For me, a breakthrough in reading Latin came when I let go of the idea that I needed to know the meaning of each word before I could analyze the structure of the sentence. It is much more helpful to start from the grammar, then tackle the vocabulary.
Compared to learning a modern language, learning Latin is strange. At my school, there was an entire year (two semesters) in which we went over nearly every aspect of the grammar, four days a week. It was much more complete and clear than the grammar lessons I’ve gotten in French or Spanish or English classes I’ve taken, in which the focus was largely on conversation rather than translation. There are fewer exceptions to the grammatical rules in an older language. The sentences we read for this entire time were all constructed out of the vocabulary lists we were given at the beginning of each chapter in the grammar book we used, so we very rarely encountered words we didn’t know, and we certainly didn’t encounter the anything particularly challenging.
After this, instead of taking a step up to reading, say, something on the order of a newspaper or magazine article, as you might in a modern language class, we went straight to the speeches of Cicero, and then the poetry of Vergil. I could be wrong, but I think this must be something like handing a second year Spanish student One Hundred Years of Solitude.
It wasn’t until my fourth semester (Vergil) that I had a professor who really emphasized learning how to learn, and even then it took me several weeks of stubbornly clinging to the bad habits I’d picked up by simply memorizing English translations of Cicero before class the semester before, and being terrified when we were asked to translate passages of the Aeneid at sight in front of everyone, before I finally gave up on my old way (which had been perfectly effective in getting A’s in the Cicero class) and tried what my teacher was suggesting. It was incredibly hard, resisting the urge to reach for a dictionary or an English translation even long enough to parse the grammar of one complicated Latin sentence. It required me to actively work with something I didn’t totally understand, which felt awkward and weird. Fortunately, it made such an immediate difference in the speed and fluency of my translation that I stuck with it, and now I’m much better off for it.
I find that one of the biggest obstacles I have in learning anything is thinking that I should already know it from the start. There’s actually no way to avoid the stage where you don’t know. Everything seems impossible right up until the moment when you figure it out and it seems obvious. This is all fine when you feel like you’re a beginner and you ought to be clueless, that making mistakes and having a hard time is just fine, but the second you start feeling like you ought to understand by now, that you’re supposed to know what you’re doing already, it’s almost unbearable, and giving up becomes a very attractive option.
An even worse problem is thinking that I do already know. I can actually witness myself stop listening to something someone’s trying to tell me when I realize I’ve heard them say it all before. The more I think I know about a topic, the harder it is to be open to new ways of learning and knowing about it. There can be great value in hearing something I’ve heard before again. Afterall, the situation has changed, there is always the possibility to arrive at some insight I didn’t have before. This has happened in my life many, many times… Reading a book again can be completely different than reading it the first time. The opportunity is utterly lost by thinking you’ve already understood everything.
So, how to approach every moment freshly, as if it is the first and only moment? How to drop the assumptions about what I already know, what I can and can’t do, etc?