Advice on Learning Latin

How best to learn Latin? Well, quot homines tot sententiae and here is a forthright contribution from Sean Gabb, writer, lecturer and broadcaster. This is an abbreviated version, for the full text go to:

Advice on Learning Latin
by Sean Gabb
(5th July 2017)

Aside from my various books – more of which will come out this month and next – I get most of my living nowadays from teaching Greek and Latin. I do this as a private tutor, and sometimes as an informal member of staff at various places of education. Because demand for my services in any one place is limited, there is no point in my becoming a formal member of staff. Instead, I go out to see students in their homes or in classrooms, or in university libraries, or I hold court in the kitchen of my own house. I do the teaching and then get on with other business.

I might like a formal university or school position. However, because most positions available seem to be in North or South-West London, and because I live in Deal, and have no present wish to move, I am content with present arrangements – even if I am always looking for more students. The arrangements suit me for three reasons.

First, I have been obsessed by the Ancient World since I was eight, and I enjoy teaching any subject connected with it. I particularly enjoy teaching its languages. I am, indeed, very good at teaching them. I have a talent for sitting down with a student, or a small group of students, and finding the right individual approach. Rather than speak at length on this, I refer you to the Testimonials page of my teaching website. These are a small selection of the grateful comments I receive. I have no doubt my students find me bumbling and pedantic, and my frequent digressions on philology and obscure points of history, and my tendency to climatic determinsism, may not always be relevant. Even so, I deliver the goods, and have the testimonials to prove it.

Second, I am not aware of any competition for my services. The number of those able to teach the classical languages falls every year. I believe there has been an increase in demand during the present century – that, or supply is now declining faster than demand. In either case, I am reasonably able to set my own terms of work. In an age of targets and micro-management, I am in a lucky position.

Third, and following from the above, any person or institution in want of my services has little choice but to do business with me. I am a free market libertarian and a bit of a High Tory. Either position would put me out of sorts with the current order of things. Taken together, they make me an object of suspicion and dislike within almost every institution I know. I get on well with many Conservatives. I get on surprisingly well with socialists who want to improve the lot of the working classes by nationalising the means of production. Not so with the vast middle ground of technocratic Blairites, or with the cultural Marxists.



Where the classical languages are concerned, I am like a plumber. If your toilet is blocked, you do not ask the man you call out if he votes Conservative or Labour. You do not ask how he voted in the European Referendum. You do not grill him on the Divinity of Christ, for or against, and do not take against him if he likes Abba, or if he is about to change sex, or if he makes unkind jokes about “shirt-lifters.” All you want is your toilet to flush, and not too many footprints on the Azerbaijani rug you forgot to roll away before opening the door. Make the necessary changes, and I am the equivalent of a plumber. I do the job, and I do it well.

I turn now to the question of how, with or without my help, to learn the classical languages; and, if I choose to concentrate on Latin, what I have to say applies also to Greek. A few years ago, before I had my present experience of teaching in schools, I published a book on how to learn Greek or Latin or both. My advice then was to forget course books or books of simplified reading, and to go, a verse at a time, though a parallel text of The Acts of the Apostles. I still believe this is a good method of learning, and something like this approach was taken during Antiquity and until about the end of the sixteenth century. But it is not suited to all students. I am using it at the moment with someone who has A Level Latin and who wants to learn Greek. It seems to work. But it can be a slow and intensive grind, and I have come to a better opinion of the course books I used to reject.

For anyone who wants a good knowledge of Latin, there are two main difficulties – the second encountered somewhat after the first.

The first is that Latin has a lot of grammar, and this can be confusing. There are five declensions of nouns, each with five or six cases in both singular and plural. Indeed, the second declension has masculine and neuter forms, which are different, and the third declension has a variety of irregularities and different forms. Adjectives and participles also decline, and must agree with nouns in gender, case and number. There are four or five conjugations of regular verbs. Each regular verb has thirty-six parts in its indicative active, and thirty six in its indicative passive. Each of these voices has another twenty-four parts in its subjunctive mood. There are more irregular verbs than I have tried to count.

Many of these parts are identical. Dominae can mean “of the woman,” “to or for the woman,” or “women.” Am-emus means “we might love,” or “let us love.” Mon-emus means “We advise.” Reg-emus means “we shall rule.” Monu-erimus means both “we shall have advised” and “we might have advised.” You sort through these verbs by learning that amo is first conjugation, that moneo is second, and that rego is third. Confusion between future perfect indicative active and perfect subjunctive active is avoided by learning to recognise context.

The second main difficulty is that the Romans did not always like simple sentences. They had no fixed order of words, and they made all the use they could of participles; and they had a taste for periodic sentences, in which one main verb and subject are supported by a mass of complements and subordinate clauses.

Let me give an example of this in English, from Book II of Paradise Lost:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of ORMUS and of IND,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings BARBARIC Pearl & Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais’d
To that bad eminence; and from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain Warr with Heav’n, and by success untaught
His proud imaginations thus displaid.

Milton can be a difficult writer for native speakers of English. But his effort to write English as if it were Latin was restrained by our lack of inflexion. The Roman authors had no restraint.

Take this, from the Book III of Lucretius:

E tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen
qui primus potuisti inlustrans commoda vitae,
te sequor, o Graiae gentis decus, inque tuis nunc
ficta pedum pono pressis vestigia signis,
non ita certandi cupidus quam propter amorem
quod te imitari aveo; quid enim contendat hirundo
cycnis, aut quid nam tremulis facere artubus haedi
consimile in cursu possint et fortis equi vis?

You can look up every word of this in a dictionary, and still be no closer to knowing what it means. The meaning emerges from the grammatical relationship of the words to each other.

Now, there is a method for decoding periods. To show this, I will use the Milton.

  1. Read to the full stop. Do not try to understand all that is happening. Instead, get the idea that Satan is doing well.
  2. Read again, this time stopping at the first semi-colon. You probably have a clause that makes sense in its own right. The later clauses need the first for making sense. But the first usually stands alone.
  3. Put a mental line through anything that looks like a subordinate clause. These are generally introduced by relative pronouns – “which,” “where,” and so forth.
  4. Put a mental line though anything that looks like a parallel clause. These are generally introduced by conjunctions – “and,” “or,” and so forth.
  5. Look at what is left, and look for the main verb. Here, it is “sat.”
  6. Look for the subject. Here, it is “Satan.”
  7. Look for adjectives and complements that go with the subject. Here, they are “High on a throne of royal state,” and “exalted,” and “by merit raised to that bad eminence.

We therefore have the main idea of the first clause that Satan is sitting high on a throne of royal state, and has been raised by merit to that bad eminence. The subordinate clauses should now make sense. The throne far outshines the wealth or Hormuz and of India – why these places are chosen for comparison may need a commentary to be explained. Or it outshines those other places in the East, where the barbarian kings have pearls and gold poured over them. In Latin, you would know at once whether “barbaric” is an adjective of “kings” or of “pearl and gold.” In English, your guess may be as good as mine.

But I describe a difficulty and a solution not relevant for beginners. The first difficulty is the most important – how to determine the grammatical parts. There are two solutions. The first is to memorise the declensions and conjugations. This is not as hard as it sounds. You go ahead and memorise them. Many years ago, I had to learn Slovak. I had the advantage of living there, and of having an urgent need to learn the language. I mostly learnt it by using it. But I began by memorising all the paradigms of verbs and all the declensions. This took one afternoon. The hardest part of the job was rewriting the declensions I found in my grammar, so they followed the order you find in Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer – nominative-accusative-genitive-dative-locative-instrumental. Bearing in mind I was able within three weeks to chair meetings in Slovak, it was a good use of one afternoon.

But most students do not like memorising. Anyone can do it, but hardly anyone will do it. So the second solution is to  read the grammatical tables, and to be aware of what they say and of any duplications and other ambiguities they show.

Do not, by the way, trouble me or any other teacher with questions that start with the adverb “why.” If you are a beginner, it is enough to be told that something is so. Fero means “I carry.” Tuli means “I have carried.” Latum means “carried.” Learn that, or learn to be aware of it. Do not ask for reasons. If you have progressed any distance, you will know the answers for yourself. The grammar of Classical Latin is a snapshot of the language taken during the first century before Christ. It is somewhere between the extreme complexity of its Indo-European ancestor and the simplicity of its Italian daughter. Had the snapshot been taken before the First Punic War, Classical Latin would have had locative and instrumental cases, and perhaps a definite article. Taken after the death of Commodus, it would not have genitive or dative cases, though it might have the embryo of a restored definite article. Taken when it was, the snapshot shows a weakening of the inflected forms prior to their collapse.

For the rest, every language has irregularities. A counterpart in English of fero-tuli-latum is “I go,” “I went,” “I have gone.” At some time in the distant past, two verbs have been jammed together in different tenses. Children learn the messy result without thinking about it. Intelligent foreigners learn it without asking questions. As said, by the time it is worth asking why, the answer suggests itself.

But I digress. You do not memorise the grammar. Instead, you learn where to find it, and you refer to the tables as often as it takes for them to soak into your mind.

How to get those tables to soak in? When in Slovakia, I was immersed in the language. I learnt much without noticing. With the classical languages, the best alternative is what is called extensive reading. You do not begin by attacking Lucretius. You find a book of easy readings. My current favourite is John Taylor’s Latin Stories. I discovered this when I taught my first GCSE class. It is a clever book. The stories are actually interesting – mostly retellings of Greek myths or episodes from ancient history. The difficulty of each passage is carefully-graded. Every few pages, new grammar is introduced, and this is then drilled into the student. Most sentences are short. Every so often, there is a longer and more complex sentence that gives students an opportunity to practise a simplified version of the parsing rules I give above.

The purpose of this book, and of others like it, is not for each chapter to be read and then left alone. The purpose is for a comparative beginner to decode each sentence, and get the meaning of a passage – and then to read it again, and again, and again. You learn vocabulary not by memorising lists of words, but by fixing the meaning of a word within particular known sentences. Once you no longer need to look up every fifth word in a passage, you are able to appreciate overall matters of style and construction. This is the equivalent of immersion.

A further point is that you do not know Latin if every time you see navis, the word “ship” comes into your mind. You are beginning to know Latin when you see navis and you imagine a ship. You get here by reading and rereading texts where all the work of decoding has been already done.

When you do eventually turn to the classics, you will feel as if you have been lifted from a heated swimming pool and thrown into the Channel. You can read every page of Latin Stories ten or twenty times. Even so, Lucretius will not be an easy read. But, you will be aware of what needs to be done. You strip out the secondary parts of a sentence and hunt for the main verb in what remains. You never entirely stop doing this. But it does grow less frequent with practice. You can say that you know Latin when you are able to read a passage of Cicero or Vergil with as much conscious attention to grammar as an educated native speaker of English pays to the grammar of John Milton.

Oh – and what I say about extensive reading is not confined to learners. If you read Book VI of the Aeneid, you do not throw it aside like a read Sunday newspaper. You read it again, even if not perhaps at once. Any difficulties you may have noticed on first reading will have been settled. So you read it again as you might listen to a favourite piece of music. Doubtless, other difficulties will arise. But you settle those as well. The classics are classics because they repay continued attention. I have read Gibbon three times so far. When I was much younger, I may have read each of Macaulay’s Essays a dozen times. When I was a boy, I read The Ancient Mariner so often, I can still recite it from memory. It is the same with A Shropshire Lad and the first two books of Paradise Lost. You may call that a sign of autism. If so, I can think of less pleasurable disorders.

Or, if you have enough of the Roman classics, there is another millennium of good literature. I like dipping at random into Paul the Deacon, and Liutprand of Cremona, and the Gesta Francorum. I have not read much Erasmus, but he is on my list of authors to download from Google Books. If you want to call yourself a Latinist, you should aim to read five thousand words a week.

Why anyone should put so much effort into learning one or two dead languages is a question I do not propose to discuss. I have discussed it at length elsewhere. All I will say is that, if you are ignorant of at least Latin, you are deaf to some of the finest products of the human mind; you are missing a whole dimension in English literature; you are imperfectly aware of where we stand in the progress of our civilisation. You are at best a mannered barbarian. You probably do not know the grammar and the potential of your own language.

So come and be my student. Or send someone else. No one was ever hurt by knowing the meaning of silent enim leges inter arma. It certainly pays my bills in what would otherwise be a mildly hostile world.

Latin at Bilborough College

I am so pleased. I want to share my delight with colleagues who will appreciate it, because my college has not responded. This is the third year that Latin GCSE has been offered as an additional subject to year 13 A level students at my state sixth form. I make no bones; I love Latin and I am dedicated to state students having the same opportunities as private school students. We have in effect 8 months to prepare for the higher tier GCSE OCR Latin. 31 took the exam this year. 23 achieved A*-C with 2 A*s, 10As 7Bs and 4Cs. I am so proud and if other teachers would like advice regarding introducing GCSE Latin into the curriculum, I would love to talk with them about promoting so important a subject.

Sean Cormac

Languages – Ad hoc Latin club has ‘cult’ appeal

Members achieve impressive results without qualified teacher

Students at an East Dunbartonshire secondary are scoring top grades in Latin – even though the school has no qualified teacher in the subject and no timetabled classes.

Bearsden Academy depute headteacher Annette MacKay said that Latin has become a “cult” favourite among high-achieving students since an after-school club was set up in 2011-12.

Five students sat Intermediate 1 Latin that year, with another five doing so last year – and all achieved the highest award of A at band 1. Both times they were the only Intermediate 1 Latin candidates anywhere in Scotland. One student even took Intermediate 2 last year, also earning an A at band 1.

The club, which meets for about an hour every second week, was set up at the request of a student who wanted to study at Oxbridge. Ms MacKay had told the student, Anna McDonald, that her application could do with “something to make it stand out”, and suggested Latin or Mandarin – although “whether I could find someone to teach it was another matter”.

The club that emerged has proved attractive to aspiring law, medicine and languages students. It is run by Ms MacKay, who read languages at university but whose last sustained experience of Latin was sitting the Higher some years ago. In the first year, a regular group of eight S6 students worked through Cambridge Latin Course textbooks. There were nine regulars last year and Ms MacKay expects a similar number in 2013-14………….

read the rest of the story here

Imperium from Julian Morgan

Julian Morgan is a good friend of ARLT and well known for his resources for Classics. Here is his announcement of a brand new course for teaching Latin:

Dear Friends and Colleagues

I have waited a long time to write this email. In fact, it’s been six years. That’s how long it has taken to write the all-new Imperium Latin course, which I launched on Midsummer’s Day, 2013.
Imperium has run its trials, is now proved and fully resourced, and it’s ready for use in your classroom. I am already receiving strong interest from some schools and it seems that there will soon be more of us teaching the course than has been the case until now.
I hope that you will take a little time to look at the website at and that this material may be of interest to you.
Every part of Imperium is based on downloadable resources and even the four books are being printed on demand. This means that the project will stay dynamic, with continuing input from new users in the future.
Ready for a change? Or unsure about what it would mean for you? Have a look at the document Why Imperium? – at this link:
Have a great summer – and maybe next year will bring some real changes to your Latin teaching…
Julian Morgan

Cicero in Verrem

Of particular and immediate interest to those of us teaching A Level Latin this year is this initiative from Open Book Publishers which, as their Marketing Manager, Gabriele Civiliene explains  is

 ” an innovative, non-profit , Open Access publisher run by academic scholars based at the University of Cambridge. For our website go to 

 We are soon to publish the book that might be of interest to the members of the bloggers of ARLT – that is, Cicero, Against Verres, 2.1.53–86: Latin Text with Introduction, Study Questions, Commentary and English Translation by Prof Ingo Gildenhard from the Department of Classics and Ancient History, Durham University. (For a copy of the PDF flyer featuring this title go to the ARLT website.)  The book will be available in 3 formats – digital, hardback, and paperback. Its complete version will be also available for free access direct from our website on Google Books. Read more about it here:–against-verres–2-1-53-86–latin-text-with-introduction–study-questions–commentary-and-english-translation

Gabriele Civiliene
Marketing Manager
For our latest catalogue :

Hans Orberg and his contribution to Latin pedagogy.

“Orberg is the natural successor to W H D Rouse in that his Lingua Latina per se illustrata is the natural choice for anyone wanting to teach via the Direct Method….”

Here is David Carter’s article, which also appears in the current edition of the JCT.  Orberg’s lecture can be found on the ARLT website

“Ask a sixth-former studying French or Russian to read a random page of Moliere or Tolstoi, and they will probably make a decent fist of it.   Ask a sixth-former studying Latin to read a random page of Caesar or Ovid, and after only a line or two they will come grinding to a halt and have to reach for the dictionary.

Why is the fluency of students of Latin so abysmal when compared with that of students of modern languages?   Latin teachers are fertile with excuses, but an outside observer would conclude that the inferior results are simply down to inferior teaching methods.

Modern Language (MFL) teaching is fast paced, with teachers insisting that the language must be spoken as much as possible during class.  As a result far more of the language goes through the student’s head, which improves their vocabulary; they are forced to develop the ability to handle it at a brisk pace; and they have to process the words in the order they are spoken (what chance does any student have of ever becoming fluent who is taught such barbarisms as “find the verb, the subject and the object?”)

In short, the “direct method” acts as a discipline, which forces the student to develop the skills to read and speak the language quickly.  Students of Latin on the other hand, encouraged to think of Latin as a sort of intellectual word puzzle which they have all the time in the world to translate, simply never read it fast enough to become fluent.

In revolt against the killing slowness of traditional Latin teaching many teachers have thought to apply the direct methods used in MFL.  For such teachers the primary coursebook will usually be Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina per se illustrata.

Hans Henning Orberg (1920 – Feb 17th 2010) was educated at the University of Copenhagen, and qualified as a teacher of English, French and Latin in 1946.   Orberg records that from the beginning he practised the direct method of teaching in his English and French lessons, but with Latin he found this impossible.  However:

“I could see no reason why Latin should be taught by methods totally different from those used in the teaching of modern languages. I felt that Latin is a foreign language like other foreign languages and should be taught by similar methods. I was inspired by the work of English direct-method pioneers like W. H. D. Rouse and R. B Appleton, and by my compatriot Otto Jespersen and his disciple Arthur M. Jensen, who had launched an English reading course called English by the Nature Method.  His idea was to make every sentence presented to the students immediately intelligible per se, or self-explanatory, by grading and organizing the intro­duction of vocabulary and grammar. That means that there is no need to translate or explain grammatical points in the students’ own language, they are enabled to discover for themselves directly the meaning of the words and sentences and the functioning of the grammatical rules.”

Orberg published his first book, Lingua Latina secundum naturae rationem explicata in 1955. After many years of classroom teaching he revised it in 1990 and changed the title to Lingua Latina per se illustrata (from now on “LL”).    The LL course consists of two parts, Familia Romana and Roma Aeterna, along with a series of classic texts – Caesar, De Bello Gallico;  Plautus Menaechmi, Petronius Cena Trimalchionis, Plautus Amphitryo, Sallustius et Cicero: Catilina.

Because LL is written entirely in Latin it may be used anywhere.  It is popular in Europe, especially Spain and Italy, but also has followers in France, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Croatia and Poland.   In Italy the Lingua Latina system has been recognised this year as the best recommendable alternative to traditional teaching by the Ministry of Education in Rome, largely due to its championship by Luigi Miraglia, one of Italy’s leading Latinists.   In the United States Lingua Latina is quite widely used, especially at college level, and there is an active Orberg List on the teachers’ website

However, in Britain Orberg and LL are practically unknown.  So in the remainder of this article I will describe the first book of the series, Famila Romana, in some detail for UK  readers.

Theory – underlying principles

There are 35 chapters and 328 pages in Familia Romana, all in Latin.   “The object”, says O, “is to accustom the student, from the start, to read and understand the Latin text as Latin without the interference of English, or with a minimum interference of English.”  

To achieve this O. has written an elementary Latin text in which the student can infer the meaning and function of all new words and grammatical forms from the context.   “The text is carefully graded.  The progressive introduction of words, inflections, and struc­tures, with due regard to their frequency in Latin writers, should conform to a well defined pro­gram which not only ensures immediate comprehension, but also assimilation and consolidation owing to the constant recurrence in new surroundings of words and forms already introduced and under­stood.” 

Students “are enabled to work out for themselves, that is to infer or induce, the rules of grammar. No grammatical rule is formulated until the students have seen so many self-evident examples of the phenomenon in context that the rule only states something that they already “feel in their bones”. Such inductive reasoning and learning per exempla is the most effective way to assimilate both vocabulary and grammar.”

Practice – teaching in class

There are 35 stories in LL.   The teacher starts by reading the story aloud, with correct stress and pronunciation of the Latin, while the students follow in their books.  The text runs two-thirds across the page; the remaining third holds notes on any new words or grammar. These take the form of pictures, or simple explanations in Latin.

After the teacher’s reading the students do not have to translate the Latin into English, but individually are asked to read aloud portions of the text.  From their phrasing and pronunciation of the Latin the teacher can usually tell whether they have understood or not.

Each chapter is followed by a section on grammar, Grammatica Latina, and three exercises, Pensum A, B and C.   Pensum A is a grammatical exercise, where the missing endings are to be filled in.   In Pensum B students are asked to fill the blanks with new words introduced in the chapter.   Pensum C consists of questions to be answered with short Latin sentences.

The students are allowed to keep their books open during these exercises and to find the answers in the text.  The fact, says O,  that they are able to go to the correct point in the story to find the answer proves that they have understood the Latin. [Answers to all these exercises are provided within the Teacher’s Materials handbook.]

O. demands that after the story starts only Latin should be used, but he does not prohibit the use of English entirely.  Before starting he is happy for the teacher to discuss the chapter in English.   And if at the end of the story students are still puzzled by a Latin word even after the Latin explanations, a one or two word English equivalent is acceptable.    Grammatical explanations can be in English.

Am I as pretty now as when you married me?

Finally, an extract from one of the stories to give a flavour of Lingua Latina.  O. is emphatic that the stories must be enjoyable in themselves, to hold the students’ attention, and to make them benevoli, attenti, dociles.    Often they are informed with a certain sly humour.   For example in capitulum XIX  Iulius tells his wife Aemilia how he fell in love and married her because she was the most beautiful girl in Rome.   A delicate conversation follows in which a man who doesn’t know num from nonne will find himself in serious trouble:

Aemilia:   Num hodie minus pulchra sum quam tunc eram?

Iulius faciem uxoris intuens, “Certe”, inquit, “matrona tam pulchra es quam virgo eras, mea Aemilia.  Omnes pulchritudinem tuam laudant.”  Tum vero formam eius spectans: “At minus gracilis es quam tunc.  eo enim tempore gracilior eras quam hoc signum Veneris.”

Aemilia signum Veneris aspicit, cuius corpus gracilius ac minus est quam ipsius.  “Certe tam gracilis hodie non sum,”  inquit, “sed quare me crassiorem fieri putas?”

Iulius ridens respondet: “Quia nunc cibum meliorem es quam tunc edebas.”

Aemilia:  “Id quod nunc edo nec melius nec peius est quam quod apud parentes meos edebam.”

Iulius:  “Ergo plus es quam tunc, Aemilia!


A lecture by Hans Orberg describing the ideas behind Lingua Latina per se illustrata may be found on the website of the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching (   Editions of Lingua Latina per se illustrata are published by Focus Publishing in English-speaking countries, and by Domus Latina in Europe.  “

David Carter

Harry Potter and the Teaching of Latin

 arltblogger is grateful for this piece to David Baker, Professor of Renaissance Literature at Rutgers University, a Latinist, and in his spare time a “humor blogger”. See what you think