Teach Yourself Latin?

Teach Yourself Latin?

Bella with Hobbitus Ille.

Dr Bentley said, “Isaac Newton’s Principia is the book for you. That tells more about the stars than anything else. I have a copy. I’m going to Boston for a few days, but I’ll try to send that over before I leave.”

That afternoon a youngster brought Nat the copy of Principia. Nat was too busy even to open the book then, but all day as he worked he kept smiling to himself. That evening he hurried through his supper, went up to his room, and lighted a candle. Smiling, he opened the book. A whole book about astronomy!

Disappointed he stared at it. He couldn’t read a word. He could figure out just enough to know that the book was written in Latin. Then another idea struck Nat— how long would it take to learn Latin, so he could read Principia? When Dr. Bentley got back Saturday, he’d ask him.

But Nat couldn’t wait that long to ask someone. The next day he asked a Harvard graduate he knew how long it would take to learn Latin.

“Latin?” Elias Wilson said, “It’s mighty hard. All the time I was in school, I had nightmares over Latin. “

Nat showed him the copy of Principia. “How long would I have to study Latin to read this?”

Mr Wilson threw up his hands. “Enough Latin to read that? You’d need at least eight years, I’d say— under a good teacher!”

On Saturday Dr Bentley dropped in at the chandlery, “Well, Nat, how are you enjoying Principia?”

“It’s in Latin.”

“Of course.” Dr Bentley smiled. “Latin is the language of scholars and scientists. Then they can all read each other’s books. A very handy language isn’t it?”

‘I suppose it is handy,” Nat said, “if you know it. But I don’t.”

Dr Bentley stared. “Dear me, I never thought of that!”

“I wondered if I could learn Latin . . .” Nat said.

“Of course! The very thing! Come see me this evening, Nat.”

That evening Dr. Bentley said, “Here you are: a grammar, a dictionary and— by the way, do you know your Bible well?”

“Yes, sir, but it’s in English.”

Dr. Bentley chuckled. “It’s in Latin, too, you know.” He opened a New Testament in Latin. “Think of some passage you know well.”

Nat repeated the opening verse of the Book of John: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

Dr Bentley showed him the same passage in Latin: In principio erat Sermo ille, et Sermo ille erat apud Deum, eratque ille Sermo Deus.

Nat said, “I’ve figured out three words already: In is just the same as our word; principio is ‘beginning’; Sermo is ‘word.'”


By the next summer, he had learned enough Latin to begin to translate Principia. . . . he translated Principia— a word at a time, until he had read another sentence. Sometimes he spent a whole evening on two or three sentences.

These passage are from Carry on Mr Bowditch, a juvenile historical novel about the Salem, Massachusetts native, Nathaniel Bowditch, who was a mathematical genius and an astronomer and the founder of modern maritime navigation and whose book, The New American Practical Navigator, is still carried on board every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel.

Nat goes on to teach himself French, so that he can read scientific works in that language as well, by the same method: a dictionary, a grammar, and a New Testament. He does run into problems with pronunciation, though, and must turn to a Frenchman to learn how to speak the words properly so that he can be understood as well as just be able to read in French. At first Nat doesn’t see the importance of pronunciation since he’s mainly after the knowledge that is in books, but his French friend convinces him that it is important.

Nat’s method of learning Latin and French looks nothing at all like how we teach languages to children or adults. And yet as I move forward with Latin and French with Bella and Sophie, I keep wondering if I might learn something from his outside the box methodology.

I recently encountered another autodidact who also taught himself multiple languages using creatively improvised methods, cobbling together a program from the books he had access to as well as the people around him. Daniel Boorstin writes about Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who discovered the ruins of Mycenae and Troy, in his book The Discoverers:

By his own system he acquired a score of languages, never missing an opportunity to learn or to practice what he learned. ‘This method consists in reading a great deal aloud, without making a translation; devoting one hour every day to writing essays upon subjects that interest one, correcting these under a teacher’s supervision, learning them by heart, and repeating in the next lesson what was corrected on the previous day.’ Within six months, he reports, he had acquired ‘a thorough knowledge of the English language,’ as part of the process having ‘committed to memory the whole of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.’ In only six weeks devoted to each, he learned to write ‘and to speak fluently’ French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and some others. When he traveled through the Middle East, he acquired a practical knowledge of Arabic.

The spoken word interested him most. He never forgot the cadence of spoken Greek, which he first heard when a drunken miller, a dropout from the Gymnasium, came into the grocery store where Schliemann was working and melodiously recited lines from Homer.


When he was a young man in Amsterdam, Russian merchants were coming there for the indigo auctions. Except for the Russian vice-consul, Heinrich found no one in Amsterdam who knew Russian, and when the vice-consul refused to be his teacher, he employed his usual system in a crash program to teach himself. He hired an old Dutchman to be his audience as he declaimed Russian two hours each evening. When the tenants of his boarding house complained, Heinrich did not change his system but he had to change lodgings twice before he was satisfied with his fluency in the language.

Bella plugs away at the Latin lessons slowly but steadily; but she will grab the Latin version of one of her favorite books, Winnie Ille Pu or Hobbitus Ille, and just flip through until she finds a passage she recognizes and then try to figure out which words mean what. As she gets older will she drift towards Bowditch’s or Schilemann’s sort of approach to language learning, immersion in a familiar text with just a dictionary and grammar to help her piece together the language?

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  • Carry on Mr. Bowditch! I knew I was familiar with that passage, but I couldn’t place it initially. I love hearing about Bella’s intellectual endeavors.

  • Oh, that is fascinating! All the Latin I know is from figuring it out as I come across it in the Church. I didn’t think I could actually learn Latin that way, but last week in the Atrium I pulled out the Vulgate Bible and was surprised how much I could figure out looking at a familiar passage (the Last Supper, in this case).

    • Yeah, you’d need a grammar and a dictionary to get past a certain point, but with both of those on hand, you can pretty much work your way through the text if you understand how to use them. So much of language learning is mastering grammar and then if you know how to use a dictionary you can use the Bible as your tool for translation practice and as your source for vocabulary. And since you know what the text is *supposed* to say, you can check your work in translating. Especially if like Bowdtich you know the Bible extremely well. He’d probably have had large swathes memorized from childhood.

    • “Figuring it out as I come across it in the Church” is exactly my current method!

      Granted, I took a year and a half of Latin in university. (It was nothing fancy — mostly the Oxford Latin textbooks and reader. A middle-schooler could have joined and learned as much as the rest of us did.) But my Latin had been dormant for several years when I started hearing the Traditional Latin Mass. It was like starting over in more ways than one: new language and new liturgy.

      From the Bible, I’d say that the Psalms make the easiest Latin, followed by the Gospels. I think it’s because both were written to be as easy to understand as possible. St. Paul’s epistles give me a lot of trouble, although I supposedly know them well.

      I wouldn’t say I “know” Latin now, but on a whim a few months ago, I pulled down my that Latin reader and opened it to a passage from Cicero that I recalled being particularly troublesome back in uni . . . and I was amazed at how much more smoothly I could read it than I did back then!

  • Eight years under a good teacher so you can read a book? Well, yes, if you hate your target language as much Elias Wilson does!

    Last year I read some interviews with priests who had studied Latin so that they could say the Latin Mass, and all of them said they just needed two years. Admittedly, ecclesiastical Latin is different from classical Latin. Then there is the Latin of the Principia, which I really know nothing about! But the School of Classics in my university designed the Latin course similarly to what the priests must have experienced: A year and a half of grammar and texts written for learners, then a trimester of excerpts from Cicero, Virgil, Catullus, et caetera. But these, yes, “under a good teacher” . . . and as part of a class where everyone was expected to help each other.

    Nat and Bella’s reading method eventually becomes part of modern language classes. At the B1 level, you start to get texts that you’re expected to figure your way through. The difference is that they likely won’t be things you’d choose to read — and that’s a bigger deal than modern teachers seem to know! But figuring out what you’d like to read (or listen to, or watch . . .) doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get it. I wish my current language school had a better library.

    Schliemann’s method also sounds a bit familiar. If “reading a great deal aloud without making a translation” is “reading even if you don’t understand,” then I’ve done a great deal of that . . . just not always aloud! Months after reading through a near-cryptic passage, I’ve gone back to it and been surprised at how easy I now find it. The paradox is that it would never have become easy if I hadn’t allowed it to be hard. That is, if I had given up because I wasn’t ready for it yet, then I never would have become ready!

    As for memorization, well, I haven’t committed an entire novel to memory! But song lyrics are becoming easier and easier to memorize.

    What I haven’t done yet is write essays (outside of class). Partly because I believe you shouldn’t produce “output” until you’ve had enough “input” (because this is how mistakes get “fossilized”), partly because I didn’t like reaching out to other people, and partly because I genuinely had nothing to say in German. And now that I’ve written all that down I realize . . . I have something to say now, I have great new teachers, and I feel the “input” starting to come out of me! This could be the beginning of something great . . .

  • I wonder if Elias Wilson hates Latin so much because he had bad teachers? I loved my high school Latin teacher. She was one of the best teachers I’ve had in my life, a woman with a gift for teaching, a true vocation to it, and a passion for Latin. She had been teaching in the same classroom for more than 20 years at the time I had her and she spent her summers going on archaeological digs and she dreamed in Latin. Mrs Fugate was an amazing woman and I was blessed to know her. She could make Latin accessible to the worst dunce who stumbled into her classroom. I wonder if a different teacher might have killed my interest in Latin.

    I definitely did some memorization of poetry and prayers in both Latin and French. And that definitely helped to solidify my love of the language and my sense of it.

    I never did any memorization in Irish, though, and it still feels the most foreign language of those I’ve studied. We never got to read anything interesting in my Irish classes and I did have a pretty bad teacher my first year and an only mediocre teacher my second year. My first year Irish teacher was a great teacher for the literature classes, I loved his modern Irish drama class and his tradition of the Irish epic class. But he wasn’t at all interested in teaching beginning Irish and it showed. He probably would have been great to take a linguistics class with, though. I did pick up a bit about linguistics from him.

    My second year Irish teacher was a post doc who did love the language and had even written a funny Irish language parody of the great epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Hers was a vegetarian epic, the Táin Rúttapaca Cuailnge, The Rustling of the Rutabagas of Cooley. But her teaching methods didn’t really mesh well with my learning style. Moreover she wasn’t on the same page as we were, being quite taken aback at how little we’d learned in first year. So maybe if I’d had her from the beginning, it would have worked better.