Is Latin Easy? A Discussion of the Ease of Learning Latin

2002 stamp from Tunisia showing a mosaic of Vergil.
2002 stamp from Tunisia showing a mosaic of Vergil. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Question: Is Latin Easy?:

Forum Poster KarateFrog asked the following question: "One of my friends recommended that I learn Latin (I just completed 5 years of French) because it is "straightforward". How easy is Latin compared to the other Romantic languages?"

Range of Answers to the Is Latin Easy Question:

Although there is a qualified affirmative based on the five years of Romance language background, most respondents suggested that there are difficulties in specific areas of Latin and at least one answer is, simply, "no." Read on for specifics.

Your turn: What do you think: Is Latin Easy?

Ease or Difficulty Is Not a Good Enough Reason To Study Latin:

One of the forum posters mentioned that there should be a personal reason to study Latin -- like a love of ancient history:

  • "...there ought to be more personal reasons for the study of Latin, such as interest in the history of the Roman past or in the very literature of ancient Rome, both as compared with the literatures of other ancient cultures or not. I will say that I came to the study of Latin primarily for its linguistic perspective...."

Long Time To Build Reading Competence:

Pchenier gives basic information on the difficulty compared with non-inflected languages and then makes this important point about reading competence:

  • "The ultimate goal of learning Latin is to read the literature that survives.... If your goal is to read the surviving texts without significant support (dictionaries or grammar), that project will take a very very (depressingly) long time. It might well... take less time to reach a similar goal in a modern language."

    Perspective of a Beginning Latin Student:

    eris348, who is having trouble with Latin, nonetheless says:

    • "I think that you will find Latin relatively easy to understand if you have a good grounding in a modern romantic language, which you obviously do, and if you remember endings with ease. It is in my opinion the simplest language to read aloud; as long as you bear in mind small facts like v is pronounced as w, and written as u, you basically just read exactly what you see!"

      Latin IS Straightforward, but...:

      Bbbandy's advice includes:

      • "Latin is 'straightforward,'... in the sense of being stricter, more exact. You may find it a bit more complex than French, especially if you try to hang on to the whole notion of word order which you are used to. Like French, it has an extraordinary literature.... And it is excellent for training the mind in clarity of thought. By all means, go forward with it! In practice, some learning materials are better suited, to any individual student, than others."

      Too Many Declensions and Ambiguity of Word Order:

      Spqa, who finds Latin fun, says:

      • "Latin grammar is much more difficult due to many noun declensions/inflections and loose word order. Latin spelling, however, is very phonetic unlike French wherein the last letter or three are not pronounced unless the next word begins with such-and-such."

      Words May Mean More Than You Think:

      I would call this a problem of the limited vocabulary, but BaronVonBerg makes a legitimate point about how hard it can be to translate phrases:

      • "I can tell you that Latin is not what one would call an easy language. The main reason for this is that the language is highly idiomatic. For example, the phrase Gero Bellum...means to conduct a war, but the literal translation would be to hold a war.... If you can master the idioms you will be able to master the language."

        Do You Like Puzzles?:

        For me, Latin is a puzzle. The reason I like Latin poetry better than prose is the same reason I prefer crosswords to jigsaws. There is a frame there, with lots of clues. Words balance even if they don't follow a strict word order. If one translation doesn't work for a word, you can probably find a better meaning. I find it a pleasurable, but intellectual challenge. What makes it possibly earn the label "easy" is that it can be solved -- unlike certain modern languages.

        Latin Is Hard:

        About's Drawing Guide says Latin is hard.

        • "Latin is not easy. Full stop. It ain't. I love it though.

          I wouldn't compare learning Latin or Greek to learning a modern language. Its too different. Chances are, you'll never sit and chat over a glass of wine in Latin, unless you get VERY good at it and happen to live somewhere that other classical culture nuts live.

          With French, you can pop up to Canada or turn on World Movies and actually use the language on a daily basis. You can read current writers, and listen to pop music. French is also easier to learn vocab-wise because the nouns don't change, only the verbs. This is a big, big difference.

          If you want easy, go French. [ed. note: I don't know that I would categorize the terribly idiomatic modern French language as easy to learn to speak. Spanish might be a better choice for ease, especially for those of us close enough to Canada to also have Spanish speakers living next door.]
          If you want the joy of reading Virgil and Pliny in their own language, learn Latin.
          (the other useful stuff, like its relevance to English, are nice, but not a motivating factor to me personally)."
          Laura, in email, disagrees:
          In the last hundred years, learning Latin has become more difficult because of teaching methods that have shied away from using the language as a language, and concentrated largely on reading. (If Latin is considered to be a dead language, that is why.) When you teach a young child Spanish or French, you use the language with them, even if your own knowledge of the language is less than perfect, and even if you do not generally speak the language in the normal course of your life. Do the same thing with the Latin: speak it. You will find any language far easier to learn if you use it naturally. A good book to get you started is Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency by John Traupman ISBN: 086516438X. I also recommend Cattus Petasatus: The Cat in the Hat in Latin by Dr. Seuss and Terence and Jennifer Tunberg. ISBN 086516472X. Latin is a living language, which is still the official language of one country: Vatican City in Rome. The language is growing and changing, and there are many people who speak, read, and write it daily. Anyone can learn Latin. Truly!