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Learn Classical Latin

By Sonia, published on 19/06/2018 Blog > Academia > Latin > Learning Latin in School

Once you leave primary school, you will have various choices to make: whether to go for a GCSE or A-Levels (or both) and what subjects to take for the exams.

Though not all schools offer the opportunity to study it, Classical Latin is an option you might want to consider.

Here is a Superprof guide to choosing Latin for your GCSE or A-Levels, how to pursue it on a university level and what difficulties await you when learning Latin.

Why Choose Latin GCSE?

Set yourself apart: choose Latin as a GCSE.

In Year 9, you will have to choose your optional subjects for Year 10 and, ultimately, your GCSE.

The Latin language has a reputation for being elitist, but don’t let that deter you: it offers a lot of advantages.

Can anyone learn Latin?

First of all, let’s do away with the myth that you have to be a top-level student to learn the language of the ancient Romans. On the contrary: Latin can help raise your grades in other subjects! The discipline you learn can be applied to other subjects, and some of the skills – such as logical thinking – needed to understand the grammar might help certain notions in subjects such as chemistry and physics finally click. Memorizing vocabulary will improve your memory in other areas.

Benefits of a Latin language course

Learning a language such as Latin has numerous advantages:

  • Better understand the etymology of English words. Though it is a dead language, this indo-european tongue has influenced not only the modern Romance languages such as French or Portuguese, but is also, through French and the language of science, at the root of many English words.
  • Understand certain common phrases used in English, such as quid pro quo or carpe diem.
  • Understand and learn other languages more easily. Since the Romance languages all evolved from Latin, knowing the Latin word for, say, “flower” is flos (which becomes flores in certain cases), you can easily translate the French fleur, Italian fiore or Spanish flor.
  • Improve your general culture. Rome produced many philosophers and poets who greatly influenced European culture. Classical authors such as Ovid and Horace were known to Shakespeare and Dickens while Roman mythology influenced everything from opera to the naming of the planets in our solar system during the birth of modern astronomy.
  • Learn discipline. Latin is a logical language, needing a certain methodical thinking to understand its grammar. This is a good skill for scientific subjects.

As you can see, Latin is not only interesting in its own right but has a universal appeal. It was a scholarly language for a long time and still permeates a lot of aspects of modern life.

Latin is at the root of Romance languages Latin is at the root of the Romance languages such as French or Italian. Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on VisualHunt.com

Difficulties in Latin for Beginners

While you definitely don’t need to be a genius to learn Latin, progressing to Latin GCSE or even A-Level Latin is more difficult than the simple beginner Latin you might have learnt in your introductory class. Latin lessons soon progress beyond “Salve!” and simple subject-verb phrases, and if you haven’t grasped the basics, you will be lost.

Fortunately, unlike Ancient Greek, the Latin alphabet more or less corresponds to our own – and though no scholar is quite certain how spoken Latin sounded exactly, we have a fair idea of its pronunciation. Instead, most problems will be found in Latin grammar. So let’s take a look at where the greatest difficulties lie.

Latin syntax

A Latin sentence is not put together in quite the same way an English one is.

Generally, word order in English varies little from sentence to sentence:

Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object

Only occasionally can certain parts of speech be switched around for emphasis.

In Latin, however, a language of orators, there are no rules about word order. So how do you know if a noun is subject or object?

Understanding Latin sentence structure. Syntax is the key to understanding Latin phrases and declensions are the key to Latin syntax. Photo credit: corno.fulgur75 on Visualhunt.com

Case and declension in Latin

Just like verbs are conjugated in different tenses, nouns are declined. That means that nouns are written slightly differently (usually the ending changes) depending on their function in the sentence.

This, fortunately, means that you can understand the meaning of a sentence no matter what order the words are in, simply by looking at their case. Latin grammar rules have cases for both nouns and the adjectives attached to them:

  • Nominative = subject
  • Vocative = used when addressing someone
  • Accusative = direct object
  • Dative = indirect or secondary object
  • Genitive = possessive
  • Ablative = adverb or adverbial phrase

If you want to learn to speak Latin, you need to know the declensions in their singular and plural forms. In beginner Latin lessons, you will learn the first and second declensions (feminines in -a and masculines in -us), then progress to the more eclectic ones. But you need to memorize them if you want to eventually translate original Latin texts such as Caesar’s De Bello Gallico – which you will be doing in your last year GCSE and for your A-Levels, otherwise you will have no chance of ever deciphering Latin sentences.


Basic Latin vocabulary

While you should think of getting a Latin dictionary, you need to have a good store of basic Latin words so you don’t need to look up every single one. The less you open a Latin-English dictionary when doing your homework or for a test, the more you will enjoy translations. That will keep you motivated for your A-level exams.

So make flashcards with the vocabulary words from the lists you find in your textbooks and memorize them whenever you have a few spare minutes – in the privy while eating breakfast, on your way to school…

Choosing Latin Courses for A-Levels

Opting for an A-Level in Latin will give you a unique selection when going on to university. You needn’t want to read Classical Studies to take Latin – while it’s not a requisite, it is very practical for a number of scientific fields, where the terms used are derived from the language of the Caesars – biology, for example. It is also practical when studying literature or philosophy, as many of the early Roman authors had a great influence on the history of scholarly writing.

The A-Level Latin curriculum continues with grammatical lessons, of course, but you won’t be learning declensions any more. Instead, you will be introduced to the fine nuances of verb tenses (such as the subjunctive and the past participle) and various linguistic particularities of the language.

For your A-Levels, you will also be studying Latin literature, translating many a Latin text, whether as a passage or in its entirety. This will range from poetry to ecclesiastical texts, from the Aeneid to the Parallel Lives, from Virgil to Cicero.

You might also be asked to write an essay on certain aspects of Classical culture or events in Roman history.

You will not just be taking language courses, but peeking into the mind of famous Roman authors and learning about Roman culture at its source. The Latin translation you will do will teach you to learn a foreign language in context and prepare you for studies at a university.

Latin has been taught for a long time. Latin has been studied by generations of students for hundreds of years – but it is far from an elitist subject. Photo credit: Thomas Hawk on VisualHunt

Progressing to Classical Latin Studies at University

While Latin can be useful for certain scientific subjects, it is generally not a prerequisite A-Level for being accepted into a veterinary school or a college-level physics course.

Subjects likely to want to see a Latinum of some sort are generally in the humanities. Latin Studies or Classical Studies will not only want you to translate Latin texts but analyse them and investigate their literary and linguistic merit. These are studies for those truly in love with the Latin language.

Some universities in England offering a degree in Latin Studies are:

  • Royal Holloway University of London
  • University College London
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Manchester

Medieval Studies will also require a good knowledge of Latin, as most administrative texts and even novels were written in Latin for the greater part of the Middle Ages. Only slowly did the local tongue come to be used for written documents. Even the Bible remained in Latin – in the so-called Vulgate version, a translation from the Greek and Hebrew.

Anyone studying Classical Archaeology would also be well-advised to learn the lingua latina, as Latin phrases are often found on archaeological objects.

Latin is useful in archaeology. Latin is also useful in other subjects such as archaeology. Photo credit: howsmyliving on VisualHunt.com

When to Start Learning Latin with a Private Tutor

Ideally, you will be taught everything you need to know to understand a Latin text in school. But teachers have to follow their curriculum, and an explanation that seemed crystal clear in the classroom can turn out to be unexplainably muddy once you try to apply it. Your Latin textbook and dictionaries are often of no help, as they explain things the same way as your teacher in Latin classes.

And yet you want to succeed. You love everything Roman, want to master the language to read Pliny in the original, or just want to pass your exams – whatever the reason, you are eager to learn, but simply cannot understand what your teacher is going on about.

Never fear – Superprof is here! Superprof is the only tutoring platform to offer private coaches in a variety of different subjects, including Latin, but here you will be able to see all your tutor’s qualifications and many of them offer the first lesson for free.

But why bother with a private tutor in Latin?

A Latin tutor will be able to work with you on a much more personalised level. He or she will give you exercises to increase your understanding of grammar rules that give you difficulty. They can drill you in vocabulary to prepare quizzes and help you diagram sentences until you proficiency is such that you can translate a liturgical text in Latin without resorting to your dictionary for every second word.

Here are some further advantages to private tutors for beginners or intermediate level Latinists:

  • They can work to iron out your weaknesses and build upon your strengths.
  • They can work at your pace rather than the curriculum.
  • They can come when you have time rather than having to re-arrange your schedule around your Latin classes.
  • They will motivate you when you are ready to chuck your grammar book at the wall and give up. They see the progress you make better than you do and will encourage you to keep on going.

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