Suggestions on studying a foreign language

Learning Latin, as opposed to simply "taking" Latin, can help you immensely in your academic career. What you get out of your effort can be facilitated by knowing some ways to study effectively.

The following hints are offered in the hope that they might help you work more efficiently and productively during the time you are studying on your own. Experience will show which ones are most useful in your own particular case.

Language is a set of habits: you develop these habits not by "thinking" about them, but by doing them.


Suggested things to do:

-- memorize; know your charts cold; practice them both by writing and speaking;

-- study out loud: use not only visual memory but also auditory and motor memory;

-- divide the material into small units; you will remember much more if you spend an hour on your work now and an hour later in the day than if you spend two hours in one chunk;

-- go from the easy to the hard; save the more difficult passages for the second time through;

-- make full use of class time: when someone else is reading, read mentally right along with that other person. Each time you review it, you will remember new vocabulary and forms better. If you sit back and daydream until it's your turn, you are not only wasting the class time you're paying for, you are unnecessarily piling up extra future study and review time;

-- don't fall behind: you can't learn habits by cramming. Furthermore, language learning is a cumulative process; you are building one skill upon another. If you are falling behind, the last thing you should do is miss class. That will make catching up all the more difficult.

-- pay attention to the word endings; try to understand the relationship between the forms of words (e.g., noun endings) and the grammar that accompanies them.


Learning to read Latin

How NOT to read: Start off with the first sentence of the assignment, read along until you come to a word you don't know, and look it up in the vocabulary. Then read along to the next word that you don't know; stop to look up that word, etc., ad nauseam. That is sheer drudgery.

The goal you should aim for is the ability to pick up the foreign language book and understand what it is all about. One of the skills that you need to develop in order to do this is intelligent guessing, figuring out what a word means from the context in which it is used.

To deduce the meanings of words from their contexts -- or, for that matter, to remember the meanings of words which you have looked up in the glossary -- you will have to read them more than once. It would be much better for you to look up only the words you absolutely must the first time through, and re-read the entire passage (preferably after several hours have passed) than it would be to look up every single questionable word the first, and only, time through the passage.

When you read in a foreign language, the cardinal rule to follow is "Never look up a word in the vocabulary until you have read the immediate context in which the word occurs." How large 'the immediate context' is depends on the individual: certainly the whole sentence, maybe the paragraph, maybe more. Some people try to read the whole assigned passage the first time through without looking up anything.


Here is how you might consider doing your reading assignment:

1) Read the entire passage once through without looking up anything. Try to get as much of an understanding as you can without glossing any words.

2) On your second time through, underline the words you can't reasonably guess at and need to look up. Put a dot next to the word in the glossary each time you look it up. (This will furnish you with a list of your nuisance words -- words you need to concentrate on committing to memory.) It is during this time through the reading that you would write out an English translation.

3) Eventually you should do a third reading of the passage to reinforce what you have worked on. It might be more beneficial to wait until later in the day before doing this.

You might even want to re-read the passage the next day before class.

When you re-read it, do not refer to your English translation. To do so only undermines what you are working toward. English is what you are trying to get away from. (Likewise in class, you don't want to use your English translation as a crutch.)

In the long run, FL study boils down to a constant process of learning, forgetting a bit, re-learning, forgetting a bit less, etc. Review, repeat, re-read.



(Most of these ideas are taken from Pauk, How to study in college, 2nd Ed.)


last updated October 10, 2003
comments, corrections?