Day 4: Memorize
Yesterday we began working on content, specifically figuring out the sorts of words that will serve you best in Latin conversation. We’ll return today to working on fundamentals. We’ve already started to get used to listening to longer passages of Latin as well as reciting them out loud. Today we’ll focus on an area underemphasized in Latin language learning but one that can be extremely useful in improving your speaking skills—memorization.
By having a good collection of stock phrases, sentences, and—what we’ll work on today—stories available, you can begin to minimize the awkward silences that beginning Latin conversationalists are especially prone to. There can (appear to) be enormous pressure not only to get up to speed with speaking Latin, but to keep things fresh and original at all times. This can be such an enormous burden that it can be a great temptation to revert to English or, worse, to say nothing at all. But as we develop a Latin-conversation routine, one sententia or one anecdote at a time, we have an increasing amount of material to fall back on. We may not be as extemporaneously witty as we are in our first language, but at least we’re cutting down on dead air. In order to this, however, we must put the work in up front—we must memorize our routine.
We are going to develop our memorization skills by learning a Latin story by heart. The challenge is simple, even if the execution is less so: find a Latin story and memorize it. It doesn’t matter what story you chose, though ideally it would be on the short side and something you could imagine actually bringing up in conversation. Think of this as a chance to work on cocktail-party Latin—an interesting story, a witty anecdote, perhaps a joke. Fables are ideal because they are short and often have plots (and plot twists!) with which we—speaker and listener both–are already familiar. (Laura Gibbs has edited and posted a lot of Latin fables online.) Work on something light that you can drop into conversation at the right moment.
While there is something to be said for having it down rote from first word to last, I think you will be better served to approach this like a rhapsode. Master all of the storytelling components—who are your characters? where are they? why are they there? when is this taking place? what happens in primis? deinde? postremo? what is the story’s payoff or punchline? Rehearse the story until you have a good grasp of the basics. Then if you’d really like to fix the story into your head word for word, it should be all the easier. Rem tene, verba sequentur.
If the idea of memorizing a whole story seems completely unmanageable at the moment, consider learning a handful of short sayings. (Perhaps the sententiae of Publilius Syrus?) Think of all the Ben Franklin-style aphorisms that pop up in English as you go about your day. Having a ready store of witty lines on hand—and there is no shortage of quotable Latin to drawn on—plays the same role, if on a smaller scale, as the memorized anecdote. As my Latin teacher John Kuhner writes in his own (immensely useful and practical) guide to getting started with spoken Latin, what you memorize can “They serve as ready-made sentences for you to insert when appropriate (which they often are).”
When you are finished with this challenge, you will have at the ready another mini-script. You will have at the ready some good Latin material for enlivening your conversations. As you commit more bits like this to memory, you will have the makings of your Latin routine and will be well on your way to becoming not just a Latin speaker, but a good one.