The Method (Part 1)
Hack Your Latin, Part 8: A Simple Method To Build Vocabulary That Works
Many students of Latin and Greek often wonder what is the best way to improve their reading skills in the classical languages. The answer, of course, is, “read a lot of Latin and Greek!” But there are a few methods I’ve picked up over the years, which I often encourage students to adopt. This article deals with one of them, and discusses why it works.
I learned this method from Fr. Reginaldus Foster, the famous papal Latinist who ran a legendary summer Latin program in Rome that taught students to speak Latin while visiting ancient ruins in beautiful Italian locales. He mentioned in passing that he had learned it as a boy from his teachers, and it involved keeping a vocabulary list, which you constantly review. Reginaldus advised to use a legal pad, as they are a bit longer, and can accommodate a few more words per page. As you read a Latin or Greek text, when you come across a particular word you don’t know, write the word down on the left hand side of the page. Make sure you write the word as it would occur in the dictionary. In other words, if it’s a noun, write the nominative, genitive, and the gender, e.g. vir, viri (m.). If it’s a verb, write all the principle parts, habeo, habere, habui, habitum. On the other side of the page near the right margin, write the definition of the word. Leave the middle space between the two words blank. Every time you come across a word you don’t know, add it to the list. When you come to the end of the first page, flip to the next one, and keep going.
Now that you have this list, use it! Devote a set period of time everyday to the memorization of the new vocabulary you’ve come across. Cover the right side of the paper with your hand so that the Latin and Greek words are hidden. Look at the English to prompt yourself, and say the entire Latin Greek forms out loud. Repeat all of the essential lexicographical information out loud as well, including the part of speech, the stem, the gender, the principle parts, etc. If there are words you don’t know, lift up your hand and look at the definition. You can also put a small dot next to any definition to help focus your attention on the words you don’t know. Repeat this until you can confidently produce all the Latin or Greek words on the right hand side of the page, with all their forms, out loud. Do this every day for the entire legal pad.
As you keep reading, your legal pad will fill up with words. It’s important to keep the task of memorization reasonable, and Reginaldus had a trick for this, too. When you’ve filled 7 pages on the legal pad, and are ready to start the eighth page, tear the 1st page off, and throw it away. Never allow more than 7 pages of vocabulary to accumulate. There may be some words on the page you throw away that you still don’t quite remember perfectly. That’s OK. You can’t get yourself in the situation of hoarding vocabulary words, because then the essential daily task of memorizing becomes too time-consuming and overwhelming. It needs to stay manageable so that it is doable.
Since you’ve been reviewing every day, you will have seen the words on the first page 7 times by the time it’s time to get rid of it. By tearing it off, you may be letting go some of the words you haven’t fully memorized yet. Don’t worry, if they are frequent, important words, they will come up again in your reading and go back onto the pad. If they aren’t, you’ll only see them rarely and you don’t need to worry about them too much.
There are several reasons why this method is particularly effective. The first is that it works with words that you’ve seen in context. It is much easier for us to remember things that we’ve seen in context, rather than things that are randomly presented on their own. In psychology, this is called “context dependent memory.” If you need proof of this, just think of a time that you’ve lost your car keys, and retraced your steps to remember where you put them. This context of your experience reading will make your self-generated vocabulary list a much more powerful tool than a frequency lists or list of 500 most common verbs without any context or lived experience connected to them.
You don’t need to worry about memorizing low-frequency words, either. Since you’re reading real Latin, the most frequent words will naturally occur as you read. Sure, you may end up memorizing some infrequent words, but even that can end up having unexpected benefits. Many infrequent Latin and Greek words are related conceptually or linguistically to more common words. For example, the Latin word conficio is the 641st most common word in Latin occurring to Logeion (the University of Chicago’s excellent online Latin and Greek dictionary). But it’s related to facio, the 29th most common word in Latin. Other times, an uncommon Latin word has a common borrowing or choice derivative in English or the romance language. Carpo is the 1830th most common word in Latin, but it helps you understand the common English borrowing carpe diem, and the two-dollar English derivative “carping.” There are many other examples of this, and it makes it worthwhile to memorize almost any Latin word you come across.
Another interesting thing to note about this method is that it’s entirely analogue. It requires you to write things out by hand on physical paper. I am convinced that when it comes to memorization, writing things out is much more beneficial than using digital tools like Quizlet. There are a few reasons for this. The most important has to do with muscle memory. When you write longhand, you are making a physical movement with your hand to form each letter. Each letter is like a tiny painting, produced by a flourish of your wrist and fingers. The words that you write bear your personal style; no two people’s handwriting is the same. This muscle memory, and the personal, artistic relationship you have with each word when you write it out supports your mental connection to the word and makes it easier to memorize. And then, of course, there is the danger of distraction when using digital tools. When it’s just you and a pad a paper, there’s no possibility of a tappable smartphone notification distracting you from your task. There’s also less of a chance of that own curiosity, triggered by some random association, will send you down an internet rabbit hole of Wikipedia or worse.
The word “method,” μέθοδος in Greek, derives from the word οδός “road.” It means “a path or approach for attaining something.” In order for this method to work, you must try to walk the road every day. There is a koan, or Zen Buddhist riddle, that runs, “There is a road, but no one walks on it.” Understanding the difficulty and the essential importance of building a daily practice of reading is the key to making this method work. Regardless of your methodological approach, learning to read Latin, Greek, or any language for that matter, should be approached like meditation or prayer. The greatest progress will come from consistent, daily practice, and the result will be greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, you will make more progress from 15 minutes of reading a day than you will from one hour every four days.
The challenge, as the riddle points out, is walking the path. For those who are lucky enough to be full-time students, the path is easier to stay on, for a time. Those who try to learn Latin or Greek in their spare time face greater obstacles. But even on those who enjoy the most otium, life’s distractions and necessities constantly bear down. Doing anything other than eating, sleeping, and breathing for 15 minutes a day for any extended period of time can prove to be very challenging. However, building a habit and sticking to it, can be wonderfully rewarding in its own right, and the goal of communing with ancient voices, which applying one’s focused attention to learning Latin and Greek confers, is one worth walking towards.
Jason Pedicone is president of the Paideia Institute, and a lover of learning languages.