How I Improve My Latin When I Don’t Have a Lot of Time

Years ago I spent a summer studying French while living at a Dominican friary in Toulouse. Classes were in the morning at the Institute Catholique and I usually spent the evenings sitting at my desk laboriously reading the autobiography of St. Thérèse, L’Histoire d’une Âme. In my massive dictionary I looked up each unknown word and recorded it in my notebook. On the journey to and from class, riding the bus or walking the city streets, I applied myself to memorizing long lists of vocabulary. I thought strenuous effort would enable me to retain all these new words and soon my brain would replace the dictionary. In practice my mind became numb after a while, and I was not able to memorize as fast as I read. But it was a worthwhile effort. Years later I can still read L’Histoire d’une Âme. I retained much, and it was a good method, but now I think there are better ways.

One of the priests at the friary, an elderly preacher, gave me advice which I never forgot: If you want to learn a language, learn all the words in one book. Then you’ll know the language. It is good advice, I think, for a beginner, to achieve a foundation, though every book has a limited focus. Thérèse speaks about family and faith but not about numerous other topics. And language is not so much an accomplishment as it is a habit. You have to keep the wheel spinning. That same summer I stopped speaking English for a while. Strangely, when I jumped back into English conversation, I had difficulty recalling some words for the first few minutes. Languages, like life, need to be maintained. The goal of language learning should be not so much to learn one book as to keep reading, listening, and speaking. Is this possible for a busy person who does not live in a foreign country? I believe it is.

All this took place before the great rise of the Internet. At the time I would muse about how technology might aid language learning. Two years later I purchased a PDA, installed an Italian dictionary, and read Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Italian. For each unknown word I tapped the tiny screen with the stylus, highlighted and copied the word, jumped to the dictionary, pasted, and voilà: the definition appeared, faster and with less fuss than using a physical dictionary. It provided the means to keep reading, quickly, without pouring through a heavy dictionary, though it provided no means to record the words I looked up. It was effective, but clunky, and with reading in bed came the tendency to drop the device on my nose.

It wasn’t until 2012 that I discovered LingQ, and I knew I had found something excellent: A mature platform of modest cost ($10/month) which harnesses the power of modern computing to serve the passion of the language student. LingQ (pronounced “link”) is a reading interface. Glasses make the world appear different, sharper. LingQ is a lens over a foreign-language text which aids translation and reading.

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Using LingQ for Reading

This is what it looks like. Highlights help you through the text. Blue words mean that in all your reading with LingQ, you have never encountered this word before. That is good. It gives you the opportunity to look it up if you need to. No need to grab your dictionary: Click the word, or arrow to it, and the right-side panel gives you what you need. In the image above, the word vivum produces two possible definitions, ‘living’ or ‘alive’: “To whom He also showed Himself alive after His passion.” You can configure which dictionaries LingQ consults for you.

If you prefer to look up the word yourself (I often do, and in Latin you often must), you click the Search button and see this:

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Looking up a Word

I’ve selected Whitaker’s Words for my dictionary. Lewis and Short is another option. Here we see ‘alive’, ‘fresh’, ‘living’. And notice that ‘vivum’ has changed from blue to yellow. Yellow words are saved in your personal database as flashcards, a.k.a. ‘LingQs’. I have over 5000 LingQs in Latin. Each time you encounter this word in the future, it will be yellow, and clicking it will show the definition you previously saved and the original context in which you encountered it. If a word has multiple meanings (which will almost always be the case in Latin) you can note this in its LingQ. Add new meanings as you encounter them. You can make LingQs of individual words, short phrases or whole sentences.  Your personal LingQ database reflects the particular readings you’ve chosen.

Over the years the greatest difficulty I’ve faced in language learning is consistent motivation. When I’m reading a foreign-language text that doesn’t interest me, I have a hard time putting forth effort. But I have learned two things about myself that have greatly helped: I never tire of reading lives of the saints, and I never tire of reading scripture if it is a narrative. (I don’t dislike Leviticus, but I would rather read difficult texts in English.) I think this is key: If you want to keep reading, you’ve got to find material that interests you. What follows is my method of growing in my understanding of Latin, Italian and French, which I have been able to maintain, with consistency, amidst a busy schedule, for a long time.

My Method

First, I choose a text to read. I am studying Latin, French and Italian on LingQ, so I make my way to google.fr or google.it and scour the web for lives of the saints, vite dei santi, or vies des saints. Resources abound. I’ve read four biographies of Padre Pio in the last six months. For Latin, if I’m keeping things simple, I focus on narrative books in scripture, such as Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, Acts, Judith, Esther, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, or Maccabees. If I want to push myself I reach for the Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea or Legenda Sanctorum), which is a collection of short biographies of early saints. Additionally, I had a long phase when I would copy out tomorrow’s First Reading from the Office of Readings in the Latin Liturgy of the Hours, and paste that into LingQ, which primed me to pray with understanding the next day. I have also spent a lot of time LingQing the psalms. You could import texts of the mass or other prayersProject Gutenberg is another resource. There are a million ways to go about this.

Having selected a text, I import it into LingQ. If the text is long (mine usually are), LingQ will divide it into 2000-word chapters. The whole process takes only a moment. Imported lessons appear on your synced devices. Copyrighted materials are permitted if you don’t share them publicly.

Then I read. LingQ’s web interface is good but I prefer the iPhone app. My daily routine involves fifteen minutes of foreign-language reading, as I am a busy man and often can’t do more. I set a timer so I don’t get distracted or quit early (“Hey Siri, start a fifteen minute timer”). I read, look up words, make new LingQs, review sentences, and above all, I enjoy the story. Sometimes I read aloud to improve my terrible accent. At the end of each lesson, I love pressing the ‘Mark All Blue Words as Known’ button and watching my stats soar. After many, many months of doing this, something shifted in my brain. Reading a foreign language stopped being like deciphering a puzzle and started to feel like normal reading. Often I forget I’m translating. I just see what’s happening in the story I’m interested in.

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Looking up a Word on the iPhone App

Sometimes I binge. A few times a year, when on vacation or in a lull, I’ll read a whole book in a day. I’ve spent many evenings lying on the couch with my iPhone reading French novels about 18th century naval warfare or 19th century American frontiersmen. But normally I limit my reading to fifteen minutes a day.

I also review flashcards (LingQs), but this is a small and insignificant part of my routine, perhaps five minutes daily. I don’t fret if I don’t get to it because frankly I don’t think it’s very important. Studies show that children who read a lot have broader vocabularies as adults. I consider myself one of those children, and I didn’t study English flashcards as a child. Still, it is helpful to make a review.

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Flashcard Review on the iPhone App

Having completed one text, or book, or biblical story, I move on to something else. When I finish a French book, I move on to Italian. Then I’ll grab a Latin work. If I lose interest in a story, I’ll drop it and move to the next adventure. The goal for me isn’t to finish, but to keep reading things that interest me.

It amazes me how easy it is to read children’s books in English, yet how difficult the same is in French, even though I started French almost 25 years ago. The difference is that I have read thousands of books in English but only dozens in French. With LingQ I am changing that. Fifteen minutes a day translates into nearly 100 hours of reading per year. The goal, as LingQ’s founder Steve Kaufman puts it, is “massive input.” The more you read, the more words you encounter, the more LingQs you create, the more you see old LingQs in new contexts, and the more your brain accepts the new language. This is where the learning occurs, and in my opinion it is far more natural and pleasurable than memorization exercises.

Last winter I read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I took as much pleasure in her English as I did in the story. Also, I learned many new words which I looked up and retained. In English I am near the top of a long learning curve, begun in childhood, and maintained through a lifetime of speaking, listening and reading. In my foreign languages I am near the beginning or middle of that same curve. With regular reading, I don’t see why one wouldn’t continue to ascend, even if opportunities for listening and speaking are lacking.

One thing I love about LingQ is how it tracks statistics, such as number of words read, words LingQed, activity score, and words known. The latter is what I pay attention to. At present I am at around 19,000 in French, 11,000 in Latin and 5,000 in Italian. Some experienced users have over 80,000 or 90,000 words known. That is my goal for these three languages.

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Using the iPhone App for Reading

LingQ also has audio features but I generally don’t use them. You can upload mp3 audio when you import a lesson so as to combine reading with listening. I think that’s a great feature when you use their native content, but if you mainly import your own content, as I do, no audio is available unless you supply it yourself. Incidentally, the LingQ library contains a lot of the books of the Latin Vulgate New Testament at the Beginner 2 level, audio included.

One problem with LingQ is that the iPhone app is buggy. Sometimes it refuses to make new LingQs, and there are highlighting problems, and it occasionally crashes. But I don’t mind. This is light years ahead of sitting at my desk in Toulouse with my giant dictionary, and the amazing LingQ staff is constantly working to improve things. Bugs will be dealt with. New versions are forthcoming. It gets better with time.

And that is how I grow my languages amidst a normal, busy life. I am grateful for LingQ and at $10/month I consider it a great value. Since I started using it in 2012, I’ve seen my proficiency grow in three languages, and what is perhaps more important, I’ve found enjoyment in reading and learning. My recitation and understanding of the Latin Liturgy of the Hours continues to improve and I look forward, God willing, to many years of continued growth.

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