? Do you really want to learn Latin? Weather and motivation change, what was true last year or five years ago, may not be true today.
If you truly cannot find any motivation that inspires you to start or to continue learning Latin — consider letting it go. It’s ok. There are so many things to learn in life. Your past decisions need not be your present law.
So, find your why, the reason why you want to learn or continue learning Latin.
Make sure your why is strong, as Ovid said:
"To want it is not enough; you have to desire it in order to achieve your goal."
Here are motivations for learning Latin that I have heard from students and colleagues over the years:
To read Latin for enjoyment.
To do historical research.
To write a work not doomed by the mortality of modern languages.
Travel through time watching history unfold on the pages from antiquity to today, in the same language as you could speak to your friend.
An intellectual challenge.
To write timeless poetry.
Any motivation strong enough to keep you driven for years is good. Remember: Your motivation is yours, and yours alone. Let no one say that your motivation isn’t good enough, worthy enough, that it is corny or stupid. It is there to motivate you, not anyone else.
Find your why.
Now, make sure you’ve written your why down. Put it on your wall or keep it close at hand so that it can remind you of why you want to learn or are learning Latin. There will come a time when you need reminding. Trust me.
YOUR LATIN GOALS
Having ascertained whether or not you actually want to learn Latin and having defined your motivation as a sort of foundation of our Latin studies, you are ready to set goals.
This is extremely important and something I have seen too many students neglect, (I once did) thinking their motivation alone is enough. Sometimes it is, most of the time it is not.
Learning Latin is a long journey, and your mind will play tricks on you along the way. It will say things like:
”Oh, it’s so hard, I’m not making progress, maybe Latin is not for me and who reads Latin anyway. If Latin is so good, how come it turned into the Romance languages?!”
Don’t listen. Instead, you have to plan beforehand so that you don’t fall prey to these tricks of the mind. We can stop these doubts early if we set well-defined, measurable goals. With such goals, you will be able to measure how far you’ve actually come in your Latin studies which is very important for your will to continue.
While motivation is why you want to learn Latin, goals are what you want to do or achieve. Your motivation is your foundation that drives and sustains that drive on your journey towards completing your goals of what you want to be able to do with Latin. Sometimes these coincide, but your goals should be detailed, measurable, structured and easy to cross out on a written plan once you’ve accomplished them.
2. Learn Latin, step two: Define your goal
Sit down and define a long-term goal, maybe a year into the future; i.e. your definition of what you want to be able to do or have done at the end of a year of study.
Here are some examples of goals:
To be able to read Catullus’ poems without translation.
To be able to use all the content in the textbook Familia Romana (more about this book in the next article) in writing or in speech.
To be able to write about yourself, your life and interests.
To have read 1000 pages of Latin.
To have read all Plautus’ plays.
To be able to understand mass in Latin.
To be able to read certain medieval documents for historical research.
To be able to read Pugio Bruti.
Whatever the goal may be, make sure it is well defined. If need be, write several sentences defining it. You’ll want to be able to verify whether you have reached your Latin goal or not; therefore, goals such as “speak Latin well” are less useful because they are highly subjective. Try using formulations such as “to be able to…” and “will have…”.
Write it down.
Put it on your wall.
3. Learn Latin, step three: Turn your goal into subgoals.
With a long-term goal defined, we move on to breaking it down into smaller chunks or short-term goals. We’ll now determine what has to be done to achieve that long-term goal by writing a list of all the steps leading there.
For example, if our goal was mastering the vocabulary and syntax of a Latin textbook, we might do this: Say the book has 24 chapters and we may set ourselves 12 months to read it. Then in a year we will have to study 2 chapters a month. We may thus state our subgoals as: “I will have read and mastered (more on study techniques in a later article) the text and the exercises for one chapter every two weeks”. This is verifiable.
This is applicable for all goals, adjust it to your own goal and pace. Bear in mind how much time you can set aside for your Latin studies. If you only have 20 minutes a day, you may have to adjust your goals. 20 minutes a day still makes for a lot of time in the course of a year. Remember you can find time for your Latin studies throughout the day, such as when you’re waiting in line, driving, riding the bus, or walking the dog. (I wrote an article awhile back on how to improve your Latin with just 10 minutes a day, you can find it here, and another called A little Latin every day that you can find here.) This is nothing new, in the 1420’s the Italian humanist Vergerio wrote in his treatise de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis:
“And indeed, there is good reason also to assemble those good moments that others usually neglect, as when someone reads at table and falls asleep (or escapes sleep) reading.”
Make sure your goals work for you and for the time you have.
In summary: Define in detail your main goal, break it down into measurable subgoals with deadlines. Make sure you verify that you reach them.
With the steps leading to the subgoals and the long-term goal established, we will now turn to implementing them and making this a sure thing, by turning them into habits.
DAILY HABITS: CRUCIAL WHEN LEARNING LATIN ON YOUR OWN
Setting goals is great. But without the habit calling you to do the work, the goal will most likely, after the rei novitas has died off, be carried in solemn silence to the graveyard of habitless goals. And as Pontanus wrote:
"You have to create a habit which lessens the feeling of work."
If you take only one thing from this article, let it be the understanding of habit formation.
So how do you create a habit of learning Latin?
4. Learn Latin, step four: Create a Habit
Return to your pen and paper and think about your subgoals and see if you can create a habit that, done daily, will accomplish them as well as the long-term goal.
For example, let’s say your goal is to master a textbook (or a prose Latin prose composition book–which is always fun) of 24 chapters, and your subgoal is to go through two chapters each month. Then a daily habit might be for you to read and study 20 minutes or for another goal the habit might be reading 5 pages of Latin every day. It doesn’t have to be daily but my own and my students’ experience have taught me that it is easier to sustain a daily habit. We might again quote the humanist Vergerio who was of a similar opinion:
Make the habit measurable. Make it sustainable.
Got a habit you want in mind? Good.
Write it down, define it well in terms of how many pages, exercises or time spent.
5. Learn Latin, step five: Implementing your habit
In the book The Power of Habit (2012), Charles Duhigg identifies three main components of a habit: cue, action, reward.
The cue is what actually triggers the habit. This can be a time of day, a place, or another habit. An example of a cue for many smokers is the end of a meal which triggers the action of having a cigarette. Others tend to go for a piece of chocolate. A cue to brush your teeth might be the end of breakfast.
The action is the habit itself, the smoking, brushing your teeth, reading for 5 minutes, or writing 10 lines of verse.
The reward is the good feeling resulting from having finished the action — the clean feeling of your teeth after having brushed them, the sense of accomplishment having read for 5 minutes.
So, in order to get a new habit going you have to start by finding a cue to set you off, to remind you, if you will, to perform the action of the habit.
The first thing I do every morning, for instance, is exercise, the cue is getting out of bed. That way, I do not have to think about it and decide—that would be crushingly hard some days. I just do what I always do. It's a habit.
Other examples of cues for implementing a study habit are time of day, after another daily habit, (meals, brushing teeth, etc.), geographical location, reading 5 min before starting the car, or before getting out, reading while waiting for public transports, chat in Latin for 20 minutes before going to bed, doing one lesson of an online course during lunch.
The idea is simply to tie the action you want to accomplish to something that will remind you of it, such as a time of day (e.g. at 7:30pm), a place (e.g. on the train), or another habit (e.g. right after getting out of bed).
If the feeling of accomplishment isn’t good enough as a reward for you, you can find something else. It needn’t be anything elaborate, just something that gives you a feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment. This is especially important in the beginning, as habits are very fragile in their newborn state.
I find that a simple calendar and a big colorful marker works wonders. Every day, when you have finished your ”action”, your Latin learning habit, you cross over that day with a big colorful cross.
To sum up: take the habit you formulated in step four and find a cue and a reward for it.
LEARN LATIN: GET STARTED
So far, we have discussed motivation, goals and habits. To summarize the steps, we have talked about:
Find your why. Sit down and figure out why you want to learn Latin. Be honest. Write it down.
Define your goal. What do you aim for? What do you want to have done or be able to do with Latin within a precise timeframe? Be bold. Be precise. Be true to yourself. Write it down.
Break down your Latin goal into subgoals, i.e. smaller pieces with set timeframes.
Decide on a habitual action to help you reach your subgoals (and in the long-run your ultimate goal), e.g. reading two pages, and a reward (crossing of a list, a cookie).
Decide what your cue is – that which will remind you when or where to perform the action of the habit.
Then – do it!
What to do now:
Sit down and go through the steps. Do them thoroughly, let them take time. There is no rush. This part is important.
Share and discuss your goals and habits with others. This is extremely useful and is something I wish I had done more.
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In the next article, we will sink our teeth into learning materials.