ASK FATHER: Latin for 4 year olds

Now that some of the technical stuff has been updated, let’s get back at it.

From a reader…


I’m wondering if either you and/or your readership know of any good resources to start teaching Classical Latin to a 4 y/o? My nephew just turned 4 a couple months ago and his English and language skills are already better than many high school graduates and college students. But seriously, he is quite intelligent and we are all in agreement that Latin is the ideal second language for him to learn since it’s the basis of many other languages, the Church and science.

I’ll bet some of you parents out there have already been down this route.

Let’s see if the readership has something to contribute.

Of course I am all for languages early on.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Kmom says:

    Check out Classical Academic Press, Song School Latin for children. It’s excellent.

  2. Unwilling says:

    I started serious Latin (Greek and Hebrew) at 20 — rather late I think. It is said that John Stuart Mill “began the study of Greek at the age of three and took up Latin between his seventh and eighth years.” We gave in and let our daughter cease Mandarin at 12 (which at 33 she says gently was an error). Learning a language requires some kind of love. Can knowing Latin be a key to open a door to a place the child longs to visit?

  3. sibnao says:

    We inherited two books by Guenevera and Terentio Tunberg, which you should absolutely get. They are Latin translations of two Dr. Seuss classics: the Cat in the Hat (Cattus Petasatus) and Green Eggs and Ham (Virent Ova! Viret Perna!). The artwork is identical.
    Here’s the fish scolding the Cat in the Hat:
    “Vide, Catte! Quid fecisti?
    Dicit piscis, ‘Perdidisti
    Domum nostram. Nunc eversa
    Res est nostra, libo mersa
    Navis parva, iam curvatum
    Rastrum novum, perturbatum
    Totum tectum. Sic absente
    Matre nostra, nec vidente
    Ludos tuos, discedendum
    Tibi NEC est hic manendum!’ ”
    The rhythm is very strong and regular, and while you would have to read this one out loud to a four-year-old, you might find that you both learn a lot just from the combination of words and picture.
    Good luck!

  4. mepoindexter says:

    Probably not the best way but we just read Fr Reggie’s book “Ossa Latinatatis Sola” to our 4 year old. She gets a little listless but I figure it’ll work itself out in the long run. Especially with frequent exposure to the EF.

    Praying in Latin also helps. Our 4 year old would DEMAND we pray the Hail Mary in Latin before bed. Her teachers were a little shocked at school (and so were we) when she started praying in Latin.

    Learning and teaching them the chants is also beneficial. Sometimes our daughter runs around all day singing the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. She goes on a school trip to the zoo, points to the deer and says “Cervus!” because we learned “Sicut Cervus” by Palestrina back at Easter.

    My wife and I are trying our best to pick up Latin and we just take our daughter along for the ride. Especially at a young age they’re like a sponge. They pick up EVERYTHING even when you think they don’t.

  5. JonathanTX says:

    Are there any attempts to revive Latin as a spoken language, following the example of Ben-Yehuda with Hebrew?

  6. teachermom24 says:

    All the above suggestions are excellent but just a word of caution: let a 4 year old be 4 and be careful not to push anything academic. 4 year olds need play, rest, family time, exposure to books and music–all of that–and Latin can certainly be an element. I have raised four Latin scholars via homeschooling, but more important than Latin has been just letting them be themselves and gently guiding them according to their ages. I have also taught in outside schools (private, parochial and public) and have seen a lot of damage done by pushing children into academics too early.

  7. cengime says:

    JonathanTX, the musician Nicolas Slonimsky raised his daughter Electra in the 1930s as a native speaker of Classical Latin, inspired by a couple of married classicists in Warsaw who only spoke to their children in Latin and Greek. He relates the ultimate outcome in his autobiography Perfect Pitch:

    One day Electra announced, with a suspicious look in her eye, “Daddy, other kids don’t speak Latin at home.” I told her that some kids spoke Italian at home, which was something like Latin, but it didn’t impress her. From that day forward, Electra would give me a blank stare every time I used a Latin word, even one that had become a part of lingua franca in our household.

  8. StevenH says:

    I am a homeschooling dad and have been teaching my daughter Latin for quite a few years now. We experimented with a variety of books, including Song School Latin. While many people seem to like it, it really just teaches random vocabulary. Since my daughter had already mastered German and was learning Spanish, I wanted more than that. We then tried a British book called Minimus, which is quite humorous, but not very systematic. Finally we discovered I Speak Latin by Andrew Campbell. It teaches Latin as a spoken, living language, i.e., no emphasis on translations or writing, so you don’t have to worry about the child’s writing ability. It has scripted lessons that are fun and lots of neo-latin vocabulary for modern household items. By the time you finish the 50+ lessons, you have covered first and second declensions, adjectives, present tense in all 4 verb conjugations, the verb esse (in three tenses), and several, if not all of, the cases (it has been a while, and I can’t remember all the details). The book encourages you to have the child illustrate flashcards and write the Latin words on the back (i.e., no English). Taking pictures proved easier than drawing, and this also allow you to use a computerized flashcard system like Anki (initially we printed out the photos at Costco). Because my daughter is an only child, we dressed stuffed animals up in tunics (old tee-shirts) and gave them Latin names. We took turns voicing the stuffed animals so that we could have conversations. Although the book is ostensibly for slightly older children than you have, I am sure we could have used it successfully at a younger age–I think we used in late second and third grade. The book has a website, just search on “I speak Latin Campbell” and you should find it. After I Speak Latin, we moved into Lingua Latina per se illustrata (pars I, Familia Romana) by Hans Orberg with great success.

  9. jilly4life says:

    JonathanTX, there is a radio station that broadcasts the news in Latin. It is a Finnish station but you can access it online.

  10. KateD says:

    Cat in the Hat in Latin?!? That’s so fun!

    I’ve found that my children responded very well to learning through singing. It’s fun, it’s playing and they love it. They don’t always get it all correct, but it is absolutely precious. Then when they are older and ready for actual studies in a format that requires greater attention, and more developed fine motor skills, they will remember fondly the words from their childhood songs…which will reinforce well what they are learning.

    It’s almost Christmas, there are some wonderful Latin carols that young voices are able to pull off better than older ones. Also, prayers and the Angelus may be sung in Latin. It’s a two-fer…they get Latin and music all in one!

    For children in elementary school there are Latin programs available through various Homeschool curriculae.

  11. adriennep says:

    Hands down, the most comprehensive series of classical and Latin material is at Memoria Press. They have perfected the materials over many years and use a grammar-based approach. But there is Prima Latina for the earliest years, plus several CDs of Latin prayers and sacred music. They advance up through high school years with Logic and Rhetoric programs. You can’t go too wrong here. Great help resources and magazine on teaching classically.

    That said, I agree with above that learning Latin per se is not a good activity for 4 year old. Learn words from the Mass, sing in Latin, yes, but don’t make it a subject. Most seem to agree that third grade is okay for studying Latin onward. By seeing your joy in being around the language, she’ll be very ready then. Just make it fun for her! And make the next few years your own immersion in the classical learning.

  12. neil.mac says:

    Regarding Latin books for teaching young children –

    The “Minimus” series of books published by Cambridge have proved to be very popular in the UK. (Latin with a mouse hero).
    Here are the ISBNs for the first book and teacher’s book:

  13. MotherTeresa says:

    The suggestions for curriculum are fine for older students, but I agree with teachermom24!! Casual exposure to Latin, especially songs and hymns, can be very helpful at age four, but for most students that is too young for structured lessons. The key to success in almost any subject is sparking a student’s interest, and making Latin a chore instead of a treat is a good way to kill the spark. I have homeschooled my own family and taught at co-ops for 19 years, and most of us older moms-of-many are more relaxed about teaching 4-yo’s than the younger moms who are chomping at the bit to get started. Now we all laugh at how much effort we put into our pre-schoolers in the early years. I still love the idea of passing on our wonderful Catholic heritage, but now think that just seeing how much their TLM parents love the mass is the best lesson for any four year old.

  14. Rachel K says:

    Minimus Latin is great fun.
    At this age, especially for a boy, you don’t want anything too formal.
    ( Thinking Charlotte Mason and Maria Montessori, having home educated my children).
    This course can be seen on Wikipedia and is available online. It is a Cambridge University Press publication and there is a websit to support learning.

  15. Rachel K says:

    Sorry neil.mac, I have just seen that you’ve mentioned Minimus too!
    So two recommendations for this one!

  16. CandS says:

    I would just second and perhaps systematize some of the comments above…
    • 4 yrs old is quite young to be “learning” or “studying” Latin in any way that approaches an academic subject; keep it fun at that age if there is a desire from the young one (I wouldn’t use the word “student” at this age)
    • doing things like learning Latin or Greek roots, while perhaps being useful, is not really learning Latin or Greek, although I think some books present themselves this way and some parents perhaps think this is what is going on (this activity could still be valuable though)
    • learning prayers, spoken or sung, would be great if the memorization comes easy

    • with a motivated and interested student, third grade is not too early to start doing something more serious, but still mostly fun and about learning from context. I started Latin this way with my oldest son with the Cambridge Latin Course. The books are called Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3 (I call them the red, blue, and green books). I started the Red Book with my son in third grade. While we were doing that, we got the Minimus I and II books. These are purely comic books with illustrated stories. We read through these in a few days. The Red Book and following books are more substantial. The setup is a family in Pompeii leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius. The second and third book feature two continuing characters from the first book in Roman Britain. There is a fair amount of grammar and vocabulary in these books but it is all through exposure and context in stories, some illustrated and some not. We spent several years working through the three books (apparently there is a fourth book, but I’ve never been able to get my hands on it, but I also think after the three, I would have been ready anyway to move on to “serious Latin” with Wheelock). I did not focus much on grammar or exercises at all with these three books, but just read to understand and enjoy the stories. I did these three books with my son and the daughter of family friends and they both really enjoyed the stories and remembered all kinds of details about the characters and plot. This was a way to absorb a lot of language without focusing on grammar (which I’m not opposed to doing, but was waiting for the right time).
    • Lingua Latina per se illustrata is also a lot of fun. I haven’t used this one systematically, but have used it some for active speaking and asking questions and such. It’s an interesting approach and could be very fruitful in the right context (especially if you have a small group who could use the language actively with each other).
    • all of these books require a parent (or teacher) who is willing to learn or review Latin or who already knows the language decently, particularly if you want to do more active things like try to speak the language, ask and answer questions, etc. This is particularly so with Lingua Latina per se illustrata where you need to keep up with what vocabulary and structures have been introduced so that you can practice and use that material a lot.

    • after this stage, you can take up something like Wheelock (my choice) at the high school level and above. I consider Wheelock to be two semesters of college-level Latin, so doing this book is serious work and ultimately if one wants to read or use Latin at a higher level, one needs this serious approach with real exposure to passives, subjunctives, dative absolutes, passive periphrastics, all the declension types, 3rd declension adjectives, etc. in all of their glory. :) For me personally, this means I really have to keep up with things as my previous classes with Wheelock never quite made it this far and didn’t make it further and my grasp of subjunctives, passives, etc. is not as strong as of the basics, which are really covered in the first 10-12 chapters of Wheelock (and that’s a lot of Latin and the core of everything you need to grow on).

    That’s where I am now. The second half of Wheelock with my son’s group (he is now 10th grade), some are older, some a bit younger. Our plan is to finish Wheelock this year and then do reading after this. Preparing for the AP exam might be a further goal (this involves reading their selections from Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Vergil’s Aeneid).

  17. benedetta says:

    I agree with the above recommendations to a.) use the materials from Memoria Press for littler ones and b.) stay play-based with a little one. The prayers and music from Memoria Press can promote an organic comprehension of Latin which can be built upon in later years through more focused study. Enjoy this precious time of 4 years old!

  18. KateD says:

    Just one more thought to keep in the back of your mind as we encounter classically inclined young people in our lives-

    Adults I know take into consideration when inviting me to participate in anything, that I rarely have the luxury to come alone. And so when a bunch of people gathered for soup and a presentation I arrived early to situate the children before the event. The hosts of the event found a corner and some art supplies for the little guys, while my eighth grade daughter sat and attempted to slog through her latest reading assignment from the Illiad. The language of the translation was difficult, and I could tell that her overal interest was waning. The host of the party came over and asked what she was reading. Though I’d been praying with this man for a number of years, I was totally ignorant of the fact that he had been a professor of classical literature in his life before retirement. He lit up when he saw what she was reading, grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled on the sheet the first lines of the Illiad in Ancient Greek, then in Modern Greek and finally in English. He gave her the paper and dramatically began reciting the first lines. The two talked until guests arrived and after most folks left as the children and I helped with clean-up, they were deep in conversation again. He was pulling books off his shelf and giving them to her and running to the back of the house to retrieve artifacts to share. When we eventually departed my daughter had been given the gift of a passion for the classics. Subsequently, she has taught herself to read and write (roughly) ancient and modern Greek. I have no doubt that she will continue to grow in her knowledge throughout her life.

    The moral of the story is that at the right moment, it is the spark of interest that we can give our young people in these chance encounters that can ignite a passion that will last a life time and make studying a joy rather than a chore.

  19. VexillaRegis says:

    Congratulations Fr., you seem to have found an apocryphal part of the Bayeux tapestry! “Here is Darth Vader. He has a light sword. I am not your father! Here is Luke Skywalker. Sh*t, this isn’t happening!!!

  20. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Well, more like “Noooooo (intensifier)! It’s not true!”

  21. MiriamMak says:

    Four is a great age to start. Admittedly I have not taught Latin to four year olds, but I do think it would be possible given other sources I’ve read. This is an age where children have excellent memories and will retain information for life. If you’re following a Trivium/ Classical style education, this is the age to start laying the foundation (the grammar stage) by teaching the conjugations and declensions, even before the child understands how these will ultimately fit into the language. The book I recommend is Gwynne’s Latin. Gwynne has a lot of experience teaching Latin to young children, and has started as early as two or three. He knows and stresses the importance of rote learning and if you watch his videos, you’ll see that the kids love this method and have a lot of fun with it.
    There are LOTS of texts out there and I’ve used many in my teaching, but when I have control over my own course, this is what I use. Other texts might be good to complement this one later on, but start here.

  22. neil.mac says:

    To JonathanTX

    You may be interested in this website which has a huge number of courses aimed at those learning Latin and those wishing to speak Latin:

  23. VexillaRegis says:

    Suburbanbanshee, yes I know, I just thought that my translation was a bit more contemporary and witty ;-)!

  24. Pingback: MONDAY CATHOLICA EXTRA | Big Pulpit

  25. Ben Dunlap says:

    My dad (a Classics teacher) taught all his kids the Hail Mary and the Glory Be in Latin by ear when we were very little, which was a huge gift — praying in Latin has always just felt normal to me. So do that with your 4 year old if nothing else. And sing the seasonal Marian Antiphons throughout the year (all easily found on Youtube):

    When it’s time for more formal instruction, it can be helpful to know (as indicated in the comments above) that there many different styles of Latin instruction — some that try to re-create the organic experience of learning a spoken language, some that are self-consciously “kid-friendly”, some that emphasize extended reading with minimal/by-the-way grammar, some that emphasize systematic grammar and vocabulary study with hardly any reading, etc. etc.

    I suspect that different children will find different styles more or less appealing. My 11-year-old, for example, just didn’t enjoy Minimus but got very excited about Latin when he switched to Cambridge, and LOVES the Memoria Press approach. He’s very disappointed when I don’t assign him at least two worksheets per day…

    So if one style doesn’t seem to click with your child, don’t assume that your child is struggling with *Latin* — just try another style.

  26. The Masked Chicken says:

    I would look into the neuroscience of reading and language development. You may find some helpful hints, there.

  27. First of all, thank you very much for giving this wonderful gift to your child. Second, I encourage you to look at many different resources and textbooks because a basic rule in Language Acquisition is that no one textbook, system or set of materials is exhaustive.

    Before anyone starts teaching a child a second language, it would be ideal if you would understand a few things. The number one enemy of learning a language is wasted time. Anyone, from the most gifted to the slowest of the slow are able to learn language. Even children with severe mental handicaps like autism or physical brain damage will learn language 99% of the time. The most important ingredient in learning a second language is spending time using the language.

    Next, the child in question is four years old. This is great and also a challenge at the same time. Most materials for learning Latin are aimed at adults and were written with grammar translation in mind. That is certainly not appropriate for a child of four but that does not mean you can’t get something of value out of those texts. You can take what is presented and adapted it. You might also want to start learning how to make your own materials. Perhaps it is a good use of money to buy materials aimed at children for learning some other second language like Spanish, and recreating those materials for Latin.

    You have a very special opportunity here. The child is four. That means that the child can learn Latin as a native speaker. Don’t let anyone tell you that Latin is a dead language. Dead languages and living languages is a distinction made in the science of linguistics that is not properly understood by the general public. It may well be that this terminology was poorly chosen. As for teaching any child a particular language, dead or living has no bearing. At four, the child will learn any language they are exposed to as a native language.

    Humans are genetically coded to learn language. This dna is active from birth until about nine years old. At the age of nine, this dna becomes inactive. If you can get the child to learn Latin to a sufficient level before the age to nine, then that child will be a native speaker of Latin. Research tells us that it takes between 600 and 650 hours of speaking practice to learn Latin. That does not mean reading declension and conjugation tables off of a spreadsheet. It means real, active, meaningful communication. One hour of practice a week is not enough. That means it will take at least 12 years to learn Latin. That’s too long. One hour a day will get the child to full speaking ability in about 2 years but you probably don’t have that much time available to teach. But if not an hour a day, do you have five minutes? Ten? Just to review? Just to look at a new funny sentence?

    Make a habit of exposing the child to Latin at least a little every day. A great way to do this is by getting them to say their prayers in Latin before going to sleep every night. Make a ritual of it. Maybe you as the adult will be reading the prayer from a printed page at first but eventually you’ll memorize it and the child will memorize it as well. Resist the urge to teach what ever word means right away. The child can say the prayer even if they don’t know what it all means at first. You can cover that later. You’ll have plenty of time, trust me.

    Reach out to second language teachers in your area and see if they can help with anything. See if there are other families in your area or online who are also trying to teach Latin to their children. Children learn best by speaking with OTHER CHILDREN. If you can get your child to speak Latin with another child, then it helps both of them immensely.

    When you start teaching the child Latin, the child is likely to resist at first. Every new language sounds like garbage noise the first time we hear it. We have a natural reaction to be repelled by it. This is normal. You have to find a way to instill a motivation to learn the language. This is the first stage of language acquisition.

    The second stage of language acquisition is silence. During this stage the child is listening in order to acquire the sound system of the new language. This is why it is important for the adults teaching the child to get themselves familiar with how Latin is pronounced. Learn it, and be consistent with saying it that way. Don’t anglicize the words even if they are close to something you know in English. Pronounce it in Latin.

    EG: “nation” is not nei??n. In Latin we pronounce it natsion.

    Latin vowels and consonants do not follow English rules of pronunciation. You need to learn the rules for Latin and follow them, even it you don’t like how it sounds at first.

    Pronunciation extends to intonation as well. In English we use a rising intonation for verbs and a falling intonation for nouns. That’s why we can hear the difference between “convict” and “convict”; as in “The jury will convict him and make him a convict.” Latin does not have this. Pronounce your words in Latin with a flat intonation, nether going up or down.

    English also has rhythm grammar. The best way to understand this is by thinking of music. The grammatical words in a sentence do not get their own beat and so they come out like eighth notes blended together. Information words all get their own quarter note or half note.

    “What are you going to do tomorrow?” This sentence has three beats. “What are you going to” is all rolled into one beat. “do” is the second beat. “tomorrow” is the third beat. You can set up a metronome and say the sentence yourself and see that this is so. Again, this is a language feature that Latin does NOT have so resist the urge to do it.

    During the silent stage, you need to teach the learner as much vocabulary as they can soak in. Don’t expect them to memorize all of it right away. You have to be exposed to a word about twenty different individual times in order to remember it. Use picture cards and verb commands. Get a book on total physical response and see if there’s a way you can use those ideas.

    Ok, so that is the second stage. The third stage is the one word stage. At this stage, learners begin to start using their new second language but only one word at a time. They will try to express themselves but will only be able to say one word instead of an entire sentence.

    “What’s your name?” “David.”

    In their head, they may very well know the full sentence that needs to be said, but they will find themselves unable to say it. They may become frustrated that they can’t speak better. You need to keep language learning a fun process.

    They may complain that they are sleepy or tired. This is normal. The child is physically building the structure of the language in their brain. This is taxing on the human body’s resources. It might be a good idea to reward them at the end of a lesson or prayer session with a small piece of chocolate, some orange juice, or a chance to do something more active.

    Remember, you aren’t a teacher in this context. You are a drill instructor. You are a trainer. Your job is to get the child to do the work, not explain how Latin works to them, or tell them what each word means in English. Let them understand in Latin. Trust me, they will eventually figure it out on their own. Kids are smart. Don’t fear the language. Also – Don’t translate. Latin is not English written in code. If you have to use music, games, funny stories, dancing, hand gestures or whatever to keep them interested; then that’s just what you have to do.

    But always remember, no matter what you do, don’t waste time. Never play a game because it is fun. It can be fun, sure, but that’s not why we play the game. We play the game to give the child a reason to say something in Latin. We set up the game rules so that the more Latin they say, the closer they get to winning.

    So sure, at the one word stage they will only answer you with one word.

    “Quid est nomen tibi?” “David.”

    That’s fine. Just keep them talking. Get them to understand how to answer as many questions as possible.

    “Quod dies est hodie?” “Secunda.”

    “Feria?” “Ita, ita. Feria secunda.”

    About 200 hours of practice later, the child will probably enter the two word stage. This stage will see the child try to use two words as a complete sentence. This is when a lot of grammar learning and memorizing really happens. The child will begin to learn that certain words get put together often. They will start building the relationship between various groups and understanding how the words change inflection. Often the two words that the child tries to use will be a subject and then some kind of predicate.

    It is at this stage and not before that is is appropriate to start to teach the child reading and writing. In second language learning, we do not learn to read and from that learn to speak. We do the OPPOSITE. We first learn to speak and then we learn to read. That way, the child already knows what the word is and it makes learning to read much easier and more natural for them. Later in life it is true that we often learn most new words through reading but that is after we already know how to read. Before a child can read a language, they need to know how to be able to say all the words first.

    When you teach reading, insist that the child read everything out loud. There is a reason why the church instructs priests to at the bare minimum move their lips when saying the breviary. The church has learned that reading silently is an impediment to understanding. Modern research in the field of linguistics has also discovered this.

    When reading silently the reader will often attempt to translate in their heads. We see with university students learning Latin that they will be reading Latin but their lips are mouthing English because they are attempting to translate on the fly. By doing this, they are punishing themselves, making the text more difficult to understand, and likely to make major mistakes. So don’t do that. Read everything OUT LOUD.

    The two word stage will last a long time. Count on 400 hours at least. Try not to get frustrated or disheartened. Keep at it. It will come. Eventually, it will come. Just keep at it everyday. Five minutes? We didn’t study yesterday so maybe ten? Say your prayers before bed. “Nunc dimittis servum tuum …”

    Even though Latin is easier to learn than many other languages, including English, it still is a long road to get to the end. But if you can get the child to threshold before the age of nine and they have a basic level of communicative competence in the language then they are native speakers.

    At this point, the lessons stop being about Language acquisition and become about Language Arts. Think 8th grade English class with the fat little red English grammar textbook that was a different size from all of your other textbooks. At this point we can start to explicitly teach rules, syntax, semantics and all the other typical meta language stuff.

    But of course, besides that, keep speaking Latin. Keep praying Latin. Never stop teaching and learning new words. And also, remember that language itself is not what we talk about. We use language as a medium to talk about other things. So keep using Latin to talk about everything.

    After threshold it may even seem that your child is more expert in Latin than you are. That’s actually true. They are a native speaker. But you are still the parent and you have access to the rule book. You are the authority. Yes, the child is a native speaker now and is better than you will ever be. But you can still be there to push them to polish more and more. Just how great of an orator can the child eventually become? You’ll never know unless you keep at it. Never stop. Embracing a second language is like adopting a second child. You never leave that child because they are your child now.

  28. Comment on the illustration:

    Vader: Obi wan de patre tuo non dicit.
    Luke: Satis dicit. Dicit te interfecesse eum.
    V: Immo. Ego pater tuus.
    L: Non est verus.
    V: Inquire sensos tuos. Scis id esse verum.

Comments are closed.