By Christopher A. Perrin, MDiv PhD
Publisher, Classical Academic Press
While Latin study has been undergoing a growing renewal in the United States, it is still common to hear parents ask, “Why study Latin?” Naturally, if a family is going to commit a great deal of time and effort to studying a language no one in the family knows, that family wants to know if the study will really be worthwhile. It is a fair question.
There are some common utilitarian answers to the question that, while common, should be noted. These are the practical ways in which Latin study is useful to a student:
1. Latin study increases English vocabulary and, yes, it helps with standardized vocabulary tests such as the SAT (Latin teachers sigh here). Fifty percent of all English vocabulary and over 80 percent of our technical, “professional,” polysyllabic words come from Latin. Look at the “big” words in this article—they almost all come from Latin.
2. Latin study is the preliminary study of the Romance languages (which descended directly from Latin). The grammar and vocabulary of Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Romanian are very similar to Latin. About 90 percent of the vocabulary of these languages comes from Latin. Knowing Latin, I had little trouble reading Italian on a recent trip to Italy, even though I had little direct training in Italian. Learning Latin first can enable a student to become truly multilingual, as it really is advance study in five Romance languages.
3. Latin study prepares students for the major professions, which are steeped in Latin vocabulary. This is because Latin is the “DNA” of the West. Professions such as law, medicine, science, music, art, architecture, philosophy, theology, and ministry all developed in the Latin-speaking West.
4. Latin study gives direct access to great writing. The great literature of the West up to about the year 1800 was written in Latin. If you want to directly access great minds such as Cicero, Virgil, Augustine, Bede, Aquinas, even Newton, you will need to know Latin. This is because, as anyone who knows a language well will tell you, something indeed is “lost in translation.”
5. Latin study improves writing. By learning to see English words with “x-ray” vision (observing how words talk to one another), students acquire an enhanced understanding of how language works (grammar), the various ranges of meaning available, and the various options for arrangement (syntax). Studying Latin as our grandmother tongue helps us know our mother tongue in new and profound ways.
Someday your son or daughter will be standing in front of a door that may be marked “law school,” “medical school,” “job opportunity in Italy,” “art history,” “poetry,” “journalism,” “seminary,” “biological research,” or “education.” If so, Latin will be a silver key that will help open any of these doors and make the passage much easier than it will be for those who do not have the key. And that silver key fits the lock on every one of those doors.
Still there is one other reason for studying Latin—a reason that is not so practical, but is perhaps even more important. The study of Latin cultivates virtue, helping a person to become a better version of himself or herself. Latin study requires attentiveness and focus, as one decodes and solves a puzzle while translating each sentence and paragraph. It forms habits of close reading and careful reasoning from parts to whole and back again. It will also slow down the quickest and brightest of students—gifted students who need to acquire the humility that comes from “meeting their match” as they encounter a level of Latin that will temper their intellect while edifying their souls.
So, yes, Latin will open doors of opportunity for your children—they will possess a silver key. But Latin study can do more than even that: it can cultivate virtue and nourish a soul. And that is silver, indeed—maybe even gold. ♦