Why Learn Latin?

 

At Live Oak Academy, as at many classical schools, Latin is a foundation stone of our curriculum. Our students begin learning simple Latin vocabulary and grammar in the fourth grade. Those who continue Latin into high school will be ready for the Latin SAT Subject Test and the AP® Exam. But, you might ask, why Latin? Why not spend this effort learning a modern language? Here are the reasons that seem best to us.

  • Clear awareness of grammar.  Younger students become more aware of the grammar of language, if they study a language different from their own. Just as it is easier to study some traits in others that I cannot see clearly in myself, it is less confusing for the beginner to learn about the structure of language at arm’s length, in a “dead” language. I learn what a “genitive” is from Latin, and then recognize genitives in my own speech.
  • The mother tongue.  Latin is the parent of many European languages. Those who know Latin more easily become familiar with French, Italian, Spanish, English, and so on. (The Romance languages like Spanish are so called because they are “Roman.”) Much grammar and many words in those languages derive from Latin.
  • English vocabulary.  Even in English about 60% of all words derive from Latin. Common polysyllabic words inherited from the French Normans (like courage, educate, area, animal) are Latin in origin, as are many scientific, medical, and legal terms. A student of Latin quickly acquires a better English vocabulary.
  • An instrument of rhetoric and thought.  In the West, most educated people before the twentieth century studied Latin to obtain models of clear, organized, and beautiful speech. The shape of Latin (and Greek) helped form our classic English exemplars, such as Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Milton, as well as moderns like C.S. Lewis. We too can learn from the way Latin writers organize their thoughts and words. The discipline and orderliness of Latin may well be a reason why the average verbal SAT scores for Latin students are consistently higher (665 in 2001) than the national average (506).
  • Traditional culture and education.  For many centuries in Europe, Latin was the universal language of culture and learning. It is no longer so, but many traces of learned Latin usage persist in educated writing (e.g., per se, ad hominem, … ad infinitum). Even today, the intellectual culture of Europe and the West still connects profoundly to the pre-modern thinkers who wrote in Latin. Knowing Latin brings the modern citizen closer to the thoughts of such great minds as Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Dante, Calvin, and Newton.
  • Christian community.  Latin was the language of Christianity in the West for over a thousand years. It is the language of the first European Bible translation, the Vulgate. Latin was honed by the medieval schoolmen into a theological language of unparalleled clarity and precision. (Aquinas is still profitable to read today, even for those with little Latin.) Latin has always been used as a language of worship and praise, with a unique beauty deriving from its long centuries of use by the Body of Christ. The Apostles’ Creed speaks of the communion of saints—we can enter into that communion in a deep way by using the language of the old saints.

What about Greek? The preceding observations apply, with adjustments, to Greek also. Most importantly, Greek is the original language of the New Testament. After a few years of Latin, students find that they can easily learn enough Greek in about a semester or two to begin Bible translation exercises.

To speak of the enjoyment and accomplishment that can come from studying classical languages and that we can share with our students, we can turn to the words of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote:

“To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts. I enjoy Homer in his own language infinitely beyond Pope’s translation of him, and both beyond the dull narrative of the same events by Dares Phrygius; and it is an innocent enjoyment. I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, and have not since acquired.” (“Letter to Priestley,” Jan. 27, 1800)

 

Acknowledgements: We are indebted to Cheryl Lowe of Memoria Press for her thoughts on this subject, and in particular for the observation about SAT scores. We are most indebted to those of past centuries who passed on the gift of speech, with improvements, to us their posterity.