I’ve always thought that Latin ought to be at least as much fun to learn as any living language – maybe more so, because it’s so organized. Also, it’s mostly done changing (HURRAY FOR DEAD LANGUAGES!), so its oddities hold still while you figure them out.
I have a daughter who was ready for a foreign language, and I thought Latin would suit her really well, so all that was left was to find a curriculum that we could enjoy working through. We tried Minimus by Barbara Bell. It has its good points, but overall didn’t do what I hoped. Specifically, it was failing to teach her Latin. So I added stuff.
(Did you miss my review? Check it out here.)
PART ONE: Familiarization and Repetition
There’s a specialized literary term (that escapes me at the moment) about taking something strange and making it familiar and comfortable. I tried to do that for Latin for Meg and the rest of my little co-op this year. Minimus was great for this initial part of language acquisition. I also added other books.
We particularly studied the book Olivia by Ian Falconer, translated by Amy High into Latin, so that the students eventually started picking it up. I pointed out words and elements that Olivia and Minimus shared.
A major challenge of learning Latin in college is the absurd volume of stuff to memorize in a semester and how little help you get remembering any of it. Take numbers. You get one class session to memorize them all in a list and then, boom, you’re off to learn something new. I hope you remember them all.
But that is a silly way to learn numbers if you’ve got time. Board books teach them much better. If a counting book works in English, why not use it for Latin? So we wrote our own counting book. I love how it turned out.
We bought a small blank notepad and starting sketching animals, and then I looked up numbers, nouns, and adjectives in my college Latin dictionary (Traupman). Page one was “one white mouse,” translated as “unum albus mus.” Every week, the kids picked what kind of animal to add next and helped illustrate it. My favorite page of the counting book is probably “novem virides dracones”—nine green dragons. The middle dragon carries a little wooden treasure chest.
Every week, we re-read the counting book from the beginning.
PART TWO: The Conversational Part
Honestly, I haven’t done a great job getting Meg to use Latin conversationally. She can a little bit. I feel like she will pick up more in time. For the most part, she gets to listen to my husband and I talk to her in Latin, translating as we go.
I use mom Latin all the time. Mom Latin is pretty much what it sounds like, but the fabulous thing is that it’s basically all in the imperative, so I only have to keep track of one mood. Wash your hands! Come here! Sit down! Eat! Occasionally I add a question: What is it? Are you okay?
PART THREE: Where She Actually Starts Learning Things
It always drives me crazy when level one language courses only give me bits of information and never explain things all the way. I think Meg is like me: just tell me how it works! Minimus isn’t the worst I’ve seen at this, but it also was not rigorous. Meg wasn’t confident that she knew anything, and I didn’t think she knew anything either.
First I tried giving her vocabulary words and making sure she knew the meaning—the words used in Minimus and Olivia—and also other fun stuff so she could say things like “Rome conquered Carthage.” But the trouble with all vocabulary and no grammar is that you still don’t know what to do with the words.
I started giving Meg a verb a day to conjugate. I don’t have to know all the verbs myself because we own a copy of 501 Latin Verbs by Richard E. Prior and Joseph Wohlberg. Meg and I are going through all four conjugations, in an organized and orderly way thank you very much, in the present active indicative. It’s so restful and reassuring. Lesson planning at this point takes almost no preparation or emotional energy on my part. I’m re-learning the Latin along with her, and she is fearless.
She can now sort verbs into their conjugations based on their special vowel, and she can conjugate any regular verb I give her in the present active indicative. Once she is a little more confident in this, we will concentrate on nouns for a while. At that point, she will be ready to compose her own sentences, and I’ll have to come up practice sentences for her to translate. That looks like a lot of work. Eventually we’ll come back to verbs in their other tenses and moods.
I think the moral of the story is that you can teach anything if you don’t mind rewriting your curriculum from scratch. I am now taking recommendations for Latin curricula aimed at early learners, which would not require me to come up with all the practice sentences myself.
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; all other images courtesy of Carolyn Bales.