The summer before last I decided that, being more than a little interested in the Roman Republic and wishing to read Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, I should learn Latin. I also realised the need to learn English grammar formally (something I wasn’t taught at school), and thought that I could kill two birds with one stone. I began with the excellent Everday Grammar and settled down with the first book of the Cambridge Latin Course.
I was immediately frustrated with the Latin book—it is clearly aimed at younger minds and, being a mathematician, I wanted more structure. Eventually I discovered The Latin Library’s Latin 101 course, centred around the superb Lingua Latin Per Se Illustrata. Lingua Latina is written entirely in Latin, with the exception of the copyright notice, and one can immediately start reading Latin without translation, per se, given that the content begins so simply and is accompanied by explanatory pictures.
My girlfriend bought me Latin Demystified, which turned out to be a fantastic choice of gift, explaining the grammar in a straightforward fashion and including quizzes to test understanding.
One problem I faced while reading was the identification of the parts of language and what they represent. In particular, I wanted practice conjugating verbs and declining nouns and adjectives to become more familiar with the word endings and knowing immediately what each word actually did. I played around with a few iOS apps and was impressed with SPQR, but it doesn’t cover writing out endings, which would be a pain on a touchscreen anyway. I found websites with a various quizzes (The Latin Library’s and the Open University’s being two) but they frustrated me in various ways—only U.S. noun orderings, limited features, or written in dreaded Flash.
The Latin Learner
Being a pragmatic sort I decided the sensible thing to do would be to spend the time I was meant to be learning Latin creating a website that fulfilled my needs. In particular, I wanted the following:
- Quizzes for practising verbs, nouns, and pronouns
- Lots of options depending on the quiz type
- The ability to order noun and pronoun cases either in the U.S. or U.K. style
- A simple, responsive site which required a minimum of styling
- Immediate feedback on entered answers
- Support for macrons over vowels—ā, ē, ī, ō, ū—and the ability to distinguish when a word is correct except for missing macrons
I spent some time designing a database structure and a basic quiz framework in PHP, wrote a modicum of JQuery for quiz feedback and wrote a quiz for testing verb conjugations. Being inexpert in PHP and a total novice with JQuery, this took some time, but I made progress and was happy with the resulting quiz. I then developed the noun and pronoun quizzes, added a number of words to the dictionary and styled the lot using Bootstrap for simplicity. The result is here and looks like this:
Latin Learner homepage
As you can see from the screenshot, the subjunctive mood and passive voice are greyed-out as I only have indicative active words at the moment. Similarly the only tenses in the dictionary are present, imperfect and perfect. Both of these simply need me to get more words into the dictionary—it’s a bit of a slow process finding good inputs—but the functionality is all there.
When completing a quiz entries are marked green for correct, red for incorrect, and orange if they are correct except for macrons over vowels. There’s a bar at the bottom which shows your progress through the quiz. Nothing fancy happens once the quiz is completed, except that the bar at the bottom will be full. Furthermore, all the quiz answers are in the HTML code so the person taking the quiz has to be relied upon not to cheat.
A verb quiz in progress
The noun quiz currently covers only first declension nouns, but there are lot of them to get through. Hovering over the English word at the top of the quiz reveals the Latin dictionary entry, so you can practise your vocabulary too (tapping instead of hovering words on mobile devices).
A noun quiz on a mobile phone
I’ve started a few pages on conjugating verbs and the basics of pronouns (which I found a bit tricky to get my head around and so have written quite a bit), but they’re to be fleshed-out in time and as my own understanding grows.
I’ve put the site online in the hope that I’ll get back to work on it, and my Latin. Last year was for me one of upheaval and much travelling; this year should be quieter and with the horrors of my PhD thesis behind me I can spend more time focusing on those things I enjoy. Besides The Latin Learner I’m also typesetting English and Latin versions of Lingua Latina as I go, mainly because it’s the most straightforward way to keep my translations and reinforce the reading. Progress is slow as a result but, I find myself remembering much more, and recollection is easier. Ideally I’d like to finish the first book this year, which doesn’t seem unreasonable as I’m about a third of the way through already.