5 Easy Ways to Learn Latin Vocabulary
Updated: Sep 30
Vocabulary is the backbone of language learning. If you are tackling texts and you can’t get the general meaning with a first reading, you need to look no further: something needs to change in the way you learn you Latin words.
Yes, even if you have been working through your weekly vocabulary tests! It is possible that the root of the problem is not a lack of understanding of the grammar: it is in fact your reduced vocabulary that is stopping you from interpreting the grammatical forms and understanding the text.
What is the key to vocabulary learning? Variety. And this applies to learners of all ages, whether preparing for a formal SAT, GCSE or A Level examination or just learning Latin for pleasure. Encountering the words regularly and using them actively is key, and this includes both explicit and implicit learning.
How can I make sure I use a variety of methods to learn new words?
Below I share with you 5 techniques that work well to get those new words to stick:
1. See it, say it, write it
The most effective way of learning a word is by using all your senses. Make sure you read the word, say (aloud!) the word, write down the word by hand and then start again with the same word the following day. Is there a chance for you to listen to that word? Do that too.
Do not underestimate the power of handwriting. After all, writing down a word rather than dragging it around on a computer screen helps you think about the spelling and helps with memorisation.
2. Using images to link and retrieve information
When you create your vocabulary list, sometimes it will be necessary to write an English translation. However, and especially in the case of beginners, an image can be much more powerful than a thousand words! Make sure your Latin vocabulary flashcards have images and, if possible, spend time labelling things so that you can see the words, say (and hear yourself saying) the words and write the words.
I am in the process of uploading more visual resources to my website. You can visit the page here.
3. Finding old words in new contexts
I am not going to bore you with the research here, but this is what we know in a nutshell: in order to acquire a word, you must see it often and in different contexts. So, give your vocabulary lists a rest and spend some time reading Latin texts that include the words that you have learnt. A great way to do this is to read easier stories from your current textbook.
It is important that you focus initially on texts that use the set of words that you are learning, and the best way to ensure that is by revisiting texts that you have already been through. Stick to texts from the same method you are using so that you can concentrate on a particular set of vocabulary.
If you are specifically preparing for GCSE and using the Cambridge Latin Course, I generally would recommend to make an exception and in this case use texts from Latin to GCSE by Cullen and Taylor or De Romanis by Katherine Radice and Angela Cheetham, which have a much more targetted vocabulary and make for more fluent reading because of the speed at which unfamiliar words are introduced.
4. Using cognates and derivatives
A great way to give memory a boost is by linking the Latin word with a word in another language that you know – or are also learning. For example, if you are learning Spanish and Latin at the same time, you may find it useful to notice the pattern pater/padre and mater/madre. Similarly, you can boost your English vocabulary at the same time as your English if you think about derivatives. Think donation when you try to remember the meaning of donat (she gives). Feel free to ask for advice if you are looking for a good match for that elusive word!
5. Getting all dramatic
For many people, linking words with movement and song works really well. You can watch me presenting some examples in the video below, but feel free to come up with your own and share them here.
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How about words that I have never seen before?
As you progress in your Latin studies, particularly into A Level, where there is no set vocabulary list, new words become the focus. Latin literature spans many centuries, and authors have a wild variety of vocabulary choices depending on their intentions, audience and genre.
You will come across words that you have never seen before. In fact, because we have only inherited a selection of Latin texts, there are even quite a few words that appear only once in the whole corpus of literature; they even have their special name, a hapax legomenon.
So, do you need to make sure you have seen before every word that might appear in a text?
Thankfully not. Here is why:
Again, I will not bore you with the research, but estimates are that if you know around 95% of the vocabulary in a text, you will be able to glean the meaning. That is still quite a high proportion, and one difficult to achieve for Latin. However, you want to put yourself in the best position possible to minimise use of the dictionary and glossaries. Luckily, there is plenty that you can do work on your Latin vocabulary without having to concentrate on Latin alone.
Latin is often touted as the key to learning English vocabulary and even foreign languages. However, this is a bit deceitful because linguistic mastery is a two way road. If you acquire a good English vocabulary by reading often from a variety of sources, those Latinate words will provide a key for you to understand Latin texts. Similarly, if you learn a foreign language with a strong core of Latin vocabulary, you will easily be able to transfer the skills.
For example, you may find it much easier to guess the meaning of laudat if you know the English word laudable, and the same goes for fenestra if you are familiar with French fenêtre.
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