Latin’s a dead language. Almost. Latin is spoken only in the Vatican. So, it’s only almost dead. A dead language is “one that is no longer the native language of any community.” But, we don’t learn Latin primarily to speak it, so some wonder why we should learn it at all.
We’re occasionally asked, “Why Latin? Why not Spanish or French? At least we’d have our children learning a language that would be useful.” And it would be—especially if they live in Miami or Montreal. And, boy do I know the value of knowing Spanish in Miami.
Don’t be fooled. Children shouldn’t learn Latin for the same reasons they learn a modern foreign language. And they shouldn’t learn Latin in the same way they learn modern foreign languages.
There are two purposes for learning a second language, BICS, and CALP. BICS and CALP are Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency.
When learning a modern foreign language, you will almost always us the BICS approach. Learning to speak Italian will allow you to travel to Italy quite enjoyably. While there, you’ll better understand local television. You might even negotiate more savings on the beautiful leather boots you want to bring home. BICS helps us learn to communicate in another language.
CALP, on the other hand, will build our understanding of the language itself. The logic and power of the language will be learned. Word order, inflection, semantic structures, and grammar are all included. We are convinced classical languages in general, and Latin, in particular, must be learned this way to secure the real benefit of studying them.
The renewed interest in classical education has necessarily brought a renewed interest in learning Latin. Sometimes the vocal minority of the more academic types can be heard expressing lofty, even esoteric ideas. One we’ve heard is that the most important reason to learn Latin is to read ancient works in the language in which they’ve been written.
We don’t mind the thought, but few students will ever realize this reason for learning Latin. That level of mastery eludes the majority of today’s classically educated students. That’s like saying you shouldn’t learn to play golf unless you intend to play the PGA Tour.
At Veritas we’re a bit more practical. Here’s the list presented from greatest to least importance for why your children should learn Latin.
Mastering English – During the formative years of 3rd – 6th grades Latin students will develop their vocabularies faster, master English grammar more easily and build a storehouse of idioms and expressions to enhance their understanding of great literature and join the Great Conversation through the Great Books in later years. It is the reason they will quickly move their reading (and writing) abilities well beyond their peers. Students of Latin typically excel on standardized tests, especially English vocabulary. Most of English vocabulary is derived from Latin. Latin grammar is also ideal for learning the way all languages, including English, work.
Get closer to some of the most transformative ideas ever written – Consider how much the ancient Israelites, Greeks, and Romans have shaped our world. Their ideas—uttered in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—built Western civilization. Some people study these classical languages to get closer to those original ideas. That’s why seminarians study the original languages of the Bible. Translations of extraordinary ideas can powerfully transform. How much more when understood in the language they were spoken!
Acceleration of all learning – This goes beyond reading and writing abilities. Dorothy Sayers says it quite well in The Lost Tools of Learning: “I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent.” It does this by honing skills of observation, memory, and comparison.
Learning modern foreign languages – Knowing Latin aids learning other languages, especially the romance languages; Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. The overwhelming majority of the words in these languages derive from Latin, and their grammatical structure is similar to Latin, as well.
Learning the language of science, medicine, and related fields. – Theology, law, medicine, science, and philosophy use many Latin words or English words derived from Latin. The root words for most of the modern sciences come from Latin.
The list is practical and straightforward. The first reason is so important that it’s the one thing I would tell a non-classical Christian school to add to the curriculum or tell any parent to include in their child’s education. Here’s evidence from a paper written by Nancy Mavrogenes that appeared in the academic journal Phi Delta Kappan in 1979 about a study in Iowa:
“In 1971, more than 4,000 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade pupils of all backgrounds and abilities received 15 to 20 minutes of daily Latin instruction. The performance of the fifth-grade Latin pupils on the vocabulary test of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was one full year higher than the performance of control pupils who had not studied Latin. Both the Latin group and the control group had been matched for similar backgrounds and abilities.”
Consider Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. You probably know he attended Harvard, briefly. For high school, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy. On his Harvard application, he listed Latin as one of the languages he studied. He once quoted lines from the Aeneid in a public talk and now regards Latin as one of the keys to his success.
We could have listed more than a dozen reasons for studying Latin. It seemed best to keep the list short and to the point. Whether you agree with the list or not, it’s hard to disagree that the study of Latin is vital.
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