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How Hard is Latin?

As a Latin teacher, I receive this question a lot. I have to remind most students asking it that the answer is relative. I generally answer this question under the assumption that the questioner is a native English speaker who only knows his mother tongue. Most people outside of this category ask different questions at the start of their Latin journey.

As a native English-speaker myself, I look to the US State Department’s framework for learning languages. Every day, in two locations in the US, hundreds of State Department employees are hard at work acquiring the language of the country they will live and work in for one to three years. The effectiveness of their methods is immediately tested and verifiable by the performance of these students in the countries to which they are dispatched. They have been training their employees from nothing to proficiency for seventy years. Their experience should not be completely dismissed or ignored.

How to Measure DIfficulty: Hours Not Years

Their framework first tackles the question in hours, not months or years. The mental attention required to expose yourself to a language you don’t know is inherently exhausting: there’s a limit to the fruitful number of hours in the day you can devote to it. That said, someone surrounding herself with Spanish every waking hour for a month will necessarily learn much more rapidly than the student taking a 45-minute class five times a week. She will, however, find herself quite tired—and likely feel lonely, lacking a genuine connection to those around her—during that first month to six weeks of exposure.

Nonetheless, “I (have) studied Spanish for six years” communicates much less to me than “I’ve read and listened to Spanish for 300 hours, and spoken for about 100.” The State Department framework encourages us to think about our language learning in terms of hours dedicated to building the habit of expectation in our brains. I give a sampling of the four tiers below, but the whole chart is available at the State Department Website

Category I (~600-750 hours)Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish
Category II (~900 hours)German, Swahili, Indonesian, Malay
Category III (~1100 hours)Czech, Farsi, Greek, Hindi, Russian, Vietnamese
Category IV (~2200 hours)Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean

The more different a language is from English, the longer it will take to learn. In comparing a language to English, there are three categories of habit: vocabulary, morphology and syntax. In the first, it may be easy to see that some words can be stored very close to others. Spanish gato looks close enough to cat for us English speakers to see the resemblance. Syntax—how words come together to form phrases and clauses with meaning—I’ll tackle below.

The helpful thing in answering this question is to tell a student honestly how many hours of work they have to put in to achieve proficiency. It’s also helpful to realize that proficiency in Latin (a score of 3 on a scale of 1 to 5, though no standardized international test exists for Latin), still may not allow you to read the Aeneid or Cicero with ease. It will make your basic prayers and less rhetorically-polished prose a straightforward read.

So, where does Latin fall? I’ll compare it to what I know of the other languages on the list and try to give my best guess based on fifteen years of teaching experience.

I think Latin is a Category 2 language, requiring about 900 hours of active learning to achieve proficiency.

Syntax – Latin Compared

Latin vocabulary is similar to the Romance languages it produced, and thus I’d put most Latin vocabulary in the second tier. I do this only because our Latinate words are our more complex words, and as English continues to spread as a global language, the active vocabulary of the rising generations shrinks to more and more every day words.

Thus, Latin’s vocabulary building power generally works in one direction for people below the age of twenty: it builds your English vocabulary more than you will build your Latin vocabulary by knowing a lot of English words. I knew one student in high school whose English vocabulary was already large enough that he could guess many Latin words. He’s still the only young person I’ve ever met who could do that. He also read (in English) for several hours every day.

I also think the syntax bumps Latin into the second or third tier. I’ll give two examples. As English speakers, it’s really hard for us to process the verb last, as German (Level 2) regularly does. Latin loves to put the verb last and builds more complex sentences than English has for hundreds of years. Jane Austen, Walter Scott, or Charles Dickens give a better example of the kind of sentences Latin prose usually prefers but they still don’t delay the verb to the end. Training this habit takes more time than it would if Latin’s word order were closer to that of English.

The second thing is that Latin’s idioms cut against the way we think in English. We prefer abstract nouns, we speak a lot about preference and favorites, and our sentences tend to have more prepositional phrases in them than Latin. Latin prefers concrete nouns (using something like visus to express vision or sight more often than it would use visio). Latin speaks more objectively or keeps preference and opinion to parenthetical interruptions (i.e. videtur mihi can change the whole clause into an “I think that…”). I’ve never found a strong idiomatic way to express so many things we obsess about in other language classrooms: favorite food, favorite pets, favorites sports teams. Small talk looked different in Latin, I’m sure. My students also struggle with Latin’s prepositions. When the preposition is explicit in the sentence, they usually adapt quickly. The uses of the ablative, though, remain hard for them to recognize for a long time to come.

I won’t put Latin into a Category 3 (1100 hours) language because it lacks many of the things that make Category 3 languages hard. Latin’s alphabet is easily mastered in a day (it lacks W and borrowed K, Y, and Z at a late date). Not so for Hebrew, Farsi, Greek, Hindi, or Amharic (all Category 3 languages). As someone who has studied the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, I’d even put Greek at easier than Hebrew.

Latin has only one more case than German (the Ablative) and doesn’t have 7+ like Polish or Lithuanian (also Category 3). With only six tenses in the Indicative and four in the Subjunctive, it’s similar to German (Category 2). While it has more tenses than Polish, aspect in Polish is much more complex and Latin seems to have been nearly unaware of aspect until exposed to Greek.

All the category three languages give almost no vocabulary to English, as well, thus making the vocabulary a much steeper climb. Farsi gives us the word lemon, but you still can’t recognize it (لیمون) easily until you can read the script (Arabic script), which has a different letter form for letter at the beginning, middle, and end of words.

Upshot – Proficiency Heading for Mastery

So, Latin doesn’t turn out to be hard to acquire, but we’ve been teaching it rather strangely for the last century and a half as merely a puzzle. When taught as a puzzle, it tends to remain that way until many more hours of reading and speaking have activated it.

When taught with acquisitional and analytical methods combined (something most of the community doesn’t seem to discuss, thinking that the one excludes the other), the focus is on building the right habits of vocabulary and idiom. This, combined with a knowledge of how the grammar works, can help not only our English (the avowed goal of most Latin program in the US), but also make reading and praying in Latin a lifelong habit building towards mastery.

That’s the goal for me at least: to introduce my students to a language and culture that have stored up so much human wisdom and experience in so many genres and styles.

Measuring Success: How Often Do You Use the Language?

It’s difficult for most teachers to look beyond college and pin down the lifelong impacts of their own teaching (or their own education). Partly this is because teaching must always remain personal, and thus is a lot more than skill acquisition or fact memorization. Rather, most of our important teachers influenced us most in who they were not just what they taught or even how.

I don’t have control over who my students become. Thus I shouldn’t set a goal that they all read and enjoy Latin for the rest of their lives; I’m just setting myself up for disappointment as their tastes and skills lead them down other roads.

If English teachers set a goal for all their students to be above-average readers, most of their students, already fluent in English, fail to read more than ten books per year. And nowhere can I find studies distinguishing between people who read pulp romance, business nonfiction, classical English literature, or philosophy and theology in translation. One man’s stack of ten could be significantly weaker than another man’s.

So, I’d rather measure success for my Latin students across the board. How often do they read, pray, sing, or hear Latin? I’m still failing as a teacher, which is great motivation for me to continue working hard to help my students learn enough Latin that they enjoy Latin. None of us enjoy being beginners forever, and rarely do we rejoice in being bad at something.

So, my task each year is to help my students acquire enough habits in the language to gain traction in building their language habit on their own. It’s true that you often lose whatever language you don’t use, but, like riding a bike or driving a manual transmission, it’s not nearly as lost as you think. One’s muscle-memory kicks back in as soon as the exposure to the language increases and comprehensible input returns.

2 thoughts on “How Hard is Latin?”

  1. Thank you for saying this out loud! This was my method for learning to read Latin on my own. I used Wheelock first to learn the grammar and paradigms, then LLPSI as a graded reader. I also used the readings in the Oxford Latin Course, Latin by the Natural Method, and various old books such as Fabulae Faciles and Ad Alpes. Combining the two methods is the best, fastest path to mastery.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I do feel like I’m in the minority for seeing, and applying, the strengths from both sides. It seems weird to immerse like we’re still children, and the phobia of ever expressing things in translation seems pointless when we’re still memorizing the first 1000 most common words (it’s often just the fastest way to get the meaning and move on to more content). I do often emphasize with my studnets that by using both methods they learn the benefits of reading fast AND the benefits of reading slow. The former calls out grammatical precision as well as philosophical reflection, while the latter brings with it the enjoyment that comes from seeing the whole in relation to its parts and getting a sense for what the author said, not just what he wrote for 100 out of 10,000 lines. I’m developing a course this summer for homeschoolers along these exact lines. It may work for auto-didacts too who need the structure and support. Congrats on doing it alone! No easy feat! Cūrā ut valeās!


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