To do well in English, don’t bother with Latin

Posted on Tue 27 Jun 2017 @ 12.00pm UTC



WHAT are the most common difficulties experienced by people learning Latin?

Those who ask this question are really saying they want to learn Latin to improve their English because of the idea that many English words have Latin origins.

The No. 1 bad news for those people is that most English words have French origins. The words are only traceable back to Latin.

There is a fine line of difference between “origins” and “traceable” — but that’s another story for another day.


Below are the usual suspects — all from the experience of myself and my classmates back in the 1970s when Latin was still a compulsory school subject in the UK.

(Assume English as the mother tongue just for the sake of this post.)

Study it for years without knowing a single sentence in it

For those who (like me) had to study Latin back in the 1970s, they’ll know this to be true enough. Brilliantly summarised in this article:— Latin by the Dowling Method.

Not knowing enough about your own mother tongue

This has always been the biggest problem with nearly all learners who fail to show ‘performance’ in Latin.

In Latin, a lot of time is spent in learning grammar, constructions and vocabulary. Latin has a lot of conjugations and declensions. A weak foundation in English makes it hard to learn differences in Latin tenses and its various noun forms.

Even Julius Caesar was criticised for his knowledge of Latin. (Okay, that’s probably not a good example.)

Be surprised (or not) that many native English speakers know little about their own language.

In short, to excel in Latin, the learner must jump ahead “backwards” and brush up English grammar — lots of resources on this and too numerous to mention here.

Not memorising enough

Latin takes a lot of time to learn.

Conjugating a verb calls for memorisation. Conjugation patterns are also unreliable or unpredictable for other conjugations even within Latin itself.

That makes Latin also a language of exceptions.

English speakers have a relative head start here because the English language itself is also full of exceptions. And self-learners are more easily frustrated because they have no teacher for ‘live’ corrections.

People who tend to learn things not by memorisation will have a hard time with Latin.

Underestimating the level of specifics in Latin

Latin words and sentence constructions have very little one-to-one mapping with English sentences.

Those who have ever wondered what the heck was the Servile Wars will know what I mean.

To wit, three main things:—

(a) All Latin nouns have a gender.

European language speakers have the upper hand over English speakers, who are not used to the idea of words having genders.

Nearly everything in English is neuter unless the thing itself is manifestly masculine or feminine in some way.

The Latin 1st Declension is mostly feminine, the 2nd mostly masculine, and the 3rd has no practical pattern to notice — another round of memorisation.

Unless the English speaker has a sexual fetish about physical articles, it’s normally very hard for the English speaker to regard a book as masculine or a table as feminine.

(b) All Latin verbs operate on one of four conjugation patterns, with little quirks from their own general pattern.

Once again, this demonstrates that Latin (like English) is a language of exceptions.

And we’re back to square one — more memorisation.

The trick is to memorise the principal parts of the verb. That is easier said than done in Latin.

To cut a long story short, the problem rears its ugly head with the 1st Conjugation. It sort of regularises with the 2nd Conjugation. But the 3rd Conjugation is nearly always the disaster.

(c) Latin vocabulary has no direct relationship with modern languages.

It’s true that many Latin words have found their way into English and other European languages. Yet we cannot recognise the meaning of a Latin word by sight.

For oldies in their 50s and over, the Latin word servo is the classic example. It looks as if it could be like the English word ‘serve.’ The rude wakeup call is that servo means ‘save‘ or ‘guard‘ in Classical Latin — and, frustratingly, something else in Ecclesiastical Latin.

Yer pays yer money, yer picks yer goods.

Over-reliance on macrons in Latin work

Simply put, a macron is a mark on top of vowels (lĭbĕr, book) to indicate the Latin word’s pronunciation (and therefore a signal for the verb conjugation that is usable).

Great for use in the early stages of Latin learning, but very quickly becomes a crutch in the more advanced stages.

Paradoxically, it makes for highly artificial learning too. The Romans never used macrons in their writing. Indeed, they didn’t even bother with punctuation marks or even word spacing.

Moreover, there is still hot debate about the actual pronunciation of Classical Latin. The taught Latin pronunciation today dates no earlier than 1905 when a British committee on Latin teaching settled on the current pattern for teaching purposes.

Latin is taught as a puzzle, not as a language

Not strictly a learning problem as this is more a teaching defect.

In any kind of language learning, speaking is perhaps the most important of the four aspects (speaking, listening, reading, writing). Good language learning therefore comes from participating actively in the language (speaking, listening).

Unfortunately, most Latin teaching zeroes in on the rote task of paper translations (reading, writing), thereby turning Latin into a kind of glorified crossword puzzle.

Not realising that Latin is a dead language

There are some incredibly hilarious stories on the Internet about some Latin nut who got frustrated or angry because he couldn’t use Latin in some foreign country during holiday.

Despite the long history, Latin is just no longer present in any living European language.

Some languages (some claim it’s Romanian) seem to be closest to Latin, but that’s only in some superficial form.

As said earlier, many English words didn’t come from Latin (except for the scientific terms) — they derived overwhelming from Norman and Old French and other words whose origins are traceable to Latin.

Lack of any practical application in real life

Apart from the needs of fields like biology, archaeology and some others, the very best that any self-respecting language learner could only say about Latin is that it gave them a higher appreciation for their own language.

In short, learning for the sake of learning.

Let’s not pretend because there’s no point otherwise. I’m a big Latin nutcase myself, and even I would tell others 99% of the time to skip Latin and learn a living language instead — which, frankly, would give just as estimable an appreciation for your own language.

But to hell with the above

Stop everything and read this article about why knowing Latin makes for harder language learning:—

(Read the whole thing — it’s worth your while.)

© Learn English or Starve, 27 Jun 2017. (B17077) Text originally 8 Dec 2014.

Featured image via Harlot of Hearts.

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