Ajarn Street

Learning Latin

There's nothing like setting yourself a challenge

Recently, in search of some intellectual stimulation I decided to teach myself Latin. A teacher by trade I felt somewhat hypocritical extolling the virtues of education, knowledge and study to my pupils only to find myself night after night subjecting my mind to hours of iPad surfing and social networking. I read too, of course. But it's not really work, is it? It's not a challenge.

My Thai language skills are not good and I feel bad about that. I assuage the guilt by telling myself that I cohabited with an anglophone girlfriend for the first year and a half I lived in Bangkok. What could I do? When did I have an opportunity to speak it? I picked up 'Taxi Thai' pretty much straight away, and soon learned how to tell the waitress I didn't like ice in my beer. And there my Thai stayed, static, like a Ptolemaic star.

A 'dead' language?

So it was not without some hand-wringing that I decided to learn a language that has been described by some as 'dead'.

Why learn Latin? First of all, 'studies show that at least two years of Classical Latin augments one's English vocabulary by 20,000 words'. Now I don't know about you guys, but adding an extra twenty thousand words to my vocabulary sounded pretty good.

It seems obvious to mention the inevitable rewards of reading everything from Cicero and Horace to Aquinas and Spinoza in the original language. One professor of Latin writes that 'there is nothing in comparison to the world that opens up when you can sit down and read Livy and understand what you're reading. This is like growing wings, or being born into another existence.'

That sold me.

The Dowling method

The composer of that inspirational little quote is a Rutgers University professor who developed a method for studying the language he (rather modestly) named after himself: the Dowling Method. This is the system I am learning with and it involves three major stages.

The first of these stages is familiarising yourself with some basic linguistic concepts. On his 'website' this takes around ten minutes to read, or an hour to fully comprehend. A major new concept for native English speakers to digest is that Latin - unlike English - is an 'inflected' language, meaning nouns (for example) change based on their purpose in a sentence.

The second stage of the Dowling Method involves 'brute memorisation' of noun declensions and a handful of other paradigms. How does one go about memorising them, exactly? By learning them by heart, just like in school, and then writing them from memory, hundreds of times. In all, Dowling estimates that this should take six months after which point the final, fun part begins.

The third and last stage of Dowling's system for learning Latin is studying a reader called Lingua Latina, written by the late Danish linguist Hans Oerberg. Using this book 'the student, who requires no previous knowledge of Latin, begins with simple sentences, such as "Rōma in Italiā est" (Rome is in Italy). Words are always introduced in a context which reveals the meaning behind them.'

Remarkably for a language learner's book I've found almost no negative commentary about it online. I have not yet reached this stage in the Method and am still in the memorisation phase, but I am excited about finally getting to read and think in Latin. Dowling believes that 'if you follow this method, you can learn to actually read Latin -- to read Latin sentences in the same way you're reading this one -- in about two years of daily work.'

Method in my madness?

Why are you reading about this on Ajarn.com? Well, in talking to a Thai high school student of mine about upcoming SATs I asked what she expected to get on the verbal portion of the exam. I was told that anything over 400 would be considered respectable.

Looking at average SAT verbal scores (by foreign language studied) throws up some interesting results. The cognitive advantages of knowing a second or third language are obvious and well-known. The average for an American student on the verbal section of the SAT is about 500 points but students who study Spanish score considerably higher, averaging around 560. Students who study French and German attain even more impressive scores. A budding francophone can expect to score 630 points on their SAT verbal. But those who study Latin fare even better, averaging a whopping 680 points. No other language does as well. Why is this?

The classicist Victor Davis Hanson states that 'nothing so enriches the vocabulary, so instructs about English grammar and syntax, so creates a discipline of the mind, an elegance of expression, and serves as a gateway to the thinking and values of Western civilization as mastery of a page of Virgil or Livy'.

Looking at the figures I've just presented it is hard to disagree with him. The process of memorisation I'm currently undergoing was a near-universal experience in schools just sixty years ago. Why not today? Was our education system really so backward back then that we had to abandon Latin? Is it a sign of greater civilisational enlightenment that British students can today take A-Levels in subjects called 'General Studies' and 'Critical Thinking'?

To this some might respond by asking why anyone should study a 'dead language', but that would be missing the point on two scores. Firstly it ignores the aforementioned cognitive benefits of a grounding in the language. Secondly it attributes death to something that is immortal.

Hanson reckons four years of high-school Latin would dramatically arrest the decline in American education. Could it do the same for Thai education? I realise the teaching of Latin in Thai schools is as unlikely as Cato the Elder suing for peace with the Carthaginians, but in a year or so when I feel proficient enough to teach the basics of the language I'll find myself some willing participants and report back with the results. Meanwhile, I have to get back to this fifth noun declension.

Derek Hopper

Follow me on Twitter @derekmhopper


I admire Mr. Derek Hopper for his Latin learning. I did the same and I improved my English (English is my second language). When I attended Law in the Philippines for a short time (1 semester), Roman Law was one of our subjects which were full of Latin words like "Ignorantia legis non excusat". I wonder why they say it's a "dead language" while in fact we find many Latin words in sciences and law which are close to English, or at least some words can be easily guessed according to their usage in sentences. When I learned that my first name is a Roman one (though it is mythical), I came to love Latin ever more.
I believe in Mr. Hopper's report about SAT verbal scores and the theory behind having significant differences in the scores.

Thank you.

By nestor d. fermin, Kabinburi, Prachinburi (19th October 2014)

Too many in education have never stepped outside of the educational system. Many went straight from being taught to being teachers with no real world in between. Institutionalized to the point of not understanding that life isn't about scoring high on an SAT. Derek is spending his leisure time more productively than the majority of layabout teslers. But getting his mind around Spanish or some other live language would boost his resume much more. http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/2011/02/10-reasons-not-to-learn-latin.html

By UrbanMan, near an aircon (14th October 2014)

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