Friday, June 3, 2011

Why Teach Latin

On the Rational Parenting List, we're discussing the question of why anyone would teach or learn Latin, a dead language. Here is my contribution:

I took a course at a homeschooling conference that addressed this question - why teach Latin? The answers they gave, as I recall, were:

  1. To improve English vocabulary and understanding (Latin roots)

  2. To open up new ways of studying history (reading original Latin texts, I suppose)

  3. To expose the mind to the structure of Latin, which is logical and almost mathematical, especially as opposed to English

  4. To gain the benefits of being bilingual, regardless of the language (not the practicality of the language, but the opening of the mind to the idea that concepts can be represented by more than one concrete)

  5. To make it easier to learn other Latin-based languages.

  6. There is also Biblical Latin (I forget what you call it), which was another reason for those so inclined.

Actually, I'm not sure they included #4 or if that comes from me. I intend to teach my children Latin (but beginning in 4th grade, not Kindergarten! [as someone had discussed]), and my reasons are primarily #1, 3, and 4, especially #1. I do not intend to teach them to speak, but only to read and write Latin, and if they are very resistant, I wouldn't push it too hard as a subject. But the final reason I want to teach it is because I want to learn it for those same reasons, and so does Adam. We plan to learn it as a family.


  1. I think the term you want for "Biblical" is "Ecclesiastical."

    I tried teaching myself Latin about ten years ago, and didn't have much success. Largely a failure of self-discipline, I believe. Doing it as a family sounds inspired. But surely Adam already had to pick up a fair amount in law school?

  2. I took a Latin course in my first year of University and I've found it hugely valuable, especially for your points 1, 3, and 5. I still have my textbooks from then, which I review once in a while, and I think it's a great idea to have kids learn at least some Latin as part of their grammar work. If you don't have a bilingual household, Latin is a perfect introduction to different language structures since you don't have to worry about pronunciation or conversational skills and the grammar is very straightforward.

    There are also a few homeschool programs for teaching Latin that appear to be good. Here is one if you're interested (I haven't looked closely at this, it was mentioned by a homeschool parent as a good supplement to their grammar program):

  3. I used to keep tropical fish; almost as fun as my aquatic pets was learning their scientific names and the Latin words that contributed to their meaning. The tropical fish book helpfully provided a definition of each scientific name and the Latin words that underpinned it; maculatus, spotted; striatus, striped, etc. Medicine is another field where Latin is the lingua franca. Knowing a little Latin can really be helpful.

    I also took Classical Greek in high school. It was a "free school" back in the freewheelin' 70's. Our French teacher also knew Greek. When we found that out, a bunch of us kids pestered the school for a Greek class, and we got our wish. I think it helped the school earn some cred. By showing that they were serious about academics. I enjoyed learning the classics like Plato in the original language. We also studied the New Testament Koinae Greek. So teach them Greek while you are at it!

  4. One more reason: many of the world's greatest works of classical music are performed in Latin.

  5. Kathy, yes, both Adam and I know the occasional Latin word, but not much more.

    Heather, yes, that is one of the programs that I have on my list to investigate when the time comes.

  6. After years of pining for a classical education in an ordinary public school, I took Latin from my first day in college until I'd exhausted all the Latin courses on offer three years later. My reason was really simple: I loved ancient Rome, and I wanted to know everything I could about it. I still do.

    That said, I wouldn't teach Latin to any but the most eager student. The similarity of Latin to modern Romance languages (e.g., French) is roughly equal to the similarity of any those modern Romance languages to another one (e.g., French to Italian). So, why not learn French instead -- and open up a world of history and literature that is still alive? In fact, most of the Latin words that survive in English do so thanks to the Normans, not the Romans.

    As for the systematicity of Latin, that is almost entirely an academic invention. Latin isn't any more systematic than, say, Spanish. What is nice about Latin, though, is no one really cares about your lousy accent and mispronunciations -- so you can focus on grammar from Day One. But if it's grammar you want, maybe it would be better to learn Python?

    So if you want 5 reasons to learn Latin, here they are: 1. Catullus, 2. Ovid, 3. Virgil, 4. Cicero, and 5. Lucretius. For anything else, you might as well learn French.

  7. My girls took both Latin and French in high school.

    I think that familiarity with Latin is useful for confidence if the kids pursue career studies (for example: law) that still use latin terms and phrases in their jargon.

  8. "1. To improve English vocabulary and understanding (Latin roots)"

    The English words that are latin derivatives come from French. You may as well learn French in this instance, since it is actually spoken by people and has a lot of interesting media available.

    "2. To open up new ways of studying history (reading original Latin texts, I suppose)"

    This depends on what history you want to emphasize and whether primary source untranslated books are important to you or your children. If your children are young, they will probably derive a superior knowledge of history by reading English translations.

    As far as literature goes, I'd like to suggest French again.

    "3.To expose the mind to the structure of Latin, which is logical and almost mathematical, especially as opposed to English"

    No natural language is "logical and almost mathematical" compared to Esperanto. And all latin derived languages follow a similar grammatical pattern including French (once again).

    "To gain the benefits of being bilingual, regardless of the language (not the practicality of the language, but the opening of the mind to the idea that concepts can be represented by more than one concrete)"

    But all languages provide this, and most of them have greater utility than latin. They can be used in speech and conversation, seen in movies and heard on the radio, etc.

    "To make it easier to learn other Latin-based languages."

    French has more of a cross-over effect on Spanish or Portuguese. Modern French is even more similar to Italian than Latin. The closest of the "alive" latin languages to Latin is Romanian.

    If you want to learn a language for its propadeutic value, then learn Esperanto first. Search the propadeutic value of Esperanto. Students in one group were taught Esperanto for 1 year and then French for 3. The second group learned French for 4 years. The first group was better at French than the first (and obviously better at Esperanto). They became better at the target language plus they learned an additional language.

  9. I'd have to disagree with the commenters who think French is a better choice than Latin. I took French (and Spanish) in high school, and even participated in a short exchange program in France. I was a voracious reader all throughout my childhood, and I excelled in English (Honors English in high school).

    However, I did not truly grasp the parts of speech down to the marrow until I took Latin in college. Yes, I'd diagrammed sentences in English, and of course I'd understood verb tenses -- I was able to memorize their equivalents in French and Spanish. Yet having to deconstruct Latin sentences (written by some of the best thinkers of that age) was invaluable. Latin often pays no attention to word order, or reverses what we'd consider standard (SVO). When I learned French and Spanish, I found it to be mere word substitution. When I learned Latin, I reformulated my approach to English, which in turn made me a better, more precise writer. I believe Latin is essential in making mediocre writers good writers. If more good writers studied Latin, they'd become phenomenal writers.