The Value of Latin in Schools

A Case for Cases: The Value of Latin in Classical Christian Schools

by MaryLou Dovan

Why Latin?

Classical Christian educators are frequently asked the question: Why Latin?  The importance of bilingualism is at an all time high.  Shouldn’t we focus on Spanish or Chinese rather than dedicate time to studying a dead language?  

Language is Important

The first step to answering this question is to acknowledge the validity of learning any language at all.  To begin broadly, language is the currency of human experience.  It transforms individual thought into a common idea, providing us with belonging and shared meaning rather than isolation.  A language that is diverse in its vocabulary and complex in its ideas accomplishes at least two important things.  

Language Reflects the Values of a Culture

First, it reflects the values of a culture.  For example, in her essay “Imagination and Community”, writer and professor Marilynne Robinson notes that English has a great number of words to describe the behavior of light.  She mentions glisten, glow, glare, shimmer, shine, and sparkle among others.  English speakers haven’t collected these words because they are useful, but because of a value placed on the “aesthetic attention” of “pleasing distinctions”.

Language Reflects our Civilized Humanity

Secondly, because it is the external expression of our ability to reason and empathize, language reassures us of our humanity.  Ancients used the term “barbarian” (coming from the verb “to babble”) for outsiders with unfamiliar language, perceiving them as uncultured.  To use indistinct sounds would be to lower ourselves to the realm of the beasts, but to share language is to create belonging and develop our reasoning.

If our first language can accomplish this much, learning a second multiplies these benefits.  Speaking another language expands our sense of humanity, causing us to revel in the possibilities of unexplored perspectives.  We find that our individual experience, which then became communal through language, is actually global.  

The words we use to fit our thoughts only describe one surface of a multi-sided die.  When we enter a new culture, the sounds of the words or their shapes on our mouths conjure different images in our minds, and the ideas behind the translations may be wholly separate.  

Consider Chocolat

Consider the American idea of chocolate.  Name brands, plastic wrappers, abundance, and sweetness all come to mind.  The French word, chocolat, (like most French words to American ears) connotes luxury, something to be savored, made by an artisan rather than a factory.  

Those who speak the West African dialect of French in Ivory Coast, Africa have yet another view of chocolate.  They think of the cacao plant, long hours in the sun, and little reward, having never tasted the final product.  The word may translate back and forth on Google Translate or in a pocket dictionary, but our associations are distinct.  

We ought to wonder at these distinctions.  If this much perspective exists among a few languages on one small thing like chocolate, what do all languages have to say on the great mysteries of life like beauty, love, or the supernatural?  

Enrich Your World

Language, regardless of its geographical location or survival on a timeline, will enrich our understanding of the world, for these many perspectives do not oppose each other, but they complement one another, showing the world to be more multifaceted than we had imagined.  We cannot reduce a second language to another feather in our cap, an extension of our resume, or mere code for English; it is a gateway into another world where we lay aside our presuppositions to understand others on their own terms.  

We could apply these arguments to the study of modern languages, but as we consider our own foreign language experience in high school, how worthwhile was it, really?  Were we diligent to continue our study, or did we abandon it with our memories of the periodic table and the quadratic formula? At the time, it just seemed like a requirement to graduate high school, and we couldn’t see its value in the marketplace.  

For the majority of us (actually, about 99%*), our study of foreign language is more a vague memory than a well-maintained skill.  This is because the best modern language learning takes place by immersing ourselves in culture.  (No, not an immersion classroom.  A single teacher can immerse fifteen students as effectively as a glass of water can immerse a car).  Ancient languages, on the other hand, can only be learned in the classroom, and we ought to use the language classroom accordingly.

Is Latin Useful?

Latin Teaches Our Language

If the previous points are true, then learning Latin creates a pathway to seeing the world with Roman eyes.  Why would we want to do this?  One reason is that learning an ancient language is, for now, our most efficient means of time travel.  

It allows us direct contact with great minds like Virgil, Cicero, and Augustine without a mediator.  Here lie the foundations of Western civilization; let us access them in their fullness rather than accepting insufficient summaries and translations.  Because Latin instruction was central in the education of many English voices we esteem, familiarity with Latin also cultivates deeper understanding and greater appreciation in reading Milton, singing hymns, or studying our nation’s founding fathers (all of which, by the way, are typical expectations of a student enrolled in a classical Christian school).  Furthermore, the prevalence of Latin in its conversational era intersected with great strides in science, literature, theology, and philosophy.  

In this sense, Latin is the language of much of our cultural heritage and the foundation of the knowledge we enjoy today.  

Latin Teaches Beyond the Moment

But third graders won’t be reading The Aeneid or City of God, so how do we justify teaching Latin to young children?  While learning the fundamentals of Latin will eventually allow a child some access to these works with continued practice (C.S. Lewis was reading Latin classics by age 13), the beginning years have an immediate purpose of their own.  

If we argue against Latin because it is conversationally extinct, we ought to reject the multiplication tables, the Psalms, and the dates of history on the same grounds.  In fact, websites that mock learning without direct parallels in the “real world” are becoming increasingly popular.  One widely shared image reads, “I’m glad I learned about parallelograms instead of taxes in school.  It’s really come in handy in this parallelogram season”.  Dismissing Latin for its impracticality stems from the same attitude.  

What every parent should know is that classical Christian education is not a utilitarian one.  We teach parallelograms in order to teach spatial reasoning, to sharpen logic, and to train the affections to delight in creation’s design; parallelograms are not an end in themselves.  Likewise, Latin connects students to realities greater than themselves: the advanced in their study of Latin texts and the young in their study of Latin grammar.

Latin Nurtures Better Language Learning

As young children encounter the structure of Latin, they are also learning the system of English grammar for the first time.  Synchronizing the instruction of introductory Latin with the foundations of English grammar reinforces understanding in both.  A matrix for understanding other subjects, the study of grammar is a key that unlocks doors of expression and wisdom.  

Dorothy Sayers’ apology for Latin in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” depends almost entirely on this argument.  She writes, “the inflected languages interpret the uninflected, whereas the uninflected are of little use in interpreting the inflected.  I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar.”  

Inflected languages like Latin do not depend on the order of words as uninflected languages like English do.  Instead, every word communicates its purpose in a sentence with a unique ending.  In this way, Latin offers a concrete approach to grammar and communication whereas the rules of English are more abstract.  Even if students do not retain their memories of the endings of various declensions, cases, and tenses in Latin, learning its specificity will affect a student’s approach to all other learning.   

Latin also complements English grammar because of its regularity.  For the most part, it follows a predictable set of rules, attuning students to nuance.  Unless we first establish a sense of normalcy, we cannot recognize exceptions.  In a postmodern culture that rejects standards and forms, Latin grammar teaches students that strict order creates complexity, beauty, and meaning; accuracy is not arbitrary.  

Latin Nurtures Sharp Communicators

Furthermore, the variety of cases and their power to communicate sharpens clarity of expression.  As complexity of thought increases, students influenced by Latin will be able to articulate their ideas.  When a student who has studied Latin uses the word “with”, for example, he may pause to specify his meaning — do I mean “alongside” or “by means of”?  Or, in a phrase like, “to the store”, English might refer to a destination (I’m going to the store), or it might imply an indirect object (I donated these items to the store”).  

Such distinctions are inherent in Latin but require precise wording in English.  A student of Latin will perceive the difference and manipulate his use of English to be as clear as possible.  As students grasp the effects of syntax and spelling, they become articulate speakers, clear writers, and careful readers of English.  Such clarity results because the highly regular rules of Latin grammar provide a means for interpreting experience.  Just as calculations in math class lead to objective answers of intangible concepts, the rules of language allow us to pull a concrete string of words out of a cloud of experience.  In this way, Latin appeals to the students who enjoy problem-solving as well as to those who are enchanted by language’s power of expression.

Latin Nurtures Strong Vocabulary

Latin also reinforces skills in English and other modern languages because it is the source of much of our vocabulary.  

Most parents (parens), even those asking, “Why Latin?” will assent (assentio) to this idea (idea).  After all, they want the benefit (beneficium) of good SAT scores.  Although recognizing (cognosco) Latin roots builds an impressive vocabulary (vocabularium), it also gives students a sense (sensus) of heritage (heres).  Many of our words are not really ours at all; they are recycled ideas that have survived (super, vivo) throughout generations (generatio) in Western civilization (civilis).  And so the roots that comprise a large (largus) percentage (per centum) of our words are not merely letters (littera), but vessels of human (humanus) history (historia).  The use of Latin in our modern (modo) languages (lingua) reminds students that words do not merely exist; everything has an origin (origo).  Speaking a language is an opportunity to participate (participo) in history and interact (inter) with the events, people, and ideas of the past.  Such a broad perspective (perspectus) humbles (humilis) the student, and thereby prepares (praeparo) him to receive his education (educatio) with more eagerness.  

We do not study Latin to claim a high score as our prize.  It is a means to receiving a far richer inheritance.  

Latin Nurtures Humility

Finally, Latin humbles students both in its simplicity and vastness.  Learning Latin as an adult forces one to be like a child, relearning the first principle of language.  At the same time, learning Latin as a child delays pride in one’s ability to reason or intuit as he faces the expanse of the unknown; the most difficult works in Latin still lie ahead of him.  

With requirements to memorize vocabulary, categorize endings, reason in translation, read ancient texts, and compose original sentences, the study of Latin touches on many modes of thought, and rarely does an individual excel in them all.  

The convergence of varied learning teaches a student to recognize his weaknesses and make adjustments in his other areas of study.  Students then learn to admit these areas of weakness, practicing patience and deferring to others.  The Latin class, then, is a place to grow character and practice virtue.

When we enroll children in a Latin class, we empower them with both heritage and expression.  In the novel Cloud Atlas which spans four centuries, author David Mitchell illustrates the evolution of language.  As he narrates the future, the vocabulary of English is quite shallow, echoing the abbreviations we use in our present-day dependence on keyboards.  

He makes a strong point: whatever language survives into the future will be a remnant of what we protect today.  Will we settle for slang words, lyrics of popular music, and hashtags, or will we delight in the storehouse of literature, philosophy, and history that has its foundation in Latin?   Latin has been a dead language for more than a thousand years, but only in the last century have we begun to doubt its relevance and remove it from the classroom.  Postmodernity trades heritage for newness, and powerful expression for images and impressions.  Are we teaching our children to merely fulfill requirements (perhaps like we did in our own foreign language study) without being changed by the material?

If students are driven by utility and performance alone, they may graduate  “Summa Cum Laude”, but sadly they will not know what these words mean.  

Mary Lou Dovan, 9th/10th Grade Spanish Instructor, Bradford Academy.  When not teaching high school Spanish, Mary Lou enjoys studying Classical Christian education at New Saint Andrews College

Students Learn Latin

*This article from The Atlantic cites a study that says only 1% of American adults are fluent in a language they studied in high school.