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So You Want to Learn Latin…

November 14, 2006

A while ago, a loyal reader of ours (“Legion of Mary”) requested that I write a post on which Latin texts I recommend for personal study. I have to decided to offer instead a few remarks on the texts that I use to instruct students in Latin.

I studied Latin in graduate school as a requirement for a masters in historical theology. My professor, a wise and remarkable Jesuit, used a text called Wheelock’s Latin, now a classic in university Latin courses. The text was very easy for me to follow, yet it provided a rigorous introduction to the ancient language.

I have been teaching Latin to middle school students for over a year now at a Legion of Christ school (I have no affiliation with the Legion or with Regnum Christi other than by employment). I use the same text in my classes that my professor proscribed for his Latin course, Wheelock’s Latin. While it is college textbook, I have had a great deal of success teaching seventh and eighth graders from it. In fact, I like it more for my purposes than a more popular high school text, Ecce Romani, which is likely the most commonly used text for middle school and high school.

Wheelock’s forms one in the fundamentals of Latin from the start. Before translating, before speaking, before writing, Wheelock’s ensures that one has a firm grasp on the various noun declension and verb conjugation paradigms. Thus, I have found the text to be quite analytical, which has aided my students in mathematics since the two disciplines engender much of the same sort of thinking (application of formulae, memorization of tables, etc.). But Wheelock’s is also rather comprehensive, teaming grammar with important vocabulary lists.

I supplement Wheelock’s with material out of another text, which I do not use directly in my classes. This text, entitled simply Latin, is part of the popular Teach Yourself language series. I occasionally photocopy a lesson from this text to complement a corresponding chapter in Wheelock’s. I especially like using the vocabulary lists from Latin because they tend to be thematic (one chapter’s vocab may be related to the ocean, while another chapter’s to battles). This really gives my students a strong formation in technical and colloquial Latin. That way, my students work through the material of roughly two entire Latin texts, preparing them for whichever text their high school instructors may use. Plus, learning Latin will improve their SAT scores in both the math and verbal sections!

If you are interested in teaching yourself how to read and write Latin, I highly recommend you use both of these texts in tandem. I believe they are straightforward enough for beginners to use with or without an instructor. Whether you are in law, medicine, history, philosophy, mathematics or theology, learning Latin will enhance your ability to think clearly, to apply abstract patterns of thought, to appreciate history and culture, and to understand the roots of your own language. Doctrina abunda; es bene latine doctus!

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