Why Study Latin?

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Written by Daniel Schwartzberg

January 5, 2020

“You teach Latin? Cool!/Huh!/That’s interesting!”

That’s how many conversations begin – and end – when I tell others about my work as a Latin teacher. People express interest in the topic itself but most don’t appear to think of Latin as a practical tool. Latin may be “cool,” but ultimately is renowned for one fact: Latin is “dead.”

Moment of silence for Latin.

Yes, Latin is classified as a “dead language.” Why? Well, officially, Latin (and any other dead language) earns that classification because the lexicon of Latin words is no longer developing and evolving by natural language conversation. That’s the boring explanation. However, I (and I’d wager most Latin teachers and devotees) would argue the benefits of learning Latin are manifold. Its status as a dead language has, happily, no bearing upon the yields that Latin study can provide. Having taught Latin students across the grade spectrum, I’ve noticed trends in the expectations students have about how Latin will help them, and I’ve also encountered skepticism about Latin’s relevance as an area of study. To address this cynicism, here are reasons from students; from my personal experience; and finally from other teachers, classics experts, and Latin proponents explaining why Latin deserves its spot in a 21st century curriculum.

Why Latin?

The most common reason students give me for their interest in studying Latin, or the reason I’m told a school offers Latin as a language option, is to bolster vocabulary memorization and determine definitions on other language-based tests. That’s great! I’m constantly finding etymological connections when I read or write, and my ability to make an informed guess about a word’s definition has been significantly improved by my study of classic languages. The roots of English as a Germanic and Romance language make this aspiration of improved verbal analysis not only attainable but a definite plus of Latin’s study.

From my experience as a teacher, however, the long-term benefits of Latin are often overlooked. I’ve consistently seen Latin students gain a deeper understanding of English, and a greater ability for analysis and pattern recognition. I would argue that these two benefits make Latin not only a boon but a tool that can be carried forward and impact all types of learning. Here, I speak from personal experience: learning and studying Latin alters how I absorb information and organize my life. Latin is a highly structured and inflected language that uses a variety of endings to relay syntax information about the sentence. In English we use many auxiliary or “helping” words to clarify, among other criteria, tense, voice, location:

In Latin, we can condense these ideas to relatively few words:

Once a person grasps the economy and structure of Latin, so many doors open in English writing, and the value of concision becomes not just a concept but a tangible reality.

Finally, leaders in academic and professional arenas have thrown their weight behind the benefits of including Latin in studying. I have read multiple articles trumpeting the benefits of Latin, and listened. Some articles emphasize Latin’s role as the basis for our legal and religious terminology, and the impact of the poetry and prose of Roman and other classic authors as building blocks of modern Western literature1Lowe, Cheryl. “Top 10 Reasons for Studying Latin.” Memoria Press, The Classical Teacher, 1 May 2012, https://www.memoriapress.com/articles/top-10-reasons-studying-latin/. Yet other speak, as I wrote above, about the influence Latin can have upon our English grammar2https://www.thoughtco.com/the-benefits-of-learning-latin-112914.

One article that I particularly enjoyed was written not by a professor, or by a classics devotee, but by a successful businessman3Ortner, Michael. “Why Studying Latin, More So Than Business, Is Ideal Training for Actually Running a Business.” Blog.capterra.com,https://blog.capterra.com/studying-latin-for-business-is-better-training. Michael Ortner founded the well-known software review aggregate website Capterra. Since founding Capterra in 1999, Ortner has had a noted career as a philanthropist and entrepreneur. In his blog post (which I highly recommend reading), Ortner writes that the alteration he’d make to his primary education was that he “would have been required to take Latin.” Ortner delineates the benefits of Latin using concepts: Appetite, Ability, and Acumen.  As Ortner helpfully outlines, a familiarity with Latin and Classics carries implications that outstrip the relative paucity of time commitment required to gain that familiarity. That’s not to say learning Latin is easy; but if you need convincing, Ortner’s article lays out a solid case for picking up that crusty copy of Virgil’s Aeneid gathering dust on your shelf. 

In summary, is Latin a dead language? Yes. Is its usefulness dead? Absolutely not. Just listen to English prefixes, look at the names of Harry Potter spells, crack open a law book – or any book, for that matter. Latin’s legacy is printed on or embedded within nearly every page we read or sentence we speak, and that legacy is here to stay.

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