What Makes (Ancient) Language Learning Successful

In the last twelve or so years of my life where I have spent my time in school, I have been able to learn three languages – German, Ancient Greek, and Latin – from eight different instructors. As you can imagine, with a range like that, I have experienced a number of different methods of teaching and have realized ways in which language learning can work and ways in which it cannot work.

I have seen students who constantly struggle where I cruise along almost totally unscathed, sometimes because of a lack of genuine interest, sometimes because study strategies are poor or totally non-existent. For two years I was an Ancient Greek tutor, and in those two years I managed to tutor maybe four or five students when I knew more could use my help. It’s hard for me to sit back and say nothing – but I figured that since I am in yet another language course (this time, an Intensive Latin course for the summer), I can blog about what makes language learning successful in the long run.

As a Classicist, I will be focusing on ancient languages, like Ancient Greek and Latin.

Know Your Vocab

Okay, so you’re never going to know every single word out there, but it helps a whole lot if you start memorizing the vocab as you go through each chapter of your textbook. Learning the words in small chunks, as well as in context (i.e. practice sentences) will help you learn them much faster than, say, trying to learn every word from three chapters in the day before the test.

Greek Pro Tip: It may have been brutal, but the professor I had for Intermediate Greek made us memorize the little words (adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions) to the point where we were often quizzed and tested on them. While it seemed tedious at the time, these words make up 90% of the texts you’ll read in the original language, so it helps to know them now so you don’t waste time trying to look them up later.

Latin Pro Tip: Memorize the principal parts of verbs from the very beginning. Even though you don’t use the second two for a while when you’re first starting off, knowing the patterns and the principal parts from the start will help you a lot in the long run. And it’ll save you time so you won’t have to go back and learn the principal parts for those verbs you learned at the beginning of class!

Understand the Grammar

It’s one thing to memorize all of the different grammatical concepts and syntactical structures of a language but it’s quite another to actually understand how everything is working in a sentence. I’ll be the first to admit that I still, after three years, do not fully understand every single grammatical concept of Ancient Greek, but I have them all written down from my classroom days and tucked away in a binder on my bookshelf for reference.

Whether it’s making a chart of the grammar as you go along, writing up flashcards, or just taking notes from your textbook, make sure you always WRITE DOWN EXAMPLES.

I honestly can’t stress this enough. Examples make the world go round. Examples are the real life applications of those tricky-sounding grammatical concepts you may or may not ever remember. Whether you’re using the examples from your book or your instructor, or you’re making them up as you go along, make sure you tie a couple of them back to each of your grammar concepts so you can see how they work and can use them to compare to in the future.

Second, come up with (or find) some mnemonic devices. One of my favorites and the most useful so far in learning Latin has been S-O-A-V (Subject Object Accusative/Ablative Verb). I’ve realized that without this particular device in mind, translating sentences is much more tedious because you never know where to start. Because I was taught this at the very beginning, I always know what to look for right off the bat and I can translate much faster and much more accurately.

For Greek – idk make a running chart with each of the concepts and examples of each of them. That way, even if you don’t ever memorize them, you’ll have something to reference in the long run.

Practice, practice, practice

As the saying goes, “Practice Makes Perfect.” Or nearly perfect. Either way, you won’t be anywhere near perfect if you don’t ever make an effort to do the exercises, write down the paradigms, or run through the vocabulary with flash cards. For ancient languages that don’t require as much spoken practice as written, writing it all down over and over again is the only surefire way of memorization – especially of conjugations and declensions. It doesn’t even have to take that long – set aside an hour or so at a time and do nothing but language study, then take a break.

A little bit goes a long way.

Sorry for the rant – I spent a lot of time these past two days in my Latin class thinking about teaching the class myself in a few years and trying to figure out ways to make learning the ancient languages easier for others.






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