Learn Latin: How to improve your Latin in 10 minutes a day
by Daniel Pettersson
Updated November 7 2017.
Master a Latin text, 10 minutes at a time.
The last couple of years people have frequently asked me how I learned to speak Latin and what they could do to improve their own Latin even if they had extremely little free time. I believe everyone can teach themselves to speak Latin and read Latin fluently. It's just a question of motivation, method and material.
There are many ways we can build our skill in a language. Today I will treat one I've enjoyed a lot of success with.
For more suggestions, read this article about a method I adapted from Erasmus.
First off, the key ingredient to gaining fluency in Latin is consistency and habit. Getting a good daily reading (or listening) habit is essential. Now, this is sometimes extremely difficult with jobs, family life, hobbies and, well, life getting in the way. But there is hope: here's a quick-fix or, more accurately, a “slow-fix”.
So today I thought I'd present a technique I use when I don't have the time to read an hour a day.
This technique is not only about reading but about really mastering a piece of text and making it your own. When I've done this, I've found I know the expressions and structures almost off by heart. Then when speaking Latin, I have a ready source to draw from. Also, when reading a different text, it's easier to see similarities and differences in expressions if you know a couple of texts really well.
Lastly, being really familiar with a number of texts helps enormously with building confidence, which is an integral part of persevering on the road to fluency. Let's get into it.
I discuss this technique and more in this talk (in Latin) I gave in Florence 2016.
1. Day I: Material: an interesting and (preferably) level-appropriate text.
First off we need a text. An interesting text that we can also understand, more or less. Pick one. It doesn't have to be perfect. For some suggestions look through our growing selection of short recordings of Latin texts.
Pick a text and look through it without reading it.
Just familiarize yourself with it.
Read a few words here and there. It's a first date, you're just getting acquainted. Put it down and let it rest until tomorrow.
2. Day II: Set a timer & read A short passage
A new day and a new step to take.
Pull out the old hourglass (or use a less fun timer). Set it to ten minutes. Start reading.
How much you read during your 10 minutes is not important, but to be able to perform the next steps, keep it to a few pages tops. Read at a pace at which you can understand and visualize the things you read. Note where you stopped.
Extra credit: Visualizing
Visualizing is a great way to see whether you really understand a text. If you can picture it in you mind, you most likely understand it.
Furthermore, it makes understanding more lengthy sentences much easier. For instance take a sentence like this from good ol' Caesar:
When reading a sentence, try picturing each part before proceeding. For example, after reading
try to see a field with the sun just rising where the troops have been led out and placed into a double battle line. Then read on
and visualize the auxiliary troops in the middle. It doesn't matter if you know what this actually looks like, just picture something plausible. Try to see the soldiers standing in these lines. Continue with:
Picture the general on his horse looking around and waiting to see what the enemy will do.
This may seem a very lengthy exercise, but describing a picture requires, well, a thousand words. In reality, picturing something is a lot quicker.
Picture an elephant reading a book. Then write down that description. Takes a while, right?
Now, many may say that they are not visual, but I think most people are.
Think of any book you've read and then seen a cinematic adaptation; maybe you've gone "that's not what X is supposed to be like, look like etc."; the movie's images conflict with your own visual representation of the text.
3. Day III: Re-Read & Record & Read
On day three you set your timer and re-read the same text that you read on the previous day. This will be a lot easier, and probably quicker, than the first time.
Now comes the crucial part. In the time you have left do this: Pull out your phone or any device with a microphone. Set it to record and start reading the passage that you've by now read two times. Read slowly into the microphone.
When you record, it doesn't have to be perfect, not even all that good, because between listening to a less than perfect reading of a Latin text and not listening at all, the choice is easy.
Record until your timer goes off. Save the file. Done for today.
The next day you continue reading. Then on the day after you record that text, and continue in the same fashion.
No time to record?
Sometimes there's just not enough time or strength to record it. It happens to all of us. Below are a couple of suggestions from our audio section pick whatever peaks your interest and start from step 3.
- #30 – Cicero's quest for the tomb of Archimedes | Latin texts 6
- #32 – Sallust on the death of Catiline | Latin texts 8
- #38 – The crime and fate of Daedalus | Latin texts 13
- #39 – Aurelius Commodus | Latin texts 14
- #40 – The story about the wood-cutter and the golden axe | Latin texts 15
4. Day IV: From the top
If you finished recording the passage on the previous day, start from step 1 and picka a new passage; otherwise, finish recording the previous one.
So now we have some text recorded, what now?
Apart from the use we get from re-reading, we get a recording to listen to when we are going about our day. Now we have to find time to listen to it and this can be tricky but I'll give you some examples of when I've listened to Latin:
- While brushing my teeth
- While having breakfast (maybe less socially acceptable if someone else is present, but hey…)
- While commuting to work
- While walking
- At the gym
- While doing the dishes
- At the grocery store (this often leads to me walking around forgetting what I was supposed to buy.)
These little bits of time amount to a lot of listening if we do it everyday. For example, I would estimate I spend around 10 minutes standing in line during a regular work day (coffee shop, public transport, grocery store).
Now, in a month that would make 10 × 20 = 200 minutes = 3h 20min. That's not bad.
Extra credit: go fast
When we've accumulated some recordings and have listened to them a several times, we will know the content pretty well. Now to go trough it faster, if your device allows it; you can listen to it at different speeds such as, 1.3X, 1.5X and even, for the brave ones, 2X the speed. Modern software tend to keep the pitch more or less intact so that you don't sound like a chipmunk.
Recap of the the steps:
- Day 1: Pick an interesting text that you can understand. Familiarize yourself with it: Read a few words here and there.
- Day 2: Set a timer. Read.
- Day 3: Re-read the same passage(s). Record as much as you can in the remaining time.
- Day 4: Read a new passage or possibly finish recording the previous one.
Give it a try. I always get a lot out of this method. Let me know how it goes in the comments. Start today by picking a text.
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