The Latin language (lingua latīna) is an ancient language with Indo-European roots. Many people refer to Latin as a “dead” language because outside it is not commonly spoken outside of Latin classes and certain religious services. However, Latin is not truly “dead” – it has influenced the French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and English languages, among others, and it is vital to many literary studies. Learning how to study Latin can help you better understand many modern languages, become an accomplished scholar of classic literature, and be a part of a tradition that is thousands of years old.
Learn Latin verbs.
In English, a verb is typically an action. But in Latin, a verb can describe an action, the state of something, or any change in a person, place, or thing. Latin verbs are composed of a stem (the base word) and its appropriate ending (the part that makes a word functional), and are expressed using four qualifiers:
the person of the verb (first person: I/we, second person: thou/you, or third person: he/she/it)
the tense or time of the verb (present, future, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect)
the voice of the verb (active or passive)
the mood of the verb (indicative, subjunctive, or imperative)
Study Latin nouns.
Nouns are a bit less complex than verbs, but can still be challenging nonetheless. The ending of a noun describes its number (singular or plural), its gender (masculine/feminine/neuter), and case (nominative/genitive/dative/accusative/ablative/vocative).
Understand Latin adjectives.
In Latin, an adjective is inflected like a noun, usually either in accordance with the first and second declensions (for example, magnus, magna, and magnum are all forms of the adjective “great”), or occasionally in the third declension (for example, acer, acris, and acre are all forms of “sharp”). Adjectives in Latin are similar to English adjectives in that they fall into one of three categories (called “degrees”) of comparison:
positive (such as long or short) is formed by adding “-a” or “-um” to the end of the word
comparative (such as longer or shorter) is formed by adding “-ior” for male/female words or “-ius” for neuter words.
superlative (such as longest or shortest) is formed by adding “-issimus” to the end of the word
Learn Latin adverbs.
Adverbs have comparative and superlative forms, just like adjectives. An adverb formed from regular inflections ends in “-ius” for the comparative form and “-e” for the superlative. Adverbs based on an adjective in the first and second declension end in “-e,” while those based on an adjective in the third declension end in “-ter.”
Use Latin conjunctions.
Conjunctions in Latin connect words, phrases, clauses, and sentences, just like conjunctions in English do (such as “and,” “but,” and “if”). Conjunctions are fairly straightforward, and therefore should not be too difficult to learn and use. There are three basic types of conjunctions:
coordinating conjunctions (connect words/phrases/clauses of equal rank) – et, -que, atque
disjunctive conjunctions (showing opposition or choice) – aut, vel, -ve
adversative conjunctions (expressing contrast) – at, autem, sed, tamen
Study cases and declensions.
The case gives a noun its distinct “role,” essentially dictating to the reader/listener how that noun functions within the sentence. The case of a given noun does not change the meaning of that word. It simply changes the way that word acts or conveys meaning in the sentence. Declensions are the set of endings that are tacked on to nouns, pronouns, and adjectives in Latin to form a given case, which is often called the “case form” of a word. There are six regular cases used in the Latin language: five for nouns, and one that is used for some pronouns and adjectives.
Nominative is called the “subject case,” meaning it refers to the person or object that comes before the verb.
Genitive shows one person’s possession of an object.
Dative is the case used for an indirect object.
Accusative designates the direct object, usually after an action verb that has a receiver but occasionally used after a preposition.
Ablative is used as an adverb, or in conjunction with prepositions and verbs.
The special declension for pronouns and adjectives end in “-ius” in the genitive singular and usually end in “-î” in the dative singular.
Learn verb mood.
Mood is one of the qualifiers that determine the function of a verb. The mood of a verb may be thought of as that verb’s “conditions of reality” for a given verb’s action. The two most common moods that are used in Latin are indicative and subjunctive, though imperative is sometimes also used.
Indicative moods mean that the verb’s action actually happened, is happening, or will happen. For example, in the sentence “I went to the store,” the verb “went” describes an action that has actually taken place.
Subjunctive moods mean that the verb’s action takes some departure from reality, so to speak. An example of a subjunctive mood is a sentence in which you ask someone to imagine a hypothetical occurrence or set of circumstances. Those circumstances do not presently exist in reality, nor will they necessarily exist in the future, but they deal with potential or theoretical events.
Imperative moods can be thought of as either commands, requests/wishes/prayers, or negative imperatives (a command or request to stop or avoid some given activity).
Understand deponent verbs.
Deponent verbs are one of the most difficult concepts to learn in Latin because there is no English language equivalent. Essentially a deponent verb is a verb that has a passive form with an active meaning. The closest example in English might be a scenario in which the sentence “The car was driven by Julian” would mean “Julian drove the car,” despite the way it is constructed on paper or in speech.
Deponent forms of verbs are very confusing to Latin students, but once you’ve memorized the tables of regular verbs you should develop an understanding of the passive forms in each conjugation. With practice and a firm understanding of passive verb conjugations, you will come to understand how a deponent verb form functions.
Invest in a Latin textbook.
If you’re learning Latin through a class, you may have been assigned a textbook already. If you don’t have a textbook, or if you’d like a secondary textbook to complement what you’re learning in the first, you may want to buy Wheelock’s Latin. Named after the author, Frederic M. Wheelock, Wheelock’s Latin is generally considered the standard text for learning Latin, even if you’re teaching yourself the language at home. It builds sequentially by first introducing you to grammar and vocabulary, then building into increasingly complex sentences and short readings.
Buy a Latin dictionary.
Having a dictionary of Latin words and their various cognates will be immensely helpful in learning the vocabulary. Any good Latin dictionary should suffice. If you’re unsure which dictionaries are best for learning the language, consult user reviews online or ask others who have learned the language which dictionary they used.
Some scholars recommend Langenscheidt’s Pocket Latin Dictionary, but which dictionary you choose is largely a matter of personal preference.
Latin uses the same letters as the English alphabet and many of the same basic language habits, which may make it easier to grasp a given word or phrase. Still, a dictionary will be necessary to distinguish between the various forms a word may take, and can help you when you need to check a word on the fly.
Make and use flash cards.
Flash cards are an excellent way to learn vocabulary words in any language. To make flash cards, start with a blank pack of index cards. Write the word or phrase in Latin on one side of the card and its English translation on the back. Then quiz yourself, keeping a pile of words/terms you struggled with so that you can revisit those cards with further practice.
You may be able to find pre-printed Latin index cards online or in a book store, but many experts recommend making your own. That’s because the practice of writing out the words/terms of a foreign language will help you grow proficient and learn to think in that language.
Use mnemonic devices.
A mnemonic device is a learning technique that helps you remember something complex by associating that information with another word, a sentence, or an image. Acronyms (forming a word from the first letter of each word in a phrase) and rhymes are two of the most common types of mnemonic devices. There are numerous mnemonic devices for learning Latin that can be found online and in books, or you can invent your own to help you study.
A popular rhyme used to remember future-tense vowels is “Conjugations one and two, in the future Bo Bi Bu; Conjugations four and three, in the future A then E.” Another rhyme for remembering feminine nouns in the fourth declension goes “Domus = house and manus = hand, feminine will always stand.”
One popular mnemonic device for remembering the i-stem adjectives that form their genitive using “-ius” and dative with “-i” goes “Some Uncles’ Umbrellas Are All Too Nice” to memorize Solus, Unus, Ullus, Alter, Alius, Totus, Nullus.”
An easy way to remember the word endings for first declension Latin nons in the five primary cases is “MariA, queen of reggAE, gave Fannie mAE some jAM for her bananā.” (nominitve: -a, genitive: -ae, dative: -ae, accusative: -am, abblative: -ā)
Set aside study time.
Balancing your work life and your private life can be difficult, and setting aside an extra slice of your day for studying may seem impossible. However, if you budget your time right by keeping a regular schedule and designating time to study each day, it will definitely be manageable.
Study every single day. Having an inconsistent or sporadic study schedule will make it more difficult for you find the time to study and to absorb what you learn.
Set an alarm to remind you to study each day. Then make a to-do list of the lessons you’ll be studying for each day. It may be helpful to make a list for the following day at the end of your study session. That way you’ll know whether you’ve covered everything you wanted to study that day, and the information will be fresh enough that you’ll know where to pick up again the following day.
Determine your ideal study conditions.
Some people are able to focus better at night. Others prefer to study first thing in the morning. While some people prefer to study in the comfort of their room, others find studying in a library to be less distracting. If you’re studying Latin, you may need conditions that are just right for quiet, contemplative study, and that means you’ll need to figure out how you study best.
Try to study in a quiet place, and remove any potential distractions.
If at all possible, aim to study in the same place every day. This can help create a mindset that will allow you to sit down and get to work right when you need to.
If you’re naturally a morning person, you may prefer to study early in the day. If you’re a night owl, you may find it easier to study in the evening. Any time of day is fine, as long as it works well with your body. However, studying later than your usual bedtime can make you too tired to retain the information you learn.
Take periodic breaks. If you start to feel fatigued or frustrated with studying, it’s a good time to take a break. Stand up and stretch, walk around a bit, and have a nutritious snack if you’re hungry. Breaking up your study sessions like this can help prevent your brain from feeling overloaded.
Memorize word forms.
Most people learning a language do not commit each word’s form table to memory, but in Latin this is necessary in order to fully understand and use the language. The easiest way to memorize word forms is to write out the tables for each word you’re studying. Then keep writing out each form until you have memorized it. Unfortunately there is no easier method to memorize something than to practice it over and over until you’ve committed it to memory.
Start with noun declensions and continue writing out each declension until you can instantly recall it. Then move on to adjectives. Then regular verbs in the indicative active, passive, and subjunctive forms. If you do this, you will eventually commit each word form to memory, and with continued practice you will never lose this knowledge.
Try repeating the declension or conjugation you’re studying that day during your spare moments. It can help speed up the time it takes to learn these word forms by memory.
Look for cognates.
A cognate is the most closely-related word(s) related to a given word or phrase. Identifying English cognates of a Latin word/phrase can help you get a better sense of how the word functions and what it means.
Cognates rarely ever mean the exact same thing as the original term. Often the cognate will have a similar meaning but a different part of speech. For example, the Latin word “fidelis” is an adjective, but its English cognate is fidelity (which is a noun).
Read in Latin.
The best way to put your Latin skills to use is by learning to read a piece of text completely in Latin. This may seem like a daunting task, but it is the most efficient way to master the Latin language. Some scholars and educators recommend Lingua Latina (available online and in some campus bookstores) as a good introductory Latin text. It introduces grammatical concepts at a manageable pace and builds to tell a complex story completely in Latin, giving you all the skills you need to fluently read Latin along the way.
Read slowly. It’s important that you resist the urge to rush through the text, as you may miss the grammatical functions of words if you do not take your time. Take note of each noun’s case and each verb’s tense and mood.
Try to get through an entire passage without looking up any words or forms the first time through. This is where intelligent guessing – the practice of using a word’s context to understand that word – will be helpful. Then go back through the passage a second time and underline any words you absolutely cannot form a guess about. Look up those words, make flash cards of them, and practice them at length. Then go back and re-read the passage a third time until you can understand the entire passage.
Use pop culture to learn Latin.
Latin may be an archaic language, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Many Latin scholars have found ways to incorporate learning/studying Latin into contemporary popular culture. This may help reinforce what you’ve learned by applying your Latin studies to everyday pursuits.
If you have a study partner, you can play a Latin version of Scrabble online to help reinforce your understanding of Latin grammar and spelling.
Read contemporary books in Latin. Harry Potter has been translated into Latin, and you can purchase the book at an online retailer or read excerpts for free online. You can also read The Hobbit in Latin, or opt for some complex wordplay by reading The Cat in the Hat in Latin.
Watch films in Latin. You can find a partial list of films with Latin dialogue on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) by searching for “Movies in Latin language.”