Congratulations! You completed your introductory series of Latin or Greek and have enrolled in a second-year course with – GASP – an actual ancient text. What do you do with it? What will the expectations be? Can you actually read Greek and/or Latin? No need to fret! Here is a collection of the best advice anyone has ever given me on what to expect and how to succeed in the various upper-level language courses you will encounter on your academic journey. This post is full of advice that should be widely applicable, but you should always make any instruction given to you by your Latin or Greek instructor your first priority.
It’s more than likely that your course instructor will order a text for you to use. While buying textbooks does add up, I would encourage you to resist the temptation to cheap out and print your text from the internet. There are a couple of good reasons for this: (1) Texts online at places like Perseus or The Latin Library are great, but they do sometimes contain typos or other errors. Sometimes these seemingly small mistakes can make what would normally be an easy sentence into something incomprehensible. (2) The commentaries that are in the editions ordered for your class are also invaluable, especially in the early years of reading. In lower-level reading classes (your first or second year beyond the introductory course), editions with helpful commentary and vocabulary are often used. When I myself taught second-year Latin, I used this text of the Pro Archia that has vocabulary and commentary designed to help beginning students through what is often very challenging Ciceronian style. For upper-level or even graduate reading courses, texts with commentaries like the Cambridge Green and Yellow series are often assigned. These commentaries are more suited to serious academic study, but will still often help students with extremely difficult sentences and provide contexts to help the students better understand the passages and the context of the work. While sometimes course texts are expensive, they will often save you time in preparing for class. There is, after all, a reason why your instructor goes to all the trouble to order them!
In a lower-level reading course (your first or second year reading after the introductory series), the goal is to have you translate the text in class with minimal difficulty. You will likely be assigned a paragraph or two of text to prepare for each meeting. Typically, students will translate out loud to the class one or two (if they are short) sentences. You will also be expected to parse all/any of the words in your sentence and to name the grammatical constructions that are present. In the (totally normal!) case that you struggled with a particular sentence and you are unsure of what it said, it is okay to tell your instructor that the sentence was confusing. They will be able to help you figure it out. If you haven’t figured out the sentence yourself, then you should make sure that you can parse every single word and that you know what all the words mean so that your instructor knows that you tried your best to figure it out. Struggling and making mistakes are an important part of the learning process in lower-level reading classes, so try not to be too embarrassed at your mistakes.
In an upper-level reading course, you will be expected to read the text in class with much more fluidity and you will be assigned much longer passages of text to translate for each meeting (perhaps even two to five pages). Depending on the size of your class, you might be asked to read three or four sentences when it is your turn. While there will always be sentences that stump you (I myself came across one in Polybius the other day), they should be fewer and further between. Much like in your lower-level classes, you will be expected to be able to parse all of the words in the sentence and identify grammatical constructions even if you are unable to translate. If you are reading a particularly difficult text, it might be a good idea to meet with your classmates to prepare to make sure that you can read smoothly in class.
In graduate-level coursework, you will likely be assigned ten or more pages of Latin or Greek (depending on the text) to translate for class. You will of course be expected to translate fluidly in class with very little tolerance of sentences that stump you. In most cases, you will not be able to cover all of the material assigned to you in class and you will instead be asked to choose sentences that you struggled with to go over. You will still be tested on all of the assigned material (regardless of whether you read it during class or not). Unless a sentence is extremely problematic, you will very likely receive little to no sympathy if you are asked to translate a sentence that you were unable to figure out on your own.
Reading the text
The first rule of upper-level languages is not to write out a translation. Let me be very clear: DO NOT WRITE OUT YOUR TRANSLATION. The only exception to this rule is if you have a specific assignment to turn in a polished translation of a section of the text. You will be expected at every level to read in class from a Greek or Latin text, and NOT from a translation. Writing out your translations does not help you improve your language skills and therefore is a huge waste of time.
You should also keep a clean text and read from the clean text in class. This does not mean that you should not write notes on the text, just that you should make an additional copy of your text to make your notes on. Some people photocopy their texts, some people write them out (a time-consuming practice, but there are many language instructors that find value in writing out the text in lower-level courses; for upper-level courses the texts are too long and it takes up too much time), and some people copy a text from the internet to print and make sure they leave room to make notes on the page. If you choose to print your text from the internet, make sure to do a check to make sure that the text you print matches the reliable text that you were assigned in class. It will save you headaches down the road.
The next most important thing is the read your assignment twice (at least). I know this might seem like a daunting task, but here are some tips to get you through it!
On the first read-through, just try to get all the way through what you have been assigned. Try to read each sentence from left to right. Look up all the words you do not know. Get a feel for the structure of the sentence: bracket off subordinate clauses, locate finite verbs, identify larger grammatical constructions like indirect discourse. For particularly long or complicated sentences, make sure to identify the main verb. Try to make sense of the sentence. Most importantly, write nothing down: no translation, no vocabulary. I know it seems counterintuitive, but not taking notes means that you work through the passage much more quickly. It was only after I started taking this approach to my first reading of a text that I had the time to read the text the second time.
Vergil, Aeneid 2.40-53
For your second read-through, you should actually be able to read the text from left to right for most sentences. There will, of course, still be some sentences that were more complicated and will require some additional effort to translate. Any vocabulary that you have to look up the second time, write down. You might surprise yourself with how many words you actually remembered from the first time. Make any notes necessary to help you remember particularly difficult constructions so that you can translate more smoothly in class. Still, don’t ever write out a translation (I really mean it). By ensuring that you’ve gone through the text at least twice, your in-class translation will be smoother and you will improve your language skills more quickly.
Bonus read-through (with all of your spare time): read it again after class, either the same day for early classes or first thing the next day for later classes. The more times you read it, the easier it will be to study for your test and the better your language skills will become.
Tips for Success
Make sure to keep your forms sharp. If you do not know your forms off the top of your head, you will struggle much more and spend more time on your assignments. Flashcards with paradigms are great, and you can make them yourself with markers and index cards, or online. There is also this handy little Greek paradigm handbook that I happen to love. Use whatever method works for you, but make sure not to forget your paradigms when you get into upper-level reading courses.
Another useful skill not to let die is paper dictionaries. Do not lose your lookup skills if/when you use online dictionaries to look up words. Whatever method you are using to find the words, make sure you know what the dictionary entry would be (i.e. the first principal part for verbs) so that you are able to find it the old-fashioned way. I know that old school dictionary lookups are slow. I tabbed my Greek dictionary with post-it tabs with Greek letters on them to help me remember the order of the alphabet and find things quickly.
There are so many dictionaries out there (look forward to a future post on the merits of each!), but when in doubt, stick to the old classics. In Greek, you have the Little Liddell, the Middle Liddell, and the full LSJ. These are all variously abridged versions of the same dictionary. The Middle Liddell is the most common. It’s more portable than the full version (but not pocket size); the LSJ is a very large reference dictionary that I would not recommend stuffing in your bag. For Latin, there are a few more choices. First is the Elementary Lewis, a portable but reliable dictionary. There is the larger Lewis and Short which is a formidable reference in and of itself, and finally, there is the OLD. The Oxford Latin Dictionary is large, like the LSJ. Smaller dictionaries are of course easier to carry – but the bigger the dictionary, the more information it has. The Lewis and Short and LSJ happen to be online for free at archive.org in searchable PDF format and (as we’ve already noted) the Perseus Project will also let you search for words in the Middle Liddell, the LSJ, the Elementary Lewis, and the Lewis and Short (details in my previous post on Perseus Part 3). If you are ever allowed a dictionary on a test, always make sure to use the biggest one you can get your hands on.
The most time-consuming part of reading Latin and Greek in the beginning is looking up vocabulary. Memorizing vocabulary is the best remedy, but it can be tedious. You should focus on memorizing the vocabulary that occurs most often in the text that you are reading, because it is easier to learn vocabulary in context. The Perseus Word Study Tool (covered here) can help you find the words most commonly used in a given text. A long time ago a friend made an excellent suggestion to me about memorizing vocabulary. He carried around with him a Langenscheidt pocket Latin dictionary and every time he looked up a word he made a little dot with a pencil next to that word. Once a word had three dots, he memorized the word. I confess I never did it, but I do think it is a good idea and will pass along the wisdom here. There is a pretty good Greek pocket dictionary published by OUP that you could apply the same principles too.
While I would never say that everyone learns the same things the same way, I am giving you the advice that I wish I would have followed when I first started out. I am interested to know, though, what other people think on the subject. I have by no means all of the best advice. I’d love to hear from you what has worked to help you learn Latin or Greek, or what advice you would give to students just starting out!