The Lost Art of Memorization
Hack Your Latin #9: Jason Pedicone on Reggie Foster’s Memory Exercises (The Method, Part 2)
One of the parts of Reggie Foster’s summer Latin program that I have grown to appreciate was the way he encouraged us to read and recite Latin aloud. This was not just the practice of reading a sentence out loud before we translated it. We would also reread passages aloud after we had translated them. We would do it together, in unison, with Reginaldus’ booming voice rising above the others to keep the rest of us on track. This meant that by the end of reading a passage of Latin, we would have heard all of the Latin sentences in that passage read out loud twice, once by each student before he or she began translating it, and then again when we all recited it together.
This practice of group recitation led to some funny moments when we did them out in public. Imagine a group of 70 people standing in the small parking lot next to the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, right off Rome’s main thoroughfare Corso Vittorio Emanuele, reciting in unison a Latin paragraph from a Renaissance romance written by Pope Pius II. The Italians walking by must have thought they were witnessing some kind of cultic ritual. But the practice recommended an approach towards the language, one of slow savoring. We weren’t just rushing to find out what the words meant and then moving on. The language itself, in its words, sounds and rhythms, had a value that shouldn’t be overlooked.
This was different than the approach I’d seen in university classrooms, where students often didn’t even bother to read passages aloud at all before rushing headlong into translation. When they did read the Latin aloud, mispronunciations abounded, and these were often not corrected by the professor, who himself occasionally also mispronounced Latin words. In Rome, accenting the wrong syllable of a word (i.e. saying hábere instead of habére) would earn you a loud rebuke from the front of the classroom. “HaBEEEEEEre!!!!!!” Reginaldus would scream. Other times he would flinch and say “Ouch!” as if the very sound of someone saying dúxerunt when he should have said duxérunt caused him physical pain. One of his most memorable reactions to a mispronounced Latin word was when he simply screamed “Arghhhh!” and grabbed a bottle of wine that was sitting on a nearby table, tilted his head back, and took a long, deep drink, as if he needed the alcohol as an anesthetic to dull the pain, as if the mistreatment of the Latin language he witnessed every day drove him to drink. Perhaps it did.
A related and equally charming custom in the summer Latin program was that Reginaldus would offer cash prizes for students who memorized and recited Latin passages. This meant memorizing a paragraph or two of Cicero or Livy, or an ode of Horace, and standing up in front of the class to recite it from memory. Some were excellent at this and wowed the audience with their photographic memories and oratorical skills. Others tried and failed spectacularly, standing before us, sweating as they repeated themselves in an attempt to draw forth the last few words of a clause from their clammed-up brains. But everyone who was brave enough to try, if they made it to the end of their passage, earned the applause of the class. Reginaldus, with a grin, would call the person up to the front of the room to bestow their prize upon them, usually a €5 bill, enough for a large Peroni beer, which many reciters badly needed after their nerve-wracking performance.
When people think about “Living Latin”, they often imagine extemporaneous conversation, but these oral experiences of ancient Latin texts were a big part of what Reginaldus did to bring Latin to life. I participated in them, with varying degrees of success, and they shaped my approach to language learning.
One thing I learned was the value of repetition. I once attempted to recite a passage of Quintilian from memory. My memorization technique was the traditional one I had used as an undergraduate. I wrote it down over and over again, and then thought about it silently, in my head, to the point where I could conjure up every sentence silently in my mind. The next day, I trotted up to the front of the classroom to recite. It was a complete catastrophe. I made it to the end, but barely, pausing for long periods as I wracked my brain to retry to summon the words. It was humiliating.
I decided I would try again, but this time, with a different approach inspired by our group recitations. Instead of trying to think the Latin into my head, I decided to simply read every sentence out loud 100 times without trying to memorize it at all. I started with the text in hand, and just read the sentence out loud off the page. After about 20 repetitions, I noticed I could put the text down and do it from memory. The next 80 repetitions were a complete revelation. The language started to come apart into its component elements, like a material spun in a centrifuge. I noticed shades of meaning and timing I hadn’t before, and words broke down into strange globules of sound. My mouth muscles fatigued and my tongue dried out. After 100 times, I could say the sentence backwards and forwards. I knew it without thinking about it, like the lyrics to my favorite song.
Over the course of a few weeks, I practiced this method on every sentence of the passage I wanted to memorize. When the time came, I stood before the class and recited confidently, smoothly, with an effortless understanding of what I was saying. I might as well have been speaking English and describing what I had for breakfast. It was a great feeling. Moreover, as time went on, I noticed that the passage didn’t fade away. Months later I could easily recall entire sentences. This was at a time when I was still learning Latin grammar and morphology, and as I read other Latin words, I noticed many of the forms, words and phrases recurring in other authors. I instantly recognized and understood them, and they in turn helped me understand the new texts I was reading. In this way, that deeply internalized passage of Quintilian became a rock foundation on which to build up my Latin knowledge.
There is something about this method that is at odds with our fast-paced, goal-oriented modern world. To people racing to get to the answer, reading a sentence out loud seems like a waste of time. Who cares if you pronounce the words correctly? The goal is to get to the meaning. With this mindset, the ancient language in which a text is written becomes an obstacle standing in the way of the meaning. And yet, often, as the Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “the obstacle is the way.” If, instead of rushing past Latin and Greek in an attempt to “understand” them, we approach them as an end in themselves, immersing ourselves in them, getting them into our ears and our mouths, we may find ourselves reaching new levels of understanding we never thought possible, and enjoying the process of learning much more along the way.
Jason Pedicone is the co-founder and President of the Paideia Institute.
Sign up to receive email updates about new articles