Tips and Tricks for Upper Level Languages 4: Odds and Ends

In this series on surviving upper level language courses, we’ve covered expectations, dictionaries, and how to use Perseus.  Today we’ll take a look at what to do when your languages need some work and take a tour through the various resources that will help you bring them up to speed.

Upper-level language classes are designed to help you read better. That sometimes means spending more time on your assignments, but the amount of time that you spend isn’t the point of the assignment. The goal is to be able to read the language. If you can’t read the language, or you find that you’re spending more time on your assignments than you really have, you probably need to work on some of your language skills.

Language skills can be divided into three main categories: forms, vocabulary, and syntax. Those are the three ingredients that all eventually come together to help you read better and faster. First, let’s talk about how to determine which of these skills you need to improve. Ask yourself the following questions (and answer honestly) the next time you sit down to read a text:

  1.  Can you parse forms automatically without going through conjugations/declensions? When you see a noun, do you know right off the bat what all the forms could be or do you need to remind yourself by looking at a paradigm? Do you take verbs apart to figure out how to parse it, or can you recognize them right away? Can you take verbs apart, just for practice?
  2. Do you look up fewer than half of the words in your assignment in the dictionary? Do you remember the words that are provided in the vocabulary of your introductory textbook? Are you able to look at a Greek verb and remember its first principle part?
  3. Once all of the forms and vocabulary are laid out for you, can you put the sentence together? Do you recognize constructions like indirect discourse, conditionals, correlatives, etc.? Do your translations take into account all of the words (even the little ones), and are your verb tenses translated correctly?

If the answer to the first set of questions is ‘no’, then you should spend some time reviewing forms. If your answer to the second set of questions is ‘no’, then you need to spend time reviewing vocabulary. If the answer to the questions in the third set is ‘no’, then you probably need to review your syntax. Many of us will need to review more than one of these categories at various times in our careers. Sometimes languages get rusty from not using them enough, and sometimes the level of language knowledge required changes (for example, while you might have excelled in undergraduate-level courses, graduate-level language courses might require a step up for you – and therefore a review).

So let’s get down to the review!


The best way to learn forms is to practice them. Some people learn best by speaking (i.e., saying the paradigms out loud), and some by writing (i.e. copying them out by hand). Either way, you will need to put in the time to do the memorization. Try several methods and see what works best for you! Flash cards are great for forms (just like they are for vocabulary).  Write the paradigm on one side and the noun in the nominative singular on the front.  Either say or write the paradigm (and the gender) and then check to see if you got them right.

Verbs can be trickier than nouns, because there are more possible forms per verb. Sometimes I find seeing all of the possible forms of the verb laid out very helpful. If that’s true for you too, I recommend a synopsis sheet (see the links below for some examples). A synopsis sheet asks you to list every single form in a chosen person and number (e.g., 1st person plural) for a given verb. That is, create the 1st person plural present indicative active, present indicative passive, etc., etc. throughout all of the tenses, voices, and moods. You may have had to do this before in intro Latin. I myself benefited from them for Greek verbs (especially contract verbs), and I have friends who swear you should do one a day (they take about 10 minutes). When you’re done, check your answers and correct your paradigm to keep as a study tool. To check for Latin, I’m a big fan of 501 Latin verbs because I can always check to make sure that everything is right for a number of different verbs instead of assuming that I applied the rules correctly.  I also sometimes like to see the paradigms all spread out on the page because it helps me remember how they all look.

There is unfortunately no 501 Greek verbs, but there is this handy paradigm handbook that I’ve mentioned before.


Vocabulary is also quite easy to learn with some old-fashioned memorization. It’s easier to memorize words that you see in context than words that you choose at random to memorize.  Using the vocabulary tool on Perseus, you can start with the words most used in the text that you are currently reading. Make sure to memorize not just the meaning of the word, but the genitive singular and gender (for nouns) and all of the principal parts plus the case it takes (for verbs).

I think the best way to learn vocabulary is to make your own flashcards.  The act of writing out the words and their important information will help cement them in your memory. Additionally, you can use different colors for different genders of nouns, different verb conjugations, or whatever you like. There are still words that I remember things about because I remember what color I used to make the card. Not everyone has the time to make the cards themselves though, and using them is just as important as making them, so see the list of resources at the bottom for some pre-made flashcards.


Reviewing syntax is a little trickier than memorizing forms and vocabulary. The best ways to review grammar are simply to read and reread Latin and Greek texts (the rereading part is crucial to reminding yourself of the complex grammatical structures), and to review grammatical structures in a textbook or a grammar. In lower-level courses, I recommend reviewing your introductory textbook to remind yourself of how constructions work. In upper-level courses, you should switch to a grammar. A grammar will have more detailed information about how constructions work and will often have more examples than your textbook. Some constructions (like conditionals) can be infinitely more complicated than the textbook claims. Reading the grammar and reviewing the examples presented can give you a much better understanding of how native speakers used these constructions.

As I said before, rereading your texts can be a very helpful way to review grammar. When you go back through the passages you’ve already read, underline, highlight, or mark in whatever works for you the constructions that stump you time and again. Chances are, you’re making the same mistakes over and over. I had a student many years ago who always thought of cum as a preposition with the ablative, forgetting that cum-clauses were important parts of sentences. Every time he saw cum I’d have to remind him that it could mean more than one thing.  Once he started recognizing the cum-clauses, his reading improved. Sometimes just figuring out what you aren’t recognizing can help. I’m terrible with mixed conditionals. If a sentence doesn’t make sense to me, the first thing I wonder is is this a mixed conditional? Most of the time, it is – and when I figure out what kind, the sentence comes together.


I’m sorry if you were hoping to find here an easy shortcut to language mastery. Unfortunately the only way to improve your languages is the old-fashioned way: to work at them. If you only need work in one of the areas listed above, work on it all the time. If you need work in multiple or all of the areas and you find that you don’t have time to take them all on at once, I recommend tackling them in the order they are presented. Start with forms, because they’ll hold you back the most. Move on to vocabulary, because it will save you time and headaches. Really master the grammar last, not because it’s the least important but because it’s the hardest to improve and it takes the most time. Work at them every day, even if it’s only for 10 or 20 minutes, and you’ll see huge improvements. Work on them however works best for you. Fill in a synopsis a day. Memorize some Catullus poems. Download flashcards for your smartphone. Turn making study tools into an art project. Have a good time (you’ll practice more often if it’s fun).

Just don’t give up. I promise that someday you will find yourself reading and not putting together a puzzle. I promise that one day you’ll get the joke before you translate it out loud, twice, and then find out it was a joke in the commentary so read it a third time. Ancient languages are hard, but rewarding, and they are definitely worth the time it takes to learn them!


Synopsis sheets (feel free to design your own):

Flashcards and other resources:

Is there anything you think I missed?  Let us know in the comments!


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