How do I learn my Latin vocabulary?

Vocabulary is essential to learning Latin and indeed any language. It might seem tempting to a student to leave the rote-learning of their vocabulary list until closer to the examination, on the grounds that in the meantime they can make use of it while they are studying. This is a huge mistake: by avoiding the process of rote-learning students are placing themselves in cognitive overload every time they pick up their text book.

Whenever you look a word up in a dictionary or on a vocabulary list, you are having to hold it in your working memory – just at the same time as you are grappling with a new grammar concept. Our working memory is extremely limited; at best guess, we can hold a small handful of things in our head at any one time, and over-taxing our working memory leads to cognitive overload. By contrast, our long-term memory is infinite – there truly is no limit to how much you can learn! It is therefore important to exploit our enormous capacity for long-term memorisation in order to free up the working memory to do what it needs to – tackle and understand new concepts.

If you’re really struggling with Latin grammar, it is worth asking yourself whether your lack of vocabulary is contributing to the problem. If your working memory is constantly overloaded, it will struggle to grasp new concepts. Learning your vocabulary can help to alleviate the strain.

So, what is the best way to learn your vocabulary? Fortunately, we know a great deal more about the process of memorisation than we used to, and more and more teachers are becoming research-informed about what works and what doesn’t. Let me explain what’s most important in the process:

1. Test, test and test again:

Even if you think you don’t know any of the words in front of you, the first thing you should do is to cover up the meanings and begin by testing yourself. I know that might seem strange, but the process of testing forces your brain to concentrate. Just staring at a word and its meaning won’t work; you’ll find yourself thinking about the latest cat video or whatever else is more interesting! To succeed at memorisation, you need to engage with the process and the best way to force yourself to do so is to test yourself. For more on how to approach this, keep reading …

2. Test yourself on small amounts, little and often:

I cannot stress this enough. If your Latin teacher has set you 30 words to learn over one week, you will need to tackle the task repeatedly. While for most homeworks you may be able to sit down and tick them off as done after an hour’s blitz, vocabulary learning should be done in short bursts: take 5-10 minutes once or twice a day and spend that time testing yourself. Start with 10 words. Then later that day or on the next day, return to those 10, adding another 5 words on top. Then repeat those 15 words, adding another 5 and so on. By the end of the week you should be confident. Why so much repetition? There is a reason, and here it is …

3. Be wary of the forgetting curve:

First posited by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus at the end of the 19th century, this memory model proved what we all know instinctively: that when you rote-learn something quickly, you forget it pretty quickly too. But do not despair! The process of well-spaced repetition strengthens the links your brain has made with what it is learning and lengthens the retention. In the graph below, the red line shows what happens when you learn something in one sitting and then leave it – after 5 or 6 days, you’ll have forgotten the lot. But the green lines show what happens with repetitive revisiting: your recall strengthens with each sitting until – within the same period of time – your retention is almost perfect. The sobering lesson is: if you do your vocabulary homework in one sitting, one week later you will have completely wasted your time; instead, do it in short, spaced-out bursts, with “forgetting time” in between, and you’ll spend around the same amount of time in total but your recall will be close to perfect. (For more on the longterm effects of spaced learning, see this fantastic post from InnerDrive on how quickly students forget things).

4. Make intelligent use of flashcards:

Flashcards are an outstanding tool when it comes to vocabulary learning. You can use the traditional method of physical cards or an online version, which has the advantage of speed and efficiency. Personally, I am a huge fan of Quizlet, and you can gain access to my own flashcards here. What do I mean by intelligent use of them? Well …

Firstly, don’t spend hours making them look pretty, especially not drawing lovely pictures all over them. Many people confuse the evidence-informed method of dual coding (the process of combining words with visual stimulus, either through the use of images or diagrams, like the one above) with “put a nice picture on it.” In my experience, the use of images has close to zero impact on students’ ability to learn vocabulary, which can turn into a ridiculous game of “say what you see.” For example, if I show you the Latin word “femina” with a cartoon picture of a woman next to it, I’ll place a bet you’ll be able to tell me that the word means “woman”. But what have you learned? Frankly, nothing. You’ve recognised a picture of a woman, which a two-year-old can do. Much better to consider the meaning of the word “feminine” and fix the Latin word in your head through the understanding of derivatives (of which more later).

Secondly, make sure that you’re using the flashcards to test yourself (a process called retrieval), not to reassure yourself through recognition. Research shows that one of the biggest mistakes students make is to turn the cards over too swiftly; students become convinced that they know the meanings of the words when in fact they are merely recognising the answers – and it can be surprisingly difficult to discipline yourself out of this habit. Guard against it by using different activities on Quizlet such as the “learn” feature: these force you to type in your answer. With physical flashcards, consider getting someone else to test you so they’re in charge of the flip!

Thirdly, another temptation is to keep testing yourself on the familiar words (we all like to feel comfortable!) Remember, flashcards are a tool to help you to learn the words you don’t know, so separate out the ones that you’ve gained confidence with and spend longer on the ones you’re struggling to recognise. That said, another mistake students make is to overestimate their level of confidence with words they have recently learned, so make sure you revisit the “no problem” pile a couple of times before you decide that the words have really stuck in your longterm memory.

Finally, shuffle the deck. This is hugely important. Your brain works by mapping links between the things that it is learning; as a result, it has a strong tendency to remember things in order, so the danger with learning several words at once is you will remember them only in order. You must constantly shuffle the deck to ensure that this isn’t happening, or you’ll never recognise the words out of context.

5. Focus on derivatives.

Not only does this help with vocabulary learning, it will develop your knowledge and understanding of your own language and any other language(s) that you are learning. Furthermore, it will consolidate your learning because your brain will be linking its newfound knowledge to prior and future learning – and this all helps with its innate mapping skills! So, do you know the word “procrastinate”? (If you don’t know the word, I bet you’re a past master at doing it!) When you learn the meaning of “cras” (tomorrow), reflect on the meaning of “putting something off until tomorrow”. Likewise from the Latin “donum” (gift) we get words like “donate” and “donation”. If you’re learning Spanish or French there will be infinite links between those languages and Latin: the French for “son” is “fils” from the Latin “filius”. The Spanish for “always” is “siempre” from the Latin “semper”. The list is endless and should help you with all of your studies.

A good tactic as you gain confidence is to select a passage from your text book that you have translated in the past and attempt it without reference to your vocabulary lists. Highlight any words that trip you up and take note of them. If you’re working towards an examination, make sure that you’re using a book tailored to the vocabulary from the examination board’s list, for example Latin to GCSE by Henry Cullen and John Taylor or Latin for Common Entrance by NRR Oulton.

6. Don’t shy away from the principal parts.

To master your vocabulary in full, you need to recognise words in their different forms. For example, if you learn the word “rex” meaning “king” but you don’t make yourself aware that as it declines, the stem changes to “reg-“, you may struggle to recognise it in any other case, for example the accusative (regem). The good news is that the different parts of your Latin words will in fact often give you the derivative: for example, we get the word “regal” from the stem “reg-“ rather than its original form of “rex”. Likewise, check out the principal parts of the verb “traho”, to “drag”: traho, trahere, traxi, tractum – from which we get words like “traction” (the act of pulling/dragging something) and hence “tractor” (literally, a vehicle that pulls!)

7. Focus on high-frequency words:

Consult past papers and practice papers written by the Chief Examiner to create a shortlist of the most important words to know. Don’t know how to do that? Well, if you’re working towards the OCR GCSE then you’re in luck: right here you’ll find my flashcards for the list of high-frequency words.

Happy quizzing!

Why Study Latin?

I am still slightly stunned when apparently well-educated people ask me this question.

Studying Latin helps with so many other languages; as the root of all Romance languages, it can help you find cognates when there appear to be none in the English language. For example:

Latin English French Italian Spanish
arbor tree arbre albero arbol
pes foot pied piede pie

Ah, I hear you cry – so what of it? Why study the dead language and not just its living derivations, noting the similarities between those languages as one acquires them? Well, the study of Latin is of value precisely because it’s a dead language – this means that it’s taught to be read, not spoken, taught entirely through its grammatical rules, not conversational usage. Learning Latin promotes an understanding of the mechanics and structure of language; someone who has studied Latin can use it to grasp the rudiments of any language – not just the “Romance” languages which have their origins in Latin but also others such as German and Polish, which have complex inflection like Latin does.

Latin also improves and enriches your English vocabulary. If your job is a sinecure, should you quit? If something is indubitable, what is it? What exactly is juxtaposition? (Most trained English teachers get this one wrong). What is an expatriate? Would you consider yourself to be audacious? These words are all easy to deduce if you know your Latin.

Modern sciences began their development about 500 years ago, when all (yes, all) educated people studied Latin and Greek, so the technical terms in biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy derive from Latin and/or ancient Greek. To take one example: trees that lose their leaves in winter are described as deciduous — not an easy word, unless you know your Latin. A Latinist also understands why the plural of fungus is fungi and the singular of bacteria is bacterium.

Beyond the sciences, Latin is also the language of law and government — all legal and many political terms are lifted straight from the Latin. Here are just a few examples that you may have heard of … referendum; veto; habeas corpus; subpoena; in loco parentis; de facto; de iure; caveat emptor; pro bono; quorum; quid pro quo; ad hominem; non sequitur.

Still not convinced? Well, learning Latin enables you to read the great Roman writers, from Virgil to Cicero. These men lie at the head of the western tradition in writing from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Milton to Keats and beyond. When it comes to understanding English, Irish and American literature, a knowledge of Roman literature puts you at an incalculable advantage over other students; I genuinely struggle to comprehend how anyone can study Western literature at a high level without this knowledge. If you think you understand Milton and you haven’t read Virgil in the original Latin … then I’m afraid you don’t really understand Milton.

There is a reason why Latin is highly respected by the top universities and has one of the strongest recruitment rates in business and commerce as well as in the law and in politics. Latin teaches you to think precisely and analytically and develops your intellectual rigour. This, combined with the fact that no one can even begin to understand the purposes and merits of Western culture without a grasp of its Classical origins, makes the study of Latin a sine qua non.