Learn Latin

How to start speaking Latin: the first daily exercise

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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.

If you want to hear more about my jour­ney, lis­ten to this talk I gave in Latin at a con­fer­ence in Florence.

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.

Speak­ing to one­self is a great way to start to speak Latin. 

The answer is a three-pronged approach:

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

Engraving of a Renaissance Cabinet of Curiosities from 1599.
Cab­i­net of Curiosi­ties from Dell’Historia Nat­u­rale di Fer­rante Imper­a­to Napoli­tano lib­ri XXVIII, 1599, Museo di Fer­rante Imperato.

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. 

Try this:

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.

A sculpture of a giant table and chair, by Giancarlo Neri.
Gian­car­lo Neri sculp­ture of table and chair, pho­to by Aglet

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.

Fresco from Herculaneum with a Roman couple next to a small table.
Fres­co from Her­cu­la­neum with a Roman cou­ple next to a table. Do they see the table? Are they talk­ing about the table? Per­haps. And now, so can you!

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. 

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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