Learn Latin

How to Learn Latin: Motivation, Goals, and Habits

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Learn­ing Latin is the best deci­sion I ever made. Being able to read frag­ments of Ennius, laugh with Plau­tus and Ter­ence, be chas­tised by Seneca Minor, daz­zled by Cicero, and moved to tears by Ovid — peo­ple sep­a­rat­ed from us by over 2000 years — is today a pre­cious expe­ri­ence out of the ordinary.

After many years of teach­ing myself and many oth­ers Latin, I have come to believe that any­one can teach them­selves Latin, giv­en enough time, the right strat­e­gy, and mate­r­i­al. In this arti­cle series, I aim to out­line the most impor­tant aspects for learn­ing Latin on your own, from moti­va­tion, goals, and habits to mate­r­i­al and lan­guage learn­ing tech­niques. My hope is that you will find some­thing here that will help you, whether you are an auto­di­dact, stu­dent, or teacher try­ing to improve or plan a course or home­school curriculum.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this arti­cle “How to learn Latin, part one: Moti­va­tion, Goals, and Habits.”.

Motivation For Learning And To Keep Learning Latin

Two thou­sand three hun­dred years ago, Livius Andron­i­cus invoked the Came­nas and penned the first epic in Latin — his adap­ta­tion of Homer’s Odyssey–Odyssea.

“Virum mihi, Came­na, insece versutum.”

— Livius Andron­i­cus, Odyssea 2.1.

With those words thus began, one could argue, Latin lit­er­a­ture — at least the record of it.

Imag­ine every piece of Latin text that has been writ­ten after those words. For Latin was not only the lan­guage of Cicero and Vir­gil. It lived on beyond the hori­zon of the Roman Repub­lic and the Roman Empire as a vehi­cle for that most pre­cious of things: Human thought and expres­sion. Latin was the lan­guage of Auso­nius, Augus­tine, Heloise and Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, George Mon­mouth, Eras­mus, Melanchthon, Carte­sius and Lin­naeus, and many, many more. Imag­ine being able to read all of that and con­nect with them.

Some twen­ty years ago, I was out walk­ing with my father in the Old Town of Stock­holm. We hap­pened upon a big rock out­side the House of Nobil­i­ty. It had a gold­en inscrip­tion on it. It was in Latin.

Golden inscription in Latin, about buildning a bridge in honour of Gustav III, on a pink granit slab.

I under­stood noth­ing but was absolute­ly fascinated.

This encounter sparked a burn­ing desire in me to learn the lan­guage writ­ten on that rock in order to unlock the trea­sure of times passed.

Quor­sum haec? So why all this?

Because when embark­ing on a long jour­ney, it’s para­mount to remem­ber where you start­ed, where you are going, and what sweet things lie across that steep hill and ver­tig­i­nous moun­tain.  Read on.

What Is Your Motivation For Learning Latin?

Learn­ing to read Latin lit­er­a­ture span­ning over two mil­len­nia takes a long, long time. You can learn to cope with texts, trans­late, and even speak Latin con­ver­sa­tion­al­ly in a much short­er peri­od of time. But if you want to learn to read and under­stand Latin lit­er­a­ture from Ancient Rome and beyond, well, it takes a lot of time and work. That is why hav­ing strong moti­va­tion is so important.

So why do you want to learn Latin? Why are you learn­ing Latin?

Since learn­ing Latin takes much time, effort, and patience, it is impor­tant to find a strong moti­va­tion, a long-long-term goal, your dream — some­thing that will keep you going even when the flame of nov­el­ty, so to speak, has died out, and that mag­ic is all but gone.

This is where peo­ple who have a strong well-defined moti­va­tion keep going where oth­ers may lose hope or are attract­ed to a new pursuit.

If you are already well on your way learn­ing Latin, defin­ing your motivation/your dream is still use­ful. It will keep you mov­ing forward.

1. Learn Latin, Step One: Find Your Why

Sit down with a pen and paper. Put on some music and write in large let­ters on your paper:

“Why do I want to Learn Latin?”


“Why am I learn­ing Latin?”

Write down, with­out judg­ing, every rea­son and moti­va­tion that comes to your mind. Some will be obvi­ous, oth­ers less so, some glo­ri­ous, some less so.

Look over the paper: What’s your dream? What are your moti­va­tions for learn­ing Latin? Do you real­ly want to learn Latin? Weath­er and moti­va­tion change, what was true last year or five years ago, may not be true today.

Be hon­est.

If you tru­ly can­not find any moti­va­tion that inspires you to start or to con­tin­ue learn­ing Latin — con­sid­er let­ting it go. It’s ok. There are so many things to learn in life. Your past deci­sions need not be your present law.

So, find your why, the rea­son why you want to learn or con­tin­ue learn­ing Latin.

Make sure your why is strong, as Ovid said:

“Velle parum est, cupias, ut re potiaris, oportet.”

— Ovid­ius, Ex Pon­to, lib. III.

 “To want it is not enough; you have to desire it in order to achieve your goal.”

Here are moti­va­tions for learn­ing Latin that I have heard from stu­dents and col­leagues over the years:

  • To read Latin for enjoyment.
  • To do his­tor­i­cal research.
  • To write a work not doomed by the mor­tal­i­ty of mod­ern languages.
  • Trav­el through time watch­ing his­to­ry unfold on the pages from antiq­ui­ty to today, in the same lan­guage as you could speak to your friend.
  • An intel­lec­tu­al challenge.
  • To write time­less poetry.
  • It’s cool.

Any moti­va­tion strong enough to keep you dri­ven for years is good. Remem­ber: Your moti­va­tion is yours, and yours alone. Let no one say that your moti­va­tion isn’t good enough, wor­thy enough, that it is corny or stu­pid. It is there to moti­vate you, not any­one else.

Find your why.

Now, make sure you’ve writ­ten your why down. Put it on your wall or keep it close at hand so that it can remind you of why you want to learn or are learn­ing Latin. There will come a time when you need remind­ing. Trust me.

Your Latin Goals

Hav­ing ascer­tained whether or not you actu­al­ly want to learn Latin and hav­ing defined your moti­va­tion as a sort of foun­da­tion of our Latin stud­ies, you are ready to set goals.

This is extreme­ly impor­tant and some­thing I have seen too many stu­dents neglect, (I once did) think­ing moti­va­tion alone is enough. Some­times it is, most of the time it is not.

Learn­ing Latin is a long jour­ney, and your mind will play tricks on you along the way. For exam­ple, it will say things like:

”Oh, it’s so hard, I’m not mak­ing progress; maybe Latin is not for me, and who reads Latin any­way? If Latin is so good, how come it turned into the Romance languages?!”

Don’t lis­ten. Instead, you have to plan before­hand so that you don’t fall prey to these tricks of the mind. We can stop these doubts ear­ly if we set well-defined, mea­sur­able goals. With such goals, you will be able to mea­sure how far you’ve actu­al­ly come in your Latin stud­ies which is very impor­tant for your will to continue.

While moti­va­tion is why you want to learn Latin, goals are what you want to do or achieve. Your moti­va­tion is your foun­da­tion that dri­ves and sus­tains that dri­ve on your jour­ney towards com­plet­ing your goals of what you want to be able to do with Latin. Some­times these coin­cide, but your goals should be detailed, mea­sur­able, struc­tured and easy to cross out on a writ­ten plan once you’ve accom­plished them.

2. Learn Latin, Step Two: Define Your Goal

Sit down and define a long-term goal, maybe a year into the future; i.e. your def­i­n­i­tion of what you want to be able to do or have done at the end of a year of study.

Be bold!

Here are some exam­ples of goals:

  • To be able to read Cat­ul­lus’ poems with­out translation.
  • To be able to use all the con­tent in the text­book Famil­ia Romana (more about this book in the next arti­cle) in writ­ing or in speech.
  • To be able to write about your­self, your life and interests.
  • To have read 1000 pages of Latin.
  • To have read all Plau­tus’ plays.
  • To be able to under­stand mass in Latin.
  • To be able to read cer­tain medieval doc­u­ments for his­tor­i­cal research.
  • To be able to read Pugio Bru­ti.

What­ev­er the goal may be, make sure it is well defined. If need be, write sev­er­al sen­tences defin­ing it. You’ll want to be able to ver­i­fy whether you have reached your Latin goal or not; there­fore, goals such as “speak Latin well” are less use­ful because they are high­ly sub­jec­tive. Instead, try using for­mu­la­tions such as “to be able to…” and “will have…”.

Write it down. 

Put it on your wall.

3. Learn Latin, Step Three: Turn Your Goal Into Subgoals.

With a long-term goal defined, we move on to break­ing it down into small­er chunks or short-term goals. We’ll now deter­mine what has to be done to achieve that long-term goal by writ­ing a list of all the steps lead­ing there.

For exam­ple, if our goal was mas­ter­ing the vocab­u­lary and syn­tax of a Latin text­book, we might do this: Say the book has 24 chap­ters and we may set our­selves 12 months to read it. Then in a year, we will have to study 2 chap­ters a month. We may thus state our sub­goals as: “I will have read and mas­tered the text and the exer­cis­es for one chap­ter every two weeks”. This is verifiable.

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: First Day of Learn­ing Latin: What to Do

This is applic­a­ble for all goals, adjust it to your own goal and pace. Bear in mind how much time you can set aside for your Latin stud­ies. If you only have 20 min­utes a day, you may have to adjust your goals. 20 min­utes a day still makes for a lot of time in the course of a year. 

Remem­ber you can find time for your Latin stud­ies through­out the day, such as when you’re wait­ing in line, dri­ving, rid­ing the bus, or walk­ing the dog. (I wrote an arti­cle a while back on how to improve your Latin with just 10 min­utes a day.) This is noth­ing new, in the 1420s the Ital­ian human­ist Verg­e­rio wrote in his trea­tise de ingenuis moribus et lib­er­al­ibus adules­cen­ti­ae studiis:

“Bonae eten­im ratio­nis est ea quoque bona col­ligere quae solent neglegere ceteri, ut si quis super cenam legat et som­num qui­dem inter libros exspectet aut certe per libros fugiat.”

— Verg­e­rio

“And indeed, there is good rea­son also to assem­ble those good moments that oth­ers usu­al­ly neglect, as when some­one reads at the table and falls asleep (or escapes sleep) reading.”

Make sure your goals work for you and for the time you have.

In sum­ma­ry: Define in detail your main goal, break it down into mea­sur­able sub­goals with dead­lines. Then, make sure you ver­i­fy that you reach them.

With the steps lead­ing to the sub­goals and the long-term goal estab­lished, we will now turn to imple­ment­ing them and mak­ing this a sure thing, by turn­ing them into habits.

Five cartoon submarines all with the text "goal" on them to turn them into "sub-goals".

Daily Habits: Crucial When Learning Latin On Your Own

Set­ting goals is great. But with­out the habit call­ing you to do the work, the goal will most like­ly, after the rei novi­tas has died off, be car­ried in solemn silence to the grave­yard of habit­less goals. And as Pon­tanus wrote:

“capi­en­da con­sue­tu­do quaedam quae sen­sum laboris imminuit.”

— Pon­tanus, Pro­gymn. 47.

“You have to cre­ate a habit which lessens the feel­ing of work.”

If you take only one thing from this arti­cle, let it be the under­stand­ing of habit formation.

So how do you cre­ate a habit of learn­ing Latin?

4. Learn Latin, Step Four: Create A Habit

Return to your pen and paper and think about your sub­goals and see if you can cre­ate a habit that, done dai­ly, will accom­plish them as well as the long-term goal.

If you strug­gle with estab­lish­ing goals, focus on the habits instead. Goals are good for estab­lish­ing a direc­tion in your stud­ies, but you can get very far with habits only. Habits also have the ben­e­fit of not let­ting you down. You can’t decide to reach a goal, e.g., “be able to read Ovid,” but you can decide that you will per­form a habit that most like­ly will take you to that goal.

For exam­ple, let’s say your goal is to mas­ter a text­book (or a prose Latin prose com­po­si­tion book–which is always fun) of 24 chap­ters, and your sub­goal is to go through two chap­ters each month. Then a dai­ly habit might be for you to read and study 20 min­utes, or for anoth­er goal, the habit might be read­ing 5 pages of Latin every day. It doesn’t have to be dai­ly, but my own and my stu­dents’ expe­ri­ence have taught me that it is eas­i­er to sus­tain a dai­ly habit. We might again quote the human­ist Verg­e­rio, who was of a sim­i­lar opinion:

“Every­thing will hap­pen sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly if time will be appor­tioned suit­ably, if every day we allot fixed times to let­ters and are not dis­tract­ed by affairs of any kind from read­ing some­thing every day.”

Make the habit mea­sur­able. Make it sus­tain­able. Got a habit you want in mind? Good. Write it down, define it well in terms of how many pages, exer­cis­es or time spent.

Some sug­ges­tions for Latin learn­ing habits:

  • Read for 15 min­utes a day
  • Mem­o­rize a line of verse a day
  • Write dai­ly in a journal
  • Lis­ten to Latin every day (Check out our Patre­on site where we pub­lish new Latin videos every Fri­day.)

5. Learn Latin, Step Five: Implementing Your Habit

In the book The Pow­er of Habit (2012), Charles Duhigg iden­ti­fies three main com­po­nents of a habit: cue, action, reward.

The cue is what actu­al­ly trig­gers the habit. This can be a time of day, a place, or anoth­er habit. An exam­ple of a cue for many smok­ers is the end of a meal which trig­gers the action of hav­ing a cig­a­rette. Oth­ers tend to go for a piece of choco­late. A cue to brush your teeth might be the end of breakfast. 

The action is the habit itself, the smok­ing, brush­ing your teeth, read­ing for 5 min­utes, or writ­ing 10 lines of verse.

Latin daily habit illustrated by a toothbrush laying on top of a pile of Latin books, the top one open.

The reward is the good feel­ing result­ing from hav­ing fin­ished the action — the clean feel­ing of your teeth after hav­ing brushed them, the sense of accom­plish­ment of hav­ing read for 5 minutes.

So, in order to get a new habit going, you have to start by find­ing a cue to set you off, to remind you, if you will, to per­form the action of the habit.

The first thing I do every morn­ing, for instance, is exer­cise; the cue is get­ting out of bed. That way, I do not have to think about it and decide—that would be crush­ing­ly hard some days. I just do what I always do. It’s a habit.

Oth­er exam­ples of cues for imple­ment­ing a study habit are a time of day, after anoth­er dai­ly habit, (meals, brush­ing teeth, etc.), geo­graph­i­cal loca­tion, read­ing 5 min before start­ing the car, or before get­ting out, read­ing while wait­ing for pub­lic trans­ports, doing one les­son of an online course dur­ing lunch.

The idea is sim­ply to tie the action you want to accom­plish to some­thing that will remind you of it, such as a time of day (e.g., at 7:30 pm), a place (e.g., on the train), or anoth­er habit (e.g., right after get­ting out of bed).

If the feel­ing of accom­plish­ment isn’t good enough as a reward for you, you can find some­thing else. It needn’t be any­thing elab­o­rate, just some­thing that gives you a feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion or ful­fill­ment. This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant in the begin­ning, as habits are very frag­ile in their new­born state.

I find that a sim­ple cal­en­dar and a big col­or­ful mark­er work won­ders. Every day, when you have fin­ished your ”action,” your Latin learn­ing habit, you cross over that day with a big col­or­ful cross.

A calendar with big red crosses checking off almost the entire month as an illustration for having done your daily Latin habit.

To sum up: take the habit you for­mu­lat­ed in step four and find a cue and a reward for it.

Learn Latin: Get Started

So far, we have dis­cussed moti­va­tion, goals, and habits. To sum­ma­rize the steps, we have talked about: 

  • Find your why. Sit down and fig­ure out why you want to learn Latin. Be hon­est. Write it down.
  • Define your goal. What do you aim for? What do you want to have done or be able to do with Latin with­in a pre­cise time­frame? Be bold. Be pre­cise. Be true to your­self. Write it down.
  • Break down your Latin goal into sub­goals, i.e., small­er pieces with set timeframes.
  • Decide on a habit­u­al action to help you reach your sub­goals (and in the long run, your ulti­mate goal), e.g., read­ing two pages and a reward (cross­ing off a list, a cookie).
  • Decide what your cue is – that which will remind you when or where to per­form the action of the habit.
  • Then – do it! 
You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this arti­cle “How to learn Latin, part one: Moti­va­tion, Goals, and Habits.”.

What To Do Now:

  • Sit down and go through the steps. Do them thor­ough­ly, let them take time. There is no rush. This part is important. 
  • Share and dis­cuss your goals and habits with oth­ers. This is extreme­ly use­ful and is some­thing I wish I had done more.
  • Share the arti­cle if you found it use­ful and join the Latini­tium com­mu­ni­ty on Patreon.com for week­ly videos in Latin.
Daniel Pettersson

Daniel Pettersson

Teacher and author Daniel Pettersson, M.A., is co-founder of Latinitium and is currently teaching Latin at Stockholm University, where he is also working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Humanist Colloquia. Daniel believes in the importance of Latin literature in the modern world and that you can teach yourself Latin with the right motivation, method, and material.
Written by Daniel Pettersson

Written by Daniel Pettersson

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