The case for learning Latin

September 8, 2020 3:14 PM

a crown icon and the words "rising voices award winner"
A Scrabble board with scattered pieces and pieces arranged to say "Carpe Diem." Photo courtesy of Faby Green from Pixabay.

A Scrabble board with scattered pieces and pieces arranged to say "Carpe Diem." Photo courtesy of Faby Green from Pixabay.

“E pluribus unum” was the original motto of the United States until it was replaced by the less cool “In God We Trust” in 1956. “E pluribus unum” is Latin for “out of many, one,” referring to our country’s roots as a collection of independent states. Latin finds itself in many mottos, not just those of our states but of many countries across the world. Due to the far reach of the Roman Empire, Latin has found its way across the world where it laid the foundations for languages we still speak today. Latin used to be ubiquitous in European, Middle Eastern, and North African society as it was the de facto global language into which most works were translated. 

Today, Latin is virtually dead, only spoken by priests in the Vatican City. However, Latin is still taught in classrooms across the country, though not to many students. According to the 2017 National K-16 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey, only two percent of K-12 students in the United States studying a foreign language take Latin, totaling a little over 200,000 students. Most people won’t bat an eye to Latin as it’s often seen as a dying subject with little to no benefit. As a student of Latin, I disagree. Frankly, I wish I had been educated in the classics at an earlier age. Learning languages is easiest in our younger years so teaching Latin can have a profound effect on future education. 

When I advocate for the teaching of Latin, I do it because I have taken Latin and I acknowledge the benefits it left me with. 

One of the go-to reasons for taking Latin is the vocabulary boost it provides. According to the University of Illinois, English takes 65% of its words from Latin. Learning Latin vocabulary and word structure allows English speakers to more easily understand more complex words. Additionally, by learning different Latin phrases and words, English speakers can identify the definition of new words that use Latin roots. For example if you knew the Latin word “trans” meaning “across,” you would know that a transabdominal surgery means “across the abdomen.” 

Another major reason for learning Latin that many educators lean on is that by learning Latin, an inflected language, you can easily learn other inflected languages like Russian and German. Additionally, Latin is the origin of all Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, and Portuguese among others. These languages will be much easier to learn with Latin already under a young student’s belt. So by mastering Latin in the earlier years of education, many doors are unlocked for young students. For example, many careers offer benefits or pay boosts to bilingual workers.

A more pretentious reason to learn Latin, thrown around by teachers and scholars of Latin, is that learning Latin will make you read and analyze literature with a more critical lens due to the complex nature of many ancient texts. While I can vouch that by reading classical literature my classes engaged in heavy and important discussions, the texts weren’t always written in Latin. Latin classes merely present the opportunity to read classical literature, even if in English. This literature can provide great insights and questions for students to consider. 

Boston Latin School is the largest public school in Boston and also one of the very few public schools in the city that still teach the ancient language. BLS’ classics department describes their decision to teach Latin as: “[The Classics program] uses the languages, literature, and art of that civilization to promote, in the present one, these virtues: to restrain one's impulse to self-interest, to live and treat others with dignity, and to participate responsibly in civic life.”

Roxbury Latin School is another “ancient Latin school” in Boston, but a private one, and also shares a concise reasoning to teaching Latin: “The precision and discipline students must acquire to master Latin enables them to read English more analytically and critically and to write it more concisely and fluently.”

The most common response people have to retort those who teach or take Latin is that the language is “dead.” That is to say that no one speaks Latin anymore and therefore it is useless to teach in schools when you can be teaching Spanish, French, or German. That is an accurate observation of the status of Latin in the world today. However, Latin has been dead for a very long time. After the Roman Empire fell completely and regional languages took root, Latin was simply the language used to translate books and other texts. Few actually spoke the language. Nevertheless, the material that exists in Latin is vast and detailed. 

Another common opposition is that the ancient Greeks had just as rich literature and that we should just teach our children ancient Greek. To that I say: yes, of course! Ancient Greek is another great option and you will find that many Latin literary devices, vocabulary, and forms come from Ancient Greek. Latin, however, is more easily recognizable to a native English-speaking eye due to the origins of English vocabulary. This recognition is only more profound if someone is already familiar with another Romance Language. Latin is also more applicable than Ancient Greek as a Latin foundation would prepare students to more easily learn Romance languages like Spanish and French that are often spoken in the U.S.

I have taken two foreign language courses in my life: Latin and Spanish. Had I taken other languages, I likely would’ve been able to appreciate them just as much. For example, I would consider German and Mandarin to be other very important languages. German is a popular language in the professional and economic world and also is linguistically related to English. Mandarin Chinese is one of, if not the most spoken language in the world, allowing for it to be useful in a variety of ways. 

Admittedly, learning Latin was a personal preference of mine. I thoroughly loved the literature, history, culture, and I did find learning Spanish grammar much easier with Latin also being in my schedule. I believe learning Latin gave me a new, more critical view of literature, government, and language and I wish the same for many others. Languages are increasingly more valuable as the world becomes more globally linked and if we implement Latin into elementary education, students can have a great foundation for future learning.

Featured articles: