You have taken Latin GSCE and liked it enough to go on to A-levels? Or do you want to apply for Cambridge or Oxford in subjects that require A-Level Latin, such as Classics or Archaeology?
Or have you thought of it – but are afraid of what is before you? Studying the Latin language is not easy, and A-level Latin covers Latin grammar and vocabulary in-depth.
Before you decide to chuck it and take geography or mathematics instead, we are here to provide an overview of what is awaiting you in your A-level Latin course, what most students stumble over and why it’s all not as bad as it seems.
You will see:
Superprof has some tips for you so you can ace your A-level examinations and go on to study Classical Literature or Philosophy – or medicine, biology, physics; all subjects that use a lot of Latin phrases and vocabulary.
Because Latin is a dead language, it is often accused of being an elitist subject, and many question its place on the curriculum of a modern school.
Also for that reason, Latin can appear daunting to someone interested in A-levels, but afraid that the coursework is only for top students and language geniuses, who already know everything there is to know about declension and the ablative case.
This is false.
It is also one of the reasons Latin is declining as a subject of choice of A levels or GSCEs. Overwhelmed by what they consider a highly intellectual qualification, students drop out at the first hurdle they encounter. With fewer students taking the course, Latin’s reputation as an elitist subject grows, making it even more daunting to the next batch of students.
Though Latin is often considered Elitist – in part because it has been taught for so long – it is not as hard as it seems. Photo credit: Beinecke Library on Visualhunt
Many are afraid of starting an A-level in a subject they may not stay with, or in which they fear they will get bad grades. But the grammar is not quite as nightmarish as it appears and neither is Latin vocabulary.
In fact, you would be surprised how many Latin words and phrases have made it into English usage. From quid pro quo to ad absurdum. Whether someone is de facto operating in loco parentis for a person who is not compos mentis, seeking to maintain the status quo while they carpe diem, many phrases used in English are actually Latin.
Now wouldn’t it be nice to have a Latin dictionary at hand to look them all up or, even better, not need a dictionary for Latin translations at all?
Not to mention that, while subjects such as medicine and biology don’t ask for Latin from the undergraduate students, it is still very useful as a lot of the terminology is in Latin. That way, instead of simply memorising technobabble, you will know what complicated terms really mean.
Though Latin for beginners is far from what you will be studying at A-levels, sometimes, making sure you have the basics down pat will help the rest fall into place. If you want to start reading Pliny and Ovid and sink your teeth into Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, simply learning Latin vocabulary will not be enough. You need to understand sentence structure, and to understand that you need to know your declensions.
So let’s go back to the different cases and their grammatical function:
By learning the declensions of nouns and adjectives and memorizing the function of each case, you will recognise a word’s place in the sentence. That’s why whenever you look up a word in your Latin-English dictionary, it will give you the noun in all its forms: rosa, rosae etc.
If you learn your Latin grammar, translating Ovid and Cicero will be no problem! Photo credit: Seattle.roamer on VisualHunt
There is no way around it, you have to learn the declensions by heart. If memorising it the traditional way is giving you trouble, you can always try rapping them, making visual associations, copying them fifty times… Whatever helps you. If you want to be able to translate Roman prose texts and poetry – which is what you will be doing at A-levels – you have to know them.
Here is the first declension, for feminine nouns ending in -a on the model of rosa:
The second declension (masculine nouns ending in -us):
The other, more complicated declensions, are easily found on Latin online tutoring sites (or you can type your word into this practical aid).
Remember, when you learn Latin, you can’t cut corners. You have to have the basics down pat, but once you do, it’s not as hard as you might fear.
The Latin alphabet offers no problems. It mostly resembles ours and is derived from the Etruscan alphabet, which itself evolved from the Greek alphabet. While much is known about Latin pronunciation, scholars are still not certain about certain aspects, which is why Latin is spoken slightly differently in various places.
However, what might offer some difficulty is sentence structure and Latin word order. It is closely linked to the use of the declensions.
In English, the standard word order is usually:
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object
Some inversions are possible, sometimes you can move things around for emphasis, but generally English phrases are structured around that basic structure.
Latin, however, doesn’t have a predefined word order. Important words are frequently brought to the front of the sentence. This is explained by the fact that Latin was primarily an oratory language, which focused on elegant turns of phrase.
This is one of the things that makes Latin lessons so difficult. When there are rules, you can learn them and apply them. But what do you do when there aren’t any?
This is where all the work you put into learning your declensions pays off.
Word order is of little consequence as long as you know the function of each word in the sentence – and if you recognise the case, you recognise the function.
The famous scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” illustrates wonderfully just how declensions change the meaning of a sentence. There, a Roman centurio corrects a Jew writing “Romans go home!” on a wall – and makes him write it out the right way a hundred times. Photo property of Handmade Films and Cinema International Corporation
In order to learn to read a treatise on philosophy or pass your A-level exam in Latin, you will need the right tools.
One of the things you should invest in is a Latin-English dictionary. It will be useful not only in your Latin classes but also if you want to know the etymology of certain English words. Also, if you decide to read in foreign languages at University, knowing the meaning of Latin words is useful, not only because Latin is an Indo-European language, but because most Romance languages such as French, Portuguese, Spanish or Italian derive from Latin.
However, if you want to become a Latin scholar, read the Aeneid and other Latin literature in the original language, you have to learn the vocabulary. If you have to look up every single word in a sentence in the dictionary, translations become tedious and you will probably give up the lingua latina in disgust and never enjoy Roman culture in its maiden tongue.
A lot of A-level coursework and homework is Latin translation. So if your vocabulary is not up to par and you can’t translate even the simplest sentence without your dictionaries, you should think about abandoning A-level Latin…
Or you can do something about it and write up (and memorize) flash cards with the most common Latin vocabulary you will find in your beginners’ textbooks.
Don’t get lost in the maze of Latin – learn your basics! Photo credit: Pathien on VisualHunt
Sometimes, when you learn a foreign language you need to think less like a language student and more like a maths student. You will need to apply logic to the mechanisms of the language, just like a math problem.
Once you have understood the underlying logic of the language, things like how a sentence is structured and the best translation for Latin-language fabulae are easier to master.
Thus, when taking Latin at A-levels, you will need some solid methodology. This is not just for those taught Latin in a stuffy classroom, but for anyone who has learnt an instrument, be it the piano or the piccolo. You need to keep at it and practise a little every day, either by reciting your vocabulary and grammar or by translating a small text by Ovid or Pliny.
If you’re really having trouble with your A-level Latin, consider looking online. If you have trouble only with long sentences but otherwise can understand the gist, online Latin exercises can be great.
But if you really have trouble grasping fundamental aspects of the language and your textbook has become your mortal enemy, you might want to consider private tutoring.
A private tutor can offer one-on-one sessions, will give another explanation for a concept than the one in your textbook and tailor their courses to your needs.
Here at Superprof, we offer an incredible range of tutors so you will be sure to find someone to motivate you and turn your weakness into strengths.