My Latin Journey

My Latin Journey

Elsewhere I have told the story of how I learned about a medieval saint from Amy Steedman’s In God’s Garden. In the months and years that followed, I read everything I could get my hands on by and about this saint named Catherine of Siena. All of her works had been translated already from her native Tuscan to modern English and that was a great help. Most of her biographies had been translated too. Except for one: the Libellus de Supplemento by Thomas Caffarini.

Thomas had been a close companion of St. Catherine. He had heard her words firsthand and had witnessed her miracles. And he had read her “primary” biography, the work of Blessed Raymond of Capua. He knew that Raymond had covered many important details of her life. But Thomas also knew that Raymond had missed some very important words, events, and stories. Thomas felt obligated to write his “supplement” — containing all the things that Raymond left out. All the things the world still needed to hear. It was his Libellus de Supplemento, and he wrote it in Latin.

I read Raymond’s biography, of course, because it had been translated in English. And I bought the Latin text of Caffarini’s supplement. It sits on a shelf in my room. The words stare back at me from the pages and hide their meaning from me. They stand like a dark veil between the mind of Thomas Caffarini and my own mind. He wrote down something that he wanted me to know. But I can’t read it. You see, I don’t know Latin.

Before obtaining that book, I never had a particular desire to learn Latin. When my wife and I started to homeschool, we quickly adopted the Charlotte Mason method. Latin came up in the curriculum around age 10. I included it because it was the thing to do, not because I was motivated by any particular zeal or desire. The Latin curriculum we started with was something I would not wish on anyone. Each lesson looked like a kind of spreadsheet. We set off memorizing mysterious vocables arranged in a logical grid. There was no hint of life, except it was clear that someone had put an awful lot of thought into why the various words should be arranged in such a particular way.

Learning Latin with my young son was about as interesting as memorizing the train schedule. The meaninglessness of it all took a toll on our motivation. There was no relevance. There were no hooks to arouse our interest. There were just letters and sounds. And filling in the blanks. The banquet of a Charlotte Mason education had so many other enticing dishes. Gradually, Latin slipped out of our timetable as we poured our energy into more interesting things.

And was that really so bad? I read in Home Education that perhaps the real value of Latin was just as a booster to help with English grammar education:

Therefore, if he learns no more at this early stage than the declensions and a verb or two, it is well he should learn thus much, if only to help him to see what English grammar would be at when it speaks of a change in case or mood, yet shows no change in the form of the word.[1]

Well, if Latin is the sugar that makes the medicine go down, I figured I’d just take the medicine straight. I enjoyed English grammar, and we plumbed the depths of that study all the way through till my firstborn graduated from homeschool. We didn’t need Latin’s help.

My stance was reinforced by this line from the “Suggestions” pamphlet published in Mason’s lifetime by the Parents’ Review School:

Latin Grammar.—To afford intellectual drill, it would be well that all children, even those for whom a classical education is not proposed, should learn the Latin grammar with this object, which perhaps, no other study promotes as well.

I was not proposing a classical education for my children, either in the orthodox, Victorian, neo-orthodox, or any other way, so Latin for me would merely “afford intellectual drill.” My kids had plenty of intellectual drill. We were doing more math and quantitative science than is found in the historical PNEU programmes. Latin could go to the “not needed in our homeschool” list, right before solfa. (I know that solfa is great. But I must confess that in the busy-ness of piano and harp lessons, we haven’t spent much time on solfège. Thank God my daughter somehow learned to sing on her own, to the point of occasionally leading worship at our church.)

By this time, however, I was becoming more and more committed to being a “Charlotte Mason purist.” It irked me to have anything from the programmes sitting in my “not needed in our homeschool” list. Latin was at the top of this queue. So once again, not for any interest or passion on my part, but simply because it was the “right thing to do,” I brought back Latin. I wanted to check the box.

The problem was that I was super busy. As a homeschool parent of high school students, I had to relearn everything. I had to relearn physics, chemistry, calculus, French, history… the list goes on and on. I was also a “homeschool purist,” and I wanted to do it all myself. I reasoned that if I want my kids to learn it, then I should learn it too. I followed that rule without exception. But when it came to Latin, I finally broke down. My two ideals came into conflict. I couldn’t do the “CM thing” by including Latin, while at the same time taking the time to learn it myself. So I decided to outsource.

My firstborn was off in college, but my daughter was still at home. I reached out to my friend Angela Reed with a proposal: would you teach my daughter Latin? We could use Zoom for distance learning (a novel concept in the pre-pandemic days). Angela and I discussed terms and then she agreed. For the first time in my life, I was the outsider in my own homeschool. Another teacher was stepping in.

I remember vividly setting up Zoom for that first lesson. My daughter sat in front of the computer while I adjusted the settings. Then the video came through. I thought it would be Angela on the screen, but it seemed that someone else had shown up. The person I saw had a classical wreath on her head. She was bubbling over with enthusiasm. She was about to invite my daughter to take a seat at her banquet, a banquet of delicacies and delight. You see, Angela was in love: she was in love with Latin.

Here was no checking of the box. Here was no catalyst for English grammar comprehension. Here was no affordance of intellectual drill. Rather, here was life. Latin for its beauty, Latin for its own sake.

Actually, more than for its own sake. If there is anything I remember from watching those tutoring sessions from a distance it was that Latin was never really the ultimate objective. Latin, rather, was a window. It was a window to the minds, hearts, and souls of people of the past. When my daughter graduated, Angela gave her a present. It was not a Latin grammar or a Latin dictionary. It was The Georgics of Virgil, a bilingual edition. It was an example of the beauty on the other side of the window. It was one of the images that Angela saw through the window of Latin that made her so passionate about the language. She wanted my daughter to see through that window too.

I believe this goal fundamentally changed the way Angela taught. She did not offer up spreadsheet-like tables of words for my daughter to memorize. Rather, she offered up stories. She made Latin a living language. She taught Anesley the way Anesley learned her own mother tongue: through narrative, through speech. The grammar and vocabulary was picked up along the way, but it was always subordinated to the higher goal of achieving meaning and understanding.

I strongly suspect that Mason herself experienced a similar transformational journey in her understanding of Latin. Over the years, she moved away from traditional methods of teaching Latin and opted for a narrative approach. Furthermore, she seemed to move from a utilitarian view of Latin to a view that Latin is a window to the minds and hearts of writers and thinkers of the past. I hope this story of Mason’s evolution in her approach to Latin will be told soon.

I have one child left in my homeschool. I firmly decided that I’m not going to delegate or outsource Latin again. I missed out on the enjoyment my daughter experienced in her study of the language, and I’m not going to miss out again. I asked Angela to tell me how I can learn Latin myself and how I can teach it to my youngest son. I asked how I can teach it her way, the Charlotte Mason way.

Of course there are many options, but Angela advised me to use the same curriculum she used with Anesley: Ecce Romani. This modern curriculum describes itself as follows:

The intellect-building, deductive process of language learning achieved through meticulously constructed, graded readings and vocabularies remains the heart of the course. Likewise the story line still follows the daily life and adventures of the Cornelii, a typical Roman family in the years a.d. 80–81, and these readings familiarize students with Roman culture at the same time that they build rapid facility with the Latin Language.[2]

In other words, the program is story-based and context-based. It is based on narrative and it is interesting. It is organized around episodes and not tables. It is based on people and not rules. It is warm and engaging.

But Angela advised me that I should be ahead of my student. She recommended a more robust program for me to follow on my own, for my own father-teacher culture. She pointed me to Wheelock’s Latin. It is indeed more rigorous than Ecce Romani, and yet it breathes life on every page. More importantly, from as early as the second chapter, it provides sentences from antiquity. The language is not a museum piece to analyze. Rather, it is a window to look through. I have been fascinated by the brief quotes from Cicero, Virgil, and other classical authors.

In parallel with Wheelock, I am also studying Richard Smith’s Ecclesiastical, Medieval, and Neo-Latin Sentences. This book synchronizes with Wheelock’s Latin and supplements it with grammar and vocabulary from the Church age. Again from the earliest chapters there are real Latin sentences to read and understand. Many are from the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible used across most of Western Europe for a millennium. It is wonderful to experience the Word of God through this new window, the window used by my fathers in Christ for so many centuries.

Latin is not easy. I can see why the Parents’ Review School said that it affords intellectual drill. I am sure that some region of my brain is getting more active and more organized as part of this study. Latin also does bring grammar to the forefront of reading comprehension. I can see how English grammar learning can be enhanced by the parallel study of Latin.

But I don’t think I would be motivated to do the work if it were only to exercise my brain and turbocharge my grammar. I am motivated by the hope of understanding. I am motivated by the desire to see what is on the other side of the window.

Latin lessons with my son now are anything but boring. We laugh at the stories in Ecce Romani and we contemplate the meaning together. We read about Roman culture with mutual interest. We are eager to see what will happen in the next episode. And there is something enticing about the sound of the words and phrases in this fascinating language. It may be that my son enjoys Latin more than French. (And I do love French!)

All this reminds me of the primary reason Mason gives to learn modern languages. It is not to get a better score on the SAT or to fulfill high school graduation requirements. Rather, it is to gain the ability to converse with neighboring peoples:

It is the duty of the nation to maintain relations of brotherly kindness with other nations; therefore it is the duty of every family, as an integral part of the nation, to be able to hold brotherly speech with the families of other nations as opportunities arise; therefore to acquire the speech of neighbouring nations is not only to secure an inlet of knowledge and a means of culture, but is a duty of that higher morality (the morality of the family) which aims at universal brotherhood; therefore every family would do well to cultivate two languages besides the mother tongue, even in the nursery.[3]

Mason advises us to learn languages not for the sense of intellectual accomplishment but for the power of communication. Language is for talking to people! I think of French. It is a beautiful language. But what was the most rewarding moment of all of my study of French? It was a thirty-minute Uber drive in Paris, when the driver humored me and conversed with me the entire way in his mother language. My broken and halting words in French were met by understanding. I got a glimpse into his heart and he saw mine. Language brought us together.

I believe in the communion of saints. The faithful in Christ are not asleep but are alive. In Revelation 6:9, St. John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” They are alive and aware, and they cry to God with a loud voice as they watch the events of the world unfold. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ as much as living believers who are in the world today; as much as my Uber driver in Paris.

One of those saints is now with Christ. Centuries ago he wrote a book about a life that I love. His words are ready and waiting for me, but for now they are sealed. He did his part. Now it is my turn to do my part. I have to clear the fog from the window. I have to open the seal. I have to meet his brotherly speech. I have to learn Latin.

Someday I will read and understand the Libellus de Supplemento. It won’t be because I’m checking a box. It won’t be because I’m a Charlotte Mason purist. It won’t be because I’m trying to make myself a better person. It will be because I want to know. And as Mason said, that’s the greatest motivation of all to learn.


[1] Home Education, p. 295.
[2] Ecce Romani I Teacher’s Guide, Third Edition, p. v.
[3] Parents and Children, p. 7.

10 Replies to “My Latin Journey”

  1. Hi Art, 

    I really enjoyed your “Latin journey” read this morning. I find myself on a similar journey! I wanted to share with you a couple more resources that may bless you. 

    1) Lingua Latina: Pars 1: Familia Romana by Hans H. Ørberg. It follows a first century Roman family, and the text is completely in Latin. There are many online resources and other print resources built around this text. There are online courses, for example. There is even Book 2, which takes you on a tour of ancient Rome all in Latin.  Some have built a program that uses this text… as in the following: 

    2) History of Latin pronunciation. This 30 min watch is VERY instructive (and alive!). By Luke Ranieri. After this video, watch the second video, Latin by the Ranieri-Dowling Method. It is a (vigorous) middle ground, but something I have just started.

    3) Minimus by Barbara Bell. This is also a living book, in comic form, that follows an actual (!) first century British family. We’ve been reading with our daughter, and in just the first lesson, you are reading Latin, understanding Latin (without translating), and laughing in Latin!

    Looking forward to hearing more about your journey, 

    Jesse James (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)

  2. I learned Latin through Wheelocks’ when I was in college! I love that book. Thank you for the suggestion of Ecce Romani, I’ve been wondering what book I should use to teach my children Latin that would be more age appropriate, and I wanted to teach them myself, not use a video or online program. And I’ve been a bit disappointed by the lack of attention I’ve seen given to Latin by the Charlotte Mason blogs and podcasts that I most follow, so I’m so glad to see it discussed here in more practical depth! It’s still another year till my eldest starts Latin, but I already ordered Ecce Romani and am looking to exploring it when it comes it the mail!

  3. Thank you, Art! it took me a while to find the ordering location for Ecce Romani and to find information about its use, what you need, and some samples, but it looks really awesome! I appreciate your being willing to mention what you are using to teach both yourself and your student!

    1. Christine,

      I am glad this article was helpful. I wanted to let you know that my experience is with the Third Edition of Ecce Romani. I do not know what changes (if any) were made for the Fourth Edition.


  4. Hi Art. My son is ten and I was hoping to start teaching him Latin. I have no prior knowledge of Latin and was considering starting with him. After reading your post, it would seem that I should first study a bit from Wheelock’s Latin before starting the journey with him. Did I understand correctly?
    Are you starting Latin with your ten year old?

    1. Rene,

      Thank you for reading my article and asking this great question. I think my initial distaste for Latin instruction can be traced to two sources: (1) using the wrong material and (2) not doing enough study on my own. My general tendency in homeschooling has been to learn “with” my children and not make much of an effort to get ahead of them. Angela Reed convinced me that such an approach is not adequate for Latin. So on her advice, I started on Wheelock over the summer so I could get a head start, and I am continuing with Wheelock on my own. This has made Latin lessons with my youngest son much smoother, since I personally have more background and context for the material as it is introduced in Ecce Romani.

      We started Ecce Romani when my youngest son was twelve. We did make some effort with a resource called Minimus when he was ten, but I did not enjoy it, and we did not make much progress. For me, Wheelock with Ecce Romani (along with a higher sense of purpose) is what did the trick. So yes, I recommend Wheelock to you for your own study. It is well-adapted to that purpose and has self-study exercises and answers in the back. It is also possible to obtain the answer key for the primary translation exercises.


      1. Thank you for replying, Art. I think I will spend the next year with personal Latin study and then look at introducing Ecce Romani to my 11 year old next year or do you think that is too early?

        1. Rene,

          That sounds like a great plan! I do not think age 11 is too early. The Ecce Romani publisher indicates that the material is designed for grades 6 and above, so I think your timeline should be appropriate. One other note is that I did get a copy of the Ecce Romani Teacher’s Guide and it helped me a lot both to understand how best to use the material and to have an answer key.


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