Why Should I Learn Latin?
by Emily Henry
What would you do if your Latin instructor said that she would personally beat you up with her own baculum (stick) if you didn’t study enough? Finding myself in that very situation on the first day of classes during my freshman year of college, I panicked. Even though I knew my feisty professor wouldn’t really beat us up, she was nevertheless stern and scary. I was convinced that being forced to learn this so-called “dead language” was going to be my academic bane.
Then what happened? How did I begin with such a frightening introduction to Latin and then turn around to major in that “dead language”? All I can say is that when I received my first graded Latin quiz, I was stunned by the perfect score at the top of the page—and from there, I was hooked. I had found something I was good at and loved. Because of her spunky, passionate, and sometimes scary ways of teaching us, I soon grew to deeply respect my Latin professor. Not only did she inspire me to do my very best in this challenging subject, but also her work ethic and drive helped me to be successful in the future, in challenging classes.
There is something very rewarding about working hard at any task that challenges our traditional way of thinking. Latin is one of those academic subjects that can test even the brightest of students but, likewise, brings rewards that many of us don’t necessarily stop to consider when we hear the word, Latin.
Latin is known as an inflected language, meaning the forms of words change, based upon the way the words function in a given sentence. As a result, the Romans did not have the rigid word order that we are accustomed to in English. Most of the time, individuals cannot read a Latin sentence straight through (left to right, in the order in which the words are listed) and understand exactly what just happened and to whom. Rather, we must train ourselves to carefully walk through a step-by-step process of problem solving: We must hunt for the verb form, identify it, and then search for the corresponding subject form. This process helps to develop in us analytical, problem solving, and logic skills. Such skills are invaluable for other endeavors, academic and non-academic alike.
The most practical and common benefit we can experience as we study Latin is a deeper appreciation and understanding of English grammar, composition, and vocabulary. Studying Latin lifts us out of our native way of thinking about grammar and transports us into a foreign system of language that is more rigid, systematic, organized, and categorized than most modern languages. For example, if we can never seem to remember the meaning of an adverb, we soon find that Latin adverbs are clearly defined, easy to observe, and can help us to remember how adverbs function in an English sentence. We also find ourselves growing more and more comfortable with terms such as subject, verb, direct object, indirect object, adjective, participle, subjunctive, and relative clause.
Learning Latin teaches us how to identify parts of speech, instructs us to ask the right questions about each word in a given sentence, and aids us in discovering the most accurate translations of Latin sentences. As a result, some individuals may even find themselves more aware of their own writing style and how they speak, eventually making attempts to write and speak with better grammar. Some of my friends and I have often laughed at ourselves as we have become engrossed in discussions or debates about the proper usage of a demonstrative or a participle phrase. Perhaps we are just nerds, or perhaps there is something to this Latin thing and how it helps to transform the way that we think.
Since many modern English words are derived from a Latin word or form, studying Latin can aid in gaining a better understanding of English vocabulary. For example, what if we were unfamiliar with the meaning of the English word, procrastinate? Procrastinate contains two Latin words: pro and cras. These words mean for and tomorrow, respectively. Based upon our own understanding of the basic Latin words contained within it, we now have the tools to break down the meaning of the word. Can you imagine reading Shakespeare with a solid understanding of Latin? It has assisted me in unlocking the mysteries of many words!
Many people mistakenly believe that Latin is a dead language and, therefore, pointless to study. But it is alive and living in many modern languages to this day, including in Italian, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, which are defined as Romance languages because they are offshoots of Latin. And while English is not considered a Romance language, Latin is also alive in our language—not to mention in the global scientific and medical communities. Learning Latin can open the door to a better understanding of other Romance languages. In fact, many students in Germany are still required to study Latin today, which assists in learning Spanish and French.
As a Catholic, Latin has more significance than purely academic development, as it is the official language of the Church. In the fall of 2011, the Catholic Church released a newer, more accurate English translation of the Mass. While there are still debates as to whether this was a good thing, my point simply is that individuals who knew Latin had to work diligently for many years to reevaluate the way the English Mass had been spoken. As a result, knowledge of Latin has given us a more accurate interpretation of the prayers of the Mass.
While Latin can enhance our critical thinking skills, improve our understanding of language, aid us in studying multiple other languages, and is the official language of the Catholic Church, it may be surprising to discover that a college degree in Classical Studies can open the door to an eclectic range of career opportunities. An individual who majors in Classical Studies can begin a career path in many different fields, including law, business and industry, communications, social services, education, the arts, government departments, and medicine. The reasons why these different fields welcome Classical Studies majors vary. But the one thing common to all is the strong analytical and critical thinking skills developed by such a degree.
In many ways, Latin is underestimated. Although the language may be dead according to modern standards, it is alive within the Catholic Church and modern Romance languages. The ancient language provides us with the ability to think in an organized, categorical fashion, while honing our analytical skills. We develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of English grammar, vocabulary, and writing, which in turn assists us in how we communicate and write. Latin also provides us with the tools necessary to go back to original historical sources, in order to understand the speech and behavior of a particular time. The world of Latin is vast. I like to think of it as an extremely powerful key, because it literally unlocks the door to the past. Without Latin, we would not have an understanding of the basis for Western Civilization or Christianity—and we would not have access to countless works that would be otherwise meaningless to the modern world.
This article originally appeared in the book Why Should I Learn This.
About the Author
Emily Henry grew up in a small town in Michigan, where she and her two younger brothers were homeschooled. After graduating with a diploma from the Noah Webster Academy for homeschoolers, she attended Ave Maria College until the closure of its Michigan campus in the spring of 2006. From there, she transferred to Hillsdale College and completed her BA in Classical Studies and English. Currently, Emily enjoys life in North Carolina as a newlywed, blogger, and an online teacher for Homeschool Connections, where she offers a wide variety of online Latin courses that can be taken as live, interactive courses or as recorded, independent-learning courses. In the Fall 2016 semester, Emily will also begin teaching Greek Mythology.