Tips and Hints on Teaching Latin

Well, well, it has been a long, long time since any of us posted anything here! But things have quietened down again, and I might as well make a post.

This year one of my regular jobs has been teaching my littlest sister Latin. I studied Latin on and off for seven years when I was younger, spending most of my time on the Mars Hill Latin course by Martha (and later, Douglas) Wilson. When I had finished the two Latin primers and the Latin grammar, Mum looked around for a more advanced Latin course (since the Mars Hill course was aimed at primary-age students).

She settled on a recent edition of the classic textbook by Frederick Wheelock. Wheelock’s Latin is basically the Saxon Maths of Latin courses—few frills, and contains most of what you’ll ever want to know about Latin in one dense textbook. I did that for six months before getting completely out of my depth and having to stop—and then university prevented me going on.

Mum was considering whether to start A. on Wheelock’s at the beginning of the year, and feeling somewhat daunted, when I offered to teach her instead. Wheelock’s had conquered me once and I knew now what the problem had been. I had not taken great care to learn everything in each chapter before moving on to the next. I had assumed that I could tackle a new chapter every week. Wrong!

So when I began teaching A. Latin at the beginning of the year, I realised that you had to work through each chapter very thoroughly, taking it slowly. We just finished for the year today and out of the 40 chapters in the textbook, we’ve only got through the first 7.

Had I not spent so much time away from home, especially in the second half of the year, we might have gotten a little further. But this is how we did it: First we would read the chapter together and discuss it. Then, we would start work on the worksheets for that chapter (I recommend getting the Workbook for Wheelock’s Latin, which has lots of supplementary exercises). After this, we would work through the Optional Self-Tutorial Exercises at the back of the main textbook. Finally, we would tackle the translation exercises in the chapter itself. This involves working through the chapter several times in a row, and really helps you to learn it. I also had A. drill the words and their meanings daily.

Why Latin?: Learning languages is an excellent mental discipline. Although English is a Germanic language, it has been heavily influenced by Latin and Greek as well. Latin and Latin-derived languages such as French have dominated world history for thousands of years, from the ancient times of the Roman Empire, to the medieval world in which Latin was the language of scholarship and French the language of diplomacy, to the modern world in which English has only recently replaced both. Learning Latin disciplines a student’s mind to understand words, not just in their current meanings but also in their ancient and medieval meanings. When the finer shades of meaning and history emerge, a writer becomes able to choose words with far greater skill and care than he otherwise would have. He can become a truly capable and powerful user of words.

A solid grounding in Latin is also an excellent place to begin learning other languages. French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portugese, and other languages are derived from Latin. Learn Latin, and not only will you understand your own language better, you’ll also understand parts of others.

Finally, learning Latin is also an excellent way to learn grammar. Although Latin grammar is not identical to English, they share many points of similarity and you simply cannot learn Latin without a rigorous use of grammar. While everyone needs a solid introduction to English grammar, there’s no reason to keep on with it once you start learning Latin. Basically, it’s a two-subjects-for-the-price-of-one deal.

Why Wheelock’s?: This is a good question. The author’s Preface clearly states the textbook’s presuppositional background: “the writer has striven to produce a beginners’ book which is mature, humanistic, challenging, and instructive, and which, at the same time, is reasonable in its demands.” The question is how that affects the book. On one level, there’s nothing really innately humanistic in sitting there drilling amo, amare, amavi, amatum—love. On the obvious level, many of the translation exercises take the form of short sayings of the Roman philosophers. Although for many years Latin was the language of the Church, Wheelock’s focuses almost exclusively on pagan Roman philosophy (though Chapter 7 contains some extracts from the Vulgate). This is not so bad, as it gives you a look at Roman morals and philosophy. As of the first few chapters, these consist of Sunday-school platitudes—the respectability of the unregenerate, as discussed in GK Chesterton’s Song of the Strange Ascetic:

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

Despite its humanist philosophy, Wheelock’s remains the most rigorous and comprehensive Latin course I have ever seen. Although it is best to begin it in secondary school after some previous grounding in beginner Latin and English grammar, it begins with the assumption that the student knows no Latin at all, and quickly leaps into heady stratospheres of Latin grammar. Once you get to the end of the course, Wheelock provides lengthy classical passages, some adapted and some completely original, for the student’s perusal. After that I imagine it would not be too difficult to construe original classic Latin writers at large. I know of no other course that will take you from a beginner to a seasoned Latin scholar in the course of one book.

Can I teach Latin if I’ve never learned it before?: Of course you can! After all, the whole idea of home education is learning alongside your students, not cramming the night before so you can sit around dispensing wisdom. Sit down with your Latin student or students and give it the old college try—together. They’ll spot things you didn’t. Sometimes you may need help—this is why I recommend forming friendships with homeschool graduates who’ve already been there and done that. But on the whole, Latin is fine when taken in bite-sized pieces. I do recommend prepping for Latin by spending a year or two getting a good grip on English grammar and maybe doing an easy beginner Latin course (the one we did was the Mars Hill Latin Primers by Martha Wilson, and Douglas Wilson’s Latin Grammar) but the higher echelons of Latin are perfectly doable if you don’t rush it.

What’s the best way to approach Wheelock’s?: Don’t rush: relax! This isn’t a school. Nobody says you have to get through the whole textbook in a year. I would actually recommend not planning on getting through Wheelock’s in anything less than four years. And if you don’t make it to the end, don’t worry. If you can learn the first ten chapters really thoroughly, you’ve done very well and your children will amaze your friends every Christmas when you ask them what case Deo is in the prepositional phrase “in excelsis Deo.” (Answer: dative).

In other news, Latin is a language. I highly recommend doing as much of it orally as is convenient. Some of the translation will be easier written out, especially the English-to-Latin translation, but forget about exercise books with neatly-written answers, unless something in your personality or your child’s personality makes it easier to do it that way. Doing the exercises and translation orally will help you to work through it together, will keep your child focused, will allow you to coach him in grammar as he needs reminding, and will eliminate tedious correction time.

I began by doing all the work orally with A., but after she had a grounding in the basics I found that she was leaning on me too much if we did it together—she could be lazy and let me remind her of things she knew. If I spent time away from home, I would get her to work on translation exercises while I was away and I would correct them once I got back. I invariably found that her standard of work improved dramatically when I was away, but would decline once I got back. Lately we’ve worked out a mixture of oral and written work which works well for us.

How to translate a Latin sentence: Latin-to-English translation will form the bulk of your translation exercises. Here’s the secret: the verb is the key to unlocking a Latin sentence. Here’s an example from Wheelock’s Chapter 7:

Feminae sine mora civitatem de insidiis et exitio malo monebunt.

The verb, right there on the end, is monebunt, “they will warn”. Once you’ve located and translated the verb, you know that the subject is plural and will probably be found in a plural noun elsewhere in the sentence, since the verb is in the third person (if it was the first person, “I will warn” or the second, “you will warn”, no noun could take the place of the pronoun and the subject would be contained within the verb). Also, since the verb is an action verb (“warn”) as opposed to a being verb, there will likely be a direct object to receive the action of the verb.

So first we look for a plural nominative-case noun, which, given what we know of Latin word order, will likely be found at or near the beginning. Ah, and here we go: feminae provides the “who?” for “they will warn”:

The women will warn…

Next we look for a noun in the accusative case to tell us who is being warned, and we find it tucked between two prepositional phrases: civitatem.

The women will warn the city…

What do we have left? Sine mora is a prepositional phrase introduced by the preposition sine, the object of which is in the ablative case. It’s an adverbial phrase, telling us how the city is being warned (the ablative, or “adverbial” case confirms our suspicion that the phrase is adverbial):

The women will warn the city without delay…

And finally, the phrase de insidiis et exitio malo contains the preposition de followed by two objects, both in the ablative case, further modifying the verb. Fully translated, the sentence appears as follows:

The women will warn the city without delay about the treacheries and the evil plot.

For each verb, check the tense, then the person and number. To translate a noun, always make sure you know exactly which case, gender, and number it takes (it may be necessary to check the declension first of all).

How to translate an English sentence: English-to-Latin is a good deal harder and some people recommend not even bothering about it at a beginner level. However a good deal of the guesswork can be taken out by being able to recognise the grammatical components of an English sentence. I have taught my sister to progress according to the elements of a Latin sentence: Subject and modifiers, indirect object, direct object, adverbs, verb. The procedure then becomes one of looking for the subject first, then its modifiers, then an indirect object, and so on. Each is translated into the correct case, number, and gender as you come to it. The sentence is then checked to see if anything was left out. Of course, this translation structure is only used where convenient—in cases where the verb is a being verb, there will be no direct object, there will likely be a predicate nominative, and the word order will be different.

The key to getting a good handle on Latin: Grammar, grammar, grammar. Know the parts of speech and their usage. If a grammatical concept is brought up, don’t move on unless you feel you know it reasonably well. Look out for new and unusual things in sentences you’re given to translate, then think about why the grammar would have been used in that way.

And enjoy yourselves! Latin is a fascinating study—you’re not just learning a language, you’re learning the history of your own language.

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