Why Teach Latin?


“And then, just as Wilbur was settling down for his morning nap, he heard again the thin voice that had addressed him the night before.
‘Salutations!’ said the voice.
Wilbur jumped to his feet. ‘Salu-what?’ he cried.
‘Salutations!’ repeated the voice.
‘What are they, and where are you?’ screamed Wilbur. ‘Please, please, tell me where you are. And what are salutations?’
‘Salutations are greetings,’ said the voice. ‘When I say 'salutations,' it's just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning.’”

When people hear that I teach Latin, often their response is a variation of one of two statements: “Oh wow! Isn’t that a dead language?” or the equally as surprised, “You must be teaching future doctors and lawyers!” And while I hope I am teaching students who may be very successful--whether as doctors, lawyers, or some other vocation the Lord may lead them to, I teach neither a dead language nor a language purely for the elite.

The quote at the beginning of this piece is from E.B. White’s beloved children’s book, Charlotte’s Web. This book has captured the hearts of many throughout the years since its original 1973 publish date, and is one of my favorite stories even now as an adult. I use this quote to show that Latin is not a “dead” language, but rather a language whose influence can be seen all around us. “Salutations,” the iconic greeting used by the friendly and wise spider, Charlotte, actually comes from the Latin word, “salus” meaning “health, welfare, or greeting.” More specifically, we can see the relationship by looking at the verb form “salutare,” meaning “to greet.” Derivatives of this verb can also be found in the military as one soldier may “salute” a higher ranking officer. A student of Latin may be more inclined to pick up on these links and understand a word’s meaning, even without having seen the word before.

Continuing to use Charlotte’s Web as an example, we first meet Wilbur the pig (one of the story’s main characters) through Fern Arable. Fern is a sweet, tender-hearted young girl who feels for poor Wilbur and saves him from being killed at the beginning of the story because he is the runt of the litter. Fern comes from a family of farmers. At this point, a student of Latin may have already picked up on some of the richness that E. B. White wrote into his novel. Arable, Fern’s last name, comes from the Latin word “arare,” which means “to plow.” We use this word in English to describe a field that is good for growing crops. While not noticing the play-on-words here by White doesn’t inhibit the reader from enjoying the story, understanding the reference can cause the reader to enjoy the story that much more. These details allow us to appreciate the author's work that much more. Already within just one story we see the extra layer of richness to be experienced by those who have invested time and effort into a study of Latin. This richness we invite our students into by teaching them Latin can also be to their benefit as we give them the tools to be successful in understanding the meaning of words. Because a large part of English vocabulary is derived from Latin, when we teach Latin to our students, we give them the ability to understand many more words than we have the ability to teach them. Most students will also encounter vocabulary sections on standardized tests. Several aspects of Latin can help them to break a word down into chunks they can understand, even if this is their first encounter with a new word.

As our students grow older, they will no doubt find that Latin is used beyond classic literature and standardized tests; it will be used in many of their classes. Latin can be found in many subjects, spanning from animal names and classifications in animals sciences, all the way to describing philosophical phenomena. While it is possible to look up the definitions of words used in these arenas, I can say from my own experience that just because it is possible to look up a term, doesn’t mean that one will remember the term’s definition for any length of time past the usage of that information. Just because we can look up the definition of a word, does it then carry that we always should? With the richness of literature in mind, how much better is it to simply know the information after a practice of study than it is to have to continuously look up the same information over and over again, possibly without realizing it? Once our students are no longer “students” in the academic sense, but rather are continuing their life-long journey of learning, they will again find that Latin is all around them. For those students who are in fact lead to be doctors and lawyers, they will find Latin in their vocations. For those students who become professional athletes, or work with food, they will find that Latin is all around them as well (ex. the word “calorie,” is derived from the Latin word “calor,” meaning “heat, fire or passion and zeal”). Beyond any vocational decision, if a former student of Latin should ever stumble upon the workings of C.S. Lewis, he or she will find that Lewis too employs a great deal of Latin!

Apart from the knowledge of the words used in Latin, a student of Latin may also come to a deeper understanding of English grammar. As one studies Latin grammar, there is the opportunity to better understand how we use words in English. Recently my students learned about the simple, progressive, and emphatic present tense forms in English. We were able to discuss these because we were comparing Latin and English. Latin has one way to say these three different things. “Amo” can be translated into English however, simply as “I love,” progressively as “I am loving,” or emphatically as “I do love.” This comparing and contrasting helps to solidify English grammar as well as teach Latin grammar. The more connections between a piece of information to other pieces of information in the brain, the more likely a student is to remember that piece of information. As the Latin student grows older, they will be able to tackle harder pieces of English syntax because they have understood the intricacies of grammar; they understand why a sentence means what it means, because of their study of Latin.

These things are also true when English is not the primary language of the student. For students whose first language is a “Romantic” language or is derived from a Romantic language (ex. French, Spanish, Romanian, Catalan, etc.), studying Latin may be of particular use as well, as these entire languages are more directly derived from Latin, whereas English simply has words--and some grammatical structure--that is derived from Latin. Learning Latin may also be useful to the student interested in learning any foreign language due to the liturgy of learning Latin.

Should a student or parent find that learning language for language’s sake is a bit much (particularly in 4th grade as we teach it at Valley Classical School), let us examine briefly the benefits of a study of Latin for the habits of studying in and of themselves. Similarly to math, Latin trains the brain to think in an ordered fashion. Because Latin itself is very structured, and because the language is no longer being changed due to widespread use, Latin allows the student to develop a very orderly, systematic way of thinking. Students learn that there is an authority higher than themselves; they learn that there is a standard that they must meet. When conjugating, or “unpacking,” a verb in Latin, a student will learn to ask questions like, “Who or what is the verb describing?” (person); “When did this take place?” (tense); “Did the subject perform the action or receive it?” (voice) every time they interact with a verb. This pattern, and other similar patterns learned in Latin help train the student to be precise--they leave little room for error. As a student studies Latin, they memorize and apply; they hear, speak, write, and do. This is how we learn. Some people are more inclined to certain ratios of these things, but they are all necessary for learning. Once students reach 4th grade, they are starting to form their own habits regarding how to study. Why not introduce them to a subject that is going to shape their habits well? The structure of Latin allows the student to explore what learning mode works best for them, while also requiring and training them to interact with the other modes of learning.

Throughout this piece, I have endeavored to explain why Latin is not only worth teaching, but why it is important to teach. We live in a world of many tribes, tongues, and nations. It is important as educators for us to also train our students in the knowledge that there are other experiences in the world--theirs is not the only one, nor is it the ultimate. To close, I would like to submit one final argument in the form of a quote from an educator with a passion for educating students in beauty and truth:

Latin guards against arrogance. The study of the language shows the young child that his world, his language, his vocabulary, and his way of expression are only one way of living and thinking in a big, tumultuous, complicated world. Latin forces the student to look at words and concepts anew:

What did this Latin word really mean?
Is this English word a good translation for it?
Doesn’t the Latin word express something that English has no equivalent word for?
Does this reveal a gap in my thinking?

A foreign language, as Neil Postman writes in The End of Education, ‘provides one with entry into a worldview different from one’s own….If it is important that our young value diversity of point of view, there is no better way to achieve it than to have them learn a foreign language.’”

-Susan Wise Bauer and Jesse Wise, A Well-Trained Mind

Kristina McClung