Latin is the language the Church used for millennia. It's not reserved for Augustine and Tertullian, but John Owen and John Calvin also development masterful Latin prose. I love Latin, not because of its grammar, but because of what it means for the Church.
Latin is far too important to be used as a parlor trick, pedagogical tool, or heuristic device. The fact that it's the grandfather of Spanish and French isn't really that helpful, since neither preserved the declension system or dynamic word order, two of the most important aspects of Latin. Using Latin as a gateway to Spanish and French is entirely backwards, since, by the time you're learning Latin, you should already be multilingual. Day-to-day Spanish and French lead you to Latin, never the other way around. Learning to fly by starting with a fighter jet instead of a Cessna isn't wise. To restate: if your goal is not to read Latin, don't learn Latin. If you want something with a case system, give Russian or Finnish -- both are great.
Latin is too important for the goal of learning Latin to be able to successfully cosplay Steven Fry, impressing everyone with your mastery of noun parsing; the goal must be to read and appreciate a wider scope of literature. People parrot the unhelpful reasons for learning Latin so much that the real reasons remain hidden. Because you can acquire our contemporary western European languages via stories without having to learn a noun declension system, you can expand your literary world via French (etc) in a low impact way, while laying the groundwork for later expansion into Latin. There's everything right about appreciating Le Petit Prince before tackling Virgil. While everyone else is translating single sentences, you'll be reading full corpora.
Using Latin to learn language principles is incredibly archaic, and will likely lead to an unhealthy focus on European languages. Thanks to missionaries and linguistics all over the world, we now know that Latin only has a tiny selection of the enormous range of linguistic capabilities. There’s everything right about actively teaching linguistics at an early age. Linguistics hasn't been a branch of philosophy for several decades: it's now a well development branch of science. Just like with physics, you can teach it iteratively. Perhaps start out explaining that many languages get by just fine without plurals whereas others needed to develop tone. Later explain the variance between spoken and written language: spoken language doesn't have punctuation, proving that punctuation isn't part of grammar, but part of style guides. Linguistics can also be used to teach history. For example, English history has always been linked to the battle of Hastings in 1066. Examples are truly endless: why did Spanish, French, and Italian grow out of Latin, but the language of the Persian empire never really expanded anywhere? How did Greek go from being the language of the western world to being stuck in one place in Europe? Why is there a French-speaking part of the southern United States? Linguistics can also break you out of a western mindset. Why is Chinese called a language, when it's really a group of languages? (Cantonese and Mandarin are different languages.) Why are the languages of tent dwelling peoples so unbelievably complex? How is it even remotely possible that some Native American languages are related to languages in the Old World?
There seems to also be a Biblical narrative problem that needs to be addressed. This problem probably just stems from everyone repeating something inaccurate and never questioning it. When you read Exodus 3, you see that there's no burning bush anywhere: the entire point of the narrative is that it's an unburning bush. Similarly, the point of the Tower of Babel record (notice I never say "story") is that the people were scattered. Had God only created new languages or language families, we know that, from watching the New World slave trades, a pidgin would naturally emerge, and the building efforts to continue. We have language processing and adaptation built-in. Studying a language to grammatically master it is a rationalistic Enlightenment phenomenon that Christians need to stop mirroring. It simply doesn't reflect how people are created in the image of God. Language, like covenant, the concept of the priesthood, and marriage predates the fall.
It's important to treat Latin as a language like French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Dutch, and German. It's a language to be read, and even spoken, not as a code system to be parsed. It's not math. You have in-built language processing capabilities. You don't learn language, you have language, you acquire languages. This is something the people of God should have known since the Garden, and it's also one of the defining aspects of Chomskyan linguistics, and the Comprehensible Input revolution in linguistics. The evolutionary worldview explains it one way, but we understand that God built language processing into us as a core part of the imago Dei.
As Van Til would say, the atheistic worldview is stealing from our worldview, but Christians don't seem to know it yet: none of the books at Mardel Bookstore are any good for language acquisition. Christians are still following the rationalistic Enlightenment bottom-up model of consciously micromanaging language via rules instead of letting God's creation do what it's built to do. A comment like "you need to master grammar for communication to be effective" is a statement of rationalism, not one that relates to real-world communication.
Simply read, write, speak, and listen endlessly. As the soul-crushing paradigm-memorization model continues to die out, more content appears on YouTube to help you go from reading Latin to speaking it. The days of 19th century rationalistic Enlightenment-poisoned school rooms are over. You have access to more than mere grammar texts; you can listen to Latin story telling.
Much of the problems people have with language stems from a century of myths in the classroom – myths which historically described arrogant public schooling, but myths which, with mind shattering irony, are also often pushed by homeschool teachers (to mention Mardel again: their homeschool language section is just as bad as their prophecy section). Even a loose grasp of linguistics will help you break free from the ice grip of the schoolroom. So-called "proper English grammar" is largely a myth that you'll only hear about from poorly trained teachers trying to force prescriptivism down the throats of students. Prescriptivism is the bane of the linguistics world. The entire point of a living language is that it changes. It's 2021, so you can and should split your infinitives just as you can and should end a sentence with a preposition . For some reason, most English teachers don't know of various English dialects or the various registers we use regularly.
To follow a model based on a Biblical anthropology, you acquire the language, then study the literature. It's top down, not bottom up. Trying to build up a language by studying grammar is entirely impractical, and pointless. Simply let God's creation do the heavy lifting for you. Don't let the atheistic world have all the successes in this area.
A skewed understanding of grammar has been the occasion for countless instances of abuse. If English teachers understood their jobs better, they'd help you understand Milton and guide you in better use of imagery instead of trying to force one state-approved use of prepositions. Maybe then we'd have better literacy, not merely in quantity, but in quality. Regarding any language, do you want your story to be "I was able to read X" or "I can't believe I had to memorize Y..."?
The only real problem with properly acquiring Latin is mining through our embarrassment of riches. We're no longer stuck with poorly written textbooks with endless declensions and conjugations. There's been a significant resurgence of Latin in the 21st century resulting in nearly endless freely available Latin training videos and Latin translations of books like Cat in the Hat, Winnie the Pooh, The Little Prince, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Latin also shares something of a problem with Greek: pronunciation. Christian pronunciation of Latin and Greek is almost always factually, measurably, and verifiably wrong. Even seminary professors who are the editors of the best Latin works get this wrong. You can't simply pronounce Latin quickly in a Texas accent and expect to be saying anything meaningful. Phonemic vowel length is a core aspect of the language that's needed for later studies in Latin poetry. Despite what confused French, Greek, and Latin teachers say, the markings on the letters don't really change the meaning of a text, since it's context that drives meaning, not the jots and tittles. Losing the forest for the trees is how exegetical fallacies form. However, if you ever want to pronounce anything, work with poetry, or speak Latin, you do need to be careful. It's best to learn the markings over Latin words and practice vowel length early. You want to sound Roman, not Texan.
In terms of practical tips, here are a few:
First, you must begin reading on day one. When I first got into Latin, I thought verbs were 80% of the language, nouns 15%, and misc the 5%. In reality, all languages are split between syntax and morphology, with morphology being in the minority. In that minority, you have verbs, nouns, adjectives, participles, etc. The whole of all the forms of words fits into the minority of the language. You can't justify spending too much time on it. You need to get into syntax immediately -- you do this by reading.
Second, fly through the declensions quickly. There's nothing special about the 3rd (is) declension, but there's everything special about the ablative. There's no reason anyone should be studying the 3rd (is) declension. You should learn the fact that there 5 patterns, then just focus on the cases. The cases matter, the declensions don't.
Third, there's no first, second, third, fourth, and fifth declension. Those are entirely pointless terms that provide zero value and represent an entirely capricious ordering. They're the ae, i, is, us, and ei declensions. You know they're keyed by their genitive, so start calling them by their genitive. You'll never forget the genitive form.
My ideal Latin textbook would start with imperfect verbs in chapter one, then get through all the declensions in chapter two, then give examples, preferably in story form, where the imperfect uses the nominative and accusative all the declensions. I'd start with verbs since they don't require nouns, whereas nouns require some type of verb. I'd start with imperfect since it's cleaner than present. I'd start with all the declensions at the same time, since there's no real order. I'd start with nominative and accusative since they don't require any explanation for European language speakers (including anyone speaking English). After that, I'd focus on ablative or dative for a while. This focus on syntax over morphology corrects the broken priority that has hegemony. The following resources from Ørberg and Moreland combined get close to my ideal.
A lot of people say you should pick one resource and stick with it, but I've never found that to be helpful in any area of life. Most resources only have a handful of helping things. One might explain verbs great, but make nouns more confusing than they should be. You really do need to shop around per topic. Ultimately you need to own your own education. Teachers and authors are only guides and facilitators.
Let's dive into real world resources...
Lingua Latina per se Illustrata, Pars I: Familia Romana (Ørberg)
This is without question the best Latin book. Get this immediately and work through it. Work through it. It will teach you Latin. Get it for yourself, your kids, your friends, and your friend's kids. This is the book you need.
Even if you've already studied Latin and can translate Latin, you need to ask yourself if you can read Latin. When you go from Spanish to English, you have to train your brain to wait for the noun:
big, orange, textured, bouncy ball
In Latin, you have to wait for the verb:
Dominus servis mala et pira dat
The wrong way to work with any language is to look for the subject or verb first, then look for modifiers. That's what broken textbooks prescribe, but nobody in real life does that. This book will train your brain to buffer the words until you get the verb, just as Spanish speakers have to do with English nouns. If you're consciously skimming around parsing declensions, you're not reading anything. You might be able to pass a test, but your actual education is skewed, and good luck retaining your language skills in a decade.
LingQ is amazing. Get it if you're learning Latin, French, Spanish, Dutch, etc. It's loaded with resources, but you can import your own. The entire idea is that you can click a word or range of words to get a list of potential meanings from community contributions or from myriad reference guides.
I like to copy and paste French and Spanish subtitles of TV episodes to read through and understand them before actually watching the episode. It's incredibly helpful. As of right now, Lingua Latina is on there too.
One thing wrong with LingQ by default is that it marks all words as known when you go to the next page. That is, by default it prevents you from focusing on context. That's a nonstarter. The good news is that you can disable "Paging moves to known" in the options screen.
The other problem is that LingQ focuses on known words and daily gloss identification, which they call "creating LingQs". To maximize learning, you want to avoid looking up words all the time, and let your brain do the heavy lifting. Personally, I only "create LingQs" when I think I know the word and for phrases I want to track. Glosses aren't really helpful anyway, since words have semantic domains, not glosses -- something LingQs creator, Steve Kaufmann, states explicitly on his YouTube channel. This is also something every Christian needs to understand to avoid exegetical fallacies.
LingQ is a great tool, you just need to adjust the settings and use it differently than its default game-oriented setup.
Latin: An Intensive Course (Moreland)
This is my favorite Latin grammar. Why would I recommend a grammatically intense book when my entire point is to avoid grammar so you can focus on text? Because, this book gets to the point without extra fluff. Skim through the entire book first. No component of a language works in a vacuum. Get an idea of what you're getting yourself into as you work through Lingua Latina per se Illustrata.
The exercises in the book are from a deeply grammatical perspective, but if you think of the exercises as examples, you're in a better place to use the book effectively.
A New Latin Primer and Cornelia (Mima Maxey, 1885)
These are great for reading practice. Like Latina Lingua, they progressively increase the complexity of the grammatical constructs throughout the story. These works are from 1885, showing us that there were people who understood the power of learning via stories long before Ørberg or Richards. It's public domain, but you can buy hard copies.
- archive.org - A New Latin Primer
- Amazon - A New Latin Primer
- archive.org - Cornelia
- Amazon - Cornelia
Luke's resources are profoundly helpful. He's a fluent Latin speaker. FLUENT. LATIN. SPEAKER. "Dead language" just means the grammar doesn't change -- it doesn't mean nobody speaks or writes it. He has audiobooks in Latin, a YouTube channel entirely in Latin, and another YouTube channel in English where he discusses Latin. Definitely subscribe. The only odd thing about Luke is that he sometimes tries to promote the soul-crushing Dowling technique. That said, his variant of it is much more natural than the ridiculous written paradigm recitation model. In reality, language is largely an auditory phenomenon. Written language is a derivation of the spoken, so Luke's audio model is more natural. His method may definitely help you as you flush your brain with Latin literature.
Mango is a great supplement to primary resources. It's great for the listening and reading approach that gets you actual results. You read and listen, and you get used to language components as you go. This is a good supplement to your studies, but it guides you in a correct model (vs. the detective model). As I push from Koine Greek to general Ancient Greek, I'm finding the Ancient Greek course comments to be helpful. Starting with the text, not the grammar is always helpful.
You might be able to get Mango free depending on your memberships. I get free access by linking my Mango account to my local library system.
38 Latin Stories
This is my fourth favorite reader; it's supposed to accompany Wheelock's grammar, but there's no actual link between the two works.
Magistrula Latin Games and Activities
You should add this to your arsenal. You need as much interaction as you can get.
These are great topical videos. Even if you think you know a topic, watch the videos. He gives great tips. A massive lightbulb turned on for me when he said "English loves its subordinate clauses, but Latin loves its participles." All the sudden I understood participles... in Greek!
A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin (Collins)
This acts as your connection to the theological world. The reader, as always, is key.
Wheelock's Latin: An Introductory Course Based on Ancient Authors, 3rd edition, 1963 (Frederic Wheelock)
Compared to the newer editions (6th, 7th, etc), this is smaller in size, simpler, and gets to the point with BOTH an answer key and an awesome reader. It also seems to be better organized. The paper is also nicer and the font is easier to read. The 6th and 7th read more like schematics than a book. The only thing I find helpful in those are the Roman culture sidebars.
Latin Grammar (Robert Henle)
Excellent quick overview with great examples. I personally found the sections on sequence of tenses and indirect discourse to be helpful; the diagrams of sequence of tenses they give are helpful.
Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar
This is for more advanced concepts. Don't get lost in the details, though. They really do come later. But sometimes advanced clarification causes the more intro-level lightbulbs to turn on.
One could make a case that Latin would help someone learn Greek, Russian, or Finnish, since they keep a case system, but you should avoid using languages as tools to learn other languages. Each language should be its own end. If you have family or friends who speak Russian or Finnish, you should prioritize those instead.
We should note that the translation of Genesis 11 as "...the whole earth had one language..." is suspect. Gen 10:31 says "These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations." The traditional way to resolve the apparent contradiction is to place chapter 11 as prequel to chapter 10, explaining it. We don't need to go down that route. We've demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that language splits, merges, and morphs at the decade-scale. We can compare languages 60 years apart to see dramatic changes -- the 1930/1990 study of the Australian Ngan’gityemerri language is the classic example. So, there were most certainly myriad languages on the whole planet at that time. Language processing is built into us, it's a gift, not a curse. We created and morphed language on day one. For all we know Adam and Eve spoke a different language at creation than at the fall. The Hebrew word for Earth is often translated as land, which is likely how it has to be rendered here. The people on the babel project all spoke one language. It was their language which was confused. They knew what it meant that there were different languages. From the whole narrative of Scripture, we see that God works in history in groups (e.g. Korah's Rebellion), not usually person-by-person. This combined with the fact that they had descendants points to the fact that it was most likely whole families who were scattered. The ultimate curse on them was the scattering, not being gifted with a new tongue.
Obviously, this model wasn't created by the enlightenment, but it was definitely popularized and pushed at that point. Pedagogues in every era arrogantly try to mandate teaching languages by textbooks. Charlemagne famously mandated Latin literacy, and famously was unable to ever learn Latin. Augustine equally famously had troubles learning Greek.
God Dwells Among Us by Beale is required reading for all Reformed Christians.
For a quiz rundown of linguistic principles and an important kick into reality, listen to Language A to Z by John McWhorter
One could make a case that Latin would help someone learn Greek, Russian, or Finnish, since they keep a case system, but you should avoid using languages as tools to learn other languages. Each language should be its own end. If you have family or friends who speak Russian or Finnish, you should prioritize those instead.Close
We should note that the translation of Genesis 11 as "...the whole earth had one language..." is suspect. Gen 10:31 says "These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations." The traditional way to resolve the apparent contradiction is to place chapter 11 as prequel to chapter 10, explaining it. We don't need to go down that route. We've demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that language splits, merges, and morphs at the decade-scale. We can compare languages 60 years apart to see dramatic changes -- the 1930/1990 study of the Australian Ngan’gityemerri language is the classic example. So, there were most certainly myriad languages on the whole planet at that time. Language processing is built into us, it's a gift, not a curse. We created and morphed language on day one. For all we know Adam and Eve spoke a different language at creation than at the fall. The Hebrew word for Earth is often translated as land, which is likely how it has to be rendered here. The people on the babel project all spoke one language. It was their language which was confused. They knew what it meant that there were different languages. From the whole narrative of Scripture, we see that God works in history in groups (e.g. Korah's Rebellion), not usually person-by-person. This combined with the fact that they had descendants points to the fact that it was most likely whole families who were scattered. The ultimate curse on them was the scattering, not being gifted with a new tongue.Close
Obviously, this model wasn't created by the enlightenment, but it was definitely popularized and pushed at that point. Pedagogues in every era arrogantly try to mandate teaching languages by textbooks. Charlemagne famously mandated Latin literacy, and famously was unable to ever learn Latin. Augustine equally famously had troubles learning Greek.Close