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How to Quickly Improve your Spoken Fluency in Latin

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

Stum­bling over words, entan­gled in a web of sentences.

Speak­ing a for­eign lan­guage you’re not used to can be like that. 

While you’re look­ing for the right word or form, the sun sets and ris­es twice. Even if you know the lan­guage, pro­duc­ing it is a strug­gle. This is a com­mon feel­ing for lan­guage learners.

What to do?

In this arti­cle, you’ll learn about islands, a lan­guage learn­ing tech­nique made pop­u­lar by Boris Shek­t­man, for­mer­ly of the For­eign Ser­vice Institute. 

In lan­guage learn­ing, “islands” are mini mono­logues or answers on fre­quent­ly recur­ring sub­jects of con­ver­sa­tion. The learn­er writes the mono­logues in idiomat­ic lan­guage, ver­i­fied by a teacher or advanced learn­er. The learn­er then mem­o­rizes them. In con­ver­sa­tion, these mono­logues allow for con­fi­dent, easy speech requir­ing lit­tle cog­ni­tive over­head. Mem­o­riz­ing many of these islands can lead to quite flu­ent speech, but this tech­nique must be com­bined with ample read­ing of lev­el-appro­pri­ate mate­r­i­al to lead to true fluency.

This tech­nique helps cre­ate con­fi­dence and dras­ti­cal­ly increas­es spo­ken flu­en­cy, and, most impor­tant­ly, it indi­rect­ly improves read­ing comprehension.

Automatic vs. Conscious Effort

Speak­ing a famil­iar lan­guage is like scrolling on your phone: you don’t think about it; it’s auto­mat­ic. Or, to quote Boris Shektman,

Speak­ing a famil­iar lan­guage is like walk­ing, speak­ing a for­eign lan­guage is like swimming.

Boris Shek­t­man

When you speak a for­eign lan­guage, you put down the phone and jump into an ocean of new language. 

There’s no scrolling, no strolling. Only swimming.

With con­scious effort.

Tired from swim­ming, you see an island where you can rest. You crawl up on it, pull out your phone, and start scrolling. It’s automatic.

In lan­guage learn­ing, islands are mini-mono­logues or mini speech­es of well-rehearsed and repeat­ed bits of lan­guage that you can use in con­ver­sa­tion auto­mat­i­cal­ly and effort­less­ly. You can swim to them and rest.

This may seem strange but you prob­a­bly use them already.

Language “Islands” are Natural

Islands in Everyday Life

Think about this: How do you intro­duce your­self? How do you describe your inter­ests in life, in your native lan­guage or Latin? How do you describe your job? Your fam­i­ly? Your Ph.D. project?

Chances are you respond in more or less the same way very often. While it’s true that vari­etas delec­tat, peo­ple tend towards ener­gy conservation.

Hav­ing dealt with cer­tain com­mon top­ics hun­dreds or thou­sands of times, we tend to respond reflex­ive­ly in these sit­u­a­tions; we default to auto­mat­ic, well-repeat­ed, and “rehearsed” mini-speech­es or monologues.

We see this in politi­cians and teach­ers: Some vet­er­ans of the trade give iden­ti­cal lec­tures with auto­mat­ic mini-speech­es in response to recur­ring stu­dent ques­tions, e.g., “Is the word order free in Latin?” “—Yes and no. The order is freer than in Eng­lish, but word order in Latin great­ly influ­ences mean­ing and can in some instances….”

This is not a bad thing. 

Etching of Rivers and goddesses with floating islands by Remigio Cantagallina, 1608.
Rivers and god­dess­es, with float­ing islands from “Le Mag­nifique carousel fait sur le fleuve de l’Arne a Flo­rence, pour le mariage du Grand Duc”, for the wed­ding cel­e­bra­tion of Cosi­mo de’ Medici in Flo­rence, by Remi­gio Can­ta­gal­li­na, 1608.

These are not con­scious­ly learned but have grown into effi­cient and (hope­ful­ly) elo­quent state­ments or respons­es, shaped over months or years of answer­ing sim­i­lar ques­tions in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions. They’ve grown into islands. 

I have talked to peo­ple work­ing in muse­ums, and when I men­tioned this tech­nique, they all said that they have ready-made mono­logues which have devel­oped over the years from answer­ing the same ques­tions every day. This means they might seem very flu­ent and elo­quent regard­ing the his­to­ry of a peri­od or an object, but out­side of that, repeat­ed mono­logue be far less fluent.

But what about pro­fi­cient users of for­eign languages?

Unconscious Islands in Language Learning

Like native speak­ers, pro­fi­cient speak­ers of a sec­ond lan­guage have repeat­ed the same things so often that the respons­es have turned into grooves in a record.

Then they just get into the groove. (clas­sic song, btw.)

Stu­dents often learn to use chunks of lan­guage at begin­ner lev­els, e.g., quo­mo­do res se habent? (i.e., “how are things?”), with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly being able to under­stand the con­stituent parts. 

Islands are noth­ing but larg­er chunks. And we can cre­ate them consciously.

Examples of Language “Islands”

The Librar­i­an by Giuseppe Archim­bol­do, 1566. Skok­loster Slott. 

Devel­op­ing islands in the ten most fre­quent top­ics of con­ver­sa­tion will go a long way towards lay­ing the foun­da­tion of flu­en­cy, or at least giv­ing you a place to rest in conversation. 

So what could some basic islands look like?

Let’s say you often talk with peo­ple about your teach­ing job. 

To the ques­tion “why are you learn­ing Latin?” you could have a short answer with high-fre­quen­cy vocab­u­lary and col­lo­ca­tions learned by heart.

An exam­ple:

“Why I’m learn­ing Latin? I’m learn­ing this lan­guage because I enjoy read­ing Latin lit­er­a­ture very much. For, when I read it, I seem to get to know ancient authors. I’ve been learn­ing Latin for two years now and I learn new things every day. But, to be hon­est, some­times it is difficult.”

“Cur lingam Lati­nam dis­cam? Hanc lin­guam dis­co quia lit­teras Lati­nas leg­ere mihi valde placet. Nam cum eas lego, vide­or scrip­tores antiqu­os cognoscere. Iam duos annos lin­guam Lati­nam dis­co et cot­ti­die nova dis­co. Sed, ut vere dicam, inter­dum dif­fi­cile est.”

This is a sim­plis­tic exam­ple, but it shows the idea; the “island” or mini mono­logue allows for com­mu­ni­ca­tion to con­tin­ue, takes a load of the speak­er, and rein­forces use­ful struc­tures (e.g., Iam duos annos [present verb], ut vere dicam, mihi placet, etc.).

These can lat­er eas­i­ly be reused in oth­er con­texts, e.g., Iam tres annos in Ger­ma­nia habito (“I’ve been liv­ing in Ger­many for three years.”) hic cibus mihi placet (“I like this food”).

Is This Real Language?

These “islands” allow us to pro­duce fast, effi­cient speech with­out too much cog­ni­tive effort, leav­ing more ener­gy for when we need it and build confidence.

But there may be a ret­i­cence to learn these mini mono­logues, a sense that it’s not real lan­guage. (Would it matter?) 

But it is: it’s your thoughts, but pol­ished and rehearsed. Which speak­ing about it for ten years would do any­way. We just con­dense the process.

As you inter­nal­ize these islands or mono­logues, the lan­guage they con­tain becomes part of you, and you won’t need to use them active­ly. You’re using and vary­ing the islands spon­ta­neous­ly to fit the situation.

They are only step­ping­stones in the process of learn­ing the Latin lan­guage

Getting Started with Language Islands

Examples

Before we go through the steps, here are two exam­ples of islands in practice:

Pre­sen­ta­tion island

“Mihi nomen est Daniel Pet­ters­son. In Sue­tia natus sum et Holmi­ae habito. In uni­ver­si­tate Stock­holmien­si in lit­teras Lati­nas inquiro et lin­guam Lati­nam doceo.”

Morn­ing island

“Hodie mane hora sex­ta horologium expergefi­cum sonu­it. Horolo­gio per fen­es­tram proiec­to de lec­to sur­rexi. Ves­ti­men­ta indui et ien­tac­u­lum cito sumpsi.”

These islands allow us to learn vocab­u­lary in con­texts that are rel­e­vant to us. Even when we’re not using the islands, the actions they describe, or the top­ic, will remind us of the Latin, and as such, reen­force the vocab­u­lary and the syn­tax used therein.

Prac­tice your Latin with week­ly Latin videos

In our com­mu­ni­ty, you get access to:

  • Video lessons in Latin every week
  • Easy Latin sto­ries with translations
  • Q & A pod­cast about learn­ing Latin we pub­lish new video lessons every week

Step-by-Step Guide to Using Islands

Step 1: Select a Topic

This can be any­thing that you want to speak flu­ent­ly about, e.g.presentation, fam­i­ly, work, hobbies.

Sug­ges­tions:

  • Per­son­al presentation.
  • Pre­sen­ta­tion of family.
  • What are your interests?
  • What did I do this morning/evening?
  • In defense of active Latin.
  • What I wish I had known when I was younger.

Step 2: Write

Write out the “mini-speech” in a lan­guage you know well. Make it as short or as long as you want. Peo­ple use every­thing from two sen­tences to entire pages.

Step 3: Turn it into Latin

Trans­late it into good idiomat­ic Latin, using dic­tio­nar­ies, dic­tio­nar­ies of Latin syn­onyms, gram­mars, and/or teach­ers and friends. 

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: Latin prose com­po­si­tion: Books and Method

Step 4: Edit

Edit the text to make it flow nat­u­ral­ly, no Ciceron­ian peri­ods here, keep it short and fair­ly sim­ple. Read it aloud. Ask your­self if it sounds nat­ur­al? It’s imper­a­tive that the Latin be gram­mat­i­cal and idiomatic–as you will be mem­o­riz­ing this. Spend time ask­ing dif­fer­ent skilled Latin­ists what they think, pay for a coach­ing ses­sion for some­one to help you.

Step 5: Memorize it

We now have the islands and it’s time to learn them by heart.

How to memorise

In ancient times up to quite recent­ly, mem­o­riz­ing vast amounts of mate­r­i­al was part and par­cel of any edu­ca­tion; these days, how­ev­er, the prac­tice has, sad­ly, fall­en into dis­use and disrepute.

There are two prin­ci­ple meth­ods of mem­o­ris­ing: by route and mnemon­ics.

Route learn­ing, or learn­ing by rep­e­ti­tion, oral or writ­ten, requires lit­tle prepa­ra­tion but is less effec­tive. These days it’s some­what eas­i­er than before since we can record a text and lis­ten to it repeat­ed­ly. I’ve lis­tened to many French dia­logues on repeat for hours on end sometimes. 

Mnemon­ics, or mem­o­ry tech­niques, much espoused by the ancients (for a sum­ma­ry, read this arti­cle), most­ly con­sists of using the so-called mem­o­ry palace or method of loci

The method is effec­tive, but it takes some prac­tice and prepa­ra­tion. It is, how­ev­er, well worth the effort since you move from hop­ing that the mate­r­i­al will stick through review to know­ing that it will stick.

Now you know how to do it, let’s review the over­all advan­tages of using islands.


Why Islands? The Benefits

Using islands is a fun and inter­est­ing way of dis­cov­er­ing lan­guage and quick­ly devel­op­ing the abil­i­ty to speak. It takes a bit of work, but the pay­off is enor­mous. Start small, with short speech­es, and you’ll succeed.

OVERVIEW

  • They give the speak­er rest with­out hav­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion break down (great Led Zep­pelin song).
  • They boost con­fi­dence since they pro­vide fast, artic­u­late speech.
  • They pro­vide vocab­u­lary and gram­mat­i­cal pat­terns to recy­cle for oth­er con­texts and situations.
  • The com­po­si­tion of them illu­mi­nates lacu­nae in your knowl­edge of the language.
  • You can gain con­ver­sa­tion­al pro­fi­cien­cy, even if you have no con­ver­sa­tion partners.
  • It’s a fun way of dis­cov­er­ing and con­quer­ing a new seman­tic field.
  • In order to learn a lan­guage well, oth­er activ­i­ties, such as speak­ing, writ­ing, read­ing and lis­ten­ing, are required as well.

I believe every­one can teach them­selves Latin, giv­en a well-round­ed and var­ied approach that keeps the learn­ing process enjoy­able and inter­est­ing. Islands can be a part of it.

For more sug­ges­tions on how to learn Latin, see this post “How to improve your Latin in 10 min­utes a day”)  

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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