How to study Latin and Greek more effectively?
August 29, 2011 10:35 PM   Subscribe

Hey MeFites: I'm studying Latin and Greek at a university and starting to feel overwhelmed. Help me study more effectively!

I'm assumed to be at an intermediate reading level at this point in the program and am supposed have all the grammar down solid - but I can't shake the feeling that I'm getting slowly buried by an ever-growing mountain of things that I don't know as well as I should.

I've been able to wing it until now, but things are ramping up and I really need to not fall behind. So, what are the best pedagogical theories as relates to the acquisition of dead languages? How did you get the foundational stuff rock solid and up to the level of instant recall? How long per day? What time of day? Is it more/less effective to study two languages back to back? What percentage of time should be spent writing out paradigms, memorizing vocab, reading grammar books, and translating passages? Any tips you can offer would be much appreciated!
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I believe in old-school methods, for this kind of brute force learning: custom 3x5 flash card drills, copying out all your class notes and solved exercises into a clean notebook, until it is perfect.....just harness yourself to some reasonable system of keeping up with class, work it like a donkey, and hang on

As for specific questions of how to spend your effort (paradigms, swotting up vocabulary, reading new texts, etc), I think you should ask your instructor for guidance here
posted by thelonius at 10:51 PM on August 29, 2011

I took a year of Latin. The TA for my Latin class was doing her PhD on some classics something or other, and had extensively studied both Latin and Greek. There were a couple of folks in my class who were also studying classics and were planning to take both Latin and Greek at some point. She said that for the most part, Latin gets harder as you go along (first year is the easiest) and Greek gets much, much easier (with the first year being the hardest by far). If you find Latin getting more confusing as you go, to not be too worried. Obviously you should study and all, but it's supposed to get harder. If you find that Greek is getting harder (more confusing, feeling lost), then you need to go back and cement your basics. She was also big on using primarily translating as a learning/studying tool, but that may have been more of a personal thing with her.

I say this having taken no Greek and having left Latin once I'd completed my language requirement. But my TA was seriously awesome, and I'd personally trust her judgement on this.
posted by phunniemee at 11:13 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a classics major, though I had intended to obtain both Latin and Ancient Greek majors. At your stage (intermediate level) I realised that whilst I could get the grammar down for both languages at the same time, I couldn't put enough time into obtaining the vocabulary. In answer to your question: are you finding the grammar or the vocab harder? If you find the grammar more difficult, then I would suggest that your issues relate to the the confusion that occurs when learning two languages that, whilst vastly different, share some similarities. If the vocab is what is challenging you, then the problem may relate to the number of study hours you have available.

For what it is worth, I dropped Ancient Greek as a subject (but continued to study it on the side), and continued with the Latin.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 11:55 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are some good Internet resources for elementary Greek, like UC Berkeley's Ancient Greek Tutorials. I think that site goes with a textbook, see the "Credits" section, that's almost perfect for your needs: shoring up language fundamentals
posted by thelonius at 11:57 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I believe in old-school methods, for this kind of brute force learning: custom 3x5 flash card drills

I'll let others give you techniques specific to Greek and Latin, as I know nothing about those subjects, but you must start using spaced-repetition. Trust me on this. Do not just do plain old flash card drills, they are not nearly as effective. Use a free app like Anki, or the Leitner system if you insist on using physical cards, but use spaced-repetition. This is the simple answer to how to study anything that involves absorbing a lot of new facts, keeping those facts in your long-term recall, and increasing your effectiveness (tremendously).

This is also a great page full of good information on using flash cards and learning in general.
posted by dubitable at 11:57 PM on August 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

I studied Latin for eight years and pretty much felt like this the whole time, as did most of my classmates. There is just so much grammar to learn, and it builds on itself to such an extent that always felt as though I didn't understand things as well as I should.

That said, I skipped first year Latin in high school and was placed directly into an intermediate-level class, which meant I was way behind on foundational things. I was also a terrible student and wasn't very diligent. Basically, if I could do it over again, I would spend at least an hour each night going over fundamentals.

Make flashcards. When I was struggling to even learn the case endings during my first year, I made color-coded flash cards. Green was for first declension, blue for second, pink for third, orange for fourth, and yellow for fifth. On one side, I'd write a gender, case, and number, and on the other, the proper ending. So, for example, I'd have a green card with "f. acc. sing." on the front and "-as" on the back. This helped IMMENSELY. I used the same color scheme for vocabulary: puella is first declension, so it went on a green card. The colors really helped me mentally match words with the correct case endings.

My high school Latin instructor is a wonderful, wonderful man and an extraordinary teacher. I learned more from him - about Latin and about living -than I have from any other person. He had lots of little tips that he shared with our class. A few:

1. STUDY YOUR FLASH CARDS BOTH WAYS! Make sure you know English to Latin as well as you know Latin to English. Nothing sucks more than messing up an exam because you can only translate in one direction or don't recognize an ending.

2. I don't know why this works so well, but if you write down each vocabulary word and definition eleven times, it will lodge in your brain forever.

3. Make up stupid little jokes if you have to. My teacher would always tell us that homework was "tecum work" - you take it home with you. To help us remember that caupo, "shopkeeper", is a third declension noun which gains an n in its non-nominative forms, he'd say that he didn't want any caupis or caupae in his classroom. We all thought it was unbearably dumb, but I still remember how caupo declines.

4. Review a little every night. You really can't learn Latin by cramming.

5. Make your own handwritten flashcards instead of printing them from the internet. The physical act of writing the information will help you remember.

6. When things get difficult and you begin to wonder why you even decided to study Latin at all, remember this, from Cicero: Serit arbores quœ alteri seculo prosint, "one plants trees for the benefit of another age." Latin is like a seed.

Best of luck! Choosing to study Latin was the single most valuable and rewarding decision I have ever made.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 11:57 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

dubitable, I stumbled on the method of merciless copying of my notes by hand, in preparing for a final in Computer Science, a computer architecture class, that I was in danger of getting a bad grade in. I really needed a B on that basically works, if you have enough time to do it right. Copy a page of your class notes into the final copy slowly, only as you completely understand it. If you have to stop, because you have no idea what your own class notes mean, mark that page clearly and move on. Oops! Now this isn't the final notebook anymore......finish, and then go back to the beginning and repeat.
posted by thelonius at 12:05 AM on August 30, 2011

I have found that one of the best ways to really learn anything is through one-on-one teaching/learning. Find some friends/colleagues also taking your Greek and Latin courses, and make dates to do the homework together and study together for the tests. Relative skill level doesn't matter, just that both of you are willing to put in the effort and not just slack and ride on the other person's ability.

If you're better than the other person, figuring out the best way to explain to the other person how a certain concept works will really hammer it into your brain. If you're worse than the other person, you'll get an explanation and discussion that comes from a different point of view than your teacher, and you can go over the specific parts you just don't get. If you're both at the same level, then working through your problems together will help you really discover the meaning behind them without just seeing them as arbitrary rules.
posted by that girl at 12:19 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

My former Latin teacher once told us a story about a colleague of his at a prep school where he used to teach. The man was becoming infuriated with a pupil of his who simply could not memorise his cases and tenses, after years of lessons. So one afternoon he locked the boy in his study for four hours with a grammar book, and told him he wouldn't get out until he knew the lot.

Four hours later? He knew the lot.

Not that I am advocating such an, er, unconventional approach to teaching... but the point is that when it comes to Greek and Latin, you get to a point where nothing other than intensive rote learning will do. Read the verb table out loud, look away and say it again. Put your hand over the page and say it again. If you got it wrong, do it again. Do this for 5 minutes. Then go and work on another aspect of grammar. Come back after an hour, do the 5 minute routine again. Then again at the end of the day, again the next day, again the next week. Reciting out loud is crucial, here, it really helps it to stick.

This approach was the only thing that worked for me, through 12 years of Latin and 10 years of Greek.
posted by guessthis at 1:48 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was a classics major, and know how you feel. I agree with everyone else -- brute force is the only way to tame the beast. Flashcards, etc. But also, when you're translating, make sure you know the grammar behind each and every word. Look it up if you don't know it, and write it down. Try to make this into a game. I used to keep a whiteboard and markers so that I could write vocab or declensions/conjugations down, again and again and again. Also, make your own flashcards -- don't use pre-made ones. Making them is part of memorizing.

Also, this is also kind of odd, but Seneca says at some point in his letters that he absorbed the most material in the early hours of the morning when you first wake up. So I would review my flashcards, or do my homework, really early in the morning. Literally, still in bed, studying first thing after I woke up. For some reason, that really worked for me: I got a lot more out of those sessions than the those I spent in the library.

Good luck! It's hard, but the rewards are immense!
posted by EtTuHealy at 3:53 AM on August 30, 2011

For me, the key to success once we got to reading connected texts was to review everything we read, slowly, to make sure I knew the definition of every word, the principal parts of every verb (for Greek); and that I could explain what was going on with the syntax in every single sentence. What case it that noun, and why? Why is that verb in the subjunctive? And then, what is a good translation of the whole sentence?

That's how I prepared for class: but in the first couple of years, I was wrong about a lot of things the first time through, so I'd get the right answer in class, then review it again later that night to make sure I got it. It took about a year, but I eventually built up enough of a repertory of grammar and syntax that a lot of it became automatic.

I also kept running notes on the vocab and syntax of the reading, to study from before exams. No special method: I just re-read the text we were going to be tested on, and if I got stuck, I looked back at my notes.

(This is assuming you have the declensions and conjugations already memorized. If you can't yet do them automatically, some serious rote learning is in order. What helped me most to get a handle on these was a combination of writing out entire paradigms, and also reciting them out loud. That part drove my roommate crazy for a while...)

Oh yeah, and if you have the chance to do a prose composition course, do it -- you'll end up with a rock-solid understanding of the fundamentals. That's what it's for.

I'm trying to remember how much time I spent on this daily. In college when I was doing second-year Greek at the same time as intensive Latin, I put in a lot of time, probably about two hours a day on each, and several entire 8-hour days spent studying before final exams. That's probably the year I worked hardest -- well, at least until I went to grad school -- and I ended up with truly solid knowledge of both languages, and the ability to find my way through a text without too much confusion.

Enjoy the challenge! My years as an undergrad were a lot of fun, and being able to put in crazy amounts of work and time in order to learn things thoroughly was a big part of that. It's an opportunity most people won't have again till they retire.
posted by philokalia at 4:55 AM on August 30, 2011

Things I did to learn Greek that aren't exactly what has been mentioned:

Going to a classroom with chalkboards on all walls and writing out paradigms: all the way around the room with one, then all the way around with the next, etc.

When translating, I copied out all of the Greek into a notebook in ink, skipping a couple lines in between. Then I translated in pencil (allowing for lots of erasure) in those in between lines, with notations about my word choices as I went along. This is especially helpful when you suddenly realize you translated a similar phrase 2 weeks ago in Antigone and you can go back and find that phrase in your notebook and see how you worked through it. If the Greek is only in the text you're working from, and your translation/notes contain only English, it's a lot harder to find previous similar passages.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:38 AM on August 30, 2011

Assuming you have the basic grammar down (which I assume you do), endlessly going through 4th declension endings won't help you too much. What you need to do is to encounter tricky constructions "in the wild" and work through them. I'm in kind of a similar situation (in a Latin- and Greek-heavy program, but I came in with less previous preparation than most), and I'm only recently beginning to feel confident in the languages. I've done this by pretty much drowning myself in real texts. My Latin is stronger, so I make sure to read several pages (at least 500 words, more if possible) of Latin a day, usually right before bed. Most people will say that you should read through De bello Gallico, but if Caesar bores you like he does me, pick something else. Cicero's orations aren't too bad; I enjoyed In Verrem because it involves some interesting art history and also Cicero's fun when he's angry. Wheelock (as in the textbook) has a volume of annotated but unadapted texts out that I really like. If you don't feel confident enough to jump into real Latin on your own, try reading through the second Lingua Latina book. It starts out with some adapted Virgil and, before you know it, you're reading unadapted Livy. The structure of the book means that you don't really have to bother with a dictionary, which is nice.

My Greek is less strong, so I've joined a weekly reading group. We're working through some Plato now, and will pick another author when we're done. Since none of us really have time to prepare a text like we would for class, we all just bring our dictionaries and then work through a passage together. Whoever figures out a construction first will then explain it to the rest. Because it's not a class, there's no fear of being wrong, so the language is just less scary in general.

Reading is the only way to gain real competency in these languages. Obviously, review the grammar as you go along-- but having all the charts memorized won't help you with the nuances of either language.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:41 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I studied Ancient Greek for five years (three of them in college) and Latin for five years in junior high and high school (and French for five years in high school, and German for three years in college, and have dabbled in other languages along the way--even taking Spanish in law school, as a way of avoiding legal classes).

I've been through the panic you're feeling in each of those languages (especially the first year of college Greek--I had a very forgiving HS Greek teacher, and placed into intermediate Greek studying Herodotus at a school that was somewhat known for its Classics program).

Endless, endless flashcards. Use the flashcards to prompt you to write it all out--so if the card gives you a noun, don't just mumble the Latin/Greek translation, write out all the cases in singular and plural for each gender (where possible). Write out every tense and mood, in each person if you've got a verb.

It's brute force, but if you spend a couple of afternoons doing it, you'll learn.

Good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:44 AM on August 30, 2011

PS- when I say read, I don't mean translate. Read through a sentence, figure out what it means without getting hung up on making the English in your head sound totally idiomatic, and then move onto the next sentence. You'll just slow yourself down and mess up your rhythm if you try to come up with an exam-quality translation.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:52 AM on August 30, 2011

I am an advocate of writing things down by hand as a way of learning.

When I studied Latin & Greek I sat down and wrote out the various paradigms first thing every morning when I came to the reading room. I had a set of example words (one from each conjugation/declination), same nouns and adjectives (all genders, singular and plural) and verbs (all persons, tenses, modes). Fifteen years later they still stick, even though I haven't been using it a lot the last 5 years.

Also we did a lot of composition, translation to Greek/Latin, which was hard, but really helpful both in terms of grammar and vocabulary.

Also reading Harrius Potter, Ursus nomine Paddington and Winnie ille Pu was helpful practising fast reading skills where I didn't look up words all the time, but tried to make sense of what I read. Also more fun that Norwegian medieval Latin.
posted by mummimamma at 11:32 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't studied those languages, but when I've had to memorize things, I've found that varying the location of my studying has helped. I think being in an unusual setting provides a little extra peg for the memory to attach to.
posted by lakeroon at 12:35 PM on August 30, 2011

Classical Greek has so much vocabulary, so many dialects, so many endings! No matter how long you study it, you will probably keep finding holes in your knowledge and stuff you have forgotten. I think you definitely need some form of rote memorization. I have found reciting paradigms out loud useful, mostly for 15-20 minute stints in any one session. Beyond that I find returns diminish. When reciting out loud, do make sure you are pronouncing things consistently so you don't get confused about how they are spelled. You can make some CDs or sound files and drill yourself during study breaks, which will also rest your eyes. (Eyestrain is a huge liability for classicists.)

Another thing I found incredibly fun and useful was memorizing poetry in Greek and Latin. After doing this for a while, I felt like I had a much better sense of how the languages work.
posted by BibiRose at 1:11 PM on August 30, 2011

You're very lucky! Latin and Greek are tremendous to learn.

I've found there were three aspects to learning Greek and Latin:

1. The grammar (endings, constructions, use of tenses)

2. The syntax (the order of words, how to express ideas to best convey the meaning)

3. The vocabulary

Each of them needed a different approach. They are very different beasts!

Grammar: I recommend this book, Ritchie's First Steps in Latin.. There is a second volume (second steps) and a First Steps in Greek. They will do little for your comprehension, but if you can get through the whole thing (not too hard) you will know your intermediate grammar inside out. Most importantly, it will put into order all those things that you've just picked up ad hoc.

Rote learning is rightly condemned as dull for certain subjects, but for grammar it is perfect. You need to be able to glance at a word and ID it fast.

SAY THINGS OUT LOUD. A lot of it rhymes, or is rhythmical:
bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello, bella, bella, bella, bellorum, bellis, bellis.

REPEAT REPEAT REPEAT! I wrote down all the endings for first conjugation verbs on an A4 sheet of paper and looked at it every day on my way to school/work.


Syntax: A difficult topic. What are you reading in Latin at the moment? Diagram sentences, try reading Martial, and try the Vulgate bible to pick up a feel for reading simple Latin sentences. Stick to fairly straightforward stuff (look at past exam papers, if you have them, for examples of what you'll be expected to do).

Most classical authors are incredibly tough for intermediate readers. Don't be too discouraged if you can't understand Cicero or Homer instantly.

I always found syntax hardest. It's one of those things that has to come through reading. However, if you have the stomach for it, prose composition is a great way to practice putting together a sentence (and practice your grammar and vocab). The Greek Prose Composition book from Bristol University Press is an excellent workbook, and out of copyright.

Vocab: Flashcards! Anki is superb. Keep a list (paper/electronic) of new words.

And as a bonus: Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, which has a cracking poem at the end to help you remember genders and a slice of vocab:
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 2:12 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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