Learning Latin is like learning English

A latin student of mine asked what it would take to get ready to be ready for AP Latin? And it made me reflect on what it really takes to learn a language and how we learn even our native tongue. I thought I would share my answer and my ponderings.

I think that language is more transformative than we tend to realize. (NB I’m not that great at it, but I’m a little further than my students). Language is part of the building blocks of our mind, how we think, how we live. Words make abstract feelings and experiences communicable. George Orwell was onto something when he wrote 1984 and imagined the government limiting language in order to limit thought.

I told my student that to be ready for AP Latin, you need the latin equivalvent of what it takes to be ready for AP English. Advanced English is more than noun/verb agreement. Reading novels introduces the advanced middle-schooler, for instance, to stylistic language, an expanded vocabulary, building scenes, implications, repeated metaphors and meanings that carry between sentences. To make this linguistic level jump, a student must have the basics of language down, as children do. Children converse with their parents about concrete objects; they listen to songs and watch television in it. The Latin student should likewise have a child’s level of fluency before beginning advanced and abstract and stylistic texts.  Learning Latin is hard because the culture that goes along with it just isn’t around anymore. So we have to make it up through anachronisms such as the video above of a latin professor singing Adele’s Hello.

To get to fluency, the language must become our own, internalized. It isn’t enough to memorize charts of verb conjugations; to learn a language we have to care; it has to be part of us; it has to start to form the shape of our thought. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare on the page and being confused, and watching it played out well–seeing the words in action, embodied by actors who express their reality and about whose fate we are actually concerned.

I’ve heard it said that it takes a relationship to learn a language, a person that we care about enough to make the jump of total communication in that language. I think this is true. I recommended memorizing text, reading in basic Latin and listening to songs in Latin. Middle schoolers listen to songs in English–it’s one of the cultural, subconscious ways they experience language as tied to art and emotion.

That’s it. The question was interesting to me because it made me reflect on the effort it takes to learn and what it takes for us to rise the levels of linguistic experience in our native tongue and how that corresponds with learning another language.

For me and Latin, even though I’m not that good at it, a large part of why I care is because I am Catholic. I wanted to learn Latin to read theology, to access the history of the Church, to pray in Latin. I have Latin prayers memorized, and I sometimes try to read the Bible in Latin–which was recommended to me by a professor. It’s smart because as Christians, the Gospel stories are so familiar to us, that it’s almost impossible not to understand them even in another language if we can pick out just a few words. Then our brains can  make the jump to piecing together all the meaning connections between the words. It’s a funny sort of experience. I like it, and I’m still not the best language student, but I do want to keep working at it.

Have you learned a foreign language? How long did it take? What strategies helped? If you could learn any language, what would it be and why?

Advertisements