Why Study Latin?

When you study Latin, and even more so when you teach it, you will at some point be asked why. Why bother? What is the point, some benighted soul will ask you, of learning a language no one speaks? If they really want to vex you, they might even refer to it as a “dead language.”

And although I’d rather not, even I have to admit that it’s a fair question. I’ll also admit that it always baffles me a little. Not because I can’t think of reasons, no! But because I never know which one to pick first. Usually the people who ask this question want to know what practical benefit I find in Latin. And though I certainly do find practical benefits, those are not the reasons I love Latin, and not the reasons I hope you will, either. Nevertheless, I will lay out these reasons here, in order from most boringly practical to most sublime, and let you judge which you find the most compelling.

First, you may have heard that English is based on Latin. This is not entirely true, as English is a Germanic language, whereas Latin spawned the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, inter alia). English, however, was heavily influenced by Latin as well as by these Romance languages, so much so that around half our words have Latin origins, including most of the fanciest ones. This means that the study of Latin not only prepares you well to learn many other languages, but it teaches you a great deal about English, as well. This brings us to our most boringly practical reason to learn Latin: Latin students crush their SATs. This is just a fact.

Second, Latin is an ideal vehicle for the study of language itself. At Augustine Classical Academy, our kids learn English grammar through a wonderful grammar curriculum, and that is fantastic. But our kids already know English, which makes the abstract grammatical structures harder for them to see in English, since they use it so intuitively. Latin, on the other hand, is not just unfamiliar, it is highly inflected. This means that it shows grammatical structure through the endings of words and not through the order of the words, as English does. This forces students to think about grammar in a way that is unfamiliar and unintuitive, which assures that they then grasp it in a secure, high-level way.

Third, Latin is important throughout almost the entire history of Western Civilization. Ever since the Romans took charge of the Mediterranean world from the Greeks, Latin has been the language in which the most important conversations in history took place. More of the theology, philosophy, science, math, history, and literature that we study was written in Latin than in any other language. Anyone who wants a scholarly career in those fields will certainly need a knowledge of Latin.

And this brings me to my fourth, and favorite reason for learning Latin. That is the glory of the language itself, and the literature and culture it opens up to those who know it. From classical love poetry, to the high rhetoric of Cicero; from the sermons of Augustine to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Latin language contains much of the most beautiful and profound reading you will ever have the pleasure of doing.

But the barrier to entry into these texts is high. It takes years of study before the typical student can read Latin fluently enough that it constitutes a pleasure rather than a chore. If you have a child in the trenches of Latin-acquisition, it’s possible they might not always feel the labor is worth it. To encourage them, you might tell them how well Latin will help them perform on their college preparatory tests. You might remind them what an excellent grasp of language and grammar they are obtaining, how well they are training their minds, and how well-placed they will be to learn any other Romance language they might wish to learn in the future. These are all very good, very true things. But what I hope to give them, above all, is the feeling of accomplishment and joy that comes when, after years of hard work, the glories of the Latin language and its literature come alive before them.