A beginner’s approach to the study of (dead) languages

Don’t you beginners complain to me about Latin and Greek.  If you want them bad enough, they will come to you.  I know well how hard it is to learn a new language: English is the toughest nut I’ve ever cracked.  Here is some practical advice. 

Reading dead languages, not translating them, is your goal.  But in order to get there, you WILL go through some form of translation.  There is nothing inherently bad in translation, as long as you don’t make it your perpetual focus.  

Paradigms and vocabulary are your friends.  Learning them now will save you time later.  Enjoy them as means.  Those of you who moan and groan about paradigms focus too much on the means.  You eat to live – not the other way around.

Ah, but how to learn those paradigms is the question.  You don’t have the memory or the time.   Of course you don’t – I wouldn’t either if I started from memorizing endings and then try to screw them on those elusive stems.   Remodel your approach and conjugate one single verb until you can do it blind-folded, then do the same with another verb.  Take your time – the endings emerge naturally.  Starting with the endings is too abstract without the data that supports them.

Never approach a sentence linearly, if you are a beginner and want to advance to reading.  I’ve seen too many beginners try to guess their way through Latin sentences.  Now, nothing wrong with guessing per se, unless you make it a habit.  Then guessing becomes a dangerous obstacle and a source of frustration.  Plus, guessing is not fair  – you don’t want your own words to get misinterpreted, do you?

Approach your sentences in a logical way.  No matter what language you have, a sentence is always about an activity or state.  Focus on your action word – the verb is the sentence’s heart.   Your sentence may contain various verb forms, some of them describing the action or state in general terms, like to go or going.  Do not focus on those, at least not initially.  Aim for forms that most closely resemble “s/he/it goes.”  It is this form that will give you hints about the someone or something that performs the activity, or is in that state (“subject” is how we call it, and I will write on the etymology of that mysterious word later.)  Too time-consuming for you?  Be patient – with time, this filtering of sorts becomes lightning-fast.

Everything else in that sentence will either tell you something about the activity/state, or the someone or something that carries it through.  You will have phrases telling where or when the action occurred, or how it happened.  Adjectives and other explanatory phrases will tell you what kind of person or thing the doer is.  You may have a word for the object most directly hit by the action (aka the direct object), or the one that benefits from it (like the indirect object).  Often those objects will be explained by adjectives and such as well.  The whole thing becomes really exciting when, instead of an adjective, you get a relative clause telling what sort of person the doer is; but that is the subject of another post (do you see now why I have to post on the etymology of “subject”?).

There is much more, of course.  That’s why you want to take classes with me.

5 thoughts on “A beginner’s approach to the study of (dead) languages

  1. Great post, especially the bit about starting with the verb. I’m not sure I understand the approach you’re describing for approaching the paradigms.

    Do you mean they should learn every ending for all the moods and voices for a given verb, or that they should learn all the, say, active indicative forms of, say, mitto, rather than just the endings of the third conjugation without a verb to link them to?

  2. Thanks, Andrew! I am firmly against starting with the endings. Let the students abstract them on their own. If you have them memorize the endings first, you minimize their own analytical skills.

    So, if you are a student and the current lesson is on present and imperfect indicative active of amo and moneo, focus on the set for amo and learn it as a whole, without isolating the endings. Vocalize (singing or rapping works well) AND write down your forms. Do it repeatedly, until you no more hesitate before saying or writing a form. Then take another 1st-conjugation verb and do the same – it will be much faster this time. Repeat the process with several 1st-conjugation verbs, then go on to the 2d conjugation. Once you are comfortable with each set, do a side-by-side conjugation of amo and moneo in the present indicative active and do it repeatedly. At that point, you begin to notice the endings and the other regularities described in your textbook.

    With 3d-conjugation verbs like mitto, the initial procedure is the same, however at some point I usually have to add a niftily crafted explanation about thematic vowels. By that time students perceive the endings, so the added explanation is more or less seamless. Then back to drills.

    The paradigms are not the main focus of your study. But if you have the right approach, those drills become a pleasurable game to relax with (once you know how to play it).

  3. Hi Rali,

    Nice post, I agree with you a 100%. Learning the paradigms is key. That may seem obvious, but it can not be emphasized enough. A lot of students try to short-hand the memory work and only learn the “important cases,” thus leaving off, say, the vocative or the imperative. Big mistake! You have to learn them all! This may seem time consuming but it pays off in the end. Personally, when I was memorizing paradigms, I found there was actually a lot of down-time throughout the day which could be used for practicing paradigms. Thus, I would chant paradigms while I was making breakfast, waiting for the bus, waiting in line to get my coffee, etc. After a while, it became fun, like a game or meditation. Make Latin paradigms your mantra! Then it becomes calming not stressful!


    1. Vajra! All – this is Vajra, a rock star (he still looks like it) and a student of mine who went on to study Classics at Berkeley. Vajra, please relate your story in full so that others may benefit from it. How is school? We should meet at Jupiter to catch up (after we throw some football).

      1. Well, after such a great introduction, I could hardly refuse. Yes, it still amazes me when I look back to those early days when I was taking my one little elementary Latin course with you on Saturday mornings and working full time the rest of the week, Mondays through Fridays. Still more amazing that a few years later, I would quit my job and study Classical Languages full-time at UC Berkeley.

        I am really thankful for those Latin and Greek courses at the extension. We are so luckly here in the Bay Area to have this resource. I remember when I first started looking into the Latin, how depressing it was that there was seemingly no place for a working adult to study these languages (obviously, community colleges don’t offer Greek and Latin). Then I found out about the Berkeley extension program and signed up immediately. Once I started on the Latin, I was hooked. I took Latin I, II, and III one right after the other.
        At some point, Rali suggested that I take the Greek course as well. I remember thinking at the time that I was simply too busy. One language at a time was enough. Besides, my interrests back then were firmly in the Roman and Medieval worlds. Why, would I need Greek? But the idea quickly grew on me. I really enjoyed learning the Latin so why not Greek too? After all, I figured, its just another inflected language, right? And it dosn’t even have as many cases for the nouns, so how hard could it be? Ha, ha! Well, Greek was a wee-bit more complex than I anticipated but as it turns out I didn’t mind. I quickly fell in love with it, so a big thanks to Rali for encouraging me. I wound up taking the full cycle of Greek courses at the extension, including the Koine/NT Greek.
        At this point, I was also going to SF City College with the hopes of transferring to Berkeley and studying Classics full-time. Altogether, I was working 40 hours a week, going to CCSF weekday nights and taking Greek and Latin on the weekends at Berkeley extension. Needless to say, it was hard to find time for everything, but I developed tricks. I would spend my work-breaks in the ally behind our office, reciting paradigms and memorizing bits of Latin poetry. Funny thing was, I didn’t realize that my co-workers could see me from the office. Finally, someone approached me cautiously and asked if I was feeling alright. They said that they had noticed me “talking to myself” behind the office for days. I quickly explained that I was just practicing my Latin and Greek. They seemed visibly relieved but still confused.
        I would also write out vocabulary constantly on my memo pads, office memos, office files, everywhere. My office and desk were soon covered in scraps of paper containing Greek words hastily written out. Soon the entire office was full of my memos and notes that had Greek words scribbled in the margins. It quickly became an ongoing joke in the office. People were constantly asking what I was writing, what it all meant. “Oh, its nothing. Just my Greek vocabulary.” I would say. At one point, my boss joked that I was secretly telling everyone to f*ck off in Greek! But anyway, I digress. My point is that I found ways to practice my Greek and Latin as much as possible. As I mentioned in my other post, it’s surprising how much extra time you can generate throughout the day for language learning, so long as you put your mind to it.
        And ultimately it payed off! I got accepted to UC Berkeley, quit my job, and now get to devote myself full time to what I love. It’s truly a dream come true. And I am so thankful for those extension courses I took with you Rali. Not only were they lots of fun, but they allowed me to transfer to Berkeley with all my introductory Greek and Latin language courses out of the way! Consequently, I got to start-off right away taking the upper-division courses.

        Well, that’s the story for now. I have to admit Berkeley is great. Everything I hoped it would be. Anyway, we should definitely get together soon.


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