The Rubicon of Language-Learning

I have attempted before to describe my remarkable experience of learning Latin and how it revolutionized my perspective on language-learning.  All this was due to the way I was taught:  submersion in the language itself.  No toe-dipping—complete submersion, head and all.  The book I was taught from was Hans Ørberg’s Lingua LatinaLingua Latina uses a form of immersion called the Natural Method.  The textbook is written entirely in Latin.  After floundering for a few weeks (after all, no one said being dunked in Latin was easy), I began to adapt.  Some years later, in reading Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis, I found words to describe the process my brain went through.  Apparently, Lewis had a similar experience in learning Ancient Greek.  His recollection of it in Surprised by Joy is so close to my own that I can nearly read it as though I were the one writing it:

I arrived at Gastons (so the Knock’s house was called) on a Saturday, and he announced that we would begin Homer on Monday.  I explained that I had never read a word in any dialect but the Attic, assuming that when he knew this he would approach Homer through some preliminary lessons on the Epic language.  He replied merely with a sound very frequent in his conversation which I can only spell “Huh.”  I found this rather disquieting; and I woke on Monday saying to myself, “Now for Homer.  Golly!”  The name struck awe into my soul.  At nine o’ clock we sat down to work in the little upstairs study which soon became so familiar to me…We opened our books at Iliad, Book I.  Without a word of introduction Knock read aloud the first twenty lines or so in the “new” pronunciation, which I had never heard before…He then translated, with a few, a very few explanations, about a hundred lines.  I had never seen a classical author taken in such large gulps before.  When he had finished he handed me over Crusius’ Lexicon and, having told me to go through again as much as I could of what he had done, left the room.  It seems an odd method of teaching, but it worked.  At first I could travel only a very short way along the trail he had blazed, but every day I could travel further.  Presently I could travel the whole way.  Then I could go a line or two beyond his furthest North.  Then it became a kind of game to see how far beyond.  He appeared at this stage to value speed more than absolute accuracy.  The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek.  That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language.  Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle.  The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong.  Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another.  Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with a sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.1

All in all, my first Latin tutor was more merciful to his students than Knock was and did give us some words of introduction before we plunged into the text.  But after that, you were expected to decipher what came next based on your knowledge of what came before.  It did become a sort of game to see how far one could go past the assigned text—then how well one could “free translate,” without any previous preparation.

The greatest benefit was that I too began to think in Latin.  There is much to be said for being able to do this and many people will tell you that it is, as Lewis says, “the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language.”2  But it sounds overwhelming and can certainly be a deterrent from beginning to learn any language at all:  “Am I to think my everyday internal monologue in Latin?”  However, I think this arises from a misunderstanding of what it means to think in a language.  To think in a language means that while you are looking at those words on the page, you are seeing them through the eyes of that language, not through the eyes of English.  You must learn to think in pictures, not in equations.  Naus must call to mind this:

…not the English word ship.  If you can read “Roma in Italia est” and understand what it means without mentally sifting it:  Roma=Rome, in=in, Italia=Italy, est=is, therefore, Roma in Italia est=“Rome is in Italy,” you are well on your way.  This takes time, but not as much time as you might think.

It is very tempting to think of other languages in terms of one’s own language, but you must attempt to think of a language in terms of itself.  You will gain much more in the end.  In fact, you will see the world differently.  You will see things as they are, apart from language, and you will see language as a mystical way of describing those things.

Next week’s post will be published on Friday instead of Thursday, for reasons I will explain at the time.


1C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Chapter 9


6 thoughts on “The Rubicon of Language-Learning

  1. Couple quick questions!

    1. How long did this book take you to feel like you mastered the Latin language? Also what age group would this book be good for? Elementary kids, High School kids, Adults?

    2. Also did you use “The Lingua Latīna: A Companion to Familia Romana” & “Lingua Latina: Pars I: Exercitia Latina” as additional texts to help you go through the book?

    Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your questions! I will respond to the best of my ability.

      1. It took me three years to go through the entire textbook. However, I studied Latin in a classroom setting, so if I were studying on my own, it might take a shorter amount of time. “Mastery” is a sliding scale. By the end of the book, students will have covered all the grammatical concepts in Latin. However, if you are talking about how long it took me to think in the language (according to the definition I used above) I would say maybe a year, though I did not realise it at the time. It depends on how intensively you study–the more intensively, the more quickly you can think in the language. As to age group…Students aged 13/14 and up should be able to use it easily, though it depends on the child and you can definitely start earlier.

      2. No, I did not use either of those books. I do own the Exercitia Latina, but have never used it. If you are working on your own, you might find the extra resources helpful, especially when it comes to learning the grammatical concepts. If you purchase anything, I recommend the Glossarium, Pars I, by Patrick M. Owens.

      I hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Nicole!

    Thanks for your response! That definitely helps! I will be doing it as an adult in a home setting, so my Achilles Heel will be just my own motivation, but I have a 6 yr old that we are starting “Sing Song Latin” with from Classical Academic Press. Praying that will be a motivation to learn, so I can help my son when he gets to his teenage years! Lol. Surely in 4-5 years I can “master” it well enough!

    Thanks again for the recommendations for other texts. Will look into them!

    Thanks again for sharing your story!

    God bless,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My family used Sing Song Latin (I believe it is also called Song School Latin) in the early years as well. Definitely a good place to start! I wish you the best in your Latin-learning. Consistency is key!

      Liked by 1 person

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