Latin Vocabulary and Reading Latin: Challenges and Opportunities

Tom Keeline, Washington University in St. Louis

It is a truth universally acknowledged by contemporary scholars of Second Language Acquisition that you need to know 95‒98% of the words in a text in order to read it with ease and pleasure. For most contemporary readers of most classical Latin texts, and especially for students, this constitutes a very high bar. In this talk I'll try to do two things. First, I want to quantify just how high that bar is. Using a digital analysis of our Latin corpus, I'll show exactly what words you'd need to know to read a given author fluently. The good news is that there is a common core of words that occur frequently, and this common core is very helpful to learn and isn't huge. The bad news is that the distribution has an extremely long tail, and to really read with fluency you have to learn a lot of words that don't occur very frequently at all. Unfortunately this is an almost impossible task for most readers, and I'll explain why. But in the second part of the talk, I'd like to suggest that we shouldn't just despair. Instead, we should adjust our expectations, our teaching, and our reading practices. I'll make suggestions for some possible changes, ranging from (I think) the common sense to the controversial.

Tom Keeline is Associate Professor of Classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

This is a virtual lecture. Start time is given in Central Time.

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