Why Learn Latin?

Dorothy Sayers said it best:

“I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent.” — From the National Review.

Quick pragmatic fact: Latin maximizes SAT Scores! This really sells Latin programs! Through Latin, test takers can guess at the meanings of new words because they already know the roots and prefixes. But it’s not just enhanced vocabulary. Math scores also increase.

  1. Latin builds English vocabulary like no other language–not even Anglo-Saxon. More than half of all English words derive from Latin (and another large chunk from Greek), and what’s more, these are the $10 words. As a result, students of Latin routinely outperform students of all other foreign languages on the SATs.
  2. Latin prepares students for the study of modern foreign languages. The Romance languages derive 90% or more of their vocabulary from Latin, and students of inflected languages like Russian or German will benefit from the training Latin provides.
  3. Latin teaches grammar far more effectively than any English curriculum. This claim astounds and confounds many home-schoolers, but you need only look at the masters of English style from the Renaissance onward and ask what they all had in common. The answer: They did not study English, a subject not even available in their grammar schools, but Latin. Lots and lots and lots of Latin. The same was true of their counterparts in other countries. Think about it this way: You can teach English grammar, and your child knows English grammar. Or you can teach Latin, and your child knows Latin…and gets English grammar as a bonus.
  4. Latin trains students in valuable habits of mind: memory, order, attention to detail. As one example in Climbing Parnassus shows, it takes no less than fourteen separate steps to translate a short Latin sentence–to say nothing of Virgil.
  5. Latin translation provides admirable training in English composition. In addition to mastering the grammatical exigencies of the language, students of Latin must learn to choose words with care. They are encouraged to understand and imitate the beautifully balanced sentences of stylists like Cicero. They learn to appreciate the brevity of the Latin maxim and proverb. Again, some of the English language’s greatest writers cut their teeth on Latin composition exercises, not English.
  6. Latin study increases our knowledge of the past and of our own history. It is quite impossible to study Latin without delving into classical history. What is a “gladiator”? (If you know the meaning of the common second-declension noun gladius, you’ll have an important clue.) Who is Caesar? What is an aqueduct and why were they built? What’s more, this history is our history, the history of the West. We cannot understand the roots of our own government, legal system, or religious traditions without reference to Rome.
  7. Latin study increases cultural literacy. European vernacular literature, art, and music take for granted a knowledge of classical languages and history. Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Keats, and the rest –there is no understanding them without a thorough grounding in Greco-Roman mythology, literature, and history. And that is to say nothing of the rich traditions of Christian Latin: theology, religious poetry, liturgy, and the musical delights of Gregorian chant, Mozart’s “Requiem,” and the countless Masses and Oratorios that crowd our classical music playlists.
  8. Latin literature and history offer outstanding models of moral insight and virtue–and their opposites. The classical world first codified the great virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. Keeping before the student the “habitual vision of greatness” inspires and uplifts the mind and spirit toward the Good, while examples of perfidy and cruelty stir up our sense of justice and the desire to defend the innocent.
  9. Latin provides us with a lifetime’s worth of reading. A person who has sojourned with the ancients as a child may well find himself returning to them again and again throughout life, for their wisdom is undimmed by age–theirs, or ours.
  10. Latin is, quite simply, beautiful. At its best, Latin is a model of ordered, polished, and balanced language. It is a pleasure to read, to write, to sing, and even to speak. – From Latin Centered