The Ultimate Guide to Learning Latin

Learning Latin takes commitment. It also causes analysis paralysis for a lot of us because the options are overwhelming. I offer the links and perspective here to help you find a good set of tools to help you or your child learn Latin. If you’re just starting out (or researching for your own children), you need to answer five questions before you start your Latin journey.

Why Learn Latin?

I only see one clear answer here: to read Latin authors in their original language. From Cicero to Newton, eighteen centuries of philosophy, literature, theology, and poetry open up to the student who can read these authors in their own language.

When answering this why question, well-meaning teachers get distracted by two things: they’re motivating parents or they’re allaying administrative fears. While the incentives of teachers, students, parents, and administrators all overlap on a few points, each group also has distinct incentives that should be taken into account.

How to Pronounce the Latin?

At one time, Latin exhibited at least as much diversity in accent and pronunciation as we have in modern English, but over the centuries, those variations have coalesced around two main systems: Ecclesiastical or Classical. Both have their advantages and disadvantages as well as their authors. Cicero and Jerome likely pronounced Latin Classically, while Aquinas and Erasmus pronounced it Ecclesiastically.

Just pick one or the other and remain consistent for the first four to six years. After that, it doesn’t matter. I studied and spoke for four years of high school in Ecclesiastical, then studied four years in college surrounded by Classical pronunciation. Now, I speak and understand Ecclesiastical and Classical as easily as I can switch between a Yorkshire Accent and a Midwestern Flat (I’m originally from California, so I don’t do these accents perfectly).

What’s the Best Method for Learning Latin?

The lines have been drawn for decades now, and the history goes back even further than that for those willing to join the fray. I’ll simplify things. The extremes can be called decoders and acquisitionists.

Decoders – Latin as Mental Exercise

The decoders insist on always treating Latin like Math. The only way to understand the sentence is to translate it into English. Sentences are problems to be solved. Latin isn’t meant to be spoken because it’s dead. Dissection and labeling are the keys to understanding. Everything must be translated into English before we can assert that a student “undertands”

Acquisitionists – Grammar is Always Bad

Diametrically opposed to the decoders are the acquisitionists. They claim that the decoders learn about a language. A language should be acquired as we all learned our native language. This pedagogical school insists on induction. Little to no formal grammar should be taught, charts and vocabulary lists are anathematized to the outer darkness, where students of the decoders are wailing and gnashing their teeth. The goal here is to start and end in the target language, with nothing but reality intervening in the meantime.

As you can probably tell, I don’t fall into either camp, though I lean more toward the acquisitionists. I was taught by priests in the middle-ground. They taught us grammar and expected us to speak and write as well as we could. Ultimately, it’s more important that you use Latin, at the very least for extensive amounts of reading, but preferably also for speaking and writing.

English – We Acquire and Decode…

Our English education falls into three rough blocks or periods. In the first seven years, we learn the language with little to no emphasis on writing or reading until the last few years of that stage. Then, for the next seven years, the primary focus is on reading to learn (i.e. making reading so easy that we immediately acquire information on a single read-through). In the latter part of that stage, we’re trying to exercise the fine-motor skills enough to make writing (and sometimes even typing) a skill as well. In the last stage, we take our fluent speaking and reading and use it to build up a literary and informed writing voice. It takes us about twenty-one years of exposure and education to speak, read, and write English at a professional level. Why would we expect any method, used for 90 hours per year for 4-6 years, to render us capable of reading Cicero for pleasure? As it is, how many of us educated in English read anything from before 100 years ago for pleasure or profit? 5%?

What’s the Best Textbook for Latin?

This question becomes much easier to answer if you’ve answered the question above. A textbook is ultimately a tool. As such, the tool should serve the purposes of the teacher and student. I’ve listed and linked to the most commonly used textbooks below, after separating them out by method. I’m still looking for a great tool as a classroom teacher myself but I haven’t found one yet. I’ve enjoyed using Familia Romana with students I tutor, but I haven’t ever used it in a full classroom setting.

Who are the Best Latin Teachers?

This is the most important question, but its answer lies below. While a great deal can be learned from living books written in one’s native language, acquiring the level of mastery necessary to learn from Boethius or Vergil as if they are a living book takes much more work. At this point, selecting a teacher who can not only inform but also inspire and entertain makes all the difference. If you think I’m speaking post-modern drivel in insisting on inspiration and entertainment, I’ll give you Cicero’s thoughts on what every speaker owes his audience: to teach them, to delight them, and to move them. I’d call those last two entertainment and inspiration.

Deeper Dive: Teachers and Textbooks

What I want to focus on in this list is the advantages the modern Internet brings us when trying to learn a language: tools and teachers. Under tools, I want you to get more familiar with the methods currently employed for learning Latin, and introduce you to the options for dictionaries and textbooks.

For connecting to teachers, the online classroom has changed drastically in ten years, and we should look for teachers whose face, voice, and personality will come through as much as possible. The ideal Latin teacher is the one who can come to your house, but depending on where you live that is often impossible or prohibitively expensive. The internet gives you access to a global roster of Latin teachers who are so passionate about Latin that they give much of their material away for free.

I won’t be reviewing the textbooks. Cathy Duffy’s reviews of Latin textbooks are thorough, though she doesn’t weigh in with her own opinions about Latin (she may not have strong ones), she basically just “unboxes” the book in a textual paragraph or two.

So, I’ll outline this long article with links so you can jump around:

Tools for Learning Latin

Method Madness

The debate has grown heated in the last decade about how to teach Latin. I found one irenic discussion about the matter, but many other posts try to take down one side or the other. I will not enter into the fray here, but I want to warn you that there are essentially three camps: Grammar First (GF), Grammar-Translation (G-T is not short for gin-and-tonic. Just clarifying for fans out there), and the Spoken/Natural or Reading method.

Grammar First

Memoria Press actively champions this method and it sounds a lot to me like an application of Dorothy Sayers’s grammar stage. Essentially, you start Latin young but you only fill a child with vocabulary and grammar songs and paradigms. Though I’m not as familiar with it, Song School Latin from Classical Academic Press strikes me as this approach as well. It’s about getting grammatical forms in the kids’ heads as permanently as possible so that you can act on that raw material later when presenting them with Latin texts. This also builds vocabulary, but what you’re not doing yet is any explicit syntax or analysis of sentences. That will come later.

Grammar-Translation

This method is the common one for most textbooks. The grammar of Latin is broken down into 40-75 lessons which are taught one at a time with practice exercises following each bit of grammar. The vocabulary and the grammar build together. These programs are most fruitfully started when a child has developed the ability to think analytically about his own language (i.e. 6th grade or higher, generally). They also don’t work well if the student has no background in analytical English grammar—i.e. they can’t distinguish a noun from a verb. The most common example of this is Wheelock’s Latin, because it’s the one that’s been most common in college classrooms since the end of World War II. Most textbooks have to take this approach because they’re tools for the teacher to use. Other examples of textbooks that use this method are:

Reading or Natural Method

This method is probably older than the other two, but has caused a great deal of ire as it has risen again in popularity. Its most obvious example is the book Lingua Latin per se Illustrata (LLPSI for short) and the book is a reader that practices grammar, but teaches everything in the target language: Latin. That said, more and more programs have added a reading component of late, but they also teach the grammar explicitly. Some argue that you’re not learning a language when you study the grammar, you’re learning about a language. I leave that up to you. Other than LLPSI, other programs that include a reading element from the start are:

Hybridization

These methods use readings, optional spoken activities, questions and answers, and a whole (often dizzying, even for the teacher) array of options and exercises to keep the students engaged and moving forward in Latin. All of these systems explain the grammar in English and the goal is usually clear and precise translations of Latin into English. That said, creative teachers can still use these textbooks to teach in a more inductive, natural style while having the grammar explanations on hand for the students who want them.

Dictionaries

Latin dictionaries – I have a whole post on that, but the short answer is: use Logeion for a digital dictionary, and almost any paper dictionary is fine, but I prefer a hardback if it will be used for more than two years or by multiple students.

DuoLingo

DuoLingo has a Latin grammar tree. Strangely, it covers about 10-15% of all Latin grammar at a generous estimate and perhaps includes two or three hundred words. They also seem to be done adding to it. Once you complete a few hours of work, you earn the trophy which DuoLingo considers to be the basics of the language. Spanish, for example, requires months of consistent work to just to complete the “grammar tree,” and then there are additional stories to help you grasp idiom, practice speaking and thinking in the language, and increase comprehension. Latin can be completed by almost anyone in a matter of a couple of months. When you are finished, you have not even been completely introduced to Latin grammar, much less the Latin language. You get what you pay for?

Teachers

YouTube – Latin Grammar and Translation

One great YouTube channel for grammatical explanations is LatinTutorial. The explanations are orderly, clear, and complete without going long.

Once you’ve grasped the grammar, the best channel for “reading along” is LatinPerDiem. This channel patiently walks you through many famous Classical works, explicating grammar and helping you extract meaning while keeping your precise about how the grammar and syntax come together to make that meaning.

YouTube – Spoken Latin

For Living Latin, i.e. spoken Latin, there are a few good channels. The best for beginners is ScorpioMartianus, since he goes the extra mile by putting English subtitles in his Latin videos. This means the user can get a lot out of it, while still exposing themselves to impeccable pronunciation and a bit of swagger. Another great channel is Satura Lanx, particularly because it’s geared for beginners and starts small. Satura Lanx also has a good podcast for intermediate students.

Patreon – Human Teachers in Asynchronous Formats

The best and cheapest way to advance your Latin gradatim (step-by-step) is to find a teacher who is consistently producing quality material that works for your learning style and support that person on Patreon or in another monthly subscription platform. I only know of two such people on Patreon and one working independently, but I’ll share them here as they have a big following and you may benefit from what they’re offering.

At Latinum, Evan Millner has been creating video and audio content with public domain material for over a decade now. His library is vast and any motivated student would learn a lot of Latin from him for a fairly low monthly price.

At Latinitium, Daniel Petterson and Amelie Rosengren publish easy Latin for great practice and learning after you’ve got a bit of the grammar under your belt. Both of these Patreon channels could be a good place to start, and may be a better investment than just a textbook or course because they connect you to a community of people excited to read and speak Latin.

On his own website, Dwane Thomas of Visual Latin, runs tutorials a few times per week and grants access to all his old teaching videos. His YouTube channel seems mostly to promote VisualLatin, a DVD course he made for Compass Classroom.

If you’re Catholic, this woman offers tutoring using the Fr. Most book I linked to earlier. Both she and Dwane Thomas had options for Ecclesiastical Pronunciation.

Learning Latin Online – Human Teachers in Digital Classrooms

The Ancient Language Institute offers classes in the Natural Method for Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew! According to their website, they use the Lingua Latina series for two years and then branch out into real Latin texts, all while speaking and writing in Latin instead of translating.

Homeschool Connections teaches Latin using Wheelock’s Latin and the Fr. Henle series. These are almost entirely the Grammar-Translation method offered from about 7th-grade on up.

CLRC, the Classical Learning Resource Center, teaches Latin to elementary, middle, and upper grades. For elementary, they use Minimus. In middle-school and upper-school Latin, they use the Oxford Latin Course, a reading and grammar-translation method.

Kolbe Academy teaches using the Henle series. I agree with Dwane Thomas about the Henle series, it takes *way* too long to cover all of the grammar.

Hopefully this list of resources has proved helpful to you in trying to learn Latin. Let me know on the contact page if you have any further questions about learning Latin!