Do you want to learn to read Latin well—without looking for the verb or checking the dictionary every other sentence? It is possible to read Latin well and understand it without translating, although you will need commentaries for some literature.
Like most people who study Latin at university for years, I struggled to read and understand Latin as Latin—translating is not reading. Translating all the time robs you of the joy that is understanding Ovid or Sallust in Latin.
After several years I realized that speaking Latin was one of the missing components keeping me from achieving fluency in reading.
I taught myself to speak Latin and I learned to read comfortably.
Today, I speak Latin every day during my teaching sessions, in our videos, and with friends. At conferences and in emails, people ask me how I learned to speak Latin fluently.
The answer is a three-pronged approach:
- by speaking to myself for months, and later with others
- by studying and mastering the contents of a select few books
- by reading Latin literature daily for years afterward
Today we are focusing on the first point: how to start to speak Latin.
Speaking Latin is one of several key aspects that will help you gain a strong command of Latin—to speak you have to internalize the endings, syntax, and vocabulary so that it becomes second nature. Speaking will help with this, but you still need to read and listen to a lot of Latin. Speaking Latin will help you develop the confidence and instinctive knowledge of Latin to read well.
But how do you start speaking?
Whether you are a beginner to Latin or a seasoned college professor who wants to incorporate the use of spoken Latin into the pedagogy, as many do these days, here is an exercise to get started, even if you’ve never spoken a word of Latin before.
This is the exercise that I have my students start with and it does wonders.
After reading this article, you will be able to start practicing today, five minutes after reading this article. It’s not a quick fix; it will require work and time.
Suggested reading: Can Latin be Spoken? — Common questions
Start speaking Latin exercise 1
I have my students do this exercise every day from the start. It is a simple exercise requiring only one verb and a couple of nouns. It’s an exercise in starting to describe one’s surroundings and what you are doing—all in Latin. Everything is concrete and connected to you.
First, we need the verb video (“I see”). Next, we need a few concrete nouns. Here is a list of common household items in Latin:
- Mensa : table
- Liber: book
- Fenestra: window
- poculum: cup
Now, since Latin uses case endings to indicate the function of a word in a sentence, we need to learn one form right away: the accusative singular. The accusative in Latin is used to indicate the object of an action. This is done in English as well, to a much lesser extent, e.g., I see her. Her is the object of the seeing. In Latin, the accusative singular is used when exerting an action upon one object, and it usually ends in -m. Depending on the noun, it can be -um, ‑am, ‑em. But this is of little importance now. Let’s learn the accusative of the nouns above:
- mensa – mensam (“a / the table”)
- fenestra – fenestram (“a / the window”)
- poculum – poculum (“a / the cup”)
Note that Latin does not have a definite or indefinite article like the English “a/a” and “the.”
Now, all we have to do to start speaking Latin is to use video (“I see/am seeing”) together with one of these four forms.
Look at a table and say aloud Mensam video (“I see the/a table”).
Now look at a window and say Fenestram video (“I see a/the window”).
Look at the table again and say: mensam video, then at the window saying fenestram video.
Alternate a few times, and if you have several tables and windows, say the sentences while looking at the different items.
The idea here is to connect the action of seeing an object with the words in Latin. We are not translating; we are creating a real connection between the action and the Latin words.
Now take out a cup and say Poculum video (“I see the/a cup”). Go back to the other objects and alternate between the three words.
When you feel comfortable with them, you can string them together and say Mensam, et fenestram, et poculum video (“I see a table, and a window, and a cup”).
Isn’t this silly, Daniel?
Yes, yes, it is. But it’s the first step. Much like my son’s first steps were very halting and stumbling, they slowly became steady and quick—a little too quick.
The same thing happens here. You add words every day, and pretty soon, you will have a firm command of them. Combining this exercise with studying diligently a handful of the best textbooks and reading and listening to a lot of Latin at your level will, with practice and patience, allow you to read Cicero, Plautus, Erasmus, or any other author without translating and wondering about cases.
As you progress through your reading, you will learn new forms and new verbs. All you have to do is incorporate them into this exercise.
In the next article (“The second daily exercise”), we will discuss going from saying “I see the table” to more complex things.
This is how I started to learn to speak Latin with great fluency. You can too.