How To Learn Latin: Complete Guide + Best Courses And Books

  • Johann Brennan
    Written byJohann Brennan
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How To Learn Latin: Complete Guide + Best Courses And Books

Salvete, discipulae et discipuli — hello, students!

So, you want to learn Latin. It’s a wonderful goal and one that can be surprisingly useful in life.

Learning a new language is always exciting, and with the mystique and intrigue surrounding such an ancient language as Latin, it’s even more scintillating.

Though Latin is generally referred to as one of the dead languages, it is still a great skill to acquire, translating Latin text and knowing the basics of Latin studies can even help with the learning process of multiple languages for the native English speaker.

This helps with understanding the sentence structure of Romance languages, and a variety of other types of international communication.

Plus, by knowing Latin, you can amaze friends and family by reading aloud from a letter of Julius Caesar or translating a passage of Martial’s most contentious poetry!

Table of Contents:

  1. A brief history of Lingua Latina
    • In principium…
    • Evidence of early Latin
    • The language of the Romans
    • The importance of classical written Latin
    • Later Latin
    • The language of the Church (Ecclesiastical Latin)
    • Layers of Latin
  2. How do you learn Latin?
    • Top tips for learning Latin
    • Let’s learn Latin: an example lesson
  3. Resources for learning Latin
    • Latin online courses
    • Latin dictionaries and grammar glossaries
    • Latin audio and podcasts
    • Latin smartphone apps
    • Latin textbooks and workbooks
    • Latin texts and translations
    • Latin YouTube videos
  4. Learning Latin: In summary

A brief history of Lingua Latina

Latin might seem like an old, dead dialect, but it’s actually the base for many modern “Romance” languages such as French, Spanish, and Italian.

And while a language like Italian being based on Latin might not be surprising — given the country of origin — Latin was so influential back in the Classical world that many other languages have words in common or words that are very obviously related to the original Latin.

So, before we delve into the available resources for learning Latin, let’s take a moment to get familiar with the language itself and a brief history of the importance of Latin, starting all the way back with its roots as the Indo-European language of the Romans.

In principium…

We can trace the origins of Latin back to an early branch of the Indo-European language family and the Phoenician alphabet writing system, where groups of people living along the Tiber River used this dialect almost exclusively as their mother tongue.

From here, we can trace its impact on Latium, or the area around Rome, until it became the official language of the entire Roman Empire and later Republic.

These Latium tribes became more prominent after winning a variety of small wars until founding the city of Rome after 753 BC. As Rome’s political prowess spread across Italy and into the surrounding Mediterranean and Aegean countries, Latin continued to extend into more and more cultures, including Greece and Egypt.

Evidence of early Latin

For instance, one of the earliest physical examples of Latin to exist is found on a Greek fibula, or cloak pin, called the Praeneste Fibula.

This artifact is significant as it bears the remnants of Archaic or Old Latin script that was common before Classical Latin became the main dialect and took its place.

This fibula actually dates back to the early 7th Century BC.

Another important piece of early Latin evidence dates back to the 1st Century BC, where a black marble pavement was discovered in the sanctuary to Vulcan, in the ruins of the Roman Forum’s Comitium.

This pavement piece, known as the Lapis Niger, places Latin not only as the primary language of the time, but also being in use by every class of person, from commoners to nobility.

And so, as Latin became known as the language of the Roman Republic and Empire, and as this cultural significance spread, so too did the prevalence of Classical Latin — which is precisely the dialect that we will continue to discuss!

The language of the Romans

When you think of Latin, you might immediately picture Julius Caesar, debates within the Roman Senate, or even the famed saying Veni, Vidi, Vici — “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

But the use of this language was most extensive within Italy (or Italia, in Latin) between the years of 100 BC and 150 AD, also known as the Golden Age of Latin literature.

It also took three primary forms during this time: colloquial Latin, Classical oratorical Latin, and Classical written Latin.

The first was the common speech of everyday Roman people and conversations; oratorical Latin referred to the manner of speaking in use during senate meetings, forums, and other political rhetorics, used to persuade listeners the same way that earlier Greek rhetoricians were so adept at.

The importance of classical written Latin

However, Classical written Latin is the form that has endured most cohesively to this day, and is actually the type of Latin grammar that we will be discussing further when it comes to learning this not-so-dead language!

Thanks to the well-preserved writings of many influential Roman poets, orators, and playwrights, we have plenty of sources of the Classical Latin language to learn from and translate into modern languages.

In fact, studying these Classical Latin texts is one of the best ways to become familiar with the Latin language and learn basic vocabulary words.

Among others, you might recognize the big names of Classical Latin, including Virgil, Cicero, Tacitus, and Ovid.

Even big political names like Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony were responsible for producing and preserving plenty of Latin’s most influential literature, such as their campaign letters back and forth detailing historical battles and political situations.

Later Latin

As the Roman Republic began to decline and fade into the new powers rising across Europe and the emergence of Christianity and the Church, Latin too began to change.

The oratory and literary style of Latin began to become obscure and a thing of the past, giving way to the common tongue dialect that became the Vulgar Latin of the common people in Europe.

And while people can still access and enjoy Classical works of Latin, these readers belong to more niche groups of individuals, including scholars, monks, and nobles.

This marks the beginning of the divide between those who easily read the Latin of the old world, and those who speak Latin that is quickly transforming into something different entirely.

The language of the Church (Ecclesiastical Latin)

St Jerome

With St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Vulgar Latin — also known as the Vulgate — in 382 AD, Latin started to become the language of the Roman Catholic Church, as the Roman Empire itself began to crumble in the West and was forced to fade into the East and combine with Greek-speaking populations.

Around the 600s to mid-750s, Latin was virtually a dead language for many Europeans.

It remained in use within monasteries and the Church as Ecclesiastical Latin, but this period also coincided with the middle of the Dark Ages, when Europe struggled with very little in the way of cultural or scientific advancement, and academia was not accessible to the common people.

This left Latin speakers in low quantities outside of religious settings, as not many people could read Latin or had time for studying Latin.

Spoken Latin began to decline along with the native speakers of this language, due to population dispersion and mixing.

But as Emperor Charlemagne brought about a massive change in the 800s AD with his attempts at unification for Western and Central Europe during one of the first successful Roman leaderships in centuries, Latin was about to remerge into the spotlight of European history and alter the course of many languages.

Layers of Latin

Over the next few hundred years, Latin experienced waves of popularity and reemergence — this includes Medieval Latin and Renaissance Latin.

This ushered in a new era for those who devoted time to Latin classes—typically members of the higher classes—and translating it into their native language.

Through the preservation and study of Latin, however, we can see a great impact on a variety of other languages and styles of writing, including romance languages that share Latin roots, and the revival of Classic Latin tragedies and comedies.

Many playwrights used traditional Roman tales of frivolity and intrigue as a base for their writing, including William Shakespeare and his use of Latin terms.

And from there we arrive at our current time period and how Latin is used in academia, research, and even plays a part in general public fascination with the ancient and antique.

Latin might no longer be spoken, but it is studied and enjoyed by many people, for a wide variety of reasons.

So, let’s look a bit closer at the process of learning and reading Latin.

How do you learn Latin?

People all over the world spend time studying multiple languages. Being multilingual is quite a useful thing in today’s age, with more international connections than ever.

And Latin is really no different than any other language—the biggest difference tends to lie in the lack of conversational partners in Latin, making you rely primarily on reading and translation.

So, how do you start learning this ancient and fascinating language?

Top tips for learning Latin

So, Latin is quite useful in several different capacities.

But how difficult is it to learn Latin words, and how do you successfully retain this language?

The following are some essential tips for any Latin student to help boost learning efficiency.

  • Come up with a song or chant to remember noun declensions, verb conjugations, and endings.
  • Flashcards with Latin phrases or words will help you with quick retention.
  • Say words aloud as you write them to reinforce the vocabulary.
  • Spend time each day translating and reading Latin texts.
  • Study in smaller, frequent chunks of time. Don’t assume you can learn Latin 8 hours a day, or else you will become burnt out and confused!

Let’s learn Latin: an example lesson

Now that we are familiar with the history and uses of Latin, let’s take a look at an easy first word in the Latin language and unpack how it acts and can be translated.

The following charts help break down “Mensa, mensae”. It is a feminine, first declension noun meaning “Table”.

This first declension of nouns is part of the five that make up the Latin language and follows a repeated ending-based pattern for its meanings.

All first declension nouns follow this exact pattern with very few aberrant exceptions, using the same endings for all nouns that fall into this family of words, meaning that once you memorize the endings and meanings, all other first declension nouns will be easy to decline!

This is also true for other declensions, but with different endings.

Here is the full declension breakdown of mensa:

CaseSingular(Endings)Plural(Endings)
NominativeMēnsa-aMēnsae-ae
GenitiveMēnsae-aeMēnsarum-arum
DativeMēnsae-aeMēnsīs-īs
AccusativeMēnsam-amMēnsās-ās
AblativeMēnsāMēnsīs-īs
VocativeMēnsa-aMēnsae-ae

This chart can be further broken down into the following end-based meanings.

Whatever ending is attached to the base of the word (“Mens-”, in this case) determines the meaning of the noun and whether the noun is singular or plural.

CaseSingular(Endings)Plural(Endings)
NominativeSubject-aSubjects (Multiple)-ae
GenitivePossessive (Of)-aePossessive (Of Multiple)-arum
DativeIndirect Object (To/For)-aeIndirect Objects (To/For Multiple)-īs
AccusativeDirect Object-amDirect Objects (Multiple)-ās
AblativeThe Object of Preposition (In/By/With/From)The Objects of Preposition (In/By/With/From Multiple)-īs
VocativeAddress (“Oh, X.”)-aAddress “Oh, Multiple X’s.”-ae

In this way, you often don’t need separate prepositions to denote the function of a word in Latin; its case ending will tell you exactly what purpose the word is serving in the sentence!

So, if we take this chart and apply it to the Mensa, mensae declension, the word “mensis” would translate to “to the tables” — or could be used in a sentence such as “I am bringing the cups to the tables”, where mensis would be the singular, indirect object of the action of bringing cups somewhere.

You might have noticed identical endings denoting different noun functions, however.

And while this can be confusing at first, it is actually not too difficult to differentiate between various case uses when working with actual Latin sentences.

For instance, we can use the previous sentence once again. “I am bringing the cups to the tables” uses the dative case for indirect objects, whereas the other -īs ending would mean something different.

Using the ablative ending produces a sentence that would have to read “I am bringing the cups from the tables”, because the ablative case cannot accept any kind of indirect action, and is only used in passing or going through, hence its relegation to describing only “in, by, with, or from” situations.

In context, while reading, the worry of identical endings becomes a thing of the past and you will very quickly adapt to recognize these uses as separate entities!

So, what do you think — are you ready to explore some great resources to aid you on your journey to learn and read Latin?

Let’s dive right in and figure out ways to supplement your Latin lessons and your experience as language learners.

Resources for learning Latin

The best way to learn Latin is to just dive right in, so the following resources will be very useful to Latin learners — from finding a Latin course to a good Latin dictionary, here are some of the best places to look for assistance in your language journey!

Latin online courses

While many universities and colleges offer Latin classes, you might want to opt for learning at home instead.

In that case, here are some great online courses that you can work around your schedule.

Udemy offers An Introduction To Classical Latin that covers the basics of Classical literature and the Latin used to write it. This course has short lectures and Latin videos accompanying each lesson and self-test exams for retention, including etymology and vocabulary.

Learn Latin with term-length Latin classes run through the Ancient Languages Institute, choosing between beginner, intermediate, and advanced level courses, based on your skill level. You will be reading Livy, Virgil, and Sallust before you know it!

EdX Courses also offers online language learning, including a variety of Latin lessons that even cover the lesser-known Ecclesiastical Latin and even the Vulgar dialect. Comprehensive and flexible, this course is a great option.

Latin dictionaries and grammar glossaries

Supplement your knowledge of Latin terms by delving deeper into the sometimes-complicated grammar and flexible sentence structures of this ancient language with a variety of resources.

A great all-around Latin dictionary, the Collins Latin Dictionary & Grammar is a basic resource that offers thousands of English-Latin and Latin-English words, as well as charts of declensions and conjugations.

The Bantam New College Latin & English Dictionary is excellent for Latin students of all levels, providing not just sources for words, phrases, and grammar, but also mythological, geographical, and historical references for a comprehensive glossary.

For a comprehensive reference that covers a wider period of Latin language and includes examples from contemporary literature, and footnotes that cover etymology and usage of particular words, Lewis & Short’s Latin-English Dictionary reigns supreme.

Latin audio and podcasts

Popping on a podcast can be a great way to passively experience and learn a language, and with Latin, it’s important to hear it being spoken aloud.

For audio lessons, try listening to Latinum: The Latin Language Learning Podcast, available on iTunes podcasts.

To fully immerse yourself in the world of ancient Rome, choose the Quomodo Dicitur? Podcast, where university professors discuss events exclusively in Latin!

And lastly, choose from a variety of audiobooks recorded in Latin from Latinitium to supplement your learning process.

Latin smartphone apps

Smartphone applications are one of the best ways to fit daily Latin language learning into your daily life. These convenient apps let you spend a few minutes every day immersed in Latin, wherever and whenever!

Duolingo is famous for its persistent notifications when it comes to learning a new language, including a Latin course. With as little as 5 minutes a day, these bite-sized Latin lessons are great for learning.

The Speak Latin app does just that—you can use the games and categories to become familiar and conversational with Latin right from your phone!

SPQR Latin Dictionary & Reader comes with a word parser, flashcards, historical references, texts, and more, giving you a miniature Latin library right in your pocket.

Latin textbooks and workbooks

Some of the best Latin learning can be done with the assistance of academic textbooks and lesson sheets that help break down Latin grammar and teaches Latin in an accessible manner.

Wheelock’s Latin is undoubtedly one of the best options for a comprehensive Latin textbook. Not only can you use the massive study guide for lessons, but also the reader and workbook that accompany it for a fully-rounded experience.

The Cambridge Latin Course is the other primary source for Latin textbooks and academic lessons. Published by Cambridge University Press, this complete course uses lesson plans and distance learning support to help Latin students succeed.

Lingua Latina is another option, offering to teach Latin through rigorous grammar memorization and naturalized vocabulary retention and usage in everyday situations.

Latin texts and translations

One of the best—and most satisfying—ways to help with Latin retention and language learning is to read the original texts themselves. And while you can opt for a title that has accompanying translations to help you along, reading Latin is an excellent way to understand the language.

The Perseus Digital Library is one of the best sources for original works in both Latin and Greek. As a free online resource, you can find a great many titles and translations ready to be read! The I Tatti Renaissance Library offers a variety of late Latin texts as well.

The Loeb Classical Library is another way to learn Latin by visiting the source of literary works. Similarly, PHI Latin Texts forms an online compendium of some Classical works in Latin, along with the Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum virtual library.

Latin YouTube videos

And finally, for anyone interested in video and visual learning when it comes to Latin, here are some great YouTube channels that offer Latin education tips.

The Latinum channel uploads Latin lessons consistently, for all levels of students. Further, Latintutorial has a wide range of playlists that cover grammar, sentence structure, and much more. For younger learners, the Satura Lanx channel might be ideal.

If you want to explore the world of mythology and stories in Latin, try the Divus Magister Craft channel, or ScorpioMartianus to immerse yourself entirely in the language.

Learning Latin: In summary

To finish, Latin is one of those languages that continues to intrigue and fascinate, even though it is not in primary use anymore.

From avid scholars to the curious, historians to researchers, Latin is a vibrant and complex language that begs for more people to become familiar with it.

And through the use of some specific resources, you absolutely can learn Latin and enjoy it just as much as the ancient Romans did.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
Greek

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