‘Shelter vocabulary, not grammar’
If we promote CI teaching on the grounds that we are using a more rigorous, research-backed methodology, we need to base our pedagogical advice on what actual research is saying, or at least make it clear when we are speaking from carefully tested science and when we are speaking from messy, subjective experience.
‘Shelter vocabulary, not grammar’
This saying is often mentioned in CI language teaching blogs discussing SLA-informed language pedagogy. It means ‘you should carefully restrict the number of new vocabulary items so that students are not overwhelmed, but freely use whatever grammar is needed to communicate, so that students will be able to comprehend more meaningful texts easily in context.’
Here are some of the ways this concept has been cited as an ideal way to construct curriculum in CI Latin teacher articles. Rachel Ash in ‘Untextbooking for the CI Latin class: why and how to begin’ (Journal of Classics Teaching, 2019) describes her requirements for CI-based classes as needing 1) limited but frequently repeating vocabulary and 2) a curriculum which does not shelter grammar, but uses whatever grammar is needed to communicate the intended meaning. It can be seen that this concept forms the core of the un-textbooked approach to Latin teaching.
Another article from the Journal of Classics Teaching demonstrates the authority of the quote, and points to its source. Michelle Ramahlo in ‘On starting to teach using CI’ (2019) reports the saying as coming from a ‘guru’: ‘One of the gurus in the CI world, Susan Gross, has said “Shelter vocabulary, not grammar”.’ Quoting someone as a ‘guru’ raises immediate alarm bells that this quote, while well-respected, did not come from a research article published in a peer-reviewed journal, otherwise we would be citing an author, date, and publication.
So I followed the trail to its source and found a website by Susan Gross, educational consultant and workshop presenter. On her website, in an article titled ‘The Importance of Using Natural Language in Level-One Classes’ (no date, no journal), the author explains the origin of her saying (emphasis added):
I made up a saying (I get a little glow of pride when other people quote it):
“Shelter vocabulary; do not shelter grammar.”
Susan Gross uses the words ‘I made up a saying’ to describe the process by which she arrived at the wording of this statement.
Now I want to make it clear that a saying can be based on ideas that came from research without directly citing the research. Something can be true without a citation. Also there is nothing wrong at all about sharing opinions, experiences, and telling a narrative to help instruct teachers. This is good communication, and it is very likely that it contains a lot of practical wisdom. We need good communicators to train teachers in practical applications or we’re all going to get lost in the weeds of journal articles while never figuring out how to apply anything on the ground. Educational consultancy is an honest job that needs doing, and I’m glad Susan Gross is doing it.
But ‘shelter vocabulary not grammar’ is an interpetation and application of CI principles, not a tested hypothesis that went through a peer review process by which we can contest it and see what parts of it stood up over time and what parts fell down.
This is one person’s way of applying principles of CI in language teaching, and it is valuable insight, but it is not SLA research itself and not an authoritative statement. If we secondarily recycle this quote as an authority, we get further and further away from basing our practices on real peer-reviewed SLA and fall into the problem of passing along practices without critically examining them.
There are many ways in which Input-based approaches can be implemented. There is no single definitive ‘method’ for CI, because CI is not a method, it is an approach to language learning based on research about language acquisition.
Has anything bad happened because we take ‘shelter vocabulary, not grammar’ as an authoritative statement? We might not even know because we’ve already adopted it so widely as an accepted, by-the-book standard of CI Latin teaching. When something is so basic that it doesn’t get questioned, we don’t see its effects because it is the lens we see through. But here are some of my thoughts.
Firstly, could we be excessively fixating on unique vocabulary count as the one metric for comprehensibility? This could cause us to be less aware of other factors affecting the difficulty of comprehensibility, such as student familiarity with the topic, clarity of writing style, forward momentum of the plot, and helpfulness of visual aids. ‘Vocabulary’ is fairly easy to boil down to a number, a single number that doesn’t change, that can be printed proudly on the front of a book as a statistic of its comprehensibility, but all these other contextual factors are not so easily quantifiable. But being more difficult to quantify does not mean something matters less.
Secondly, the quote treats ‘vocabulary’ and ‘grammar’ as easily compartmentalized things, but is the distinction as clear-cut as we are treating it? What about words which straddle the gap between being a vocabulary and a grammar item?
What about compound words built upon the same root word – do reusable compounding elements like ad-, ab-, con-, per-, re- count as increasing the unique word count or are they little bits of attachable grammar (at least in the circumstances when they don’t form a totally unexpected meaning)? In our quest to reduce word count, is it natural to only be using the bare forms of īre for every kind of movement, or is it better to mix in compounded forms like adīre, abīre, redīre, circumīre along with other compounding verbs reusing the same elements?
What about discourse particles such as nam, enim, vero, autem, tamen, quidem, … are these really ‘vocabulary’ or ‘grammar’? They don’t add any content to what is being said, but they help manage the logical flow of connected thought. Should we shelter or unshelter them?
Thirdly, by taking the saying as a truism, could we be limiting our vision of what possible forms CI teaching could take? Does a teaching method always become ‘less CI’ if it doesn’t conform to ‘shelter the vocabulary, not the grammar’? Do we rush to judge other teaching methods based on their unique vocabulary count as a way to say we know better?
I pose these questions because I think there is a problem in blogging about teaching in general, which is that you can share your experiences and your informed opinions, but at the end of the day they are opinions, and should not be followed as the gospel on the ‘best’ way to teach. Even if we cite journal articles, report case studies, or collect and analyse our own fresh new data, the interpretation of the results is somewhat subjective and we can debate the applicability of these results to other contexts. Our ideas should always be contestable. And to help that, we should be clear about where we got our ideas from.
“Latin autodidacts, you’re working way too hard!” – How to learn Latin by yourself in 2023
I started writing this essay, which grew to over 16,000 words, with the goal of explaining ‘how to learn Latin on a budget in 2023: the most cost-effective autodidact strategies’. But during its month-long writing process, the essay turned into ‘how not to be deceived by well-meaning but terrible language learning advice’. Since both your money and your time are valuable, if you don’t want to be working needlessly hard while learning Latin, this essay is for you. I also propose a strategy which legitimately costs $0.00, so stay tuned for that.
In my previous posts, I listed all the places you can learn introductory Latin online with teachers who speak the language, through both live classes and self-paced courses. The average cost of the live courses was about $1,500, while the average cost of a self-paced course (one with pre-recorded video lessons) was about $500. For many learners in the community, even the relatively cheaper options for learning Latin with a teacher may be out of their price range. That is why so many opt instead for teaching themselves Latin. By becoming autodidacts (self-teachers), they can save hundreds or potentially thousands of dollars.
But many Latin autodidacts are vulnerable to being deceived by well-intentioned language advice which tells them to work hard at meaningless things instead of focusing on truly communicative, meaningful, and beneficial activities. In this article, I will explain the difficulties facing autodidacts, debunk some language learning myths, define meaningful activites, outline five viable strategies for learning Latin, and even talk about how cults of celebrity propagate misinformation, and how to avoid being deceived by them.
The difficulties of an autodidact
As a high school Latin teacher in my sixth year of teaching, I have a professional responsibility to learn how people learn languages, and to let my practice be informed by genuine scholarship and not just heritage practices or hearsay.
But it has taken me years to really open up to the field of Second Language Acquisition scholarship and start to navigate what we have learned so far on this topic. I am not alone in this – I know there are many language teachers (in both modern and ancient languages) who have similarly struggled to connect their teaching practices with what our current research says. It is much easier to simply repeat practices we have inherited from other teachers or language learners than to question the effectiveness of established practices like vocabulary tests, grammar quizzes, reading aloud round-robin style, reading aloud a role-play scenario, and so on.
This is a big problem for the public knowledge of language learning. School is often the only place where people have experienced any form of language learning. But the way that languages are taught in schools (even modern languages) is often more a product of tradition than reason. These traditions have been passed down and refined to suit the school environment – a place of constant tests and quizzes, school reports, parental expectations, grades, exams, and classroom behavioural problems.
Unfortunately, the classroom experience of language learning distorts public ideas of what learning a language ought to look like. This is unhelpful to an autodidact for two reasons. Firstly, they are no longer in a classroom. Secondly, the practices are not always the most effective for language acquisition: often even the language teachers who are the most on board with SLA research are forced to compromise between best practices for actually learning a language, and implementing a mixture of inherited practices that were fine-tuned for behaviour control and maximising test scores.
It is therefore no wonder that the public flocks to apps like Duolingo. They have grown to expect that language learning is an inherently unpleasant experience, filled with rote-learning, vocab tests, practicing verb conjugations, and translating isolated sentences into and out of the target language, or repeating boring stock answers to stock questions. If those unpleasant parts can be gamified to give you points and stars in an app (thus replacing the grade incentives that got you through school), then this app must have finally cracked the code for how to learn languages as adults.
This is, of couse, missing the point of what a language is. Learning a language is not just another version of learning your times tables in exchange for sweets, or learning a puzzle-solving algorithm to decode sentences from another language into your native language. Putting points and scores on an app doesn’t change the fundamental nature of what that app provides. The question we should be asking is not whether a gamified language learning app succeeds at being ‘addictive’, but whether it provides meaningful activity in the language, and how much, compared to other ways we could use our time.
I will not review Latin Duolingo here. But instead I want to encourage you all to look deeper into what it means to learn a language, and to investigate what is really important, and what is not. If you can understand the principles of language learning, and what a language fundamentally is, you will be able to develop sustainable, satisfying language learning practices which are adapted for your situation.
I encourage you not to label yourself as ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ before deep-diving into how we learn languages. We are talking about a biological mechanism in our brains, how it works, and how we can give it the right conditions for language learning. This question is not a political or theological one, but a question of how our bodies and minds truly work, facts which affect people of all outlooks.
Language learning principles
This is my very short summary of the fundamental principles behind language learning.
- Every human (unless they possess a language-related disability) has the necessary hardware to learn a language. You do not need to be exceptionally intelligent nor exceptionally diligent to learn a language. This is most obviously proven when you visit multilingual regions of the world. For example, my mother grew up in Malaysia, where she picked up five languages: English, Bahasa Malaysian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien, only some of which were regularly spoken in her household. To her it was nothing special to know these languages, because everyone in the community knew several languages. Multilingualism is the norm for most regions of the world outside of rich Western Anglophone countries. Therefore the ability to learn multiple languages cannot be limited to individuals with genetically rare traits in the population, for it is not just the exceptionally intelligent nor the exceptionally diligent who successfully learn languages in multilingual countries.
- We have always learned through input. We learn languages by understanding meaningful messages in the target language. ‘Input’ is anything we interpret for meaning: it is what we read or listen to. It is also important that the input is understood by the learner. Exactly how much needs to be comprehensible for input to count towards learning is debatable: some say that gist-level comprehension is enough to make meaningful progress from input, others say that optimal results happen at much higher levels of comprehensibility, where the learner knows 95% of the words in a text. Personally, I have experienced language growth at both levels – I’ve learned valuable skills from input that I understood at the gist-level, input that contained 95% known words, and input far below my level (which trains fluency with the existing knowledge). The Comprehensible Input Hypothesis (now known more simply as the Input Hypothesis) was built upon the findings that the brain has an innate mechanism for learning language in natural circumstances which can be effectively harnessed in second language acquisition. This internal language mechanism operates somehow separately from your conscious mind – a disconnect that we can directly confirm with experience. As a language teacher, I have found that my students’ scores in grammar tests have had little to no correlation to their scores in broader interpretive skills such as translation. This suggests that explicit knowledge of parts of the language is a separate beast from the actual ability to use and understand the language.
- Input is a condition for learning, not a method. It may sound like I’m mincing words here, but this distinction is important. No textbook has an exclusive claim on being ‘The Comprehensible Input Method’. It is often mistakenly believed that Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata: Familia Romana is ‘The Comprehensible Input Method’. In fact, Familia Romana was first published in 1957 under a different title, before the Input Hypothesis was proposed – it literally could not have even been informed by the research around input. It was also not substantially revised to align with the Input Hypothesis; the revisions to the text in 1983 and 1991 are minor in nature and do not change its fundamental methodology. Counter to Nancy Llwellyn’s speech In or Out of Ørberg, Ørberg did not continuously refine it over 50 years of his lifetime, any more than any textbook which gets republished every so often with new editions deserves the title ‘continuously refined’. If you don’t believe me, just compare a 1957 copy of Lingua Latina Secundum Naturae Rationem Explicata to today’s Familia Romana and try to find any meaningful differences in the method. But despite not being written with the Input Hypothesis and modern SLA research in mind, Familia Romana provides a lot of material which can be used as input. So do many other sources which will be discussed below, both older and younger. Any textbook containing substantial Latin text can be used as a source for input (whether the book is written completely in Latin or not!). And, in fact, even textbooks in the grammar-translation genre such as Wheelock’s Latin provide a non-zero amount of input in the form of the sentences used as exercises for translation (although all grammar-translation books contain much less input than the graded reader style textbooks). Input can even be directly taken from authentic texts under certain circumstances, if they can be made sufficiently comprehensible to the learner (as we will see in the old interlinear method below). In sum, you do not have to adopt any particular textbook as a necessary consequence of accepting the Input Hypothesis, but it will be wise to pick resources and strategies which supply more input over those that supply less.
- Everything works… eventually. Since every method involves a non-zero amount of input, every method will eventually work with enough time spent on it. Some methods are just more time-efficient than others. And some methods are more intrinsically enjoyable than others, leading to a higher likelihood that learners will persist with the method. When evaluating a language learning method, it is not meaningful to defend it on the basis of ‘it worked for me’ or ‘it worked for so-and-so’. Everything works if you try it for long enough. It doesn’t need to be good to work, and many highly inefficient strategies propagate because the few people for whom it worked are the most vocal in telling everyone that it worked for them.
- Nothing hurts. There is no language learning technique that will cause permanent damage to your language abilities. Yes, even ‘translating in your head’ will not cause permanent damage. You do not need to force yourself to stop doing that; it will go away by itself. (I know this because I did all the ‘wrong’ things when I learned Latin – I translated everything, either on paper or in my head. Despite this, the inner translator voice eventually went away as I read more.) We also do not need to fear language fossilisation: making mistakes early and not being immediately corrected on them will not damage your language journey in the long run. At most, you may develop a temporary misunderstanding in the language that will later be corrected from the overwhelming mass of input. You also don’t have to master every lesson in the order pre-determined by any textbook – it’s okay if an apparently ‘basic’ concept eludes you for a long time. Many of the grammar items considered ‘basic’ to a language are in fact late-acquired features, because the order in which we have traditionally taught grammar does not correspond to the natural order in which grammar is actually acquired (and yet, people still learn within these imperfect systems!). Children do not need to master every feature in a perfectly orderly manner to make progress in language acquisition, and neither do you. The things that actually do stop people from reaching mastery in the language are loss of intrinsic motivation and lack of appropriate resources, which causes people to stall out and quit.
- You don’t have to be young to acquire a language naturally. People often feel nervous about learning a language as an adult or even as a teenager because they think they’ve missed a critical window of time in which natural language acquisition is even possible. Granted, there are some reasons this idea exists: the first language acquisition process will not look the same as a second language acquisition process, because the presence of another language in your brain changes how you approach the second one (in both helpful and annoying ways). In addition, the activities which children are likely to do (playing in the park with other kids, using very basic language in a low-stress environment) are different from the language-learning situations that adults find themselves in. But while adults will generally participate in different language activities compared to children, the underlying mechanism for acquiring a language remains more or less the same. There is no cut-off age for acquiring a language naturally as an adult through input. As an extreme counter example, Steve Kaufmann, who knows 20 languages, learned more of them after turning 60 than in his youth. In 2022, when I was 30, I was self-learning Italian from scratch (mainly through watching TV shows) and found that natural acquisition worked well, even though I’m not in my 20s any more. You don’t have to be a child to learn from input.
- Language acquisition is slow. Think about how long it takes for a baby to acquire their first language: they get constant input from loving parents who only speak in the target language(s), every day and every night. Even with that amount of language learning time, it takes them about 2 years before they can start stringing together very short sentences, often unintelligible. As adult learners we have an advantage over infants in that we already have a fully functional first language (and a longer attention span), but even for us it takes a long time to see the fruits of language acquisition. It is possible to go from complete beginner to low-intermediate in about one year of dedicated, consistent study, say an hour every day. It’s not really possible to go from complete beginner to high-intermediate or advanced in just a year. There is no method which will speed up an inherently slow process like language acquisition, except dedicating more time per day to meaningful activities in the target language.
- It takes less time to reach the intermediate plateau than to leave the intermediate plateau. Language learning speed is not linear: it starts off relatively fast, then slows down dramatically at the end of the beginner stage, and stays at that slower pace throughout the intermediate and advanced stages. While beginners can make relatively faster and more noticeable improvements in their language abilities, intermediate learners struggle to see their progress, and take a longer time to reach advanced levels than they had taken to reach intermediate levels. Consequently, if everything goes well, you’ll be spending a lot less time in the beginner zone than you will in the intermediate zone. Given this perspective, it doesn’t matter all that much how you reach the intermediate plateau. All beginner pathways will converge there eventually, and then you will all be in the same boat, facing the same general difficulties in navigating intermediate content. So, you don’t have to stress so much if you took a less-than-optimal path through the beginner material: regardless of how you reach the intermediate plateau, you will have to change tactics to accommodate its new challenges. Although intermediate learning is outside the scope of this article, I’ll briefly state here that you will most likely be reading extensively through intermediate-level material, incorporating gradually more advanced texts with the help of tiered texts, interlinears, and/or pharr-style commentaries as needed. I am working on an upcoming book for intermediate learners, a 30,000 word intermediate reader called The Lover’s Curse: a Tiered Reader of Aeneid 4. Reading authentic texts with the help of easier Latin versions that render Vergil’s poetry comprehensible is a great way to extend your skills as an intermediate learner, and I’ll be distributing free digital copies of it upon release to anyone who signs up to my Latin email newsletter. But for beginner learners, this is our main takeaway: What you do to get yourself from beginner to intermediate has less and less effect on your final language level the longer you keep learning at the intermediate and advanced levels.
Now that we have some idea of what language learning constitutes, I want to focus on the most important thing you should do when learning a language.
Meaningful activity in the language
If there is only one thing you do every day in your language study, it should be meaningful activity.
Language is a system of words and grammatical forms (taken together as ‘forms’) which are used to express meaning: a human thought, a command, an outcry of delight, a lament, an evaluation, a story.
Interpreting and expressing meaning is fundamental to the nature of language and how we most effectively learn it. Our brains have been learning language through understanding input for (presumably) as long as we have had languages. People who grow up in multilingual parts of the world effectively learn multiple languages without considering it anything special, because they use the languages as languages: systems of communicating meaning.
If we want to take full advantage of the very part of the brain which is best suited to learning languages, we should be focusing most of our time on doing meaningful activity in the language: activities which require us to either interpret or express meaning, or both. This is the core of the communicative approach.
We can prove that meaningless activities are not necessary for language acqusition, because human beings of all cultures instinctively recoil from meaningless activity, while only in some language learning cultures do people actually bother with meaningless activity. I know that my mother growing up in Malaysia did not do any flashcards, deliberate grammar study, or fill-in-the-blank exercises, because when I asked her how she learned her five languages, she said she couldn’t remember how she did it. If she had worked away at any meaningless activity to acquire any of the languages that weren’t normally spoken in her home, she would have remembered it.
By contrast, meaningful activity is essential to language learning, because making form-meaning connections is the basis of learning a language. Any activity which does not genuinely engage with meaning is missing a crucial element. In order to associate all the various words, phrases, grammar, and syntax with their meaning, we need to encounter them many times in contexts where their meaning matters.
A ‘meaningful’ input activity is one in which meaning is so intrinsically bound to the activity itself that you cannot succeed at the activity without understanding the meaning expressed by a source text. For example, if your task is to ‘evaluate which retelling of a myth you find more entertaining’, you cannot successfully make a comparison of the two texts without understanding at least part of what is expressed in both texts.
An input activity can also be shown to be inherently ‘meaningful’ if there is a positive relationship between how much you understand the language involved and how much you succeed at the task. For example, you could succeed at creating a surface-level comparison of two texts if you only understood a little of each. But you can make a better comparison of the two texts the more you understand of them.
By contrast, meaningless activities are possible to complete without understanding meaning, and the success of the activity does not correlate positively with how much you understand. For example, you may be told to ‘read a story out loud in full before understanding it’. But it is very possible to read something aloud and understand literally nothing in it. The mere act of vocalising something does not guarantee that you have processed any of it; in fact, you may be processing less of it in that activity because you have to split your attention between carefully pronouncing words and trying to understand the actual story. Especially if you are reading in front of other people, you can completely mindblank on what you just said aloud, which requires you to do a second reading in your head to actually understand the text, revealing that the first reading was pointless. You may be training your pronunciation in that activity, or your recitation skills, or public speaking, but it doesn’t help you in progressing towards actually understanding language. The ‘success’ condition of the ‘read it aloud in one go’ activity is that you confidently vocalise a story from start to finish out loud without stopping or repeating yourself. Someone who does this with optimal pronunciation and no interruptions does not necessarily understand the story better than someone who mumbles, stops, butchers the pronunciation, and trails off while thinking about the story. Therefore, the activity of ‘reading aloud a new story in one go’ is not intrinsically tied to how well you process the meaning of the story: it is not a meaningful activity.
That doesn’t mean that the entire category of ‘reading aloud’ is meaningless. For example, ‘whisper-reading’, a practice where you murmur the words aloud to yourself while focusing chiefly on the meaning of what you’re reading, permitting yourself to stop and think and re-read sentences wherever necessary, and not worrying too much about how well you produce sounds, is essentially the same as ‘reading for meaning’ but with the additional support of letting yourself murmur the words, which some people may find helpful for their focus.
For every example that I list as a ‘meaningless activity’, you could probably come up with a similar practice which does involve meaningful processing of the language.
My intention in providing a list of examples and counter-examples is to train you to discern the difference between a meaningful activity and one which is mostly busywork or a distraction. You also don’t have to do all of the meaningful activities I suggest; these are just illustrations of the type of activity that compels you to interpret meaning.
Here are some examples of meaningful input activities:
- Read a Latin story and understand it. ✅
- Watch a Latin video and enjoy the substance of what it is saying.✅
- Listen to an audio recording of Latin while doing chores, and at least part of the time you catch what is being said and understand what it means. (The more you can catch, the better)✅
- Read a Latin story, sometimes using an English translation to help you understand what the Latin says, while gradually looking more at the Latin half than the English half as you progress with the goal of getting more engrossed in the Latin story.✅
- Reread a story you had previously read, and see how much of it you can remember and if your memory of the story is confirmed in this rereading.✅
- Read two versions of the same story or myth in Latin, and evaluate which version you prefer. ✅
- Listen to a podcast in which you can understand at least some of what is being said and can follow the gist of the conversation; occasionally you laugh when the speakers laugh because you actually get their jokes.✅
- Read (or listen to) questions about a story you read in Latin, understand the questions, and answer them either mentally, with a gesture (eg. a nod or head-shake), or aloud in English or Latin. ✅
- Read a flashcard showing a sentence from a story you have previously read, with a target word highlighted. Recall what the sentence means and remember where it came from in the story, and check to see if you understood the target word. ✅
- Reader’s theatre: take some time to consider how you could read aloud a character’s dialogue in a way that expresses their emotions in the scene. As you reread the text, think about which lines and which words should be emphasised, and why. Then perform the dialogue like a voice actor. You may choose to record your goofy voice to listen to it again later. ✅
The following activites are NOT ones which require you to meaningfully process input:
- Before understanding what it says, read aloud a text in one go, carefully thinking about your pronunciation. 😐
- Take turns in a group reading aloud a text round-robin style.😐
- Search a text for examples of words in the genitive case by looking for words which end in the letters -ae, -arum, -i, -orum, -is, or -um, and label them as ‘genitive’. 😐
- Solve an exercise like ‘Iūlius et Aemilia in vīll__ habit___ cum līber___ et serv____.’ by finding a matching sentence in the text and copying across the endings without processing the meaning. 😐
- Answer a Latin comprehension question, eg. ‘Num pāstor sōlus in campō est?’ by finding a language chunk in the story that matches it and copying it verbatim as an answer to the question without understanding the meaning of the question or answer. 😐
- Review a flashcard which has one word on the front, “is, ea, id” and say to yourself the English translation, “he, she, it; that”, and do this with 20 other flashcards taken from the top 1000 words without context. 😐
- Listen to a song in Latin for entertainment and sing along even though you have no idea what the Latin means. 😐/✅
I put both symbols next to the last activity because it doesn’t quite fit in either category: it is very possible to enjoy a song for its music while understanding literally none of the lyrics, so it fails the first criterion of a meaningful input activity by allowing zero comprehension to be a successful state. However, the more you understand of the lyrics, the more you can appreciate the way the song is crafted as a unified piece of art involving both music and language. As long as the song expresses meaningful thought with its words, it is inherently motivating the listener to search for the meaning of its messages. Nevertheless, songs, like poetry, tend to use rare and peculiar words for effect, which usually makes them rather unsuitable as beginner material. This doesn’t mean we should avoid listening to songs, just that we need to temper our expectations about what they can do for our language growth, at least in the beginner zone.
Songs aside, most of the activities I have listed as meaningless busy-work tend to be quite mechanical and dull, whereas the activities I listed as meaningful input activities find their sucess in the simple pleasure of understanding meaning in the language, and are tied to a meaningful context. This is a win-win for us language learners. It turns out that the most valuable activities you can do in a language are also the ones which are the most inherently enjoyable.
And I don’t mean ‘enjoyable’ in the same way that winning a lottery is enjoyable. Reading a language book in bed is not going to suddenly spike your dopamine like consuming a can of fizzy sugar-water. But it gives you a similar level of wholesome pleasure as taking a walk in the sunshine, or chatting with friends. Understanding meaning in another language is a simple pleasure that we can nurture and cultivate, turning it into a habit we actually want to do.
(Keep this in mind when we later discuss the pitfalls of language learning methods which require the learner to repeatedly complete frustrating tasks as if they were unavoidable facts of life.)
Now since it is 2023, someone is going to ask whether AI tools such as ChatGPT can be a good source of input. My short answer is that the Latin produced by ChatGPT in 2023 is riddled with errors of grammar and idiom in almost every sentence, making it unsuitable for autodidacts. In the future these tools will probably become more accurate, at which point we could start talking about whether humans fundamentally prefer listening to humans, robots, or a combination of the two. In the hands of an advanced Latinist, ChatGPT does an adequate job of generating rough drafts for stories which can be edited for both accuracy and better storytelling. This is how I’ve used it in my classes so far: I make it draft stories which I fix up for my students. But without that human intervention, it is just not a source that a beginner Latinist can trust in 2023.
Now that we have discussed meaningful input, let us turn to meaningful output.
For some reason, even more than with input-based tasks, our Latin community is prone to recommend output activities which do not actually require meaningful communicative intent. It almost seems like output activities get a ‘free pass’ of approval: the mere fact that certain activities involve speaking or writing of any kind, even if it is purely a mechanical exercise with a pre-determined correct answer, attracts positive labels like ‘active Latin’, in contrast to the negative label of ‘passive Latin’ that is applied to input-based activities.
In reality, SLA researchers do not divide the world of language learning into ‘active’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘passive’ meaning ‘bad’. They do talk about the ‘receptive’ modes of listening and reading in contrast to the ‘productive’ modes of speaking and writing, but no one is trying to claim that receptive modes are truly passive, somehow involving no activity from the brain to process.
‘Communication’ doesn’t just mean ‘talking to each other’: it includes all forms of the interpretation and the expression of meaning. Reading is a communicative act. Listening is a communicative act. What makes an act communicative is the interpretation or expression of meaning, not whether words come out of your mouth or ink comes out of your pen.
But it must be asked, what value does the language learner gain from producing output? There is longstanding debate among SLA researchers about the role which output should play in language learning, and this is worth considering. Positions vary from those who believe output is unnecessary, and who claim input alone is sufficient for developing a functional proficiency in the target language, to those who believe that output is necessary for a fully-rounded and more deeply inter-connected understanding of the language.
On the side of those claiming that input is sufficient for language development, there are notable cases of people who developed a sophisticated comprehension of their target language through years of purely input-based activities. Matt vs Japan learned Japanese to a very high level largely through watching entertainment media, and reported that he only needed a couple weeks of practice to activate his wide knowledge to speak Japanese to other people.
But in my experience, moving from being a silent Latinist to a speaking Latinist, I’ve found that converting receptive knowledge of the language into productive skills requires a substantial amount of rewiring the connections between your thoughts and words. Recalling a word that you only know at sight is like tracing the connections backwards. ‘Activating’ your knowledge of the language is an ongoing process, not something which you can instantly carry over from your reading comprehension.
One thing is clear: if you do create output, you should expect the complexity of what you can produce to be lower than the complexity of what you can comprehend. It is through comprehending input that humans gradually build a mental representation of the language – a complex systematic image of what exists in Latin. Output is what we can produce by attaching active-recall connections to what we have already learned. Therefore, we cannot produce output unless we have ingested sufficient input. Because of this, you should not be expecting yourself to produce output at the same level of complexity as the input you are receiving, and input should precede output.
But not all Latinists even say that they want to produce output at all. If one is content to simply consume and not produce, is output a necessary and essential part of the language learning process? Merrill Swain’s Output Hypothesis, which makes several claims for why output is beneficial and even essential to the language learning process, was originally developed because she observed that second-language French immersion students had a very high level of comprehension in French from receiving ample input but lagged behind their native speaking peers in their ability to speak in French. I’m willing to bet that many Latinists would in fact be perfectly content to be those French immersion students Swain was dissatisfied with, who had high comprehension but little productive ability, because they are happy not to speak or write in Latin. Even if output can be shown to have some beneficial impact on comprehension, it seems that input alone is already capable of taking people to high levels of comprehension, the one skill that seems relevant in Latin. Why then should we bother producing output?
It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully articulate the reasons our community should or should not be encouraging productive Latin. But I heavily suspect that some of the fear and bitter resistence towards output in Latin may actually be a consequence of how forced, meaningless output practice in school language classes has left many people with a strong dislike of the practice, prompting them to seek out Latin precisely because it is a language that no one has to speak. If that is the case, then recommending cookie-cutter activities taken from forced-productive practices in language classes is the absolute worst way to promote ‘active Latin’ as it will instantly reinforce the natural and cultivated dislike of being made to talk empty words for the sake of ‘language practice’.
Fundamentally, human beings don’t have a natural dislike of speaking. We dislike being forced to speak without any good reason.
It would be much more beneficial if we thought of things the other way around: you don’t have to speak and write in Latin. You get to speak and write in Latin. All that lifetime knowledge of the language you’re carefully building up? Instead of dying with it and taking it all to the grave, you get to pass it to the next generation through the natural mechanisms of output and interaction, by talking and writing and collaborating with other people in Latin. The better your output proficiency gets, the more you can help other people enjoy the language that you enjoy – whether you are a teacher, creative writer, or just an average person who participates in a group chat once in a while.
Have you noticed how intrigued and inspired young people get when they see living people speak a dead language? In an age where old content gets buried under mountains of new content every single day, people who produce Latin are making our language seen and heard, especially by the younger generations.
But productive ability doesn’t appear overnight. Like language acqusition itself, learning to be a good speaker or writer in the language is a long process. Most of what you write or say from the beginning will be full of errors, including both obvious grammatical errors and more subtle problems with the idiom. It is important not to fixate on errors initially, but instead to learn how to use the resources you have available to make yourself understood by other people, and build competency from there.
Meaningful output activities, where the focus is on communicating information to a sympathetic listener, rather than on avoiding errors, are the most effective ways to build this resourcefulness. For an output activity to be meaningful, you need to be able to answer two questions (taken from Henshaw & Hawkins’ language pedagogy book, Common Ground):
- What information or content is being conveyed?
- What will the audience do with the information?
Communciative output activities require an audience that cares more about what you are saying than how well you are saying it. You can find sympathetic Latin speakers on the Latin subreddit, on the various Latin Discord servers (such as the general Latin Discord, and the Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata Discord), on the weekly Latin Zoom chats, and by writing a post in the Latin subreddit asking if there are any Latin speakers in your city or local area. Try contacting the nearest University that teaches Latin to ask if there is a local Latin club. You can even directly hire Latin speaking tutors on iTalki.
Here are some examples of meaningful output activities:
- In Latin, command other people to do the actions you tell them to do (eg. ‘venī hūc et dā mihi calamum! grātiās tibi!‘), then swap roles. To prepare for the activity, you may create a print-out with pictures captioned with example commands in Latin, to serve as a visual reminder for yourself and others. ✅
- Write new Latin comprehension questions about a story you have read which you will share with friends as an activity to check their reading comprehension. ✅
- Respond to Latin comprehension questions in Latin by writing answers, then indicate which question was the most and least interesting to answer. Compare your opinions with other learners and colloborate to write better questions to replace the ones which were considered the least interesting. ✅
- Write alternative ways to rephrase parts of a story from your textbook, so that you can later read that story to other people in a Latin study group and explain it aloud in Latin using these variations in phrasing for clarification. ✅
- Write a variation of a Latin story you have read in the textbook, but replace the main characters with you and your friends (or characters from memes) and change some of the events or the outcome of the story. Then share it with your friends to see if they enjoy it. ✅
- Collaborate with another Latinist to create illustrated children’s stories: each person writes a story from your home culture, and the other person draws illustrations. Team up with an advanced Latinist to check your idiom and then share the stories on the Latin subreddit with their pictures. ✅
- Prepare dot points in Latin about how you would introduce yourself to new people, then at a Latin speaking group (such as at a weekly Zoom meeting), introduce yourself to the group using the script you prepared while also venturing off-script to say more or clarify things if people don’t seem to understand.✅
- Join a Latin speaking group and contribute meaningfully to the conversation (even if you just start by saying short phrases like ‘euge!’, ‘prō dolor!’ or ‘mihi placet …’ while others do more of the talking)✅
- In a Latin Discord server chat, read what other people are writing and then ask other people in Latin to tell you more details about what they are talking about if it’s a topic that interests you. ✅
- In a Latin Discord server chat, when people ask you to explain or clarify what you mean, find a way to make your meaning clearer by giving examples or using different phrases. ✅
- In text chat or voice chat, ask a Latin speaker about their family or what they do every day. Discuss how your families or daily routines are similar or different. ✅
Each of these suggested output activities may be suited for different levels. Activities which involve making lists, short utterances, or minor alterations to existing content are the most accessible to beginners, while activities which involve intricate description or sustained logical argument are more suited to speakers at higher levels.
Some output tasks can be done away from a human community. An audience can include yourself, if you find writing to yourself therapeutic, or God, if you are religious. Reflection, gratitude, and prayer can be meaningful practices in which the main goal is to use language to express the content rather than to avoid making errors.
- If you are the kind of person who normally keeps a diary, try journalling in Latin to see what thoughts come to the surface. Do you think or feel differently in Latin than you do in your native language? ✅
- Gratitude journal: In Latin, make a dot point list of things which you appreciate in life. Then write a prayer or a gratitude journal entry summing up this list and expressing thanks for these blessings. ✅
- Scripture reflection & prayer: Read a passage from holy scripture. Outline in short dot points what the passage might have meant for its original audience. Reflect on what wisdom it may bring to our current context. Write or say a prayer asking for God’s help in applying the wisdom of this passage to our everyday lives. ✅
The following activites are NOT examples of meaningful output:
- Take a sentence from the text and turn every singular plural, every plural singular. 😐
- Take a story and rewrite it in a different tense, keeping everything else the same. 😐
- Take a sentence from the text and retell it using an accusative and infinitive indirect statement. 😐
- Read aloud the script of a role-play, taking turns in a group to pronounce aloud your assigned lines, while not getting other people to meaningfully act upon the information you are saying aloud.
- Copy out a Latin story from the textbook in your own handwriting. 😐
- Transcribe a text from an audio recording. 😐
- Translate isolated random English sentences (e.g. those sourced from a prose composition book) into Latin. 😐
- Take an English translation of a Latin text and translate it back into Latin, checking to see where your version and the authentic text differs.😐
- Commit a text to memory and recite it aloud from memory. 😐
- Mimic an audio recording by repeating aloud what it says. 😐
These activities lack a meaningful communicative purpose: you are not conveying information to an audience who will listen and act upon what you say to them. They are practice-for-practice’s-sake, and not a true substitute for the real thing that practice is supposed to be bringing you towards.
Some people will defend these practice activities by saying that a ‘beginner has to start somewhere’; it is ‘unrealistic’ to expect beginners to produce meaning in the language; there is some unspecified amount of time beginners need to ‘practice’ before doing something real. They may say that most people don’t have anyone to talk to in Latin anyway, so this is how they can train themselves to be ready for meeting someone to talk to, some distant day in the future.
This is wrong on several counts.
Firstly, we have already shown several examples of meaningful output activites that learners can start to take part in even before they gain command of creating original full sentences. Activities involving creating lists, making short utterances, or recycling material from texts or other speakers’ words are accessible output activities for novice level speakers.
Secondly, I have already explained several practical ways to find Latin speakers both online and in person. Meeting someone you can speak Latin with is easier today than it has been for a very, very long time. (This is coming from someone who lives in Australia, which is about as geographically far from the European and American conventicula as you can get.)
Thirdly, mandating that beginners pre-train their accuracy before they start meaningfully communicating sends the damaging message that you ought to be very sure of what you say before you dare open your mouth to speak. In reality, if you must wait until your output is reliably accurate and beautiful before you start speaking, you will never be ready to speak, because it takes lots of experience communicating in realistic situations before you can begin to produce high quality output in realistic situations. Rather than focusing initially on accuracy, beginners should focus on being intelligible with the resources they have, and then work to improve their proficiency from that baseline.
As Henshaw and Hawkins write in Common Ground, ‘Novice and intermediate learners require a sympathetic interlocutor, rather an a red pen.’ Back-translation, grammar manipulation exercises, and Latin prose composition provide the ‘red pen’ of corrective feedback but not the ‘sympathetic interlocutor’ who listens and responds. While such communicatively pointless exercises may practice active recall and highlight gaps in ability, they do so at the cost of being intrinsically demotivating and inhibiting for most human beings, who seek to be heard and seen for their meaningful contribution rather than ignored for content and scrutinised for errors. It is no surprise then that the casually successful multilinguals of the world who pick up local languages like Hokkien and Cantonese don’t bother with the equivalents of prose composition exercises, but just get down to meaningful communication with real people.
These empty activities also perpetuate unrealistic expectations of what output should look like during the learning process. Ordinary people under natural circumstances do not produce output as beautifully perfect as the chapter they are up to in Familia Romana, but artificial production activities keyed to each chapter clearly assume that they should.
For a more realistic view of the productive capabilities of learners, we can read modern language standards such as the ACTFL proficiency guidelines for novice, intermediate, and advanced learners. Novices are clearly described as not yet having full command of the sentence: they ‘communicate short messages… primarily through the use of isolated words and phrases’. They are often unintelligible: ‘Novice-level speakers may be difficult to understand even by the most sympathetic interlocutors accustomed to non-native speech.’ The goal of a novice-level speaker is not to immediately start producing perfect output, but to move step by step towards the next rung of the ladder: intermediate-level proficiency, which features full sentences that are more intelligible to other speakers. Intermediate-level proficiency is itself not error-free, as ‘patterns of error appear’ even as late as Advanced High.
The bottom line is that becoming competent at producing output is a process that takes time, so if we need to do a lot of it, we would be better off enjoying it. Would you rather embark on an indefinite amount of meaningless practice devoid of a communicative context that may or may not help your productive skills in realistic situations, or would you rather cultivate meaningful communication with real people? Intrinsic motivation and enjoyment are just as crucial in the output activities as they are in the input activities, because in the long term we are more likely to sustain the habits that we enjoy.
Choosing a core strategy
So far we have discussed examples of meaningful activity in the language. But how would you go from start to finish if you are teaching yourself the equivalent of an introductory course in Latin? What is the step-by-step path for a newcomer? In this section we will discuss five main archetypes representing the most successful strategies for learning Latin using the resources currently available in 2023.
I chose to present five archetypes here rather than one ideal strategy because it was not possible for a single strategy to optimise all factors that Latin autodidacts find valuable. A strategy which is simple to execute makes a necessary trade-off against a strategy which provides greater variety of input. I also found that in the current market, the resources which were the lowest cost were not the most delightful. There are also strategies which may be sub-optimal on some counts but increase the user’s confidence that the method will work, making them more likely to persist with the method.
You can mix and match elements from different archetypes, or swap strategies partway through. You can also add any meaningful input or output activity on top of the core strategies here.
1. Barebones Ørberg
This strategy is well known in the Latin subreddit, r/Latin. It has been used by a very large number of autodidacts over the years, increasing a newcomer’s confidence in the method. While not without flaws, it optimises simplicity and cost-effectiveness and can be a good place to start if you are worried about being overwhelmed with too many choices.
The method is as follows:
- Read through a chapter of Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata: Familia Romana, mainly focusing on understanding the Latin and not forcing yourself to mentally translate it into your native language.
- (Optional but recommended: listen to audio recordings of the textbook chapters as you go along, such as those on YouTube, the Legentibus app, or the official audio recording.)
- At the end of the chapter, check your understanding by completing the pēnsa (the exercises that are printed at the end of each chapter of Familia Romana).
- If the exercises reveal gaps in your understanding, reread the current chapter (or multiple earlier chapters leading up to the current chapter) and retest yourself until you are able to complete the pēnsa with 100% success.
- Repeat for every chapter of Familia Romana.
The strengths of this method are its simplicity and cost-effectiveness. It only requires you to obtain one textbook, Familia Romana, which will be used for the entire duration of the beginner phase. As a side benefit, because a large number of autodidacts are already using this method or something very similar (i.e. Deluxe Ørberg) it will be easy to find study-groups on the Latin subreddit and the LLPSI Discord server who can learn alongside you.
The drawbacks have to do with its use of the pēnsa as barriers to progression. Even if the pēnsa involved genuine communicative output (they do not – there is no real audience for any of the pēnsa and two out of the three types of exercises are mechanical fill-in-the-blanks), it is not output that drives acquisition but input. Output can serve as a way to highlight gaps in understanding and offer opportunities to test hypotheses, but it does not in itself remedy those gaps in understanding. The learner has to return to processing input to fill the gaps. The pēnsa mainly force people to do more re-reading of previous content than they otherwise would have been inclined to endure, which increases the amount of exposure to target features, but at the cost of also increasing frustration.
The total reliance on one textbook to provide all input in a very tidily-packaged sequence of grammar is also a flaw of the method. Humans do not naturally acquire grammar in the order that it is taught in a curriculum; there is an internal sequence of grammar which defies an idealised progression of noun cases and verb tenses. We also do not process everything we read, nor acquire everything we process: Henshaw and Hawkins write in Common Ground, ‘Neither teachers nor students have total control over what will and will not be acquired. Indeed, not everything from the input becomes part of the linguistic system, at least not in an immediate and predictable manner.’ Striving to acquire 100% of the material in every chapter is, in a very real sense, working against our human nature.
Despite these flaws, the ‘Barebones Ørberg’ approach is widely used in the Latin community, and offers a good starting point for anyone who wants to get into the process right away, without much upfront cost. The textbook retails for about $60, which might sound like a lot for a book, but for a Latin course it is extremely reasonable. Considering that you could be dropping about $1,500 to learn Latin with group classes or about $500 for a guided self-paced course of video lessons, a $60 textbook that you will be using for a whole year is not nearly as great an expense.
2. Deluxe Ørberg
Over the years, the Reddit Latin community has been growing more aware of the drawbacks of using Familia Romana as the sole source of input for the entire beginner stage. However, the community maintains a large amount of confidence and trust in the textbook as a kind of common-ground, touchstone resource for ‘learning all the grammar’ and ‘covering all the bases’. Therefore the subreddit has come to encourage supplementing Familia Romana with other LLPSI-branded resources keyed to its chapters. As a bonus, some of the supplemental stories are more delightful than the exposition-heavy texts in Familia Romana.
The shopping list is as follows:
- Familia Romana
- Colloquia Personarum
- Fabulae Syrae
- Download the free pdf of Fabellae Latinae.
- Exercitia Latina I
This method, paraphrased and summarised from the one currently recommended on the Latin subreddit, goes as follows:
- Read through each chapter of Familia Romana and the corresponding chapter of Colloquia Personarum (for Ch1-24) or Fabulae Syrae (for Ch26-34). Also read the corresponding story in Fabellae Latinae. Aim to read all of these at least twice.
- Listen to audio recordings of the above as some of the ways you consume this input.
- Complete the pēnsa for every chapter and the exercitia from Exercitia Latina I
- If you notice gaps in understanding through the pēnsa and exercitia, reread the corresponding chapters until you can complete the pēnsa and exercitia very quickly and accurately.
- Repeat for every chapter of Familia Romana.
As you can see, it is basically ‘Barebones Ørberg‘ but with more reading material. It retains the same drawbacks relating to the use of the pēnsa as barriers to progression and the burden of having to 100% master every chapter of content in the order it is presented.
I would even add that the extra emphasis on completing grammar-focused fill-in-the-blank exercises in the Exercitia is perhaps a move in the wrong direction, away from natural language acquisition through input and more towards forced output. The Exercitia are not going to harm anyone or prevent learning; they would train active recall, at the cost of not being a meaningfully communicative activity and thus providing more of a red pen than a sympathetic interlocutor. It is just strange to see continual, mandatory emphasis on non-communicative production tasks in a community that says it values a ‘natural’ and ‘input’ based approach to language learning.
While ‘Deluxe Ørberg’ is not as simple as ‘Barebones Ørberg‘, nor as cheap, it manages to increase the amount and variety of meaningful input per chapter and thus can provide a more delightful reading experience than getting stuck rereading only the same story ten times. The backing of the Reddit community increases the learner’s confidence in the method. It does however share the same flaws as ‘Barebones Ørberg‘ in that it expects that learners to be able to control what they acquire from the input, and falsely assumes that enough rereading and recall practice will always guarantee 100% acquisition of target features in any given chapter.
But because so very many autodidacts use Ørberg’s texts, there are ongoing projects to write additional stories and content that pad out every chapter of Familia Romana even further than the officially published materials, catering to a wider variety of interests. If you’re a Pokemon fan, you might enjoy Mike Saridakis’ Lingua Latina Per Pokemon Illustrata. Seumas MacDonald is writing a sci-fi novella keyed to each chapter of Familia Romana, titled Cassandra (it is currently only available to patrons on his Patreon). There are also additional Familia Romana resources on Anthony Gibbins’ website Legonium. Doubtless more projects keyed to Familia Romana will appear in the future due to the widespread use of the textbook.
3. The More the Merrier
These next two archetypes, ‘The More the Merrier’ and ‘The Public Domain Penny Pincher’, are inspired in a large part by Justin Armstrong (who is documenting his process of learning Latin through mass input on his YouTube channel), and also from my observations of Latin autodidacts who are comfortable incorporating reading material from textbooks other than Familia Romana as part of their overall diet of input. ‘The More the Merrier’ is essentially how I have been increasing my Ancient Greek proficiency after failing to achieve much fluency initially through grammar-translation, and incidentally is the same method that Seumas MacDonald describes in his recent post about 2023 Ancient Greek autodidact strategies. I am confident this strategy works even better in Latin, as there have been so many high quality reader-style Latin textbooks published in recent years.
The method is as follows:
- Buy (or legally download) a Latin reader-based textbook – it could be Familia Romana (probably the top pick for a first Latin textbook), or any other textbook which provides large amounts of input in the form of stories of graded difficulty such as Via Latina, the Cambridge Latin Course, Suburani, etc.
- Read through the stories with the goal of understanding and enjoying them.
- Incorporate rereading in your routine to get more value out of the stories. Aim to read each story at least twice. You could do the 2 reads one after another, or space it out and return to a previous story after reading other things.
- Do not get caught up on mastering mechanical production exercises, pēnsa, exercitia, etc. but if you feel like doing them for a laugh, knock yourself out. Tip: The exercises in the Via Latina textbook are a lot more interesting than most other Latin textbooks, and definitely worth trying out.
- If the book contains English essays on cultural topics, just skip them and focus on the Latin stories. You can briefly skim-read English grammar explanations, as it may increase your chances of noticing grammar features in the input, but don’t stress about it either way.
- When you find yourself getting stuck because the difficulty of the textbook has reached a point higher than your current reading level can handle, put this textbook aside, switch to another book series, and start again from the beginning.
- When you reach a point of getting stuck with difficulty in the new textbook, you can either start another new textbook or return to previous textbooks and continue reading them until the challenge becomes too difficult again.
- When you are able to read the final chapters of all your textbooks, you’re probably ready to start working your way up through intermediate reading material. Congrats! You’ve reached the intermediate plateau.
Here are some of my most recommended Latin reader-style textbooks:
- Ørberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata: Familia Romana. While I am certainly not the biggest fan of the storyline (I often find it desperately dull), it seems to have the easiest learning curve for the early chapters. It is probably the most user-friendly place to start.
- Aguilar & Tarrega’s Via Latina. A textbook does not need to be written entirely in Latin for it to provide useful input, but it is a nice feature nonetheless. Like Familia Romana, Via Latina is written entirely in Latin and uses marginal pictures to convey new words, providing lots of illustrations and in-language explanations. The exercises in Via Latina are the most varied, interesting, and meaningful I’ve seen of any Latin textbook to date. Overall the chapters are more dense with new material than Familia Romana, as this course was designed to ‘cover everything’ in a smaller volume of words, but nevertheless this textbook is a fun read and a worthy addition.
- The Cambridge Latin Course. This series has compelling narratives that move through a variety of genres such as ghost stories, romantic comedy, a mafia subplot in Egypt, and political intrigue. Although the glossy, colour-printed hard copies are quite expensive, currently in 2023 you can legally access all the chapter stories for free on the CSCP website in two places – if you access the stories through this link, you can click on every word to look it up in the dictioary. In the webBook version, you can leaf through the book and read the picture captions at the start of chapters which help give context to the stories. The series has been used in UK classrooms for decades, so you might be able to get used copies on the cheap, especially for older editions.
- Suburani. Characters and continuous plot are emphasised in this relatively new textbook. It features a large quantity of colour illustrations, including many pages of essentially comic-book panels continuing the main plot. How many Latin textbooks have this many richly illustrated comic-book panels? The physical books of Vol 1 and 2 are quite expensive ($55 each for a total of $110), but you can get a year’s digital access to both books for either $20 (for North Americans) or £15 (for people in the UK) with an individual online account.
- Legentibus. I would highly recommend checking out Daniel Pettersson’s short stories on his Legentibus app, as they are well-written and delightful. If you are not in the mood to purchase a year’s subscription due to the cost, it could be quite economical to buy just one month’s subscription for $9.99 and binge all of his beginner-level short stories at once.
I also recommend checking out Justin Armstrong’s ‘Optimised’ Latin Reading List, in which he suggests a reading order that roughly corresponds to a gradually increasing difficulty of comprehension, with links to each resource.
‘The More the Merrier’ maximises variety and delightfulness, as it provides the greatest flexibility for the user to choose textbooks and stories that appeal to them most. However, it is more expensive than other strategies (though still much less costly than taking classes or buying a self-paced video course). Having to buy a shiny new resource as the mood strikes adds some complexity to the process, as you may end up spending more time shopping and searching for resources than you otherwise would have preferred.
4. The Public Domain Penny Pincher
While ‘The More the Merrier‘ splurges on shiny new textbooks, ‘The Public Domain Penny Pincher’ thriftily uses as many freely available resources as possible in their quest to acquire Latin through mass input, absolutely maximising cost-effectiveness while also achieving some variety in reading material.
In reality, everyone can use freely available materials on the side of whatever they are currently doing. But for people who cannot afford even a single textbook, it is valuable for us to put together a strategy that can stand up on its own while literally costing $0.00 beyond your basic living costs and internet bills. Enter ‘The Public Domain Penny Pincher’.
The method would be mostly the same as the ‘The More the Merrier‘, except that we lack Familia Romana as an easy entry point for first textbook. I would have liked to recommend the Cambridge Latin Course online version as the go-to first text, because the ‘Explore the Story’ tool allows you to click on each word to instantly look up definitions, making it user-friendly for first-time readers of Latin. However, while this online textbook is still free in March 2023, I fear that it will probably be taken down in subsequent years and replaced with a subscription model, making it one day unsuitable for our Penny Pinching strategy.
No, in the spirit of the open source movement, a ‘Public Domain Penny Pincher’ strategy ought to start with a truly public domain work: something which is and always will be free.
My recommendation for first public domain textbook in this method would be one of these two: William Most’s Latin by the Natural Method, and Grey & Jenkins’ Latin for Today. These two textbooks seem to have attracted more love and attention than the other Direct Method Latin textbooks in the Public Domain, and I can personally attest that they are pretty enjoyable to read in terms of their subject matter.
Most’s Latin by the Natural Method focuses more on ecclesiastical Latin, and includes retellings of bible stories, which provides some familiar content. This is a plus if you are particularly interested in learning ecclesiastical Latin, but not a problem at all if your focus is on classical texts, as the ecclesiasical and classical dialects of Latin do not differ very significantly, especially not in the base language suitable for beginners. However, it is an annoyance that Most’s text does not mark macrons, which wastes the opportunity for learners to initially get used to the vowel quantities which characterise the natural rhythmic quality of the language.
Grey & Jenkins’ Latin for Today deals with classical subjects and contains macrons. Every story is paired with a detailed illustration, and very often the text focuses on describing and commenting on the contents of the picture. This aids in the comprehensiblity of the texts and grounds the language in a meaningful context. My only concern is that the stories feel rather brief, and there may not be very many repetitions of words before the next round of new words are introduced.
The method is as follows:
- Pick a first text (my top recommendations being either Most’s Latin by the Natural Method or Grey & Jenkins’ Latin for Today, if and when the Cambridge Latin Course online textbook stops being freely available) and read the stories with the intention of understanding the meaning and enjoying the story.
- Incorporate rereading in your routine to get more value out of the stories. Because public domain texts have a bit of a higher learning curve than contemporary paid textbooks, you might need to aim for higher numbers of repetitions, at least three or four, but the more the better. If you can vary the activity you do in subsequent rereads, you can make rereading less monotonous. For example, on the second reread, you could focus on visualising the scene as vividly as possible. On the third reread, you could consider miming actions to represent the words while you read. On the fourth reread, you could consider how a dramatic voice actor might interpret the lines, and reread it silently thinking about what emotion should suit each sentence, then try reading it out loud with exaggerated emotion. Record your silly voice and then play it back later as a listening activity. Vary the order in which you do these rereading activities according to your mood at the time, or drop the activities entirely if they don’t make rereading more interesting.
- Since we are dealing with sub-optimal readings, it might be worth getting some explicit knowledge of what is happening with the grammar, just to reduce confusion. Read the grammar explanations that appear alongside the stories to get an idea of what to pay attention to in the input, but don’t stress about having to memorise every fact or to master each concept in the chapter it appears.
- Any additional input you can get for free is going to make a significant difference to your growth in comprehension in this method. It would be beneficial to work your way through my curated YouTube playlists of beginner Latin content (which I have labelled Beginner A, Beginner B, Intermediate A, and Intermediate B) and even consider doing some interlinear practice with texts you find very compelling (see the interlinear method below).
- When you find yourself losing momentum or getting very frustrated at the difficulty level of the current readings, leave this textbook aside for now. Switch to another public domain book, and start again from the beginning.
- When you reach a point of getting stuck with the difficulty level in the new textbook, you can either start another new textbook or return to previous textbooks and continue reading them until the challenge becomes too difficult again.
- When you are able to read the later chapters of all your textbooks, you’re probably ready to start working your way up through intermediate reading material. Congrats! You’ve reached the intermediate plateau.
Here is my list of Public Domain or freely available texts that are most suitable for beginners:
- Most’s Latin by the Natural Method
- Grey & Jenkins’ Latin for Today
- Cambridge Latin Course online version (still accessible in 2023)
- Maxey’s Cornelia
- Maxey’s A New Latin Primer
- Fay’s Carolus et Maria
- D’Ooge’s Latin for Beginners
- Reed’s Julia
- Reed’s Camilla
- Godley’s The Fables of Orbilius
- The free beginner stories on the Legentibus app
- The free download of Fabellae Latinae
- The public domain novellas Sisyphus and Cloelia: Puella Romana
I would also strongly recommend combing your nearby libraries (especially university libraries) for copies of any more recently published reader based textbooks. Some have managed to obtain free (and completely legal) access to Ørberg’s Familia Romana this way.
The following public domain texts are useful rather later in the sequence, and many would be better placed as intermediate readers than as beginner readers:
- D’Ooge’s Colloquia Latina
- Appleton’s Pons Tironum
- Sonnenschein’s Ora Maritima (the second volume is Pro Patria)
- Vincent’s A First Latin Reader
- Spencer’s Scalae Primae
- Chambers & Robinson’s Septimus
- Nutting’s A First Latin Reader
- Nutting’s Ad Alpes (this is very prominently used as an intermediate reader)
- Appleton & Jones Puer Romanus
- Arnold’s Cothurnulus
- Bennett’s Easy Latin Stories
- Newman’s Easy Latin Plays
- Rylis’ Olim
- Winbolt’s Dialogues of Roman Life
Check out Justin Armstrong’s Latin Reading spreadsheet for notes about his learning experience in using many of these public domain textbooks.
‘The Public Domain Penny Pincher’ is the only autodidact strategy which literally costs nothing (while involving no illegal activity). The value gained per dollar spent is infinite!
However, the texts in this method are generally sourced from an era in which textbook authors did not prioritise writing stories to be compelling, but instead predictable. Other than the little pieces of recent freebie content like the free Legentibus stories and the CLC online stories, most of these works are not particularly delightful.
The method may also demand more effort from the learner to absorb the content of each story. The difficulty curve appears a bit steeper here than in ‘The More the Merrier‘, because of the more restricted range of texts. These texts (like most textbooks) were written with the assumption that a teacher would be guiding students through the material and supplying additional help or repetitions where needed, so reading them without a teacher makes them seem to breeze through content quite quickly. A Public Domain Penny Pincher may need to rely more on rereading and deliberate learning strategies such as ‘sentence flashcards’ to absorb the content than someone using more modern texts with built-in repetitions in longer stories.
The method is a bit more complex than simply opening up Familia Romana and going from there. It can be inconvenient to rely on reading pdfs and scanned books from archive.org, as you will be mostly reading from a computer screen. (And no, you can’t print them out – printing costs money!) There’s that feeling of having lots of tabs open in your browser, which makes me feel like there are lots of tabs open in my mind.
While Public Domain Penny Pinching may be more awkward than other methods, it is completely free and can be readily combined with any other strategy without adding any additional expense to that method.
5. Strange Bedfellows
What happens when you take a grammar-translation book such as Wheelock’s Latin, and study it alongside an input-rich graded reader like Familia Romana? The love-child of such a union is the strategy I will call ‘Strange Bedfellows’.
It is very difficult to get people to trust that they can safely let go of explicit grammar study. I can point to examples of how ordinary people growing up in multilingual parts of the world find their greatest success at learning languages through meaningful communication, how professional applied linguists learn very complex indigenous languages using input, how the traditional school system which emphasises explicit learning seems to have the worst success rate of any language teaching institution in terms of producing people who actually use those languages. But I cannot change the fact that most people who grew up in modern western schooling are deeply inculturated with the idea that explicit grammar study is essential to the language learning process.
On the other hand, it is much easier to convince people that input is beneficial. Most people will already have a very positive attitude towards extensive reading for increasing reading proficiency, and are willing to give it a try. Saying ‘no’ to grammar for them is a harder sell than saying ‘yes’ to input, so why not just say ‘yes’ to both?
I have seen many people use some form of ‘Strange Bedfellows’ to learn Latin; it is an extremely common strategy in the community. People who use it say that they are getting the ‘best of both worlds’, and ‘covering all their bases’, which gives them confidence. They would ask, ‘why do you have to pick a side?’ No matter who truly wins the debate over the sufficiency of input, the learner who incorporates ‘Strange Bedfellows’ has hedged their bets so as not to miss out on either of the potential benefits of input or grammar study.
The exact texts chosen can vary depending on the tastes of the learner. Here are some possible pairings:
- Wheelock’s Latin and Familia Romana. A classic pair for North American learners, as these two texts are available quite cheaply and are both widely used. If Wheelock’s is being used, however, I would also recommend purchasing the reader supplement keyed to each chapter of Wheelock’s, 38 Latin stories by Groton & May. Those 38 stories are not enough input by themselves to replace the need for at least one other graded reader textbook, but they are a nice addition to have alongside Wheelock’s chapters.
- Familia Romana and Latine Disco: Student’s Manual. The student manual Latine Disco is essentially an English explanation of all the grammar in each chapter of Familia Romana. It lacks those isolated grammar drills that help put the ‘explicit’ in ‘explicit learning’, but the advantage of choosing this pairing is that a large amount of reading can be keyed to each grammar topic explained in Latine Disco – not just the base chapters in Familia Romana, but also all the supplements discussed above in the strategy titled ‘Deluxe Ørberg‘.
- Most reader-style textbooks (other than the fully Latin Familia Romana and Via Latina) already have English grammar explanations paired with each chapter of content, and often come with corresponding grammar drills. Examples include The Cambridge Latin Course, The Oxford Latin Course, Suburani, Ecce Romani. You could simply purchase one textbook series and pair those readings with their corresponding grammar explanations.
- If you once learned (or failed) Latin in school through a grammar-book, and you have fond memories of that book, you could return to that nostalgic tome and pair it with any reader-based book from the list supplied in ‘The More the Merrier‘.
The method has two subvariants: grammar-first, and reading-first.
In the grammar-first method:
- Start reading a chapter from the grammar-based textbook. It will start introducing a new grammar topic with a chart and an explanation.
- Once you’ve understood the explanation, do the little drill exercises accompanying it to confirm that you’ve understood the isolated feature in single words, and if you want, read and understand the longer sentences too.
- Now switch to reading a story from your reading-based textbook, focusing first on reading for pleasure and understanding.
- Reread the story, and carefully notice when and where the target grammar feature occurs in the story to see how it is used in context. (If the story does not feature that topic right away, you can look forward to it appearing in a later story.)
- Repeat for the next grammar topic and chapter of each book until you finish both courses.
- If your reading proficiency is not as high as you want it to be at the end of the course, read several more beginner reader-based textbooks for pleasure until you reach intermediate proficiency.
In the reading-first method:
- Start reading a chapter from a readings-based textbook, focusing initially on reading for pleasure and understanding.
- Switch to reading a chapter from your grammar book. It will introduce a new grammar topic with a chart and an explanation.
- Once you’ve understood the explanation, do the little drill exercises accompanying it to confirm that you’ve understood the isolated feature in single words, and if you want, read and understand the longer sentences too.
- Now return to the story you read initially. Reread it, and notice if you can find any examples of the grammar topic occurring in the story. (If the story does not feature that topic, look forward to it appearing in a later story.)
- Repeat for the next chapter and grammar topic of each book until you finish both courses.
- If your reading proficiency is not as high as you want it to be at the end of the course, read several more beginner reader-based textbooks for pleasure until you reach intermediate proficiency.
‘Strange Bedfellows’ allows the learner to integrate explicit grammar study not just alongside, but also within the act of reading stories. This can help the learner understand grammar more deeply and in context, but it can also distort the reading experience if it becomes the only goal in reading a story. We must not lose sight of the underlying communicative purpose of texts, particularly when analysing authentic texts. Cicero did not write In Catilinam to provide examples of uses of the subjunctive. Caesar did not write his Gallic Wars to test students with ablative absolutes or accusative and infinitive indirect speech. Making sure that you approach texts with the intent to grapple with their meaning and not just their form in your reading practice is a way to prevent this deadening effect, which is why I strongly recommend reading stories for pleasure before analysing their use of the language.
While ‘Strange Bedfellows’ is not without its flaws, it provides a kind of safety-net for learners who lack confidence in the sufficiency of input. When their brains refuse to acquire a seemingly basic feature of grammar in the chapter it is introduced, they don’t need to get worried, or to accept on faith that natural acquisition is outside of our conscious control and it will all work out in the end. They can simply memorise the feature through the grammar method and then move on with consuming more input.
The task of learning explicit grammar rules does however come at the cost of spending valuable learning time not doing as much meaningful activity in the language itself. Progress towards true reading proficiency will thus be slower with ‘Strange Bedfellows’ than with a purely input-based strategy. But that might not matter. If this learner finds explicit grammar study delightful because of their personal tastes, sacrificing some time to do what they enjoy doing anyway is not a big deal.
What about the interlinear method?
I didn’t include the interlinear method in my list of five main archetypes, because I believe it works better today as a supplemental activity or an intermediate reading strategy than as a core method to start-from-scratch.
The method is as follows:
- Choose a text of great joy for you that exists in both Latin and your native language (such as your favourite telling of a myth, your favourite bible passage, or something nerdy like Harry Potter).
- Read the first sentence in the Latin version, and use a combination of the translation and a dictionary (or a literal interlinear translation) to arrive at an understanding of both what the whole sentence means, and what every word in it means.
- Reread that sentence in Latin, thinking about the meaning.
- Repeat for every subsequent sentence in the text, aiming to become more and more absorbed in the Latin text, and less and less dependant on reading the translated text.
- Ideally you will move towards simply reading the Latin, and ocassionally checking the translation when unsure of a word.
While in in the 19th century James Hamilton promoted this as a viable way to start from scratch in Latin, and it is also similar to how C. S. Lewis learned to think in Ancient Greek, this is a much more frustrating place to start from than using graded reading material because of the huge number of new words and features it introduces all at once.
Once you are nearing the end of the beginner phase, however, interlinear reading can be very compelling, if you choose a text that you greatly enjoy.
It’s a good idea to choose something you have already read completely in your native language, because you’ll know for sure if it is worth reading again, and you’ll remember what happens as you proceed through the text.
Many Latinists report great improvements in reading fluency from reading Harrius Potter. Justin Slocum Bailey describes how the books opened him up to reading extensively in Latin. I also found great gains in reading fluency from reading the two available Latin translations, Philosophi Lapis and Camera Secretorum. But it made a big difference that I was a huge Harry Potter nerd in my childhood, and had read all the books several times in English. Find your passion and see if there is a Latin text of it somewhere – that would make a great text to read with the interlinear method.
What about the Dowling Method?
This is where I put my foot down firmly and say that the Dowling Method is not worth our time.
The method is as follows:
- Read an English explanation of all the basic grammar rules in Latin.
- Memorise all the noun, adjective, and verb tables from Wheelock’s Latin (a total of 857 forms) and write them out 200 times from memory.
- Do the ‘Barebones Ørberg‘ method.
The Ranieri-Dowling variant adds some more irregular forms to the total number of forms, incorporates listening, and ‘only’ obligates the learner to write everything out 100 times from memory, but it does not alter the fact that hundreds of forms must be memorised and written hundreds of times before attempting any meaningful activity in the language.
This method is not worth the substantial time it takes away from meaningful language activity. I am not dogmatically opposed to memorising paradigms. But even in the grammar-translation method, you’re supposed to space them out and vary the activities. Doing literally all the brute-memorisation in one single chunk, writing out a total of 171,400 words from memory, requires such an abnormal level of diligence and stubbornness that even some of the most hardened grammar teachers wouldn’t bother fighting their students to make them do it.
And that is precisely how the Dowling Method propagates itself.
The Dowling Method is a manifestation of a social pattern I will call a ‘diligence trap’.
You do not need exceptionally high diligence to learn a language if the method you are using is effective.
The normal level of diligence required to learn a language is simply this: show up and be mentally present. If you can show up on most days to do at least half an hour of meaningful activity in the language, and be mentally present while doing those activities, after a year you will see significant results.
What causes people to stop learning language is not usually that the method itself doesn’t work (because everything works), but because they lost the spark of internal motivation to continue, so they stopped showing up or stopped being meaningfully engaged in their language activities.
Sometimes we just feel low in our mood, and need some diligence to keep persisting until the mood passes. But continual demotivation is a symptom of a deeper problem. What has caused you to lose the spark? Is it because you have been forcing yourself to do increasingly frustrating activities with no communicative purpose? Is it because you need to change activities and add more variety?
Possessing a normal level of diligence and getting naturally frustrated at futile activities is healthy, because this is how your brain tells you to stop doing useless things and to do more interesting things. Just as a person who lacks the ability to feel pain is more likely to physically injure themselves, a person who does not respond to frustrating situations appropriately is more likely to persist in futile activity.
The optimal level of diligence is to have just enough grit to persist through temporary setbacks or short periods of low mood, but not enough to allow you to ignore the warning signs of something fundamentally going wrong.
Diligence traps do not work for people who possess these healthy levels of diligence; they prey on exceptionally diligent people, while rapidly filtering out everyone else from persisting with the method.
Indeed, the faster the method can cause people to drop out, the better it will maintain an illusion of effectiveness. When a highly unpleasant activity happens very early in the method, the non-targeted people will quit the method so fast that few people will have noticed that they even started it. Ideally, they should quit even before trying, by reading the method and deciding that it is too demanding for them to attempt.
For example, the big filter step in the Dowling Method (writing 857 forms from memory 200 times) happens almost immediately. Anyone who can actually be persuaded to get past the big memorisation step of the Dowling Method is therefore heavily pre-selected to have diligence well in excess of what is necessary to learn a language. With that level of stubbornness and commitment, they are highly likely to succeed with any language learning method, good or bad. So the only people you will notice taking the Dowling Method seriously will be those exceptionally diligent people who are brilliant at everything they do, making it appear that the method is more effective than it actually is.
Some of those exceptionally diligent people will then go on to put just as much energy into every other part of their language learning journey, making them predisposed to become very high level speakers and influential members of the community. The people who get filtered out by the diligence trap by contrast usually have more modest ambitions.
There is also a very strong incentive for promoters of the diligence trap to insist that the hard steps are absolutely necessary and must not be skipped. When they were using the method, they somehow had to convince themselves to keep going through the hard parts; they had to fervently believe against rational frustration that they should not abandon the strategy or try alternative paths. Now they want to tell everyone that you just need to work hard and keep pushing through the hard parts like they did. For if it turned out all that hard work was actually a massive waste of time, they would look like a fool for having done it. They are therefore highly invested in telling everyone that there are no shortcuts and certain unpleasant steps (the ones they did) must be completed for true mastery.
While the Dowling Method is a pretty extreme example of a diligence trap, I have a suspicion that something similar is at play in both the ‘Barebones Ørberg‘ and ‘Deluxe Ørberg‘ methods. Namely, the reddit community’s insistence that the pēnsa and exercitia must be perfected before you are allowed to progress to the next chapter of Familia Romana. These exercises demand perfect production of all the grammar features up to that point, which is not how we acquire languages. Humans do not naturally absorb grammar features in the order they are artificially presented in textbooks, nor do we acquire everything we read shortly after we read it. But everyone who knuckled down and forced themselves to reread a chapter for the tenth time just to tick that box of passing the pēnsa by brute force had to convince themselves it was worth all the frustration. After completing the pēnsa, they can look back on their hard work and tell everyone that it was necessary and there are no shortcuts. To state otherwise would devalue their hard work.
I’ve noticed herd-thinning patterns similar to the diligence trap happening in schools that teach Latin via the grammar-translation method. The filtering starts when the Latin teacher brags about how ‘challenging’ their subject is, and about how it is only the best of the best (or only the most hardworking) who succeed. Of those who take the class, middle-to-low achieving students, especially students with special learning needs, are filtered out from year to year as their grades and school advisors tell them they are unsuitable for taking such an academically rigorous subject. The most senior Latin teacher ends up teaching a tiny Year 12 class of extremely diligent students. These students are the kind that ace all their other subjects, play musical instruments, become school captains, and are very pleasant to teach. Becase the herd has been thinned to only include the absolute brightest and most highly motivated, that remaining group of students strives to do well no matter how effective or otherwise the senior Latin teacher’s pedagogy is. Meanwhile the Latin teacher thinks that he or she has done a great job, because of all their high scores.
The patterns of diligence traps may also manifest around celebrity figures and authorities. The more I read of Reginald Foster’s Latin teaching advice, the more I wonder if the teaching advice was really good on its own merits, or if the abrasive difficulty of what he was demanding of his students caused only the keenest ones to stay with him. For example, his choice of Day 1 reading material was hexameter poetry from Vergil’s Second Eclogue: (source)
torva leaena lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam,
florentem cytisum sequitur lasciva capella,
te Corydon, o Alexi: trahit sua quemque voluptas.
aspice, aratra iugo referunt suspensa iuvenci,
et sol crescentis decedens duplicat umbras;
me tamen urit amor: quis enim modus adsit amori?
All the texts he used with beginners were similarly selected from difficult authors with no attempt made to give easier texts earlier and harder ones later. The texts were not altered to increase comprehensibility: in his words, ‘they have not been doctored or manipulated or, we hate to use the word, “dumbed-down”‘. (Ossa Latinitatis Sola Ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque, XXXVIII) There were no glosses, whether marginal or interlinear; the student needed to search for every new word in the dictionary and read the full dictionary entry to find the meaning which applied in this context.
He even claimed that if his photocopied Latin readings were hard to read because of the worn, blotted, or error-laden state of the book they were photocopied from, that this was an advantange because it provided ‘opportunity for students to learn how to read these texts as they exist in the library’. (Ossa Latinitatis, XXXVIII) The man would not back down on even the most trivial detail that would make passages more readable for his students, the image quality of his photocopies.
He also made his students sign an ‘academic contract’ at the commencement of his course in which they agreed they could only study Latin with him under the condition that they received no help or guidance from any Latin tutor or other Latin resource (emphasis added):
I, the undersigned party of this academic contract: _________,
have maturely determined to study and progressively to master the Latin Language and Latin Literature in the Foster “Experiences”:
ONLY IF I am totally free in my decision to dedicate myself to Latin according to the particular method and system, presented in class – without any outside pressures or obligations coming from advisers, institutional rules, faculty deans, Vatican offices, intimate friends, blood relatives, marriage spouses, or spiritual directors-confessors;
(Ossa Latinitatis, XXXV-XXXVI)
ONLY IF I carefully complete my own personal projects both inside and outside the classroom, with no external assistance, guidance, or counseling – which prove to be useless and harmful;
ONLY IF I refuse all sorts of foolish joint-study arrangements, group consultations, copying sessions with others, as well as aids from external texts, tutors or books;
Thou Shalt Have No Other Tutors Before Me, it seems. I’ve never seen another Latin teacher forbid his or her students from hiring a tutor or reading language-learning books. But perhaps I’m over-sensitive in noticing cult-like behaviour because I was raised in a cult which forbade everyone from reading any Christian books outside of the bible and what the cult published, so we would be kept in the dark about true Christianity. Foster could have simply meant ‘don’t cheat on your homework’ or ‘do your own work’, but making students sign a contract stating for them that external guidance or counseling would ‘prove to be useless and harmful’ seems to be demanding unquestioning adherence to everything Foster says.
(Edit, 17 March) However, in defense of Foster, it is possible that his in-person teaching did not match what he conveyed in Ossa Latinitatis. The book gives the impression that from-scratch beginners should receive no support from anything likely to be helpful (eg. glosses, graded readers, or tiered reader adaptations). But Foster himself provided verbal support in his classes. A book describing his method cannot accurately convey how much spontaneous verbal support he gave. This obscures how much his in-person teaching made up for the lack of resources he permitted to his students. And although the book is written as if students using the Foster ‘Experiences’ ought to start from scratch purely with Foster’s method and use nothing else, it appears that it was common for Foster’s students to come to him after studying Latin elsewhere, further obscuring how his Ossa method performs for ordinary beginners. The problem is that people quote his opinions as authority – I saw this one just last week: ‘Reggie Foster was fond of saying: All you need is the text and a dictionary’. If any teacher other than Foster had said that, you would think they were being deliberately unhelpful to their students.
Diligence traps are not just language learning methods with minor flaws. They are methods that gain high praise for their very worst parts. They can still work, of course, if you are from the target demographic that has exceptional diligence and commitment. But just because it is possible to succeed with them, that doesn’t make them good learning methods. My teacher colleague Christine Wang summed it up well: ‘We can do hard things, but we don’t have to do things the hardest way.’
Here are some of the red flags which may point towards a language learning strategy being a diligence trap:
- It demands that learners persist with an activity which is likely to cause most ordinary human beings to give up, especially in the early stages.
- Supporters express the following sentiments: ‘this cannot be skipped’, ‘there are no shortcuts’, ‘you cannot become a true master unless…’, ‘you will not really know Latin unless…’ followed by the description of the most objectionable part of the strategy.
- It is emphasised that the strategy must be credible because a celebrated master Latinist devised it. Bonus points if the technique takes on the name of the celebrity, and if there is a personality cult surrounding that authority figure. (see the examples of The Dowling Method devised by Professor William C. Dowling of Rutgers University, or The Ørberg Method devised by Hans Ørberg who can do no wrong, or the Foster ‘Experiences’ devised by Reggie Foster, the pope’s Latinist of 40 years.)
- It attracts very positive sentiment in reviews, which conflicts sharply with the sentiment it gives you from actually using the method.
- The benefits of the method are loudly hyped up and any criticism is dismissed as pushing a grammar-translation agenda.
It is difficult to tell a diligence trap from a genuinely good language learning method on the basis of public sentiment because it will attract very positive reviews from loyal fans.
Among those reviews, there will be much ink spilled in saying how it is so much superior to the grammar-translation method, language pedagogy’s favourite bogeyman. Unfortunately, a person’s loud criticism of the grammar-translation method is no guarantee that he or she is actually promoting a communicative approach. We need to evaluate learning methods on the basis of their actual substance and not on their ideological opposition to grammar-translation. Otherwise, our community’s tendency to simplify the complex history of language pedagogy into a binary conflict between ‘us’ (the good guys) and ‘grammar-translation’ (the bad guys) makes us all too easy to deceive.
Sometimes we seek answers to the wrong questions about how to learn a language.
Instead of asking ‘how can I bear through long and unpleasant tasks with grit and determination?’, we should ask ‘how can I spend most of my time doing meaningful activities that are inherently enjoyable?’
Instead of asking ‘how can I pre-train myself for speaking by doing solo practice activities?’, we should ask ‘how can I use my current level of skill to interact meaningfully with real humans?’
Instead of asking, ‘if Duolingo is not well-regarded, what app do you recommend to learn Latin?’, as if there has to be a specific app to solve our problem, we should ask ‘what kinds of activities constitute meaningful engagement in the language, and how well are they facilitated by phones, books, or people?’
An activity is communicative if it compels you to interpret or express meaning, or both. If you can easily answer the two questions ‘what information is being conveyed?’ and ‘what will the audience do with the information?’, then it is the kind of activity which requires you to focus on how language conveys meaning, enabling your brain to make form-meaning connections.
Anything which does not connect form with meaning but simply drills forms will require you to do the same work again in a meaningful application later. Non-communicative activities are thus inherently a less efficient use of your time than communicative activities where form and meaning are constantly integrated.
The Latin community needs to be sceptical about bold claims of effectiveness for any non-communicative activity. Just because a master Latinist says this is a good idea, or there is a community of very diligent people who said it worked for them, does not mean that it is necessarily more effective than a placebo. In medical research, a ‘healthy adherer’ bias has been observed in RCTs where patients who diligently persist with taking their placebo pills have a lower mortality than those who stop taking their placebos. That doesn’t mean continuing to take placebos reduces mortality, but it reveals the dangers of relying on studies that focus on the people who successfully carry out instructions given by authorities, people with greater than normal diligence. Ignoring the outcomes of people who stop adhering to a regimen creates a survivorship bias.
We also need to acknowledge that, while Familia Romana is very helpful for autodidacts, not every beginner must read it as their only or main source of input. Ørberg is not the beginning and end of all communicative language learning. Any meaningful activity paired with any level-appropriate Latin text can be a source of valuable input for language learners.
In the end, all beginner paths will converge on the intermediate plateau, a stage where incremental progression slows down as the learner moves from sheltered textbook vocabulary to a far larger pool of much rarer vocabulary found in authentic texts. An autodidact will spend far more time in the intermediate plateau than in the beginner stage leading up to that plateau. How they got to the plateau matters less and less the longer they keep learning at intermediate and advanced levels, so we should not be too concerned about learners taking a slightly-less-than-optimal path through beginner material if they are enjoying themselves along the way.
As a final note, if you’re looking for extensive reading material which is geared towards learners in the intermediate plateau, you might enjoy my upcoming book, The Lover’s Curse: a Tiered Reader of Aeneid 4. This contains 30,000 words of tiered readings for Vergil’s fourth book of the Aeneid (the one that narrates the tragedy of Queen Dido). By providing easier Latin texts that explain what happens in gradually more difficult language, we can make Vergil’s beautiful poetry comprehensible. It’s currently in the final editing stage, and I will be releasing free digital copies of it upon publication to anyone who signs up to my Latin email newsletter.
The Lover’s Curse: a Tiered Reader of Aeneid 4
Subscribe to my email newsletter to receive a free digital copy upon release! (More info)
Comparison table of self-paced communicative Latin courses
TL;DR? Click here to jump straight to the table without any preamble.
We’ve had a look at the options for taking live online Latin classes in 2023, but what if the pressure of keeping up with a cohort of students is not best suited to you? What if you need something more flexible to your pacing needs?
Self-paced, asynchronous Latin courses offer you the ability to learn Latin form the comfort of your own home with the help of pre-recorded video lessons, audio lessons, or large curated content libraries.
(For the record: I have not been paid to promote any of these courses, and I was not involved in creating any of them. These are my honest opinions, and I invite people to write reviews of the courses if they have taken any.)
Which is better: live classes or self-paced learning?
There are a variety of reasons why someone might choose either live classes or self-paced courses. There is no one format that is best for everyone, but each person needs to weigh up their needs.
Live classes encourage you to cover the same content as a peer-group of fellow-learners while your teacher guides you through the content in live group lessons. For some people, the expectation and pressure to “keep up” with the class helps motivate them to devote time each day to study Latin. Particularly if you are used to having your life ordered around the external accountability of having to show up to commitments with other people, classes can help keep up the momentum in learners who worry about their ability to stick to a routine.
And as I commented in my previous post on online Latin classes, learning at a more intense pace can potentially help you power through the beginner stage faster as you have more frequent exposure to the language and less time to forget recent information. This may help you reach more interesting intermediate texts sooner.
In addition, live classes can foster a sense of community as learners approach the same content together and share their thoughts about what they found difficult. The joy of learning together with others can be a powerful internal motivator.
However, many learners do not learn at the same rate as others, and this is very often through no fault of their own: some people have less time to commit to daily study, some face more personal stresses (stress hinders language learning), and some simply take longer to absorb things. The pressure to stick to an externally-set pace for language learning might be a hindrance rather than a help for people who just need more time.
If a learner falls behind the class but the course keeps moving on despite them not being ready, the learner will get less value out of later lessons where they are out of their depth. In addition, the stress of failing to keep up with the class and the temptation to compare one’s learning pace to others can make it harder to focus on just doing what you need to do to learn the language.
For some learners, their ideal pace may be slower than the pace set by available Latin classes. For others, their ideal pace may vary throughout the year as their workloads vary – there may be some weeks where they can power through lots of content, and other weeks where they just stick to the bare minimum. A self-paced course allows the learner to match the pacing to their needs and adapt it to periods where they move faster or slower than normal.
Some learners may be shy and not want to introduce themselves to a new social group in the form of a class, or commit themselves to regular live interactions over Zoom. In the post-pandemic world, some of us have a kind of “Zoom fatigue” where we just can’t stand having to go to another online social meeting.
In summary, your situation may be different from other people’s situations. For some, the accountability and community of live classes is helpful; for others, the flexibility and independence of self-paced courses is more suitable.
Definition of an introductory course
As in my previous post about live classes, I define an “introductory course” as a course that takes a learner from zero knowledge to roughly the end of Familia Romana, or an equivalent level expected at the end of other beginner textbook series. Introductory courses typically introduce all major grammar features.
However, a course that takes you through “all the grammar” does not and cannot teach you “all the language”: in practice, introductory langauge courses bring you up through the beginner stage and into the intermediate plateau, where language learning slows down as the vocabulary learning starts to expand into less and less frequent, but more specialised, words. The intermediate plateau is where learners find most textbooks too boring or easy, and yet most authentic texts are still too hard without support. At that intermediate point, learners need to extensively consume large amounts of material that gradually expose them to authentic language. Tiered texts such as my upcoming 30,000 word tiered reader of Aeneid 4 can be very helpful in that space.
So essentially, introductory courses do half the work: they bring you from total beginner up to the intermediate plateau, and hopefully give you the tools to continue learning and enjoying Latin more independently as an intermediate learner. But they do not promise to make you fluently read every and any piece of Latin without support at the immediate conclusion of the course.
Comparison chart of self-paced communicative Latin courses
Update Jan 28: Updated information for Satura Lanx’s Gustatio, Schola Classica’s Curso de Latim, and Molendinarius’s Latinum.
I’ve filled in the information as best as I can as of January 2023, but some details may change over time as courses are added to or pricing schemes are updated. If you are from one of these institutions and you notice an inaccuracy on the table, please contact me and I’ll update it as soon as I can.
This is a big chart that’s unlikely to display correctly on all devices if I put it straight into html, so I’ve made it as an image file and as a pdf download below:
The pdf has clickable links to the course offerings pages of each of these institutions:
Because all these self-paced courses/resource libraries are quite different from one another, I’ve written some further notes about each one.
Satura Lanx: The Gustatio Linguae Latinae course uses Familia Romana and offers video lessons on the chapters in combination with extra handouts – tiered readings of classical texts keyed to the chapters of FR. This course opens at several points in the year. Since it is not open for 2023 yet, I used the details from last September to fill out this table, including price and total instruction time, which may change slightly. I’m not sure how long the four live workshops are, so I estimated they were 1 hour long each and included them in the total instruction time. I had not included the weekly zoom conversational sessions in the total instruction time.
Latin Per Diem: This course in Familia Romana is currently being developed. As of January 2023, the first unit is published (with video lessons on chapters 1-9), while the other units are planned. The cost per instruction hour is variable because the $250 fee includes a 1-year subscription to a 1 hour weekly zoom meeting with the teacher, and each learner may end up using a different total number of 1 hour weekly zoom meetings.
StoryLearning: This course does not use Familia Romana but instead uses original content developed for StoryLearning. The second course, Latin Uncovered (Level 2 – Pre-intermediate), has not been offered yet as of January 2023, but it is being planned. It’s fairly likely to have the same prices and course structure as the Beginner course, but we don’t know yet.
Schola Clasica: Curso de Latim uses Familia Romana, provides video lessons, and offers tutoring with a teacher, but there isn’t any obvious indication of how many hours of instruction are included. The course package also includes pdf support materials, exercise answers, and certification.
Latinitium: The Legentibus app is more like a library of resources than a linear course, but it contains Familia Romana within it, with tools to make the learning process smoother. Each text includes audio narration which highlights the sentences it is up to in the text. You can read with or without audio, pause the audio, or restart the audio from an arbitrary sentence within the text. It also includes an interlinear translation you can turn on or off, and language/grammar notes. As of January 2023, in addition to Familia Romana, Legentibus’s library contains 19 beginner stories, 15 beginner-intermediate stories, 7 intermediate-advanced texts, and 26 advanced texts.
Latinum: Molendinarius’ Latinum is a very large content library, including audio recordings of many public domain Latin textbooks. Some of these textbooks follow the Direct Method, some of them are based around English explanation of grammar rules, and some are interlinear texts with sentences alternating between Latin and English. Browsing through the library is like taking a tour through a museum of late 19th and early 20th-century language learning methods – over here you find a resource referencing the old audio-lingual method, and over there another one based on some other fascinating methodology which was either big at the time or sworn to be the next big thing but which is now utterly obscure. When you think you’ve seen all the beginner textbooks, up pops another one you’ve never heard of containing over a hundred chapters of graded content. It’s quite a large and sprawling library, but the creator does provide a flow-chart to give a suggested reading order about 75% of the way down this page (keep scrolling, it has colourful arrows). Even with that chart, compared to other courses where everything is arranged in a clear line and you can easily navigate to the next step with as much confidence as turning the pages of a book, I feel like I have spent much more time thinking about where to go, what to click on, what I’m looking at, what is this? How did I get here? with this course than with any other Latin course I’ve researched for this list. What you do with the textbooks is fairly open-ended – you could simply listen and understand, or you could do the drills and exercises, or make your own routine around the texts. This library is probably a bit overwhelming for someone who needs some simple current advice on how to go about learning a language. This is not super user-friendly for newcomers to language learning. But it is a treasure trove for an autodidact working through public domain Latin textbooks.
Also note: The cost of any required physical textbook has NOT been included in the total cost of the language course in this comparison table. For reference, Familia Romana is normally about $60.
Reviews of online self-paced courses
If you have written a review of an online Latin course (either self-paced or a live class), please let me know by commenting below or contacting me here. If your review is short, you can paste it here in the comment box below the blog post. Otherwise, you can post it anywhere (eg. reddit, or a personal blog), send me the link to your review, and I’ll link to it here.
- Review of Legentibus and Latinum by Robbosbowtie
- Review of Satura Lanx’s Gustatio Linguae Latinae, and the Legentibus app by David Amster
You do not strictly have to purchase curated, pre-recorded video lessons to work through a Latin course such as Familia Romana. However, many people find it valuable to get the extra support from a course. Some of these courses offer opportunities to touch base with a teacher and get your questions answered as you work through the materials at your own pace. Many of these courses expand upon the core text and build in extra support in places where they know the learners need it. And some of these services contain very large libraries of content that will continue to serve you well as you move up into intermediate texts.
You could also think of buying a self-paced course as similar to buying a gym membership: putting down real money for something which you desire to commit yourself to doing may help you to stick to your commitments to the get the most value out of what you paid for.
On the other hand, some people would prefer not to pay much at all when studying independently, and that is completely up to the preferences and life circumstances of the learner. In a future blog post I’ll talk about some strategies for independently learning beginner Latin on a shoestring budget.
And what if you’ve already completed an introductory course and you’re finding yourself in the doldrums of the intermediate plateau? Textbooks are too easy for you but the really fascinating authentic works like Vergil’s Aeneid are too hard? I’m going to be publishing a 30,000 word tiered reader that will offer lots of extensive reading practice and increased exposure to authentic Latin for learners in the intermediate plateau. Check out The Lover’s Curse: a Tiered Reader of Aeneid 4 and subscribe to my email list to receive a free ebook version of the text once it is published. I look forward to reading Vergil with you through this book!
The Lover’s Curse: a Tiered Reader of Aeneid 4
Subscribe to my email newsletter to receive a free digital copy upon release! (More info)
Comparison table of Online Communicative Latin Classes
TL;DR? Click here to jump straight to the table without any preamble.
In the last decade, even before the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in the number of adult learning programs which teach Latin via natural methods through online classes. Shall we say, there’s been a boom of Latin taught on Zoom. These programs are generally not affiliated with any university, but are provided by indepedent teachers or groups of teachers who specialise in ancient languages and are free to use SLA-informed pedagogy to shape their curricula.
I’ve put together a table which compares all the introductory Latin courses offered in 2023, so that you can make a more informed decision about who to study with if you’re interested in learning Latin online via natural methods and want the structure and accountability of a formal course.
I have not been sponsored by any of these institutions to give them positive reviews, nor have I taught at or partnered with them financially. I have also not “ranked” them on an absolute scale, for reasons which I will explain in the later sections.
Here, “introductory Latin” means any course or series of units which take complete beginners from zero to the language level expected at the end of an introductory textbook such as Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata: Familia Romana (hereafter referred to as Familia Romana or FR).
Introductory courses “cover all the grammar”, but be aware that “knowing all the grammar” doesn’t mean knowing everything in the language. Realistically, introductory courses take students up to the intermediate level where a language learning “plateau” is observed. This plateau level is where students feel like textbooks are too easy, but classical texts are still a bit too hard, and the rate of language learning slows down as the task of learning more specialised vocabulary becomes quite large. The way to get out of the “intermediate plateau” is to do large amounts of extensive reading (such as with my upcoming tiered reader, The Lover’s Curse: A Tiered Reader of Aeneid 4), gradually exposing yourself to more and more authentic material written by Latin authors, which the introductory courses have (hopefully) prepared you to be able to do.
This chart focuses on live group classes and formal courses advertised as the equivalent of Latin 101’s – I have excluded private tutors who say “email me and we’ll arrange a schedule to go through Familia Romana 1-on-1 together”, because it is difficult to compare custom-tutoring to formal group classes, and honestly if I included one private tutor I’d have to include all of them.
I have also excluded self-paced asynchronous courses from this table such as Satura Lanx’s Gustatio Linguage Latinae, Storylearning’s Latin Uncovered, Daniel Pettersson’s Legentibus app, and Molendinarius’ Latinum subscription. These are instead discussed in my post about self-paced courses.
But first, why might you take a Latin course from a specialist ancient language institution rather than a university?
Why take a Latin course outside of university?
Depending on where you live, online Latin courses could offer you more pedagogically effective, cheaper, and more flexible options for learning Latin than your local universities.
Pedagogy. Independent ancient language specialists often found their institutions on the conviction that Latin teaching should be informed by developments in Second Language Acquisition research and evidence-based teaching methods. By contrast, most universities teach undergraduate language programs with heritage curricula that continue with Grammar-Translation as the default method, “the way it’s always been done”. It’s not even the teacher’s fault a lot of the time – the higher ed system doesn’t reward the development of good pedagogy among teaching staff, but instead pushes them towards publishing papers in journals as the one metric of success and ignoring teaching quality. There are exceptions, though – a small number of universities (such as the University of Kentucky and Princeton) do offer innovative Latin language courses with SLA-informed pedagogy, with key phrases like “active Latin”, “comprehensible input”, or “immersion” in their course descriptions. But these are very rare, globally speaking. If you couldn’t enroll in those few universities, online providers can give you access high quality language pedagogy wherever you are. If you’re interested in learning the language through input, if you want to hear Latin spoken aloud actively, if you want to be guided in the use of learning methods which have been shown to be reliably more effective across human languages, independent specialists can provide that for you.
Cost. University tuition fees vary by country, so I’ll just give you some examples from my local area to put these prices in context. In my country (Australia), the government subsidises the first 7 years of full time uni fees, giving its citizens Commonwealth-supported places up to that time. In total, the cost of the introductory Latin sequence (Latin 1 & Latin 2) in the University of Melbourne is $1,030 AUD (=$720 USD) for domestic Commonwealth-supported students, but $7,536 AUD (=$5,267 USD) for domestic full-fee paying students, and $9,152 (=$6,396 USD) for international full-fee paying students. So, if you’re lucky enough to qualify for government-subsidised higher education, you could be paying comparable or cheaper fees than most of the options on this table; but if you’re not receiving government subsidies, university tuition fees for introductory Latin could be many times higher than the cost of doing online Latin courses. With the chart data here you can transparently compare the costs between your local university’s offerings and these online courses.
Availability. Not all universities offer quality distance education courses in Latin, and not everyone is fortunate enough to live near or be able to relocate near a university that offers Latin. These online classes are available wherever you are in the world, and come with different options for scheduling the live classes around timeslots that work for you – some of them have a range of set times, others use a Google Forms questionnaire to work out a time that suits all the students best.
Is it better to learn Latin faster or slower?
Institutions vary in the amount of calendar time they take to complete the introductory Latin content, from a maximum of 4 years to as little as 10 weeks.
A course is not “better” if it crams the same amount of content into a smaller space. It is also not necessarily “worse”. You have to weigh up the pros and cons for your language learning situation when deciding whether to do Latin more intensively or more extensively.
Here are my tips on the pros and cons of intensive courses:
- Short-term memory retention. When learning a language intensively and constantly having class after class in quick succession, there is less time to forget what had been learned recently, and frequent reinforcement. A student working continuously hard every day for weeks may forget fewer things and make faster progress than someone who spends the same total number of hours across a longer span of calendar time, with bigger gaps of downtime in which they forget recent things.
- Get out of the beginner stage faster. If you don’t enjoy staying in the beginner-learner-zone for a long time, and want to break out of learner-focused textbooks and heavily sheltered readers to be able to read independently as soon as possible, an intensive course would give you the best shot of powering through the beginner stage and reaching more interesting intermediate texts sooner.
- Focus on one thing. If you take an intensive course during a summer break, and you have no other subjects to think about, you can focus on learning one thing and put all your energy into it. By contrast, if you do an extensive course while concurrently studying or working on other things, it can be harder to juggle your time and attention.
- Scheduling. Sometimes it fits better into a person’s schedule to do an intensive introductory Latin course. Some learners may have time off over summer, for example, but are busy the rest of the year. Also, if someone is about to enroll in a subject at university in which Latin is a pre-requisite or a nice-to-have, and there’s a deadline before that course starts, a timely intensive might be the only way it can fit.
- Higher risk of getting overwhelmed. Even “covering all the grammar” in just one year is a pretty fast pace for most people, but cramming the entire language into a matter of weeks is even more intense. Enrolling in an intensive summer course or even a half-year complete introductory course runs the risk of you committing to something which you might not be able to keep up with. You could get left behind by the pace of the course and struggle to comprehend later parts, reducing the overall effectiveness of the course and causing stress (and stress unfortunately makes it harder to learn a language).
- You are at the highest risk of getting overwhelmed if: you are monolingual (especially a monolingual English speaker), you haven’t yet had success at learning an additional language, and/or you don’t know any Romance language.
- Your risk of getting overwhelmed by an intensive course is reduced if: you know a Romance language, you have successfully learned one or more other languages, or you have done an introductory course on Ancient Greek before (giving you an advantage on learning concepts to do with the case system and verbal system, participles, subjunctives, etc.).
- Your risk is also reduced if you are taking this intensive beginner course as a refresher, because you are actually “false beginner” who did an introductory Latin course at some point previously.
- Potential issues with long-term memory retention. While intensives give you less time to forget what you recently learned, they also give you fewer of the natural cycles of remembering and forgetting that would gradually put things in your long-term memory. The result is you will leave the intensive with a level of competency that will quickly rust if you don’t follow up immediately with long-term strategies to retain the language. Plan for this before you start the intensive and during the intensive. What will you continue to read after the summer is over? What disciplines or daily practices will you do to keep it up? The risk of losing what you learned in an intensive course is higher than in longer courses because intensives are more out of the ordinary from your normal patterns. Within the course itself, you don’t have as much opportunity to establish daily maintenance habits that are sustainable in the long-term, so you need to think about starting these habits right away after the course ends to get the most lasting benefit from the course.
Depending on your experience and goals, more intensive courses could be higher-risk but also higher-reward compared to longer courses. Make sure you check with the provider beforehand about cut-off dates when you can leave the course if you find out it’s not for you (which I also recommend when enrolling in longer courses).
Also, there isn’t a very sharp cut-off between what is “intensive” and what is not – for instance, a 10-week course is definitely more intensive than 1-year course, but a 1-year course is a lot more intensive than a 4-year high school course in Latin, and that’s also comparatively more intensive than a 6-year middle-school to high-school course. The principles just apply in a more broad way – the more intensive a course is, the more it aligns with the pros and cons of an intensive course (as described above) when it is compared to a less intensive option.
If you find yourself needing a much slower pace than any of the offerings from live classes, you might need to consider private tutoring, self-paced courses, independent autodidactic study, or a combination of them all. In future blog posts I’ll cover the options for self-paced courses and shoestring-budget autodidact strategies.
Comparison chart of all Online Latin Course offerings
Update 22 Jan: Added SLEU, Oxford Latinitas, and AthenaNova, added details for Speaking Latin, removed CSCP.
Update 28 Jan: Added Veterum Sapientia Institute, updated details about Polis’s progression and introductory course length, updated details about Paideia’s spring semester offering.
There are some unknowns in this table which will be updated once I get responses from the institutions. If you are from one of these institutions and you notice an inaccuracy on the table, please contact me and I’ll update it as soon as I can.
This is a big chart that’s unlikely to display correctly on all devices if I put it straight into html, so I’ve made it as an image file and as a pdf download below:
The pdf has clickable links to the course offerings pages of each of these institutions:
Note that while I have tried to include all the courses that are likely to be offered in 2023, not all courses will be available at all times in the year. They all have different start dates. Some have maximum class sizes or limited enrollments. Some courses may not be running at all, depending on student interest and teacher availability. Check with the institutions themselves for the most up-to-date information about what courses are currently or still available, and for upcoming enrollment dates.
All prices are expressed in USD here for comparison purposes, but some prices had to be converted from other currencies. I did the conversion using the exchange rates for January 2023.
Most of the above providers use Familia Romana as a base text. The exceptions are: Polis, who use their own original content, (Tele)paideia, who use various textbooks according to the preference of the instructor (eg. the last one used Latin Via Ovid), and and Schola Latína Európæa & Úniversális, who use the Assimil Latin course Lingua Latina sine molestia by Desessard (1966) adapted by Guglielmi (2015).
The cost of the textbook has NOT been included in the total cost of the language course in this comparison table. Textbook prices are around $60 for Familia Romana, and also about $60 for the box set CD + text of the Dessessard Latin Assimil course.
I also have some specific notes on the following institutions:
- Ancient Language Institute: It’s hard to tell from their website if the teaching sessions are arranged as 1-on-1 tutorials or group classes. I’ve messaged them about class sizes and am awaiting a response.
- SeumasU: Seumas observes that cohorts take 3-4 units to complete Familia Romana. Each cohort moves at a slightly different speed, but they complete FR within one year either way. The variability in total pricing comes from whether it takes the cohort 3 or 4 units to reach the end of FR.
- Latinitas Animi Causa: LAC hasn’t yet offered the course for the second half of FR, but plan to do so.
- Polis: Polis uses their original textbook, ‘Forum’ (based on TPR elements and spoken interaction) for Latin I and II. This builds speaking skills and introduces a lot of the grammar of the language. In Latin III and IV students work through FR, but the group can move through the first 8-10 chapters quite quickly because they have already encountered many of the language features in past year (and I suspect they will continue re-encountering language features as they move through the later chapters of FR). The overall strategy is to start with the active TPR of Forum and progress to learning and internalising vocabulary through the stories of FR while strengthening those speaking skills.
- Vivarium Novum: The 75 hours of instruction are made up of 50 hours of live classes and 25 hours of 1-on-1 tutoring time. Also you might notice the variability in total time taken to complete the course: this is because if you did one intensive and one semester-long course, you could complete it in half a year; otherwise it would take about a year to complete the introductory course.
- GrecoLatinoVivo: 1) Each course comes with exam certification. 2) I’m not sure at what stage they complete FR – I’ve emailed them and am waiting on a response.
- Speaking Latin: The provider said that it will take about 48 sessions to complete Familia Romana, or about 1 year of calendar time.
- Paideia (Telepaideia): Paideia’s offerings have just be posted as of Jan 26. This is data for the Spring offerings. The teacher Mr. Ziomkowsky uses ‘Latin via Ovid’ as his base text, a pretty rare choice.
- Schola Latína Európæa & Úniversális: This course is offered completely for free, with the only cost being the textbook and audio used in the course (the Assimil Latin materials). The teachers provide written support on their Moodle learning management system, correct homework assignments, and answer questions. There are no live classes. Normally the Assimil Latin material is only accessible to learners who know French, Italian, or German, but the SLEU provides English materials for learners who don’t have prior knowledge of French, Italian, or German.
- Oxford Latinitas have a discounted rate if you buy three trimesters at once. The introductory Latin sequence takes a total of four trimesters.
- AthenaNova: The $237 price is discounted to $226 for early bird bookings, making it a total of $1356 with all early-bird discounts. From their website I couldn’t work out whether the courses are offered on a trimester or semester basis – this would affect how long in calendar years it would take to complete Familia Romana.
- Veterum Sapientia Institute: This is a Catholic founded institution – an advantage if the Ecclesiastical pronunciation is your preferred mode, as the teachers will probably be using it as the standard. The cost total calculated here includes two yearly VSI registration fees of $150 and an application fee of $25. But the total cost assumes the student only enrolls in the three semesters covering Familia Romana and does not complete the full Diploma in Ecclesiastical Latin degree nor take any exams. (The full DLE degree would take 9 semesters over 4 years and cost $19,805.)
I had removed the CSCP Distance Learning course from the list because of the course’s reliance on teaching concepts through English as the main language of instruction, which is not the focus of this list.
How do we know which one is the ‘best’?
A lot of the learning quality will depend on teacher instruction quality, which is difficult (or likely impossible) to measure in a table. Teachers might also change year on year, course by course. For this reason, I don’t think it is possible to arrive at a definitive quality-ranking of institutions, and I have not attempted to order them.
However, we can weigh up some structural features that are likely to be relevant to the learning experience.
If you’re taking an online Latin course for the purpose of getting more spoken input from your teacher, you would want there to be plenty of live instruction time.
If you’re wanting to have more speaking practice in class, you would prefer small class sizes. (This isn’t likely to be a deciding factor, though, because almost all of these have small class sizes in practice. It is likely that even the ones that don’t have a publicly advertised class limit will typically not have many more than 10 students per class – but you can contact them specifically about it if that information is important to you.)
If you’re budget-conscious, you might prioritise either a course that has a small total cost, or you might be looking for one with a lower cost per hour of live instruction provided.
Conversely, a higher cost per hour of instruction may signal greater confidence in the value of the teacher’s live instruction time. Some may interpret higher cost per hour of instruction as an indirect sign of greater teaching quality.
Choice of textbook could also be a factor. If you’re keen on learning Latin through speaking, the Forum textbook by Polis is specifically geared towards that strategy (whereas FR is not structured around speaking skills – it has to be adapted). The Polis curriculum, which starts with Forum and then moves through Famailia Romana, is the only one which uses another introductory text before FR as a way to build communicative skills beforehand and to smooth out the learning curve of FR.
And if it turns out you really don’t gel with the characters and plotline of Familia Romana, you have options to circumvent that textbook entirely by following the Assimil course with SLEU, or enrolling in an intensive course of Latin via Ovid with Paideia.
You may also simply find that your timezone makes it easier to book classes with certain providers over others.
One thing to keep in mind is that once you start a beginner course, it will be advantageous to complete the whole beginner sequence with the same provider, particularly if the course is spread over multiple units. If you switch half-way through a beginner course, another provider might not start their next unit at the same chapter of FR as where you left off, or in some cases they may not be using the same textbook. Also, if you keep the same teacher throughout your course, they can get to know your learning needs better.
So in conclusion, ‘best for you’ might not be best for everyone. But also, you can learn a lot from course that is good enough, even if it is not theoretically ideal. You might have to compromise some factors just to find a class that fits in your practical schedule, but you could still find the class more valuable than learning on your own.
Reviews of online Latin live classes
If you have written a review of an online Latin course (either a live class or a self-paced course), please let me know by commenting below or contacting me here. If your review is short, you can paste it here in the comment box below the blog post. Otherwise, you can post it anywhere (eg. reddit, or a personal blog), send me the link to your review, and I’ll link to it here.
(Currently I have no links to customer reviews of these courses.)
Live classes are not the only way to learn Latin. However, they provide unique opportunities for speaking and listening to live conversations in the language from anywhere in the world. The pacing set by the group may be beneficial – encouraging the learner to stick to a schedule – or it may be a bit fast or overwhelming for some learners. It all depends on what works for your learning circumstances and practical time commitments.
Other ways of learning beginner Latin as an adult include asynchronous self-paced courses, and the autodidact route. I’ll be talking about those in more detail in future blog posts.
And what if you’ve already completed an introductory course and you’re finding yourself in the doldrums of the intermediate plateau? Textbooks are too easy for you but the really fascinating authentic works like Vergil’s Aeneid are too hard? I’m going to be publishing a 30,000 word tiered reader that will offer lots of extensive reading practice and increased exposure to authentic Latin for learners in the intermediate plateau. Check out The Lover’s Curse: a Tiered Reader of Aeneid 4 and subscribe to my email list to receive a free ebook version of the text once it is published. I look forward to reading Vergil with you through this book!
The Lover’s Curse: a Tiered Reader of Aeneid 4
Subscribe to my email newsletter to receive a free digital copy upon release! (More info)
Thoughts about practically implementing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading)
I posted this on the Latin teacher facebook group, Latin Best Practices: The Next Generation in Comprehensible Input, talking informally about the kinds of problems I’ve come across in my first year of implementing Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), a reading activity where you allow students to select a novella of their choice and read it for a set period of time with no task attached.
The problems are mostly to do with the attitudes of students, rather than the inherent value of extensive reading. Howevever, I also found that attaching meaningful tasks to reading (pre-, during-, and post-reading tasks) help increase the comprehensibility of the text and increase student engagement in general. Structured tasks, when well-designed, are not merely busy-work: they connect with the meaning of the text and offer opportunities for both scaffolding weaker students and extending stronger students. They can also foster a sense of community, particularly if there is a question that allows learners to discuss their varying opinions of the same text together. ‘Everyone read a book by yourself’ can feel more isolating, less connected both to the rest of the curriculum and to the shared experiences of fellow learners.
Of course, there can still be a place for SSR in classrooms even with those limitations, and a significant minority of students preferred it over reading the same novella with structured tasks.
In any case, here are my thoughts and reflections on a particularly varied class’s experience with Sustained Silent Reading.
This year I’ve been experimenting with using Latin novellas, especially in my year 9 class. The year 9 class had 32 students of very very widely differing abilities (some students started the year 10 chapters ahead of other students, and the weakest one could hardly connect two words together in a sentence, and there were students at every level in between), so I figured that buying a big selection of novellas and dedicating 5 minutes of sustained silent reading time per week would help provide level-appropriate input for this wide variety of students. A lot of the novellas were of the lowest difficulty levels, since I wanted to make sure every student could pick up a book they could read, and I also put in some novellas of higher levels.
The class met 3 periods per week, 50 minutes per period, so 2.5 hours of class time per week.
As the year progressed, this year 9 class grew a lot together, reading through my own stick figure illustrated versions of the Oxford Latin Course stories (chapters 10-24 this year) and doing a lot of choral translation and a variety of follow-up story-based activities. I saw a heck of a lot of growth in this group, especially with the middle students, and a few of the lower ones (though some of the other lower ones didn’t put much effort and attention in and didn’t improve as much – I suspect that sub-group chose Latin mostly to get out of doing geography)
However, I had some problems with implementing a regular weekly session of 5 minutes Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) over this year. By the time we hit Term 3 I was noticing students not really buying into the activity – they seemed to always be on page 1 chapter 1 of whatever book they picked up, they needed lots of reminders and supervision to stay on task (merely being a teacher in the room modelling the behaviour of reading a Latin novella was not enough – they needed active supervision), some were just pretending to read, or spent a lot of time reading the English blurb rather than the Latin contents, and some seemed to deliberately arrive late to the class during that 5 minute beginning activity of reading, or they had forgotten something and by the time they came back it was time to wrap up the SSR activity.
There were some less-than-internally motivated characters in that year 9 group, shall we say. They only made up a portion of the class and they were also showing low effort when doing other tasks. But I definitely got the sense by Term 3 that some of these students were just taking a holiday during SSR and not really reading.
So in Term 4 I replaced SSR with an ocassional longer lesson segment of “everyone read the same chapter of the same novella, and here are structured tasks for pre-, during-, and post-reading”. The weaker and slightly apathetic students were generally more engaged in it when there were clear activities to be done with the text. The downside, naturally, was that the fast readers tended to get through all the prepared content quicker and I’d need to build in extension activities for them, and that was more work than just setting aside X amount of time for SSR. But then the upside was I could put later sections of that novella on the exam as a reading comprehension test, and I could be fairly confident everyone had roughly the same contextual knowledge for that story.
But how did the students feel about doing SSR versus structured reading tasks?
Today it was the last day of school, and I handed out a very short survey to these year 9s asking which kind of reading activity they preferred. 5 respondents preferred SSR and 11 respondents preferred structured tasks.
Students who preferred SSR explained, “I read faster than most, so [SSR] lets me read at my pace”, “[structured reading with tasks] can be boring”, SSR is “more fun”, and “[SSR] lets me read at my level”.
Students who preferred structured tasks said: “some people are wasting time on [SSR]”, “some people don’t learn anything with [SSR]”, “more people pay attention when there are tasks”, “[structured tasks] help us know if we understood it correctly”, “help break things down”, “make it easier to understand”, “tasks were useful for expanding vocabulary and understanding the story”, “more consistent” [what does that mean?], “we can all be on the same page learning together” and “we get to work together on it”.
My conclusion is that total no-strings-attached SSR was beneficial to a portion of the class, typically the more internally motivated and confident students. But a significant minority were abusing it by term 3 and not genuinely using the time for reading. On the other hand, structured tasks made comprehension easier and held students more accountable to reading with understanding, and some students expressed feeling more like they were doing it “together” with other learners when everyone did the same tasks. But it was more constraining to the students with faster reading speeds, who could cover more text with SSR.
Of course, the obvious question is going to be asked – when fast readers finish all their structured tasks and are bored, why not ask them to then do SSR? I’ve tried setting that as an extension task: “if you finish everything, read a novella of your choice.” Most fast students don’t take me up on that offer, but just kind of loiter around and use their time like it’s free time to surf the internet or doodle or whatever. In that sense, even the high achieving students seemed to not really value free-reading inherently. But if I set some kind of meaningfully curated extension task that connected to and built upon the previous lesson content (as opposed to “read a random book – have at it”), they usually went and did what they could.
If I do SSR next year with the new set of year 9s, I’m going to think a lot more carefully about how to ensure that each student really buys-in to reading their chosen book. I might need to more carefully log who is reading what book, and make sure they pick up where they left off. I don’t know whether to increase the time: some students said 5 minutes was too short, while others said 5 minutes was too long; I might start it at 5 minutes but allow the class to vote to increase it if the majority would find it more beneficial. And maybe I can build anticipation before letting them loose, and give a kind of advert-review for a selection of novellas, and maybe get them to discuss their preferences in pairs or groups, before they start choosing.
I know for sure that it just doesn’t work to be verbally telling students that input is fundamentally the most important for their language acquistion and that reading is exceptionally good for them: some students just believe what they want to believe, and don’t believe the qualified language teacher if it conflicts with their views. A student wrote to me about novellas saying that “they’re not that educational, blooket is better”. The blookets are gamified versions of multiple choice vocab quizzes, matching one Latin word to one English word while scoring points on a leaderboard – that kind of fluff is ok now and then, and moderately useful when preparing to read something with those words in it, but it’s certaintly not more “educational” than reading stories. But of course a lot of kids don’t have the maturity and life experience to recognise and appreciate evidence-based teaching over dopamine-triggering gamified edugames. They’re kids and they like games.
So, I’m a lot more skeptical of claims from people like Krashen and Steve Kaufmann where they imagine that if you let young kids loose on extensive reading, they will recognise how valuable that is and do it with intrinsic motivation, no strings attached, like mini-adults, mini-Krashens, mini-Kaufmanns. I’m not working with miniature versions of them or myself or other language teachers here. I’m working with people who have all kinds of cultural experiences at school where they expect that doing = learning, listening & reading = passive, and so on. Perhaps I can slowly shift their attitudes, but it’s going to be little-by-little, and I need to be able to meet them where they are at with this attitude to input, not where I think they should already be. This is the job of a school teacher.
Christmas Story lesson activities
Last year I made a Latin video in which I retold the Christmas nativity story in Latin using pictures from a picture storybook. (The version below is told in Classical pronunciation, but I also made an Ecclesiastical version in case that was your school’s preferred pronunciation.)
Now I’ve made a sequence of lesson activities for this video in the style of pre-listening, while-listening, and post-listening tasks which are used in Communicative Language Teaching.
As language teachers, we don’t just want to randomly put a video in front of students and afterwards never refer back to it again. We want to integrate the video into a meaningful lesson or unit of learning. So for example, students should be adequately prepared to understand the text they are about to watch (with the pre- activities), have some simple task to complete while paying attention to the video (the while- activities), and be given opportunities to extend and deepen their interaction with the language and concepts in the text (the post- activities).
In this set of activities, I start by previewing some of the vocabulary that will appear in the video by showing some of the words alongside pictures, and getting students to answer simple Latin questions with those new words. The words appear again in a plot summary of the text, where students need to put the events into a logical narrative order. Then while students are watching, they answer short true/false questions to collect information about the characters in the story. After watching, they read recounts of the same story told by different characters, identify which character ‘wrote’ each version, and summarise which details are more prominent in the accounts of each version of the story.
The point is not necessarily for students to dissect every word in the story, or to extract a grammar rule, but to focus on listening and reading with understanding, while staying in the target language as much as is practical.
(As a caveat, the video is explicitly narrated from a Christian perspective – if your school has a policy about the use of religious materials in class, be aware of this.)
The link below downloads a word document version of the activities worksheet (the word version can be edited):
And here is a pdf in case it is easier for you to view:
If you notice any typos, let me know and I can easily change the files.
Why the Cult of the One True Textbook Has to Stop
The following is a transcript of my long-form video essay, “Why the Cult of the One True Textbook Has to Stop”.
In short, if we truly care about improving language pedagogy, we have to stop worshiping Ørberg.
Salvēte omnēs, ego sum Magistra Hurt. I am one of the most vocal critics of the Nature Method textbooks series among Comprehensible Input Latin teachers. So imagine my surprise when Ayan Academy contacted me to create a sponsored video directing people to where, if you want, you can buy yourself deluxe custom bound copies of Nature Method textbooks. This video is sponsored, and at the end I will provide an affiliate link for you to get a 5% discount off your purchase should you wish. (For those reading this on the blog, it’s this link with the discount code FOUNDINANTIQUITY5)
But the sponsorship or affiliate link does not change my strongly held opinion of the topic at hand. Ayan Academy knows this, and is on board with me giving my honest opinion, which is fortunate because I would have done it anyway. If I sound like I’m roasting this book too harshly, I want you to keep listening to the end because I think you’ll be surprised by my conclusion.
So, let’s get stuck into the Nature Method.
Part 1: A moderately tall person in a land of dwarves
Dēlia ancilla pulchrior est quam Syra.
– Hans Ørberg
In a land of dwarves, a moderately tall person seems like a giant. Language textbooks are a very slow-moving genre, generally far behind what the research says is most effective in language acquisition. They are like the dwarves in this analogy.
To begin with, a lot of them are not even vaguely based on the principles of Comprehensible Input, but on skill-building grammar translation that has been proven to be the least effective approach for many many decades, which nevetheless sticks around because it is the easiest thing to make unit tests and vocab and grammar quizzes from.
But even excluding those, among the “Reading Method” textbooks, those that at least try to support fluency through Comprehensible Input, the pacing and the general learner experience often leaves much to be desired. Examples include textbooks like the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), Oxford Latin Course (OLC), Ecce Romani, and Suburani, among others. All these reader textbooks, when treated as if they are complete courses, little universes unto themselves, do not by themselves offer enough input for the learner. Paul Nation in a 2014 article estimates that to acquire a vocabulary of about 5000 words a student needs read about 2 million words, and to acquire 9000 words they need about 11 million words of extensive reading. Suffice to say, the amount of words a student needs to read to gain fluency in the language is somewhere on the scale of millions. But textbooks contain much less than that: Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata Familia Romana, for example, contains around 35,000 words, and the CLC in its first 4 out of 5 books contains around 36,500 words. As a result, all reader textbooks move at a faster pace through the language than the learner moves in their acquisition, and when learners are suddenly confronted with authentic texts after finishing these textbooks, they are still a million or more words short of what they need to succeed in reading fluently.
So with that, the learner of these reader textbooks is either forced to reread every chapter tens of times before proceeding to authentic material, or to struggle slowly through authentic texts with frequent recourse to the dictionary and a lot of puzzling over explicit grammar rules. Or they are to read large amounts of intermediate material that bridges the gap as they slowly work themselves out of the Intermediate Plateau. This is not usually explained to people when they are marketed a “complete course” in the language.
Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata – LLPSI – is the moderately tall person, among vaguely tall persons, in the land of dwarves.
It is arguably the best currently available single resource for an adult self-learner to study Latin from scratch with. But it is not by a long shot the best textbook that could theoretically be written for that audience or other audiences. It is “good enough” at what it does, but where I take issue is the way people like to rave about it and hype it up to be something it isn’t. Some people just seem to think there couldn’t possibly be a better resource, and they are dead wrong. This is not by a long shot an ideal course, and that should affect how we talk about it and how we treat it.
LLPSI was first published in full in 1957 under a different title, Lingua Latīna secundum nātūrae ratiōnem explicāta. Ørberg continued to revise it throughout his lifetime, publishing new versions in 1983 and 1991. But here I disagree with Nancy Llwellyn’s assertion that the LLPSI method was continuously refined over 50 years of a man’s lifetime: sure it was edited and polished, but with all the tweaks and adjustments and refinements, if you compare the 1957 version with the current one, you can immediately see it is fundamentally the same text as it was 65 years ago, in terms of its method, its philosophy, and its course structure. The pēnsa (the excercises) are exactly the same as they were in the 50s. The core method in this book is as it was 65 years ago. This method is not the product of five decades of refinement; it is essentially the product of a small team of Direct-Method-inspired authors, producing textbooks according to a shared mould in the mid twentieth century. The meat of it, and the rules for its learning method, come from a point in time.
Part 2: Survivorship bias and internet echo chambers
Discipulus quī nec stultus nec piger est, sed prūdēns atque industrius, multās rēs ā magistrō discere potest.
– Hans Ørberg
Now Nancy Llwellyn certainly does not claim that LLPSI is without its faults, as she outlines many things to be aware of when using LLPSI in her speech, In Or Out of Ørberg. On those points we agree.
But there are many, many people on the internet – usually not teachers, but self-learners – who, typing reviews in their echo chambers, collectively shout from the rooftops that LLPSI is the theoretical pinnacle of language learning, and the canonical method of using it is to be uncritically followed without deviation from the author Ørberg’s intent. They do not restrain themselves to stating how useful it was to them as a textbook, but instead raise it on a pedestal as the magic silver bullet of language learning. This is extremely naive because it implies that six decades of scientific research into Second Language Acquisition (SLA) somehow has no way of improving language teaching, because the formula had already been magically cracked by these half dozen or so individuals in the mid 20th century.
What can I say? If it worked for you, it worked for 100% of your personal sample size of 1.
Because when you are a self-learner, your sample size is 1. Maybe you could expand that to about a dozen if all your friends are also in on it and are trying it out with you. But friends tend to have similar interests; like attracts like. Even if you expand your sample size to the select people in your friendship circles, you aren’t getting a random sampling. And you will only hear from people for whom it worked.
The result of this survivorship bias is that if anyone were to make up a new language learning method today, no matter how silly, and promoted it widely enough, I guarantee they will find some dedicated pockets of people who will swear by it on this planet of 7 billion.
When you’re a language teacher, your sample size is considerably larger and more random. This year I’m teaching 192 students across six year levels, in ten classes most of them quite full, an average of 19.2 students in each class. I’m in my fifth year of teaching at this school, and the numbers are roughly the same each year, so it’s fairly safe to say I’ve taught a few hundred students in my day. I’ve taught students with learning disabilities, behavioural problems, absolute beginners slotted without preparation into second-year classes, students with chronic illnesses who are absent half the year, gifted students who get everything done in two seconds, English Second Language students, dyslexics, people with language processing problems, ADHD and autism, you name it.
The self-selecting group of self-learners rave about following the rules of the Nature Method.
The school teachers who have taught with these materials or similar, are a lot more realistic and not quite as Messianic about it, and heavily adapt it. Or at least, the good teachers adapt it when they use it; as I will later explain, I have witnessed what happens when you do not.
So from the perspective of a Latin teacher who has been in the trenches so to speak for five years in this school, or six years teaching in total, nearly ten years if you count my tutoring days, and one who has been more recently looking into modern SLA research for evidence-based practices apply in the classroom and in self-learning, let’s talk about the pedagogical validity of the Nature Method in 2022.
Where did the Nature Method come from, and what has happened since 1957 in the realm of best-practices language teaching?
As a broad overview, the Nature Method came about as a written adaptation of the very orally focused Direct Method of the early 20th century, which shares some major similarities as well as differences with communicative language pedagogy today.
The Direct Method involved a lot of high-input practices among other things, but it is not fundamentally based on the Comprehensible Input hypothesis, because the hypothesis had not yet been proposed.
In our zeal to promote the way of CI, we have to resist making up a kind of hagiography, a fanciful story that casts the Direct Method in general and Ørberg in particular in the role of a saint fighting the good fight against the darkness of Grammar-Translation. The Direct method was not perfect in every way, and the way we are teaching now almost certainly is not perfect in every way; this is why we need to critically evaluate our teaching and look to evidence-based practices rather than simply inheriting and replicating another line of grand tradition. In short, if we truly care about language pedagogy, we have to stop worshiping Ørberg.
Part 3: Some casualties of the LLPSI cult
“ō Marce!” inquit, “hōc modō nihil tē docēre possum! tam stultus ac tam piger es quam asinus!”
– Hans Ørberg
Admire the man if you wish, appreciate his work, be thankful for Ørberg’s legacy. But worshiping the doctrines of a mere man – whether living or dead – is an embarassment to the pursuit of truth, and it reflects poorly on our discipline.
It certainly turned me away: when I left high school and first started my life in classics, I was a Grammar-Translation (G-T) supporter for over 10 years. Then last year around June I did a sudden 180° turn and converted to Comprehensible Input (CI) based methods, tore down all my G-T stuff and started rebuilding everything from scratch. You know what had kept me away from taking CI seriously for 10 years? The slavish adherence of the acolytes of Ørberg to their favourite textbook, LLPSI. I had heard boundless praise for this textbook when I first started Latin tutoring, so naturally I bought it thinking it would be great. I tried it out with my tutoring students, and started reading things with them directly from the book. It was a flop: my students and I really couldn’t get the stories to hold our interest for long, and I also didn’t know all the techniques for making reading interesting and interactive that I’ve been more recently learning (it’s not like the textbook comes with any instructions on how to create the necessary variety of reading activities to go with it).
At the same time, a young teacher in a nearby school, let’s call him “Tim”, radically transformed his middle school Latin curriculum to be based on LLPSI, and I was given a string of tutoring students in the middle to low achieving bands who had been taught by this guy but had been left far behind by his approach. (I later found out that “Tim” had not been teaching equitably, but had been favouring the high-achieving students and simply allowing the middle and low ones to slip. However, at the time I was tutoring, all I could find out about him was that he had learned Latin through LLPSI just like those people on the internet, he had fallen in love with the approach and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread; he had condemned G-T with a passion; he had then radically transformed the middle school curriculum with LLPSI at the centre, thinking with great certainty it was the best thing to do, but it clearly hadn’t worked for everyone because if students dropped behind in his class, they dropped FAR behind.)
So, stung by all these small- and large-scale failures, I switched right back to what I had been taught and what seemed to work better for everyone: a hybrid of G-T and the reading method. To me LLPSI had been so over hyped as a “fun”, “nearly effortless” method for learning Latin that for it to be boring and draining and often incomprehensible in reality was an utter betrayal: no one on the internet at the time seemed to have any words for this book except unreserved absolute praise and a total blindness to what a compelling narrative is, and none of them would back down on the most minor point of criticism for their master, Ørberg.
Over those years I hardened my heart against CI because all the people promoting CI were clearly just a group of mutually-brainwashed people lifting up a 1950s textbook as if it was the inspired, God-breathed word of the Latin language itself. I wonder how many other potential allies to our CI based methods have been driven off by the blind and stubborn defensiveness and reverence that the Living Latin proponents have for Ørberg? You can’t just take responsibility for the successes of this method: you also have to own your failures.
Part 4: The Direct Method
Nunc tempus est numerōs discere. Prīmum dīc numerōs ā decem ūsque ad centum!
– Hans Ørberg
So, where did LLPSI come from if it was not handed down from on high? As I alluded to above, LLPSI is a product of the Nature Method, and the Nature Method is itself a written adaptation of the mostly spoken Direct Method. Let’s start by explaining what the Direct Method really entailed and move from there to see how the Nature Method Institute and LLPSI came to be shaped the way they were, while evaluating LLPSI and other Nature Method books in the light of modern SLA-based practices.
The Direct Method of the early 20th century was not exactly the same at all times and in all places. Teachers conceived of it as a broad collection of language teaching practices that roughly fell under the umbrella term: ‘the Direct Method’. In 1917, Mark Skidmore wrote an article about the Direct Method in the Modern Language Journal. He wanted to define what people meant by the method, what was essential to it, and what was more variable in its practice. He sent a survey to 140 language teachers about it, and 74 of them replied; in this sample 19 said they were currently using the Direct Method, 16 said they were not, and the rest said they were adapting various features, ranging from “largely” to “trying to use it”.
From these responses, Skidmore concluded that these were the main features of the Direct Method:
“there is almost unanimity on the following six points:
- good pronunciation (phonetics)
- extensive oral work
- inductive teaching of grammar
- real reading, not mere eye-reading, as the basis of the instruction
- translation is reduced to a minimum
- much use of “free composition”.
Regarding grammar, Skidmore provides a quote from Professor Myers which better describes the role of explicit grammar in the Direct Method: “The direct method as we are using it here is not an inductive grammar method taught in the foreign idiom, but primarily a language course, in which the students are taught to see and imitate the expression of certain ideas in the foreign idiom, with sufficient training and drill in the elements of grammar to strengthen their sense of certainty and security in using the language.” That is to say, it’s not a French grammar lesson taught in French, and not even primarily a grammar lesson taught inductively, but a language course in which students are expected to mimic and reproduce what they hear to express ideas with the help of drilling, until they are accurate in their output.
Skidmore also described some more specific activities employed in the Direct Method, that he cautioned were not universal:
“The use of gestures and pictures, suiting the action to the word, singing, reciting in unison, the entire exclusion of the vernacular are not universally, nor even generally, insisted upon as indispensable.”
On the final point, language immersion, only 8 out of the 74 respondents said that the Direct Method means “the entire exclusion of the vernacular from the class room.” But then, as now, there was a vocal minority who insisted that 100% immersion was the only way to go. Skidmore provides an anonymous quote, “If by the direct method is meant a method that excludes the vernacular as much as possible, I favor its adoption anywhere and everywhere.” I can’t help but feel that the sentiment being expressed here is that total immersion, no matter how poorly implemented, is unquestionably superior to all other possible teaching methods.
Speaking realistically, teachers tend to observe serious attrition in immersion programs. Bob Patrick, a pioneer and advocate of communicative Latin teaching, commented on the subject, “Immersion almost always insures that some will become so lost that they will give up.” Lance Piantaggini, also a communicative Latin teacher, shared that he had “seen adults cry at a conventiculum. Two different people, actually.” A conventiculum is a Latin convention – often a multi-day event – in which everyone only speaks Latin, and they attend conferences in Latin. Attendees to conventicula typically sign a formal contract swearing that they will not use a language other than Latin for the duration of the conventiculum. Lance continues, “These are people who paid for the experience. That’s not a typical/regular/normal – whatever you want to call it – learner, and even *they* didn’t make it.”
As good as it is to maximise use of the target language in the classroom, that doesn’t have to mean total exclusion of the native language at all costs. Even in the 1917 survey of the Direct Method, the majority of teachers did not think the Direct Method essentially required banning first language (L1) use in the classroom.
So let’s focus on Skidmore’s unanimous six points:
Firstly, there was a primary emphasis on pronunciation. It is interesting that pronunciation tops the lists of essential features in the Direct Method; one of the respondents to Skidmore’s survey remarked that the method “presupposes phonetic drill”. Modern communicative attitudes about pronunciation are often more ambivalent about enforcing pronunciation, except where it would hinder communciation. As an example, Randall Buth, who promotes the use of spoken Ancient Greek, does not insist on correcting students for sub-phonemic distinctions, but only where distinctions could carry a potential difference of meaning in the language concerned. The main difference between the Direct Method practitioners and today’s communicative language teachers is that today’s teachers are more concerned with communicative competence, whereas the Direct Method teachers were concerned with accuracy of output. Our priorities and measures of success, in pronunciation as well as other areas, have moved away from demanding complete accuracy and towards supporting proficiency.
The reason for this general shift towards prioritising proficiency before accuracy is because, if you want to end up with both, you will get both faster if you pursue proficiency before accuracy than the other way round. I have observed it in my classes: the ones who hyper-focus on details of relatively minor importance to the detriment of their overall understanding tend to progress slower in acquisition than their peers (but get everything right in grammar tests). The last remaining languages in which teachers continue to insist on valuing accuracy as a special virtue in itself are the dead languages – languages in which it is acceptable for respected and tenured professors to be terrible at reading fluently. Ultimately, though, this is not an either-or situation: if you care to think of Latin as a human language and not just a mark on an exam or an ornament on a certificate, you will want both proficiency and accuracy. And you can gain this most efficiently when you aim for increasing proficiency ahead of increasing accuracy.
Secondly, the Direct Method was said to contain extensive oral work. Oral activities could often include the teacher holding up a picture and describing it in the TL, or acting out a verb and describing it; the teacher and students would then take turns describing the pictures or actions, racking up lots of repetitions orally. To me this sounds very similar to TPR, Total Physical Response, a comunicative method in which teachers command students around the classroom in the TL and often describe and interact with the physical space, pictures, and props. The difference here is in the role of oral production: it sounds like the Direct Method had a goal of getting students to repeat the language aloud in oral drilling, whereas TPR spends a lot more time, especially initially, in getting students to respond and interact with the commands non-verbally, before they are comfortable enough to respond and interact verbally. The reason why TPR teachers don’t demand verbal output from students until they are ready is based on Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis (that language acquisition is driven by understanding input, not producing output) and his Affective Filter Hypothesis (that the unconscious processes of language acquisition are significantly impeded if the student feels stressed or anxious).
The Direct Method’s emphasis on the oral meant that textbooks were not actually necessary to the success of the method – a feature shared by both the Direct Method and modern TPR again. One of the possible definitions of the Method considered but rejected by Skidmore included the comment, “the conversational work may [italics supplied by Skidmore] be supplemented by text book or note book.” 
Thirdly, grammar was taught “inductively”. Inductive means that the student sees an example, and works out the rule themselves, rather than being told upfront what the rule is. The previous quote from Prof Myers that the Direct Method is not an inductive Grammar method but a language teaching method has to be put in the context of saying, when grammar was taught, it was taught inductively, even if grammar was not focused on in isolation. But we have to be aware that inductive learning is not the same as acquisition. Induction is student-led rule-making; the student is tasked with discovering explicit grammar rules. By contrast, acquisition is the nearly unconscious process of getting so familiar with a grammar feature that the learner becomes internally, instinctively able to know when the feature is used correctly or incorrectly, and eventually produces the feature without exerting mental effort to edit how they speak or write.
On the use of reading in the Direct Method, Skidmore calls it “real reading, not mere eye-reading” and I honestly don’t know what he means by eye-reading – probably reading without understanding, or mere reading aloud. But the role of reading stories with understanding is emphasised in the Direct Method, and I can’t help but compare this with TPRS, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, a set of practices in which the teacher cooperatively writes and reads stories with their students. TPRS is often set up to follow on from oral TPR practices. The Direct Method’s combination of oral practice followed by story-reading appears quite similar in character to the TPR-TPRS route that some communicative language teachers are taking today.
But the character of the reading material of Direct Method texts differs quite significantly from the character of CI texts written today. You’ll notice that as soon as you pick up material from the early 20th century like Carolus et Maria, Maxey and Fay’s A New Latin Primer, Latin for Today, Cornelia, etc. The learner texts were not primarily written to present interesting content through the language, but to teach the language through rather plain but comprehensible material. Skidmore reports a quote from Professor Holbrook objecting to the use of literary material in the classroom, which reads, “The student should never be allowed to forget that what he is primarily attempting to learn is the French language.” He then adds metaphorically: “one cannot become a botanist or a gardener by merely loving flowers, and usually it is those persons who know most about them who love them best. Similarly, the beauty of a linguistic construction, its fitness, should be most apparent to him who understands it best.” Interestingly, knowing about the language here is touted as the key to appreciating literature. It is the language that is the object of study, not the meaning expressed in the language. The content is more or less supposed to serve as filler while the student concentrates on language learning.
That is in direct contrast to best practice communicative language teaching today – to encourage acquisition and not mere inductive rule-learning, students ought to be consciously focused on the message expressed by the Comprehensible Input, and indeed interested in understanding it, as it is through their attention to the content that their subconscious langauge systems can best make form-meaning connections. Stephen Krashen strongly advocates not for dull texts or even just “interesting” input, but “compelling” input. He elaborates, “Compelling means that the input is so interesting that you forget that it is in another language.” By contrast, Direct Method practitioners seem to have deliberately avoided making their materials too compelling or interesting; the foreword to Cornelia puella Americana states, the learner “should not be called upon to deal with situations outside his own experience or to acquire knowledge through the new medium”. The things that pass for stories in the Direct Method seems to focus on being orderly, expected, and obvious. Suspense and surprise, as critical as they often are for constructing compelling narratives, are avoided in the writings of the Direct Method.
Point number five: translation is reduced to a minimum. Notice the wording: it’s not that translation is an unforgiveable sin, or that a person instructed in the Direct Method could never become a professional translator. But in the language class, for pedagogical purposes, translation is “reduced to a minimum”. SLA research since that time has consistently criticised the grammar-translation method’s excessive dependence on translation for language learning. It’s not to say that one couldn’t possibly learn a language through translating; it’s that the effect of oral interaction, extensive reading, and other high input activities is so much greater, that it is a relative waste of time to spend very long on translating compared to the more profitable activities. In this point, the Direct Method and SLA-informed best practices are in agreement.
Finally, point six of the essential components of the Direct Method as reported by Skidmore was “free composition”: Skidmore does not define this term, but the wording suggest free writing, where the student writes whatever they want to. If I have understood him right, this is definitely one of the practices in modern communicative language teaching; students are given a timer and asked to write as much as they can within 5 minutes or so, and they can say anything. It’s a way to increase fluency of output, at the pace set by the students themselves. The products can then be collected into a writing portfolio and used as evidence of progress.
However, “free composition” may not have been always as universal as Skidmore suggests here; an article from 1949 in the ELT journal advocates for rather constrained composition activities, stating “until a fairly advanced stage is reached, the exercises should be restricted to the completion and conversion types. Exercises in which the learner is to compose material wholly his own are best deferred.” This is suggests that within the larger umbrella of the Direct Method, there were teachers who set very constrained writing production activities.
Those types of highly constrained writing activities (eg. the conversion activity of “turn every singular word plural and every plural word singular”) are fundamentally not communicative language activities: no one is expressing meaning, the utterance is not being addressed to an audience who will hear the message, and there is no possibility of a meaningful response. There is no “information gap” being bridged between interlocutors. These types of fill-in-the-blank or change-the-word-endings activities do not by their nature encourage the connection of meaning and form, but of rules and form. And the 1949 paper makes that explicit: “conversion exercises have the advantage of combining thought (about the grammar mechanism or whatever it may be) and association (eg. between the present perfect tense and the certain class of adverbial)”. That is to say, the exercises are intended for developing explicit command of the grammar through rules. Plain and simple.
It is quite surprising to hear from the 1917 article that free composition was a nearly unanimously agreed feature of the Direct Method, when it is strongly advised against in the 1949 article, but this shows the variety of practices and mindsets within the Direct Method.
As you can see, the Direct Method was not applied the same way in all places; a lot of it came down to the teacher in the classroom. Many teachers did not publish their materials, and so their methods died with them. Many others did publish what they developed, and a lot this is excitingly now in the public domain. The products of this movement serve as potentially quite useful Comprehensible iInput, even if they are not very compelling. Try reading them at least; your mileage may vary.
Part 5: From the Direct Method to the Nature Method: What was adapted, and what was lost?
scrībite hanc sententiam: homō oculōs et nāsum habet.
– Hans Ørberg
So now we move over to the Nature Method and its adaptation in LLPSI. The first textbook of this distinctive style was an English self-learning course published by the Nature Method Institute in 1939 by the name of English by the Nature Method. In 1954 the Institute also published a French Course, Le Français par la «méthode nature». By then Hans Ørberg had joined the Nature Method Institute as a permanent employee from 1952, and was tasked with making a Latin course which replicated the same method as the other two books. LLPSI was finally published in full in 1957.
So to be clear, Ørberg did not largely invent the method, but adapted it (with a great deal of creative decision-making, to be fair) to Latin’s situation. The base format however had been pioneered nearly 20 years prior in 1939 with English by the Nature Method.
Georges Bonnard in the preface to that book outlines the goals of the course, saying that it is “aimed at providing those who wish to learn English and are denied the help of an ordinary teacher, with a text-book that might, in little over a year, bring them to the point where reading English books and conversation in English may be, or at least begin to be, actually possible.” The absence of a teacher is assumed from the beginning; the course is not designed to be used in conjunction with a teacher, but to make up for the lack of a teacher. This would naturally explain the lack of guidance in how teachers might adapt the material to suit the needs of a classroom environment. [edit: but for the record, there is currently an official teacher guide for LLPSI online.]
As to the demographics of the target audience, Bonnard hints that the promoter Arthur M. Jensen’s “main concern has been with young people in the world of business” stating that it is there that “he will mostly find young men and women who feel the need of some knowledge of English and have never had the opportunity of getting it. But he has taken care not to give undue importance to their requirements, so that his course may be used with just as much profit by whoever desires to learn English by himself.” It was not aimed at an intellectually elite audience, which is absolutely great, but it was also not aimed at children or teenagers in schools. It was written for young professionals with a self-determined motivation to learn the English language.
So, Jensons’ writing team (his daughter and colleague; Jensen himself did not write most of the content of the course) were producing an English course for a motivated, adult young professional who due to their life circumstances, didn’t happen have a language teacher. And the model they looked to adapt for a teacherless textbook was naturally, the Direct Method.
Let us now examine what made the transition from the Direct Method to these books, and what did not.
I have identified seven major features they brought in from the Direct Method:
- Exclusive use of the Target Language. English by the Nature Method is written completely in English, with no recourse to any other language. Likewise, LLPSI is fully in Latin, teaching Latin-through-Latin. This reflected some of the practices of the Direct Method where TL use was maximised; but it is important to restate that the total banning of L1 was not necessarily practiced by the majority of Direct Method teachers, and “immersion” practices are not mandated or necessarily beneficial for communicative language teaching today.
- Pronunciation was stressed in its importance. This is challenging for a written textbook, but English by the Nature Method emphasised pronunciation by providing IPA transcriptions under words. LLPSI doesn’t appear to have as much overt emphasis on pronunciation, but it does print macrons.
- Grammar was taught inductively. Each chapter introduced a new target feature, a grammar lesson of the day, which the learner was meant to consciously discover through working out the meaning of the sentences. This is true for all the nature method textbooks. It essentially meant that grammar was withheld until its grand entrance in a chapter all about that feature. The result is sometimes some very odd circumlocution was employed to avoid using grammar that hadn’t been formally introduced, even if the context would have strongly suggested it. For example, in Capitulum X of LLPSI, Aemilia sees her son being carried, and asks “Why can’t he walk?” In the story, the boy has just fallen out of a tree. The natural expectation is to say “he fell out of a tree”, repeating the same words as before but in the past tense. But the perfect tense had not been formally introduced. So instead Julius says “Quintus can’t walk, because he is not a bird and does not have wings! He who wants to fly but cannot, falls to the ground!” This mindset of sheltering grammar at all costs and insisting on students mastering rules one at a time leads to missed opportunities where a fairly innocuous unexplained grammar feature could have been woven in when the context demanded it, in which case it would have made the storytelling clearer and ironically more comprehensible.
- Reading as the basis of instruction. The Nature Method books inherited the style of storytelling which had been present in the Direct Method for decades: very obvious descriptions of pretty safe subject matter where for long stretches of time, mundane realities are described without incident. That is not to say there aren’t plots in these Nature Method books; it’s just that the stories were clearly not designed for entertainment or to function as interesting let alone compelling stories, but for being the filler material which the student can dissect for discovering rules in the language.
- The use of pictures and visual aids. The illustrations in the Nature Method textbooks are all very practical, clear, and relevant to the story at hand. Teachers have always wished there were yet more visuals of course – if there could be a drawing for every meaningful utterance, we would be very delighted. As it stands, the illustrations that the text provides are very meaningful and practical aids for language learning.
- Translation is reduced to a minimum. The Nature Method textbooks indeed do not encourage translation, but reading.
- The incorporation of constrained and somewhat-unconstrained composition exercises. English by the Nature Method had Exercise A, which was a fill-in-the-missing-word activity, followed by Exercise B, which was an answer-the-question activity, the questions being fairly closed questions with predictable answers. For the first few chapters, Exercise B is further constrained by providing a certain number of dashes corresponding to the number of words expected in the answer. Exercise A, the fill-in-the-missing-word activity is not terribly useful because it is possible fill in the missing word without understanding what was being said. As for Exercise B, answering a question is not as free as “free composition” said to have been essential in the 1917 paper on the Direct Method, but at least it involves the processing of meaningful messages and the task of expressing a meaningful answer. The exercises are arranged in order of most-constrained to least-constrained: this is consistent with the advice of the 1949 paper. LLPSI has three sets of Exercises: Pēnsum A is a fill-in-the-endings exercise, Pēnsum B is a fill-in-the-word exercise, and Pēnsum C is respond in Latin to Latin questions of a fairly closed nature.
As with English by the Nature Method, LLPSI orders the exercises (pēnsa) from most-constrained to least-constrained. The exercises are supposed to be integral to the method; in practice they act as gatekeepers to the rest of the content: the learner is expected to produce perfectly accurate output of everything they have encountered up to that point before moving forward. In the light of modern SLA research, this is actually an unrealistic expectation for acquistion: if input is the basis for acquisition, and acquisition is a gradual process, your output accuracy must reasonably be expected to lag behind your comprehension.
When faced with the pēnsa, the learner essentially has two options: repeatly reread the chapter as many times as necessary to memorise – and not necessarily internalise – the forms of that chapter, or consciously apply explicit grammar rules to get through. If the learner does neither of those things and just skips the pēnsa, the authors can then blame the laziness of the student if they fail in any way. Failing at the pēnsa means you apparently weren’t ready to move on.
I tend to believe that the pēnsa are more beneficial to the reputation of the course than to the learning experience, because making accurate output a kind of arbitrary gatekeeper to receiving more input is not exactly in the best interests of the learner, if what really drives acquisition is sheer volume of comprehensible input. And if you’re only allowed to progress if you’re perfect, only the perfect will stick with the course, and the rest will drop out and you won’t hear from them again.
Add to that, as Nancy Llwellyn points out, the pēnsa as they are ordered in the book demand language competence in the reverse order of its actual acquisition: in reality, learners acquire large chunks and whole words before they acquire smaller details like the endings of words.
And so these seven features of the Direct Method, both good and bad, were adapted to the print textbook medium of the Nature Method textbooks. But what was lost in the transfer between the classroom practice of the Direct Method and the teach-yourself-textbook of the Nature Method?
Extensive oral practice. The greatest loss between the two formats is the loss of extensive oral practice which had formed the bedrock of the Direct Method. A book cannot talk with you, point to things, describe them, ask you questions, laugh, give you commands, receive commands, or any of the myriad rapid-fire oral interactions that a teacher can do with you in person (or which could be filmed and shared via video, like my introductory Latin TPR video series). In my experience with large and diverse classes, building a bank of concrete vocabulary through oral activities, especially TPR, makes reading and storytelling a lot more accessible to students when you get round to it. Actually what I noticed this year is that the students who turned out to be particularly problematic in other ways, behaviourally or academically, tended to do well on TPR. People who doubted their language abilities tended to respond well to TPR too. TPR in particular and comprehensible oral activities in general are in my experience far and away the best start you can get in a language: low pressure, high levels of input, quick feedback cycles, lots of interest and variety.
But it is not something a paper book can easily convey, in the absence of a teacher. Even if you try to read transcripts of TPR or oral conversations in books – and there are books that do that – the book can never capture the charisma of the teacher in the moment, and the reality of seeing something true right in front of you being described. In comparison, starting with a map of the Roman Empire followed by the description of a fictional Roman aristocratic family doesn’t have the same power to hold students’ attentions and prepare them for more interesting stories.
On the topic of oral language teaching, it was actually oral methods which converted me to Comprehensible Input. When I saw videos of Aleph with Beth, a course that teaches Biblical Hebrew through TPR, comprehensible input, oral questioning, and eventually storytelling, I was blown away by how much more effective and enjoyable it was at getting Hebrew to stick in me compared to the grammar method, or inductive method. Aleph with Beth videos are such an outstanding resource in the CI teaching space, and so gentle in their learning curve, that I think they put Nature Method textbooks to shame. And in no small part this is because they can capture and reproduce real human interactions in speech with live props in a way that a print textbook simply cannot. If Aleph with Beth had been made in Latin, I believe it would be worth ten LLPSIs.
(Side question, would you like it if I tried dubbing Aleph with Beth straight into Latin? I know that’s totally not the proper way to structure an introductory language course, as Aleph with Beth is carefully built around Hebrew grammar, but you know, just suggesting it if you were interested.)
Part 6: Does LLPSI beat everything else?
pāstor humī sē prōiciēns dominum ōrat nē sē verberet: “nōlī mē verberāre, ere! Nihil fēcī!”
– Hans Ørberg
So in summary, how do Nature Method textbooks such as LLPSI stand up in 2022?
It doesn’t beat a real teacher, by which I mean someone like Justin Slocum-Bailey, who can captivate a class with a spontaneously generated spoken Latin role-play scenario within his second lesson of Latin with them, and spend the entire time with their attention on him as he speaks and interacts 90%+ in Latin with them. It does not hold a candle to a live teacher doing wide varieties of oral activities and interactive story-telling.
But, as a resource competing among resources, is it, as Nancy Llwellyn said, “simply 80 times better than anything else”?
I’d say it is better than at least most textbooks in some important ways, but worse in other important ways. Taken as a whole it could be a better single resource than all the alternatives. However I qualify this by saying this only works when students – in both self-learning and classroom contexts – are somehow kept interested in the content either with external help from the teacher or fom sheer internal drive.
However, I don’t think that it’s much of a high praise to say that LLPSI is perhaps better than other textbooks overall. The sad fact of the matter is that there aren’t a whole lot of very useful truly CI-based textbooks published as complete courses. Teaching lags a few decades behind the science, and it seems textbooks lag much further behind the vanguard of teachers.
The reading method from the 1980s and onwards produced a lot of courses such as the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), the Oxford Latin Course (OLC), Ecce Romani, Suburani, Latin through Ovid, and others, which present Latin through stories, but they all introduce vocabulary at a high rate per story, and rely heavily on glossing, to such an extent that a large portion of students are often not really reading the stories but stringing together glosses or spending most of their time flipping through the dictionary at the back of the book. It’s not really reading when every five or so words you have to stop to look up a new word you’ve never seen before. Unless the teacher heavily modifies the materials, for a student to get the experience and benefit of extensive reading in these courses, they have to reread previously understood stories. And as much as I tell students to do that on their own time for their own benefit, I really don’t think it happens unless the teacher specifically carries out an in-class activity that makes them reread (such as the many post-reading activities listed here).
The one advantage of these reading method books, however, is that they tend to be more interesting as stories than LLPSI and the Direct Method materials, particularly the CLC. However sometimes I feel the authors of reading method textbooks try a little too hard to tell a story a certain way, and you see a sudden concentration of glossed vocab on the side when they do that, which very often ruins the pacing of the story when a student attempts to “read” it. Crafting a story which is both compelling and comprehensible takes special effort beyond just thinking “it’s a an adaptation of a myth and the myth says XYZ, so now I will say XYZ and gloss it.”
There is also a pretty nice newcomer on the textbook scene, Via Latina, which is entirely written in Latin with Latin glosses, similar to LLPSI. Its learning curve however is a bit steeper than LLPSI and it seems to presuppose a classroom context in which the teacher will be assisting students with getting extra vocabulary practice, perhaps through oral questioning, which makes it less immediately useful to self-learners, but still useful. The written exercises in Via Latina are far better than LLPSI and any other course I’ve seen in the textbook space. They provide a lot more connection between Latin words and their meaning, as well as greater variety.
In addition to complete textbook courses, however, we also now have a large number of Latin novellas for extensive reading and incorporation into TPRS based courses. Novellas tend to tell lively stories with as little new vocabulary as possible, thus providing the gentlest and potentially most entertaining way to read large volumes of Latin for fluency. But they also are not without some flaws. It is a very recent and rapid development in Latin teaching. As of 2022 the genre has only been around for 8 years, but there are already over a hundred novellas published. Most of these have been written in North America by Latin teachers working overtime, and are voluntarily edited and proofread by other Latin teachers in their overtime, with the result that the products are not edited to the same standard as massive big-budget textbooks. There are other questions around the Latinitas of some novellas which I hope to address more fully in a later video. LLPSI as a single resource beats out a lot of other single resources, but that doesn’t mean a subset of the best novellas couldn’t rise to the surface and eventually form a reading list that beats LLPSI out of the ring.
But ultimately, trying to find a “winner” is not the right question for us. Because what really matters most is the sheer amount of massive comprehensible input you receive in the language. For this reason, I will go on record with a rather firm endorsement of LLPSI: if it were beaten either in the present or future by not just one but two superior “complete” introductory courses, I would still recommend learners give the book a try and see if it works for them, as additional Comprehensible Input among everything else they are doing. For its sheer amount of comprehensible content, LLPSI doesn’t have to be “perfect” be recommended, or even “anywhere close to perfect”. It is “good enough” – so darn “good enough” – that it wins even if it loses.
Part 7: Final thoughts
Dominus rīdēns eum currentem aspicit, tum ad vīllam revertitur. Etsī dominus sevērus exīstimātur, tamen inhūmānus nōn est.
– Hans Ørberg
So, when all the dust has settled, I do actually end up endorsing and recommending LLPSI as a resource. Use it to learn and teach the language, by all means, just don’t uncritically accept the book in its specific format or the author’s methodology as the best possible way to learn a language.
We all have a tendency to look fondly on the first Latin textbook that really got us over the hump towards reading Latin. For a lot of people in the living Latin movement, that book was LLPSI, and their natural emotional response is to remember all the good times, and forget the bad. When you teach from a textbook, you’re forced to relive the bad parts over and over and over, believe me! So I get a lot more of an allergic reaction to the bad parts of a textbook than someone who just remembers it as their Latin textbook from years ago.
Writing this has also forced me to reflect on why I react so abrasively to LLPSI. I have long observed that when I read the stories, I feel an irrational surge of rage building in my blood, which I cannot quite explain, but nevertheless cannot shake. Perhaps part of it is the writing style: I’ve been sprinkling in sentences from the book to adorn the section headings here, and there are so, so many examples of things that I would never say in my own voice. Things like “stupid children can’t learn” or (said by a husband) “You are less skinny than you were back then,” or (said by a child) “how tall is the wall of the military camp?” And it has a very pro-slavery, pro-corporal punishment bent to it. But I don’t have this strong a reaction to the awkwardness, corporal punishment, or slavery references in other textbooks like the OLC.
I think a large part of my unresolved rage issue towards LLPSI is actually that I had quietly suppressed the story about “Tim” and the casualties of his failed curriculum reform. For years I was tutoring students who had lost a lot of Latin progress because he had not met their needs with LLPSI. I formed long-standing teacher-student relationships with these students whom he had overlooked. They helped me refine my Latin tutoring techniques, and I was very pleased to see them grow and thrive. But “Tim”, through either conscious or unconscious negligence, had not intervened with them. Instead he had covered up their failure with rigged tests that were impossible to fail (eg. a test with 20 items in it, marked out of 100, where an incorrect response counted as a single mark off from 100). He soon left the teaching profession after finishing one year of teaching with LLPSI, and pursued an alternate career. For years I had refrained from talking about this former teacher because at that time I was very early in my Latin career, and the world of classics is pretty small. If I badmouthed him in front of the wrong people, or tarnished the reputation of the prestigious school which had hired him, I worried it would damage my future career. But I think the injustice of what he had done with the curriculum had been eating me with a hidden flame; every time I see someone on the internet praise LLPSI to the high heavens it triggers that cognitive dissonance. I can’t help but think of this LLPSI fanatic who wreaked havoc with that methodology in a classroom. This is where you end up if you just hand people LLPSI and tell them to “get good” or get out, because it’s Ørberg’s way or the highway.
To my relief now, it seems enough time has passed – I haven’t run into him in nearly ten years – that I think I can finally tell the story in detail safely and put it to rest. For those of you in my area who can easily put two and two together and work out who I’m talking about, I ask for grace if I have misremembered or confused details of this old story. I have not been trying to think about it for a while.
Interestingly, I have yet to feel even the slightest bit angry while reading the Italian entry in the Nature Method series, l’Italiano secondo il metodo natura. This further suggests that it is my personal history with the fanaticism of LLPSI and not fundamentally the resource itself which makes me cringe so strongly against LLPSI. I’m not sure if I will ever bring myself to enjoy LLPSI, but on the basis of my research, I cannot deny its sheer utility for Comprehensible Input based language learning.
Now if you’re in the mood to get a deluxe, custom, hardbound copy of any of the Nature Method textbooks mentioned in this talk (they don’t stock LLPSI but they stock the other languages), hop on over to the link shown on screen, and use the discount code FOUNDINANTIQUITY5 to get a 5% discount on your purchase. I can personally vouch that the Italian one, l’Italiano secondo il metodo natura, is a particularly good member of this family. I never restricted myself to only reading that resource for Italian, but I found interleaving it with other Italian input sources continues to be of great benefit to my language acquisition.
Anyways, valēte omnēs!
- Carreres, A. “Strange bedfellows: Translation and language teaching. The teaching of translation into L2 in modern languages degrees: Uses and limitations.” In Sixth Symposium on Translation, Terminology and Interpretation in Cuba and Canada. Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council, (December 2006).
- Hornby, A. S. “Diret Method Composition Exercises (I)” in ELT Journal, 4 no. 1 (October 1949): 22-27.
- Jensen, Arthur M. English by the Nature Method. 1939.
- Maxey, Mima. Cornelia Puella Americana. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933.
- Nation, Paul. “How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9,000 words?” in Reading in a Foreign Lanugage 26, no. 2 (October 2014): 1-16.
- Skidmore, Mark. “The Direct Method” in The Modern Language Journal 1 no. 6 (March 1917): 215-225.
 Nation, How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9000 words?, 5.
 Skidmore, The Direct Method, 221.
 ibid, 217.
 ibid, 220.
 ibid, 216.
 ibid, 219.
 Krashen, The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis, 1.
 Maxey, Cornelia, vii.
 for instance, see Carreres, Strange bedfellows: Translation and language teaching.
 Hornby, 22.
 See Carolus et Maria, Maxey and Fay’s New Latin Primer, and Cornelia for examples of Direct Method Latin textbooks in the public domain on Wikisource.
 Bonnard (1951), in the Preface to English by the Nature Method, 5-6.
 Ibid, 6.
 See the Polis Institute’s Forum for Latin, and Saffire & Freis’s Ancient Greek Alive for an Ancient Greek example of TPR written in textbook form.
4 Interactive Writing Activities More Beneficial Than the Dreaded ‘Latin Prose Composition’
Update: Here are the takeway points in this article, distilled into a YouTube video:
If you want to practice your Latin writing skills, is it still worth the drudgery to work through an old-fashioned course in “Latin Prose Composition”, or are there more enjoyable and effective alternatives?
This is the question I ponder frequently while thinking about how we tend to teach writing in Latin.
This article is a response to Daniel Pettersson’s article, ‘Latin prose composition: Books and Method’, in which he calls “Latin Prose Composition” a “fantastic language technique”. I greatly respect Pettersson, especially for his admirable Latin writing skills. The fact that he is so good at writing Latin makes it all the more difficult to disagree with him on methods of teaching writing. But I am compelled to speak up, not because I want to put down someone else’s methods, but because I want to propose methods which might be significantly more effective for the largest number of learners. I will endeavour to present Pettersson’s arguments as charitably as possible. My disagreement is in no way a criticism of the man and his excellent work, and I hope he will not be discouraged in any way by this. I strongly recommend his Legentibus app and Latin story resources.
So, is “Latin Prose Composition” something we should generally be encouraging learners to do? Let’s break this issue down into several key questions:
- What is “Latin Prose Composition”?
- Why would someone want to practice writing?
- Is “Latin Prose Composition” the best way to achieve those writing goals?
- Are there more effective and enjoyable writing activities?
What is “Latin Prose Composition”?
Firstly, what is “Latin Prose Composition”?
Here is an example of what we mean by a “Latin Prose Composition” exercise; these are the first few sentences for translation in Bradley’s Arnold. The student needs to translate these English sentences into Ciceronian or Caesar-style Latin:
And here are the first few sentences in North & Hillard’s Prose composition (these are preliminary exercises, easier than the first intended real exercises):
1. The land was ruled by a good king.
2. The soldier was killed by an arrow.
3. The boy killed the bird with a stone.
4. The Roman general was defeated by Hannibal. …
As Daniel Pettersson explains, “Latin prose composition” is different from what you would expect “composition” to mean.
Latin prose composition is not actual composition (emphasis added) but an exercise in translating from a modern language into Latin. It is a didactic exercise with the focus of drilling vocabulary and grammar.
Pettersson acknowledges that this task is not at all the creative exercise that the name “composition” would seem to suggest:
Latin prose composition perhaps sounds a bit odd. “Composition” immediately brings to mind music composition, which is free and creative. Latin composition, however, is everything but free and creative. “Composition” here is rather a euphemism for old-fashioned structured translation exercises to drill vocabulary and grammar where you translate from a modern language into Latin.
It is strange to keep calling this exercise “composition” when we all know there is no authorial voice from the learner in this process, and the word “composition” gives an impression of what this activity is not. In school, I did these exercises under the name English-To-Latin Translation (nicknamed E2L), which I think is a more transparent label. However, for the sake of consistency, I will continue to refer to E2L exercises as “Latin Prose Composition”, but always in capitals and quotes so that you know I don’t mean to imply this is really a ‘composition’ task in any other sense of the word.
As you might imagine from those example sentences, “Latin Prose Composition” is not a very enjoyable activity among students. Pettersson does not sugarcoat this: he describes it as “traditional, quite square”, “old-fashioned” “quite boring”, and repeatedly refers to it as a “drill”. When acknowledging that these exercises often use military or political vocabulary, he admits that this subject matter “might not sound too interesting”. He does not argue that “Latin Prose Composition” is in itself enjoyable; rather, that its benefits are pleasing and worth the effort and toil.
But are they? Is this task – a task we all agree is quite tedious – the only and best way to get the benefits it is supposed to impart?
Before we answer that, we must establish what a learner might want to achieve from a writing task.
Why would someone want to practice writing?
Why would someone want to use “Latin Prose Composition”, or practice writing in Latin at all?
Firstly, some learners want to practice writing because becoming a good Latin writer is one of their goals. They may have a creative writing project in mind or just really want to share their thoughts in the medium of Latin.
Other learners want to incorporate writing alongside speaking as part of practicing active and authentic Latin, and believe that you cannot truly know or learn a language unless you are productively using it. They might believe that all four modes (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) contribute to language acquisition, such that becoming a better writer will directly make you a better reader.
Other learners may not believe writing directly contributes to acquistion, but still believe there are indirect benefits. I follow more of an input-based approach, believing that acquisition is driven by the receptive modes (listening and reading) and not the productive modes (speaking and writing). According to the input-based approach, the most important activity is to absorb as much comprehensible input as possible, without worrying about perfecting output early. Infants learning their first language exhibit a silent period where they listen for as much as a year before starting to speak. Language learners such as Matt vs. Japan have demonstrated that this silent-to-active route also works for adults. Matt immersed himself in Japanese media for 3 years without taking formal classes or doing any active speaking, and when he started trying to speak, he found it only took a couple weeks before he could speak naturally and fluently without much effort.
However, even if output may not be essential (especially at the beginning stage) for language acquisition, there may be practical benefits to doing writing and speaking activities. For instance, I find that learners are more motivated and attentive to their input when they are also producing or expressing something as part of their engagement with input material. A writing task paired with a reading/listening task can make the reading/listening task feel more purposeful.
I’ve also found that writing can be motivating because students see the products they make as evidence of their learning. Not all students are convinced that they are “learning” when they are passively listening or reading something, even if Second Language Acquistion theory might say they are. Right or wrong, students value learning tasks more when they create something out of it. Why fight them on this? Even a very minor writing task helps make students feel more motivated and perhaps more accountable for language learning.
Another important factor is interaction: interaction in the target language can help make input more comprehensible as the participants try to help each other understand meaning. This “negotiation for meaning” is a key element of communicative language learning. Interaction is perhaps easier in a spoken format, where replies can be instantaneous, but writing tasks can also be interactive. If students write something which they know will be read and responded to by other students, this can constitute a meaningful exchange of information in the language that supports their comprehension.
So to summarise, these are the desired outcomes of writing in the target language:
- Some learners want to become good at writing in Latin for the sake of writing creatively in Latin
- Some learners want to write because they believe writing is part of knowing a language
- When writing is paired with reading activities, learners may be more attentive to the input
- Learners can be more motivated when they create products along the way, because they can see their progress
- Interaction boosts acquisition because the negotiation for meaning helps make input more comprehensible
So now to our third point: Is “Latin Prose Composition” on the whole the best way to achieve those desired outcomes?
Is “Latin Prose Composition” the best way to achieve those writing goals?
A repeating theme in Pettersson’s article is that “Latin Prose Composition” promotes the active use of Latin.
But is this the best way to promote “active Latin”?
One gigantic red flag that I see with “Latin Prose Composition” in promoting “active Latin” is that this technique is not widely used to teach any living language. In a French classroom, for example, students might be asked to write a diary entry, or a personal introduction about themselves, or a letter, or a review of a product, or a recount. Or they might simply be tasked with a “free write” where they just write as much as they can on any topic for a set amount of time. Sometimes much more structure is given, such as in the form of a sentence builder, where the student is asked to create sentences according to a template and swap in their desired vocabulary. In each of these activities, the student is expected to have some semblance of choice in what they express. If the closed “Prose Composition” exercises were so crucial to active language use, it is extremely suspicious that they are only used for teaching dead languages.
Normally it is the Grammar-Translation enthusiasts who are pushing the idea that Latin is “different” and must be learned a different way to living languages. The “active Latin” crowd usually resists this exceptionalist narrative and insists that Latin is ultimately a human language, and that the best way to learn Latin is whatever is also the best way to learn any language. It is very strange for the “active Latin” movement to prescribe something which would be weird to do in a living language. Of course, modern language teachers incorporate other types of writing tasks in their pedagogy (yes, other types of writing activities exist!), just not tasks in the template of “Latin Prose Composition” where all students, working alone and in parallel like factory hands, are forced to translate the same predetermined sentences into the target language.
So let me be clear: if I reject “Latin Prose Composition”, that does not mean I reject the idea of writing in Latin. On the contrary, I think that supporters of active Latin should be looking at incorporating more living and communicative writing tasks rather than clinging without reason to a single activity that came from 19th century language pedagogy as if that constituted the only writing activity imaginable in Latin.
Pettersson calls the “Latin Prose Composition” activity “tried and true”. The implicit argument is that because “Latin Prose Composition” has been part of Latin instruction for so long, it must have been retained for a good reason. I would argue the opposite: the history of language pedagogy has in fact condemned the practice. At one time, it used to be part of the Grammar-Translation method used for teaching all languages. However, it has long been rejected in the teaching of all languages except in the special case of teaching dead languages where it has survived against the odds. “Prose Composition” has certainly been “tried”, but almost never found “true”: it has not survived the test of time in 99.99% of cases when teaching human languages, especially in the very languages which people want to use actively!
So to get back to our list of desired outcomes for doing writing tasks, which of these could “Latin Prose Composition” help?
The creative writer
Does it help the learner who wants to be a creative writer? Only in so far as it is a writing task at all. Creativity is completely banished in this type of activity as the learner is literally not allowed to say what they would like, and is forced to try to reproduce someone else’s writing. The learner is not given the freedom to paraphrase what they would like to say or even to choose a different subject to talk about other than killing soldiers on the battlefield and winning supporters to their political cause, or whatever else the textbook happened to choose.
Pettersson argues that these constraints are beneficial to the learner, because they force them out of their “comfort zone”:
Latin prose composition is distinct from free form writing, where you express your thoughts, and run the risk of staying within your language comfort zone. You will thus be forced to move beyond the grammar and language you already know; if you have to translate a particular sentence, you cannot avoid it or use circumlocutions.
I would actually argue that using strategic circumlocution to best express yourself within your current level of capability is a skill worth training in its own right. I often observe beginner Latin writers make a critical error when they try to write their thought as a fully formed English sentence first, then translate that English sentence into Latin, mangling it terribly in the process and creating a sentence no one can understand. This is not a good writing strategy as they aren’t training themselves to think in Latin as part of the writing process. A writer should be thinking, “How would a Latin writer want to say this?” The practice of “Latin Prose Composition” encourages the bad habit of first thinking in English and then shoehorning it into Latin, because you are literally presented with a fully formed English sentence first and your task is to do whatever it takes to wrangle that into Latin. That’s not how a fluent Latin writer should approach the task of writing in Latin. The sentence should be built from Latin to begin with.
In regards to “forcing” learners to “move beyond the grammar and language you already know”, I would argue that a writing task is not the appropriate venue to be using grammar and language you don’t already know from input. Language acquisition comes from understanding comprehensible input, not from sheer force of will in trying to produce a feature you haven’t acquired.
But I might be misinterpreting Pettersson. He might have simply meant that a writer should challenge themselves to use gradually more sophisticated language (which they had already acquired from lots of reading), and that “Latin Prose Composition” is the ideal task for presenting that challenge. I would disagree on this point too. I think a creative writer who wants to write in a more sophisticated way will actually really want to use gradually more complex expressions when the thought they want to express demands it: often a story requires indirect statements, indirect questions, and ways of expressing purpose succinctly and elegantly, which internally motivates a writer to develop their range of expressions.
Moreover, in a creative task, each learner can decide for themselves when they are ready to challenge and stretch their language use, and in what direction. In “Latin Prose Composition” you are forced to abide by a rigid curriculum set by the textbook. How likely is it for every student to need “indirect statement” on Tuesday, then “expressions of time” on Wednesday, followed by “uses of the subjunctive in relative clauses” on Thursday? It would be much more productive if the right topic of instruction could be provided in a just-in-time manner so that a student could learn it when they want to use it. Oh wait, that already is a pedagogical practice! It’s called “pop-up grammar” and it is used in input-based language teaching, including in modern languages.
If someone wants to argue that a creative writer will still stay in their comfort zone unless forced out, there are many ways of upping the challenge without completely removing creative choice. One way is to try poetry composition: this forces the writer to reach for rarer vocabulary and a greater diversity of expression to fit the special constraints of metre. It also has the bonus of training the writer’s attention to the aesthetic qualities of writing: the use of contrasts, metaphors, action, description. This is much more satisfying than wrangling a trite English sentence about soldiers into Latin.
So, for the reasons above, I would argue that a writer who wants to develop their true expressiveness in Latin writing for the sake of becoming a good writer would benefit a lot more from creative, open-ended writing tasks that can naturally scale to the appropriate challenge for the learner.
Writing as an authentic use of language
The next kind of learner is the one who wants to write because they believe that writing is an integral part of knowing a language authentically: if you can’t write in a language, you don’t really know it well. For such a learner, authenticity and using the language communicatively is important. They want to have a similar set of capabilities as any competent speaker of a language, and that includes being able to write. Now granted, “Latin Prose Composition” is one activity which results in a sentence of Latin being produced. But things like creative writing, writing a diary, writing replies in a forum, and a myriad of other activities also produce Latin writing. And at the same time they are also a hundred times more authentic, purposeful, and communicative than doing schoolroom exercises in “Latin Prose Composition”. The learner who wants to dive in and write in Latin because they want to be authentic users of the language would better fulfil their goals from these purposeful communicative activities than from the isolated and artificial drills in “Latin Prose Composition”.
Using writing tasks to increase engagement with reading/listening
The third situation is that writing activities, when paired with reading/listening activities, help students pay more attention to their input. This integrated writing activity is meant to be done in conjunction with an input-based activity like reading or listening. For example, students might read a story, and then create a set of true/false statements based on the source material, which they will then share with other students and answer each other’s questions. In this task, students are encouraged to model their sentences on examples they find in the reading, and thus make connections between what they read and what they produce. The traditional exercises in “Latin Prose Composition” books are not designed to be seamlessly integrated with reading tasks in this manner. They are random sentences devoid of context that come out of nowhere and lead nowhere. An integrated reading/writing task is a lot more interesting, grounded in reality, purposeful, and meaningful than “Latin Prose Composition”.
Writing to increase motivation
The fourth learner was one who felt more motivated when they saw themselves producing language. On one level, Pettersson has a point when he says that a learner could find satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment in ticking off items of grammar in the checklist of “Latin Prose Composition” exercises. Here he is careful not to overstate his point: he asserts that something “ticked off” in this manner is not necessarily acquired, but just a step on the road to acquisition. I will grant that completing writing tasks – any writing tasks whatsoever – can give students a sense of satisfaction to complete, and completing items on a checklist is even more satisfying.
But we need to weigh up the effect of “Latin Prose Composition” on motivation as a whole. I’ve been teaching Latin for more than five years, and until this year I’ve always had to teach some Latin-to-English translation at some level, because it was on the curriculum until the official state-wide study design dropped it this year. Students have always felt dreadful about “Latin Prose Composition”: it is an activity that makes them doubt their abilities. Think about it: you have no control over what you might be asked to produce, and the only audience reading these sentences is a teacher whose job is not to listen to your ideas but to correct your grammar. It is a task so constrained that it only shows your deficits: the parts where your answer diverges from the correct answer. It tells you how far away from perfect you are. This format is incredibly discouraging.
In addition, “Latin Prose Composition” usually reveals to students that they are making the same mistakes over and over. The chapter focus might officially be on “uses of the subjunctive in relative clauses”, but many students will be getting proportionally more marks taken off for “stupid mistakes” like missing the accusative case, bungling up adjective agreement, or forgetting to use a plural verb form. This is completely natural and to be expected, as grammar features are not neatly acquired in the same order as the grammar curriculum presents them. Pettersson has acknoweldged that ticking something off in a previously completed “Latin Prose Composition” exercise does not mean that the feature had been acquired. And students can learn the valuable skill of proof-reading their writing to catch and fix these obvious mistakes before the teacher catches them. But to a lot of students in this messy learning process, it looks like they are continually failing at “basic” grammar. It is very hard to convince students that continuously catching yourself making the same mistakes and fixing them up is normal and not necessarily a sign that you are failing the language.
Taken as a whole, I have found that “Latin Prose Composition” has a net negative effect on student motivation, and every time it has been removed from the curriculum in my experience, students have universally rejoiced.
It is much more satisfying to write something which someone else is going to read and actually pay attention to what you wanted to say, as opposed to scrutinise it for mistakes. Writing activities which involve some level of student choice are able to tap into this innate desire to express and be heard. Therefore I would say that “Latin Prose Composition” is not the activity I would reach for if I wanted to show a student their language progress and motivate them. I would rather provide more meaningful writing activities in which students can develop their own expressive abilities at their own pace, and see their progress as they become more expansive in their language use.
Writing as a form of interaction
Finally, there is the student who can benefit from writing as a means of interacting in the language. Does it even need saying at this point? The “Latin Prose Composition” exercise is the opposite of an interactive communicative activity. The student is not allowed to say what they want. They are not allowed to paraphrase to clarify meaning for an addressee. There is no actual addressee for their writing, and no chance of receiving a reply in the target language. There is no opportunity for negotation of meaning. No one is trying to say something and no one is listening.
So that brings me to my final point:
Are there more effective and enjoyable writing activities?
Yes, and lots.
But for the benefit of self-learners, I will provide here four easy writing activities which can be done with even fewer resources than “Latin Prose Composition”. You can complete these activities without a teacher or a classroom: you just need a place to write comments online.
Each of these activities is integrated with a reading/listening task, so that the reader is encouraged to use the language and forms that were demonstrated in their source material. In this way, the challenge can be scaled to what appears in the source material and whatever is appropriate for the learner at their own stage.
First, you need to find a piece of Latin posted online that is appropriate to your level, where you also have a place to write a comment. For example, you could choose a YouTube video, someone’s audio recording of a chapter in a textbook, a post in Latin on Reddit or other social media platforms, or any story based resource that comes with a comment box.
Here are the four interactive writing activities you can do immediately after watching, listening to, or reading that resource.
1) “Two Truths and a Lie”
This is the easiest writing activity. Start with, “Hey guys, which of these three statements is a lie?” Then write two true statements and one false statement in the target language. This is very easy to compose because you can actually directly copy three statements from your source material, just change one thing about one of them and boom, you have created an interactive activity for another human being to answer.
If you see someone else’s “Two Truths and Lie” activity in the comments section and it hasn’t been replied to yet, you can go ahead and hit reply and say which statement was the lie.
An advantage of Two Truths and a Lie is that many people can write their own three statements on the same material without necessarily repeating each other – but if anyone repeats, it’s no big deal, as it’s good for learners to get lots of meaningful repetition in what they read.
2) Vērum an Falsum (True or False)
In this activity, you write a list of true/false statements, with the title ‘Vērum an Falsum?’ (‘True or False?’)
This is similar to Two Truths and a Lie but more open-ended, because you can write as many or as few vērum/falsum statements as you wish, and they could all be true or all false if you want to mess with your audience’s expectations. It’s also fun to write silly obviously false statements.
If you see someone else’s list of vērum/falsum statements, go ahead and reply with which ones you’d label V/F. Posting an answer key to someone else’s vērum/falsum statements can be helpful for another student to check themselves if they are less confident. And if you get any of the V/F labels wrong, the original poster can reply and help you understand it better! Interaction!
3) Questions in the target language
This is slightly more challenging than writing true/false statements, but not by much. All you need is a list of appropriate question words and the knowledge of how to form a question in your target language. From there you can turn any statement from the source material into a question, often simply by swapping one word or phrase with a question word, and moving the question word to the start of the sentence. Here is a list of question words for Latin:
Latin English -ne? (attached to end of first word) Creates a yes/no question … an …?
utrum … an … ?
… or … ? quis? Who? quid? What? (/Why?) cūr? Why? quōmodo? How? quandō? When? ubi? Where? (in what place?) quō? To where? (to what place?) unde? From where? (from what place?) quālis est…? What is … like? quot? How many? quantus, -a, -um? How big?
While we’re at it, here’s a similar list of question words in Ancient Greek:
Ancient Greek English ᾶρα; Creates a yes/no question … ὴ …
… or …? τίς; Who? τί; What? (/Why?) διὰ τί; Why? (on what grounds?) ἵνα τί; Why? (for what purpose?) πῶς; How? πότε; When? ποῦ; Where? (in what place?) ποῖ; To where? (to what place?) πόθεν; From where? (from what place?) ποῖός εστιν…; What is … like? πόσοι; How many? πόσος; How big/of what quantity?
If you see a list of target-language questions in the comments section and no one has responded yet, you can reply and try to answer them all in the target language (which often just requires you to re-use the sentences from your source material). You’re making an answer key for everyone else, and that’s really helpful!
A third layer of interaction here is to read someone else’s answers if the original poster hasn’t replied, and check if they are correct. You can then reply saying they’re all correct or offer your suggestions and corrections.
You could call this activity “possibile, crēdibile” if you want to stay immersed in Latin. This is more nuanced than the true/false activities. In possible/probable, you write “Hey guys, how possible or probable are these statements?” then compose a set of statements that are inferential and varying shades of likely or unlikely. E.g. if the source material depicts Caesar attacking the Gauls, your statement could be something like ‘Caesar values human life greatly’ (Caesar vitam hūmānam magnī aestimat). This is harder to compose than true/false and closed questions because 1) it uses more creative thinking and 2) often requires words that are not provided in the source material.
If you see a list of possible/probable statements in the comments, you can reply with your opinion by writing ‘possible’, ‘impossible’, ‘probable’, or ‘improbable’ next to each statement. (Or if you’re really wanting to stay only in Latin, ‘possibile, impossibile, crēdibile, incrēdibile’. This can also be modified by adverbs like ‘maximē, minimē’: ‘maximē crēdibile’, etc.)
If you see that someone has already replied to a list of ‘possible/probable’ statements, you can read their opinions and see what items you would agree and disagree with, and reply stating why you’d have a different opinion, in Latin or in your native language. ‘Possible/probable’ is a subjective assessment so different people will naturally reach different conclusions. This activity tends to produce really interesting discussion of characters and motivations.
These four interactive writing activities are by no means the only writing activities you could productively use to train your writing skills. But I am confident that these will be more motivating and better for your overall language development than struggling alone with artificial “Latin Prose Composition” exercises. Composing for a purpose is not just more enjoyable for you, it is also more helpful to everyone else who is also looking for meaningful interaction in the language, at an appropriate level of difficulty.
I think if we committed to doing these interactive commenting activites, we’d use the language a lot more than if we tried to whip ourselves into grudgingly sustaining an innately unpleasant writing activity. It would also foster our sense of community and being part of learning Latin together, cooperatively interacting in writing with one another. Active Latin is so much more than just one extremely limited writing exercise. We need to look beyond our tiny Latin bubble and imagine what other exciting learning possibilities we could find in the broader world of second language pedagogy… or have those composition drills killed our imagination after all?
Launching a new Ancient Greek YouTube channel
As I’ve been making more Ancient Greek language videos on my Latin channel, it has become increasingly clear that it is best if these Greek videos have their own home on a dedicated channel for Ancient Greek content. So now I’m launching a new channel for Ancient Greek comprehensible input – Found in Antiquity: Ancient Greek! I’ll be posting new Greek videos and moving my old Greek content over. There’s only about a dozen videos on it at the moment but in the coming time you’ll see more.
Separating my Latin and Greek content into two channels was not a light decision to make, given the historical links between the languages. Ultimately it came down to what best represented the learners and audience. As I stated in my previous post, 12 Reasons why Latinists are not learning Ancient Greek, not everyone who learns Latin learns Ancient Greek, and vice versa.
I want my content to be focused on helping as many people in their language journeys as possible, and that includes people who only do one of the ancient languages without the other. As a result, I do not expect Greek students to have mastered Latin or vice versa, so I do not structure my Greek content to expect a progression from Latin –> Greek with prerequisite knowledge carried over from Latin.
If you’re interested, there’s a more in-depth discussion of my reasons for splitting the languages into two channels in this video:
I’m excited to be contributing more story-based learning and comprehensible input videos to the Ancient Greek learner community and I hope this channel will help many people on their language journeys, wherever you currently are.
12 Reasons why Latinists are not learning Ancient Greek
Are all Latin enthusiasts also engaged with learning Ancient Greek, and vice versa? The poll results are in, and while there’s an overlap, there are also big segments that loyally stick to just one of the languages. In this post, I will investigate why not everyone learns both Latin and Ancient Greek, focusing in particular on why a lot of Latinists aren’t touching Greek right now.
To begin with, how big is the overlap in interest between Latin and Ancient Greek?
Classics degrees typically mandate the study of Latin and Ancient Greek together, so it is common for Classics students to do both languages, even if out of compulsion. But how common is it for learners in the wider world to do both languages, including those outside of formal Classics degrees?
I polled my audience on YouTube asking what languages they watch videos in, and these were the results:
Less than half of the YouTube respondents (41%) reported that they watched videos in both languages. The largest segment (50%) were interested only in Latin, while a small number (9%) were interested purely in Ancient Greek. My YouTube audience may not be the most representative sample space for ancient language learners, but it looked like a very large proportion of Latinists (more than half of the total Latinists polled) were not touching Ancient Greek.
I also ran a poll on Twitter to see how Twitter followers would respond. This is what came back after 3 days:
A larger segment (about 60%) were engaged with both Latin and Ancient Greek, but still significant portions of the voters (around 20% each) were in just one of the languages. I have a feeling that the Twitter audience I’m connected to consists of more professional Classicists and Latin/Ancient Greek teachers, whereas the YouTube poll may have consisted of a younger audience of learners with more often a hobbyist background. This greater proportion of professional ancient language specialists may have skewed my Twitter poll results more towards those who had more time and professional interest for learning both languages.
My takeaway is that while many people do have an interest in both Latin and Ancient Greek, a large number only engage with one of the languages, especially if that language is Latin.
If this is true – if a lot of Latin fans are not currently engaging with Ancient Greek – I want to know why! Are they uninterested in learning Ancient Greek? Or are they interested, but certain barriers prevent them from starting Ancient Greek? If so, are those barriers something we as teachers and resource makers can help learners overcome, or are some things outside of our control?
I needed to hear it from the learners.
So I asked the Latin subreddit: If you’re a Latin enthusiast but not currently learning or dabbling in Ancient Greek, I want to hear about why you’re on pure Latin.
The post gathered 92 comments and replies in the first 24 hours. When I read through these comments, a lot of people had very different interests and circumstances, but there were also many repeating themes.
Excluding the reply threads, I gathered the remaining 50 standalone comments from the post at the time and tagged the themes that came up in each comment, such as ‘I’m not interested in Greek’ and ‘It wasn’t offered at my school’. This allows us to summarise all of the themes and compare the relative frequency of each.
Here were the results, consisting of 12 reasons why Latinists weren’t learning Ancient Greek:
The two most common cited reasons for not pursuing Ancient Greek was ‘lack of interest’ and ‘not having enough time to commit to learning another language’.
Tied for third place were three themes: ‘lack of good learning resources for Ancient Greek’; ‘It’s not offered at my school’; and ‘Greek is hard‘. Some of the posts which allude to Greek being hard are simply reporting a feeling of dread as the learner perceives Greek to be a hard language based on what others have said, but others are posts from people who have personally tried to learn Greek but found it too hard to continue.
As for the resource gap, I am very keenly aware that there is a big gaping hole in beginner-friendly comprehensible-input-based resources for learning Ancient Greek. There are remedies for this on the horizon that we are working on. Alpha with Angela is a wonderful Comprehensible Input based video series which teaches Biblical Koine through speech, props, gestures, and TPR. It is currently in development – as of the time of writing, there are 14 lessons – but more videos are being made all the time. It’s completely free and released under Creative Commons, which has allowed me to make dubs of Alpha with Angela in Lucian pronunciation, if you prefer Lucian to Erasmian pronunciation. There is also the Ancient Greek in Action series by Luke Ranieri (Lucian pronunciation) which is designed to ease beginners into Greek and to dovetail into the start of the Athenaze textbook. Luke is also planning a big release of an Ancient Greek learning resource in the next few weeks which I’ll edit into this post when he announces it. I also highly recommend the Ancient Greek courses offered by Seumas Macdonald at The Patrologist – he teaches communicatively with a lot of input-rich resources such as his Lingua Graeca Per Se Illustrata, which is not a direct translation of Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata but develops an independent storyline tailored to the needs of Ancient Greek.
There are certainly resources we can create (and which we are creating) that would make Ancient Greek less daunting to learn.
But it is important to acknowledge that many of the reasons Latinists are not touching Ancient Greek go beyond the resource gap, and can’t all be fixed by us filling the resource gap. This isn’t just a ‘build it and they will come’ situation. A lot of Latinists simply don’t feel any interest, affection or emotional attachment towards Ancient Greece, Greek culture, the Greek language, or the Byzantines. They connect with the Romans a lot, but the Greeks seem foreign. Is it because the Roman Empire holds more interest than Greek civilisation in Western European countries? Is there a more tangible sense of place and historical connection to the Romans? A commenter mentioned seeing Latin inscriptions every day where they lived, and feeling like they were connected to the Latin past, but said they wouldn’t feel the same connection with Ancient Greek culture. As an Australian, I don’t feel any land connection to either the Romans or the Greeks, but even here there is a vague sense in which we inherit the connections to the Romans through the colonial British past, and Roman culture seems more relevant than Greek culture.
A large number of commenters mentioned that they are studying periods or places which used Latin but had comparatively little contact with Ancient Greek, such as the Medieval period, the Early Modern period, North Africa, or the Papacy. It wasn’t just the Ancient Romans who wrote in Latin. Consequently, these Latinists have much less interest in taking up Ancient Greek.
Many commenters also mentioned that learning any language – especially an ancient one – takes an extraordinary commitment of time and effort. When asked ‘why aren’t you learning Ancient Greek?’ they quite understandably objected that they shouldn’t have to justify why they hadn’t chosen Ancient Greek. Some of these people are already learning multiple modern languages, and adding another ancient language to the mix would be overwhelming. Others mentioned that they had their hands full with other important responsbilities in life, and it just wouldn’t be possible to add another language on top of Latin.
Several commenters were waiting for their Latin to reach a higher level before they could feel comfortable starting out in a new language like Ancient Greek. They did not want to spread their time too thinly between languages.
Some were also mentioning that they wanted to learn Modern Greek to a comfortable level of fluency before Ancient Greek. Learning the modern language would help them reach fluency in Ancient Greek faster, and there are more living ways to learn Modern Greek than we have available in Ancient Greek.
A lot of Latinists mentioned the Greek alphabet as a barrier to them learning the language. We need to take this concern seriously. It’s easy for a teacher to forget how long it really takes to adjust to the alphabet. Far too often, Ancient Greek courses throw students into sink-or-swim situations where students are expected to master the alphabet by day 2, and all subsequent materials are silent words printed on paper. Sure, one can memorise individual letters pretty quickly, but it takes a lot longer to be able to fluently read whole words, sentences, and paragraphs rapidly. Many students get left behind from the very start and never fully catch up, simply dropping out of the course.
One commenter mentioned that their teacher’s general approach was to assume that students of Ancient Greek were already gifted linguists. I can’t help but feel that is a toxic attitude which has damaged Ancient Greek pedagogy and restricted success only to the most exceptional language learners. We need to resist this tendency to teach Greek only for the best of the best.
In all, there are some important things we can do to remove barriers to learning Ancient Greek. But we should not assume that all Latinists will automatically have an interest in learning Ancient Greek. While there is a significant overlap between communities learning Latin and those learning Ancient Greek, there is also a significant proportion of learners who only want to learn one of the languages, or only have the time to focus on one. And that is okay!