Latin Intermediate to Advanced Challenge
Week One: Introduction
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To read a tutorial on why readers are an amazing resource to get to B2/C1, and how to use them effectively, click here.
To learn a method to help you find a suitable text, click here.
Stage Zero: Gather Resources
Stage One: Review
Stage Two: New Elementary Courses
Stage Three: Free Online Readers
Stage Four: Orberg’s Readers
Stage Five: Roma Aeterna
Stage Six: Medieval Latin Readers
Stage Seven: Reflections
Last year, I went a little crazy with Latin. I made a point to read several introductory courses a gazillion times each so that I could reach an intermediate level. I reached my goal, amassing something like 120,000 sentences of input. It worked! Then something happened which will probably explain my disappearance in Latin circles (drumroll . . . )
Teach Yourself Latin
That’s what happened. It’s probably the worst language book that I’ve worked with, and here’s why:
Learning and teaching Latin generally falls into two camps, and, much like the Romans and Etruscans, never the twain shall meet. They don’t get on because they employ fundamentally different principles to language learning. The two camps are, in very basic terms, those that believe in quantity over quality (Natural), and those who insist that we should read Roman authors from day one and carefully study every ending in detail (Analytic). While there is a little crossover, the two camps, like Castra themselves, are more often than not demarcated by very specific boundaries (over which sharp objects are often hurled). The two camps:
Natural, or Inductive:
This camp seems to have been popularised (but not invented) by the great Danish linguist Hans Orberg. The basic premise is CI all the way, that is, simple sentences that are easily grasped and accord with the reader’s current level. I’ve written many books in English using this method. A CI approach would look something like this:
The man was in the garden. Was he in the sitting room? No! He was not in the sitting room. Was he in the dining room? No, he wasn’t in the dining room. Where was he? He was in the garden.
The basic premise of this approach is that repetition of the same words and phrases is the deciding factor in acquiring a language.
This very website is called CI Polyglot, which stands for Comprehensible Input Polyglot. CI, in a nutshell, focuses on teaching readily understood language that is SLIGHTLY harder than the student’s current level (with an aim at something in the region of 95-98% comprehension, or i+1). CI and the Natural/Inductive method are best buddies. They hang out all the time and compliment each other on how great they look.
The Analytic Method and CI fight all the time. The analytic method would shout until it's blue in the face that you must be able to parse everything in a sentence before you can understand it correctly, just like the Romans. But wait, that’s not how the Romans spoke at all, was it?
Let’s use logical analogy for a minute. Please humour me by trying to parse the following English sentence (decode is synonymous with parse and is often used derisively):
This is my book.
Ready? Here goes:
This: ___________ ___________ ___________ ___________
Is: ___________ ___________ ___________ ___________
My: ___________ ___________ ___________ ___________
Book: ___________ ___________ ___________ ___________
OK, so, in order to grasp the meaning of this, we should understand that:
This= demonstrative pronoun, singular.
Is = third person singular of "to be".
My = first person singular possessive determiner.
Book = singular noun
But wait, it’s not essential at all to understand this, is it? The greengrocer down the road has no idea what a possessive determiner is, but his English is amazing, just like the old lady across the road. She’d probably hit me with a rolling pin if I tried to make her parse an utterance (either that, or hand me a parsnip and tuppence. She’s hard of hearing, you know….).
Here's an exclusive interview I've just conducted with my seven-year-old daughter:
Me: "This is my book". Do you know what this means?
Ashley: Oh yeah, it's your book.
Me: Great. Let's talk about each word:
This: Do not know.
Is: "Is" means like . . uh. No, "is", "is" means "is".
My: "My" means like the apple is mine.
Book: "Book" means like look at a book.
Me: Great stuff! Don't say "like" all the time!
I’ve taught English to thousands of students during my career, but not once would I resort to the madness that many Latinists employ in their classrooms every day. Why would Latin require that we teach this nonsense while pedagogy in modern languages asserts at every turn that we should avoid this kind of teaching like the plague? If I had taught this during the reading class for my teacher training exam, I would have failed, and rightly so. It’s preposterous.
Yes, Neil. But some methods work better for other people.
No, they don’t. It’s just that you’re hanging on to this antiquarian method that has been formally rebutted thousands of times by the leading applied linguists of our time.
Yes, but it has worked for hundreds of Latinists before you, and it will continue to be effective. Look at how great X’s Latin is!
True, many people have attained an incredible level of Latin DESPITE using outdated methods. Imagine how great he/she would have been if they had used better methods? Congratulations, on your logical fallacy. Remember, a broken clock is right twice a day.
But I learned X language this way, and my language is fine.
Again, this is anecdotal evidence. Applied linguists tend to use data-driven research to look at the statistical probability within a given population to reach a certain outcome using various methods. They don't just look at one person, which is called anecdotal evidence and its unreliability is covered in Logic 101: “My grandma smoked a hundred fags a day and she lived to the ripe old age of two hundred and forty.”
Yes, Neil. But I love decoding Latin.
Great- you should do what you love. I love spicy tofu (you should try it, it’s my favourite dish), but it won’t help me read Caesar*. Yes, your hobby will get you there quicker than mine (much quicker, actually), but reading Latin will get me there quicker than decoding.
The point is this- I don’t care if it’s a third declension noun in the ablative! I just want to know what it means!
So, back to Teach Yourself Latin- you may have guessed that it’s a book full of grammatical explanations, which isn’t such a bad thing. The problem is that it has you reading Tacitus by week 20.
Learn Latin from Roman Authors Everybody! Yay!
OK, let’s do a similar thing with English:
Open your books, kids!
You shall find of the king a husband, madam; you,
sir, a father: he that so generally is at all times
good must of necessity hold his virtue to you; whose
worthiness would stir it up where it wanted rather
than lack it where there is such abundance.
It’s ridiculous to have an elementary / low-intermediate student grapple with this. Why do we continue to insist that this method is right with Latin?
CHALLENGE: I propose that we try to acquire 100,000 lines of manageable Latin. There will be no high literature here, but there will be LOTS of Latin. Just what the doctor ordered; reams and reams of interesting stories and courses. There will be NO Horace or Cicero, at least not in the original. If selections do crop up, I’ll do my best to provide ample notes and translations (which is something that most courses are really bad at). So, here goes:
Stage Zero (Gather Resources):
For the first stage, I’ll put together a list of all the resources that we will be using. There will be a landing page with links, many of which will be free, others not so. Books can be expensive so you may want to try and find second-hand copies of the material we’ll be using (which is how I keep my expensive hobby of learning languages going).
Stage One (Review):
Estimated Time: 1 month
I’ll be reviewing all of the course books that I studied during my first push at Latin a few years ago (apart from Teach Yourself Latin). You may be sick of them already as I was after reading them ten times each. That’s fine. For me, there has been enough of a hiatus to warrant another reading of each. In short, my Latin level is nowhere near as good as it was last year. By quickly rereading these books, I’m going to be setting myself up for the new challenge in a positive way. I suggest you consider doing the same.
Stage Two (New Elementary Courses):
Estimated Time: 2 months (3 months Total)
There are a few really good elementary/intermediate Latin courses out there. I’ll be chasing up at least three of them with the possible addition of more.
Stage Three (Free Online readers):
Estimated Time: 1 month (4 months total)
Last year I proposed an extensive reading programme using free readers in the public domain. I analysed 8 of them using various readability tools. I finished off the work a few days ago and now have a basic extensive reading programme consisting of 10 books. This part of the challenge will last about five weeks at about two readers per week.
Stage Four (Orberg’s Readers):
Estimated Time: 2 months (6 months total)
Coming back to the most essential Latin pedagogue of them all (for me, at least). Orberg’s masterpiece Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata is the single best textbook I’ve ever read. As a professional teacher of 15 years and speaker of several modern languages, I’ve read (and created) hundreds of language textbooks. I don’t have a second favourite, but I have a favourite- it’s this book. The system comes with a lot of readers. Now, it’s time to read them.
Stage Five (Roma Aeterna):
Estimated Time: 6 months (12 months total)
Part 2 of Orberg’s celebrated masterpiece. It is much more controversial than the first because of its difficulty. The main problem was the fact it didn’t align nicely with where the first left off. I’ve studied the first chapter and would have to agree. This is why I’ve created several stages before this one. Don’t get me wrong, I did understand it without too much effort, but I want to be able to read it rather than study it.
. . .
As I’m writing this, I’m actually slightly overwhelmed that we have already reached the one year mark for a challenge. This is much longer than I had anticipated (and a little disconcerting), but it seems reasonable given the fact that we are attempting to reach an advanced level in a notoriously difficult language. That said, the next stages are much more open-ended as I believe that we will have a lot more freedom in what we want to read after this and our pathways will not necessarily converge. For reference, my own pathway will look something like this:
Stage Six (Medieval Latin Readers): I'm more fascinated more Medieval Latin than I am by classical Latin. I live in Canterbury and the city’s Medieval heritage is ubiquitous. It’s moving to this city that has actually revitalised my passion for the Latin language. Even so, those more interested in classical Latin should still take advantage of the Medieval Latin readers out there. Medieval Latin tends to be simpler, and the breadth and scope of literary production in that medium is huge.
Stage Seven (Reflections): Well, I hope I can get this far. No, that’s the wrong attitude- I’m looking forward to getting this far! It’s quite a challenge to bear, but I hope that as a community we can encourage each other to get to the end. I’m not going to lie; this will test us, but let’s help each other get to the finishing line so we can start really enjoying the language for pleasure. Imagine possessing an advanced reading level in the Latin language! That’s some reward!
I look forward to seeing you in the following weeks!
Please share the article as well as your thoughts below. Thanks!
*These days I’m more interested in reading Medieval Latin than Caesar, but the point remains.