In the checkout line this week, the clerk asked me what I do. When I said that I teach Latin, he was intrigued and wondered, “Why still teach Latin in this day and age?” Whether you are a prospective parent or even a long-time member of the Providence community, you may have wondered as well. The answer depends on your interests and educational goals. In other words, there is no one right answer, and were we speaking in person, I would tailor my answer to fit your needs. While whole books have been written on the subject, you, like my checkout clerk, probably want to start with the abridged version in plain English.
I have been teaching Latin for almost twenty years and have heard and read many spirited defenses for the teaching of Latin, some more convincing than others. Over the years, the following are the reasons that have stuck with me and the reasons that I sought out a school that offered Latin for my own children (all three of whom graduated from Providence).
- Latin connects the dots of western civilization better than any other language and is inextricably linked to our western heritage. Latin was used throughout the Roman Empire in the classical era. Then Latin became the language of the Church and of the universities throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For nearly two thousand years, Latin was the language of the western Church, governments, scientists, historians, nobles, musicians, theologians, and poets. There is a wealth of history and knowledge available in Latin, and some of it is only available in Latin. One estimate is that 70% of Christian literature in Latin has never been translated, including many works from the Reformation.
- Studying Latin enhances a student’s overall ability to use language and to appreciate great literature. Familiarity with Latin root words helps students develop a larger, more nuanced vocabulary. English, a “Germanic” language, still borrows 60-80% of its vocabulary from Latin — this figure varies, depending on the length of the word and the field (for words of more than two syllables and words in the science and tech fields, the figure is closer to 90%). And of course, the resemblance between Latin and its children, the Romance languages, is even stronger. Encountering Latin grammar lets students step outside their own language to get a broader and deeper perspective of how languages work. Studying Latin also helps students better read and appreciate great works in English: authors such as John Milton, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and C.S. Lewis, to name just a few, knew Latin and knew the classics; thus, the flavor, vocabulary, and sentence structure of their works reflect this influence. Knowledge of Latin also makes students more savvy readers of works in translation such as Homer’s Iliad, Vergil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy –stepping into the shoes of a translator makes a reader aware of the choices translators make and the limitations they face.
- A knowledge of Latin and Greco-Roman culture enables students to appreciate the great artistic works of our western tradition. Roman authors like Virgil, Horace, and Ovid have inspired countless other artistic works of literature, music, sculpture, painting, and more (both high art and popular culture). While we are thankful for excellent translations, encountering literary works in the original lets students appreciate their unique literary features. Latin is an inflected language (i.e., a language in which word endings matter more than word order), and despite the best efforts of skilled translators, some of the craftmanship is inevitably lost or altered in translation.
- Studying Latin trains the brain by fostering analysis, precision, and attention to detail. Latin students develop study skills and strategies which apply to other disciplines. Latin is like math in this respect. Some students find Latin challenging because it stretches all their mental capacities, but this exercise makes subsequent learning easier. As Doug Wilson comments, Latin is both “an exercise to prepare for the game and part of the game.” The discipline of learning Latin is valuable, even if the student does not remember all of it later – and yet the content accessible via Latin is also priceless.
- Latin is relevant and applicable to much of daily life. We could, of course, list many other good reasons to learn Latin. For instance, it is true that students who study Latin often earn higher standardized test scores. Latin is an excellent first foundation for the study of any Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian). Knowledge of Latin is an excellent foundation for studying Greek, for understanding theological terms (such as ordo salutis, creation ex nihilo, and the five solas of the Reformation), and for preparing for the ministry. Latin is also one of the few subjects that allows for maximum integration, drawing together language, literature, art, history, mythology, science, theology, and more.
People often ask the “Why Latin?” question expecting a list of short-term and pragmatic reasons, but it is important to remember that teaching Latin is part of playing the long game. Encouraging our students to study Latin can only enrich their lives in both obvious and subtle ways. I have heard from several Providence graduates that they did not fully appreciate the value of Latin until later.
- One family reported that they were thrilled to be able to read the librettos and follow a professional performance of Mozart’s Requiem.
- Another reported that he used the systematic skills of analysis he learned in Latin to succeed in calculus.
- Several said that studying Latin made their subsequent study of another language a breeze.
- One student returned from the Grand Tour glowing with enthusiasm to report that she could read all the inscriptions she saw on the trip.
- Others have emailed back from college to say that they now see the benefit.
Want to hear more reasons to study Latin? Here are some links you may enjoy.
“Why Latin? Why Study Dead Languages?” By Thomas Caucutt of Evangel Classical Christian School in Alabama.
“The Value of Latin,” by Ryan Sellers, TEDxMemphis (video)
If you want to read a longer defense of the classics (both Latin and Greek), I recommend Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin by Tracy Lee Simmons.