Conquer Latin: 3 Tips

Carpe diem! Now is the time…get ready to remember more, do better at your practice sentences, and even like your Latin studies.

How? With clever use of strategies and tools, of course! Organize your mind and your material, deeply encode new concepts, and actively use the vocabulary, word parts, and rules that you learn. These three things will make you master your current lessons.

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#1: Create a Memory System

With a highly-inflected language, you are going to need to intensely organize your memory. Take learning nouns, for example: you’re going to have to remember the Latin word, its pertinent meaning(s), and also gender, declension, and stem for each noun. This kind of thing is impossible without creating a memory system.

At a bare minimum:

  • Take notes/make notes in color. Nouns in Latin are pesky things. They come in three different genders–masculine, feminine, and neuter. And often there is absolutely no telling why a certain word is a certain gender. Until you can say, “Nauta, nautae–that’s masculine,” by heart every time you use that noun, write it in blue. This includes in taking notes and making translations, by the way! You’ve got to get noun genders right because adjectives and certain participles depend on them. Get it right, right from the beginning–color will help!
  • Use the memory trick called the method of loci. (Bonus: this method’s name comes from the Latin word for places!) Yes…it’s amazing. It gets silly pretty fast. And it works really well. What do you do? You make a mental image of a place you know very well–say, your bedroom–and you imagine today’s new words and concepts there: stuck to the ceiling, prowling about the furniture, and oozing out of drawers. For example, say that three of today’s new vocabulary words are “nix, nivis” (snow), “pater, patris” (father), and “lex, legis” (law). You can imagine your bedroom door. There your father is pattering around. He sees you making snowballs from a snowcone machine and throwing them at him, so he shakes his head at you and waves his hands saying, “Nix! Nix!” He begins to tell you that there are laws against throwing snow inside bedrooms, so he throws you a book of laws with a photo of Lex Luthor on the front. You can do this imaginary game with any Latin words and concepts, putting them creatively in any place you can imagine. Make it fun. You will soon be amazed at your vocabulary retention, particularly when exam or practice-test time comes.

#2: Make Your Own Grammar Glossary

Okay, this one is especially necessary for those of you whose English grammar skills are rusty. This one is easy and simple, yet very important. Retell each grammar concept you learn at least two times without referring to the textbook: once to a real person, once in the back of your study notebook. Also, you should create your own glossary of terms in the very back pages. (Another Latin study bonus: Since grammar is grammar, what you learn for Latin will forever make you an expert in English grammar as well.)

(So, why not just copy the definitions out of your book? Ha ha! Because that is a form of kidding yourself. Learning something means making it a part of you, making it your own. You have to absorb the knowledge–which is often a painful process. You have to break a concept down into your head and then put it back together on your own. And when you can do that with something, you know you know it. Copying only transfers someone else’s knowledge from one sheet of paper to another without getting it into your head.)


Textbook definition: The supine is the form of the verb which has the case endings of a masculine noun of the fourth declension. It is found only in the accusative and ablative singular.                                                          (–From a public domain Latin textbook–)

Personal rephrasing: The supine is a verb form using 4th decl. m. noun endings, used only in acc. & abl. sing.

Make it stick. Make it yours. Make your own glossary.

#3: Rediscover Latin Composition

If you are a student in a college or high school classroom,  or are doing self-study from a modern textbook, psst…here’s a little secret: you’re going to be spending the most, perhaps all, of your translation time taking Latin sentences and making them into English. Most of your exercises and tests will be set up this way–some of my classes in college had no English-into-Latin practice whatsoever.

This is terrible!

The very best way to cement vocabulary, word endings, grammar and syntactic rules, and proper use of Latin idioms (did I leave anything out?) is to actually USE these things. You use them by taking English sentences or phrases and translating them into Latin.

A long, long time ago, schools had students do this all the time. Translating English sentences into Latin was called “Latin Composition” and has dozens and dozens of Victorian-era textbooks with this in the title. Chapters in textbooks from that era were equally balanced in their exercises of English Translation and Latin Composition. We moderns are doing it all wrong, the hard way.

So, here’s how to fix this: make sure to practice all the English → Latin translation exercises in your book. And then, a day or two after you have done your Latin to English translation practice and your mind is fresh once more, translate the sentences in your notebook back into English without looking, and see if they match the textbook.

You will build your mental muscles so much! Don’t shrug this off. It will benefit you more than anything else you can do.

Rethinking Flash Cards

Everybody knows it: Latin takes hard work. But–if you do the work, you will be unfathomably rewarded. You’ll appreciate this quote from Winston Churchill, who wrote in his memoirs:

Naturally I am biased in favor of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.

Love that. You must be one of the clever ones, to have chosen to study this language! Hopefully these three tips will make it all easier and pleasanter. Bonam fortunam!

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