Thoughts about resources for novice Latin learners

UPDATE: March 14, 2022: This post has been updated to reflect upcoming revisions and recent additions to the Cambridge Latin Course’s offerings as well as to rectify the omission of Bloomsbury’s De Romanis, which is a rare introductory Latin course that incorporates mythology into languag acquisition right from the start.

I was recently asked to recommend books and resources for the beginning Latin student. Below is an overview of widely-available materials that I am aware of. I’ve divided them into two major categories: resources I have used myself and resources I am aware of and which seem promising but that I have not used. 

Before I jump into the resources, I think it is probably good to articulate some of my beliefs about teaching and the experiences I have had, both as a student and as a teacher, that inform those beliefs. What follows is a product of those experiences with no pretense to authority or completeness.

I don’t have an ideological position on approaches or methods. I have taught and been taught using grammar/translation (G/T), reading, spoken/communicative and inductive/comprehensive input (CI) approaches. The balance of those elements has shifted (significantly) over the course of my teaching career in favor of using structured communicative approaches, enhanced by CI practices, to help students make progress toward reading competency, but I don’t mind busting out a verb chart to explain tense-markers or clarify patterns in the language that students may also absorb inductively. Some students benefit from one approach more than the other and some really thrive with both. I’ve been pleased with how my students’ engagement and reading skills have improved along with the changes I’ve made. Other approaches might better suit students and teachers with different goals. 

I was taught using a mixture of G/T and reading methods and, while I could comfortably decode and analyze Latin poetry as an undergraduate and more-or-less read some Tacitus without translating, I don’t think I gained what I would think of as real reading fluency until I had been teaching the language for some time. Things that really helped me:

  • Subbing and tutoring at schools that used the Cambridge Latin Course and reading books 1-4 of the course straight through over a single day when I was home sick
  • Looking for materials to read with my own students and, in doing so, reading dozens of published student editions and anthologies of Latin literature as well as dozens of texts for which no student edition exists, including unannotated texts
  • Attending workshops like the Dickinson College Summer Latin Workshop (affectionately known as “Latin Camp”)
  • Re-reading texts and authors with my students over several years

Part of what made these activities so fruitful is that they entailed extensive reading and re-reading. To the extent that I could read Tacitus as an undergraduate, it was because I had read a fair amount of Latin in the seven semesters previous and a ton of Tacitus that semester (and had taken multiple passes as most of it). Another variable that influenced whether any given reading helped me achieve reading fluency is whether I had a specific purpose for reading a given text (preparation for work as a student, tutor, or teacher). All the better if I chose to read a text for pleasure or read it under pleasant circumstances, whether social (Latin Camp) or solitary (Horace’s Odes by a roaring fire with a glass of wine or cup of tea). 

But enough about me, on to the resources… 

Textbooks I have substantial experience with as a student, teacher, or both

The most common modern Latin textbooks tend to favor G/T or reading approaches. Many reading-approach textbooks include G/T elements and some primarily G/T textbooks take cues from inductive/CI and reading approaches. 

The most common reading-approach textbooks used in US schools are the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC) and Ecce Romani (Ecce). These courses use connected narratives with recurring characters to gradually introduce increasingly complex Latin morphology and syntax, and a wider range of common vocabulary, to students. The Oxford Latin Course (OLC) is similar, from what I can tell, but I have only glanced at it. Interspersed among the stories are lists of vocabulary to be learned, explanations of grammar and syntax, morphological paradigms, and sentences for translation from Latin to English and English to Latin.

Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata is similar, but it adopts an inductive approach. The text is entirely in Latin, including notes elucidating the meaning of words and usage of syntax. Illustrations and marginal notes, which use a series of symbols to indicate words with overlapping or opposite meanings or derivation of one word from another, provide further context for the novice reader. 

There’s a lot to like about these books. The continuous storylines and recurring characters provide opportunities for more extensive reading than purely G/T-focused approaches. Because they are widely used there are numerous supplementary resources available from the publishers or online directly from other teachers. Ecce is sufficiently popular that it has inspired fanfiction. LLPSI is sufficiently well-scaffolded to provide a comprehensible introduction to the language, but supplements are available in English and other languages that make explicit what the main books roll out inductively. CLC, tacking toward CI approaches begins, each chapter with cartoons that feature new vocabulary and syntax. Recent editions of CLC and Ecce are more vividly illustrated than the editions I learned with (back in the last century) and, according to my students who have used them, give a richer representation of life in Roman antiquity. 

No resource is perfect, however, and it is worth noting some of the shortcomings of these textbooks. All three center slave-holding aristocratic families in the late 1st or early 2nd c. CE. As a result their narratives generally present the perspectives of slave-holding elites. There are troubling passages that seem to normalize or even sanitize slavery. We shouldn’t, of course, shy away from the brutal and unjust elements of Roman culture any more than we should pretend away brutal and unjust elements of our own societies. However, given the role education in Latin and Greek, and the field of Classics itself, has played in the history of enslavement, racism, and colonial imperialism throughout the world, I’m uneasy about these books’ relatively uncritical treatment of slavery. 

Another challenge I have encountered using these books is that, for all their careful scaffolding of content, bits of advanced syntax sometimes filter into more introductory chapters before being properly introduced. I do like a challenge myself, and I encourage students to think inductively and deductively when they encounter Latin they do not understand, but, without a skilled teacher to guide them, novice learners could falter a bit encountering unscaffolded syntax. I have had similar frustrations with vocabulary. Sometimes these books introduce a new vocabulary word in the same semantic range as a more common one students have encountered quite often in earlier readings. Repeated encounters with vocabulary in context is one of the best strategies for equipping students to do the extensive reading that yields real competence in a language. And yet often the arriviste vocabulary will not appear again for several chapters if it shows up again at all! These are, as they say, flaws, but not dealbreakers*. 

The last downside I’ve experienced to using these textbooks is that, as much pedagogical value as I see in them, my students weren’t all that interested in the stories. I am entirely willing to believe that early in my teaching career I wasn’t skilled enough to spark my students’ interest in the narratives. On the other hand, most of my students came to Latin with a passion for ancient mythology rather than for elite Roman familiae of the early Principate. My students love stories, whether they are in books, movies, tv shows, video games, or other media. The proliferation of diverse voices and styles of storytelling across media facilitates students’ finding compelling material that wasn’t available (or wasn’t accessible) when I was a new Latin student in the 1990s. It’s possible that, when it comes to compelling input, in these courses raeda in fossa manet**. 

I have less experience with G/T-focused resources. I’ve tutored students using Wheelocks and I’m fairly grateful not to have used it more than I have. One book I have been happy to work with is JC McKeown’s Classical Latin. While the overall approach is basically G/T, McKeown pulls from CI approaches in strategically sheltering (limiting) vocabulary. This means that new syntax and morphology is most often introduced by some combination of puellae, porci, piratae, agricolae, and poetae so students aren’t simultaneously trying to learn new morphology or syntax with new vocabulary. McKeown’s playful sense of humor permeates this book as you might imagine given that pigs and pirates are staples of the core vocabulary. Classical Latin also provides English-to-Latin and Latin-to-English translation exercises and supplementary audio and resources on a website. Other features include easy Latin passages for comprehension (rather than translation) and features on etymological connections between Latin and English. If I were teaching the introductory two-semester Latin sequence at the college level, this would likely be my first-choice textbook. I would seriously consider it for self-study for adults or teenagers as well.

Online resources I am familiar with as a teacher

Of course since my introduction to Latin, via the old Orange CLC Unit I over 30 years ago, the options for online Latin learning have expanded immensely. Because the online options are changing rapidly and new people create new resources all the time, I’m going to confine myself to sites I have used repeatedly in the last three years. Two stand out. The first is Legonium. Legonium offers a wide variety of enjoyable resources for learners of various levels. New to Latin? Get started with Disco 1-20. Working with LLPSI or CLC? There are supplements for various chapters. Legonium does a great job using visuals to support inductive learning. You can get LLPSI-style adaptations of the opening chapters of The Hobbit. There’s even a book! Highly recommended. 

Magistrula is a site full of activities that can be done online (play a zombie shooting lightning bolts to practice contextual noun and verb declension!) or printed off to be done offline (pyramides, a hinting-and-guessing game). The online activities provide instant feedback to students and are pretty fun to boot. 

Resources I don’t have much experience with but look promising to me

I haven’t had time to engage with every intriguing Latin-learning resource I’ve encountered (yet). Some are things that are new enough that I’m just hearing of them but some have been around for a while. In the latter category, I have to include Minimus. Minimus, part of the Primary Latin Project, is a Latin course for younger learners. Like CLC, it focuses on a real Roman family. Unlike CLC it is a military family living at Vindolanda with the animals of the house, including Minimus the mouse. It’s designed to be taught with minimal (see what I did there?) Latin teaching experience, which I think is a great move for expanding accessibility. I haven’t engaged with it on a deep level but when I mentioned it to my home-schooled housemate, their face lit up and they exclaimed “I love Minimus!”

The Open University offers a free introductory course in Latin. It’s just a taster but it gives students an overview of what they might expect from a full university-level course. It also links to other free modules of potential interest. I have spent hours in OU free-content rabbit holes, so proceed with whatever degree of caution or abandon you feel is appropriate. 

Another increasingly popular type of resource is Latin novellas. These are short narratives which use sheltered (i.e. intentionally restricted) vocabulary to provide the quantity of comprehensible input required for students to acquire Latin as a language rather than as a code to be deciphered. These tend to be self-published books so quality can vary (no judgement, I’m in the same boat), but the decentralized nature of their production has allowed authors to provide more inclusive stories to early-stage Latinists. We have so little ancient literature written by anybody who wasn’t male that it is refreshing to see other genders centered in some of these novellas. There is a Cloelia novella, a novella that takes a positive look at Medusa, and a novella about the Nubian Kandake Amanirenas. Dan Conway used to maintain a database of novellas with helpful data including the level for which each was written, word count, and identities represented. While he no longer updates the database, Lance Piantaggini maintains a current list. I believe the two lists cover most of what is available. 

Finally there is Suburani, which was created specifically to address some of the critiques of the reading-method textbooks covered above. It combines the visual supports of CLC and LLPSI and the narrative approach shared by those courses with Ecce. However it focuses on a family living in the Subura, a socioeconomically mixed neighborhood of Rome. Where CLC, LLPSI, and Ecce begin (more or less) in a country villa, Suburani starts in an insula on a busy, urban morning. There appear to be substantial resources available to support teachers and learners, and according to the website, approximately 75% of proceeds from sales benefit Classics departments in schools. 

UPDATE: I neglected in the original post to mention Bloomsbury’s De Romanis, which brings in Mythology right from the start. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of the course and seeing what it has to offer.

I’m excited to dig deeper into all of these. 

Wait … don’t you make introductory materials for Latin students, Hugh?

Why yes, infomercial studio audience, as it happens I do! Over the years I realized I couldn’t find a textbook I loved for my own students, so I wrote one myself. It’s a work in progress and I’m hoping to release it in smaller units (like the old individually bound chapters of the CLC from the 70s!) to keep prices low. You can check out samples of some of them, along with intermediate and advanced texts, on the projects page. But I also really do encourage you to check out the resources above. Education is an ecosystem and nature abhors a monoculture. We are all better served by a wide range of options for studying any subject.
In future posts, I’ll look at some supplemental resources to encourage learners to engage with the cultures found in and around the Latin-speaking, -reading, and -writing world and also give an overview of intermediate Latin learning materials I’ve found helpful.

I look forward to hearing additional suggestions and additions to what I’ve set down here. I know I’m working with a limited data set. Feel free to post in the comments or hit me up on twitter @quivergium.

-Hugh

*As someone who has made a six-year curriculum’s worth of reading materials, I sympathize with the authors and editors of these textbooks. It is really quite difficult not to let one’s own preference for the Latin word with just the right nuance displace a perhaps duller vocabulary item that might be more practical to repeat for exposure. It is likewise difficult to keep the story compelling while making sure you aren’t skipping ahead to more advanced syntax.

**For critiques of LLPSI from two teachers who are enthusiastic about teaching with, it see Seumas Macdonald and Gregory Stringer’s excellent series of posts on “What’s Wrong with LLPSI?” and while you’re there check out the course listings at SeumasU; for a larger critique of common Latin curricula, with a specific examination of issues in CLC, see Erik Robinson’s “‘The Slaves Were Happy’: High School Latin and the Horrors of Classical Studies”. For ways to counter ahistorical and harmful depictions of slavery in common Latin educational resources, see Dani Bostick’s “A Conversation about Slavery in the Latin Classoom”. Cambridge University Press has developed resources and hosted events around Diversity and Inclusion in the Latin Classroom, and I am eager to see the fruits of this labor. UPDATE: Prompted by a tweet from CLC about revisions to the forthcoming 5th edition of the course, I can say there’s a lot more going on to improve the course than I was previously aware of, including the rollout of the Amarantus project.

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