Why Teach (or Learn) Latin?

laOur neighbors are over for Thanksgiving dinner and one of them asks me “so — what do you do for work?” I look up at her, smiling: “I’m a teacher for an online school.” Continuing the small talk, my neighbor asks what I teach. “Latin?!” she questions with a puzzled look, “that’s…so… interesting! Why Latin?”

These are the sorts of conversations that I have at dinner parties, the grocery store, and Bible studies. Yes, Latin is unusual. Yes, Latin is a dead language. Yes, I willingly (and happily!) chose to teach this unusual and dead language to online middle and high school students. So why Latin? Why would I ever want to spend hours upon hours studying the language, let alone teach it? I’m sure many of you have asked yourself the same question — maybe “useless” has even crossed your mind: why would I want to sign up for a class to learn a dead language? I once heard that Latin is not dead, it is immortal. We must not think of Latin as a useless language merely because it’s no longer spoken. Rather, Latin is timeless—everywhere we look, whether it be in government buildings, in a theology book, or in your wallet — Latin is there. 

Latin is the starting point, the foundation, for the Romance languages — English, Spanish, Italian, French. By learning Latin, our English improves — not only in our knowledge of vocabulary, but also in our knowledge of English grammar. Half of the English language comes from Latin words or roots and the best way to learn English grammar, believe it or not, is to study Latin.  Learning other languages comes much more easily because I know the foundational language.

Some of the greatest literature in the world was written originally in Latin: Cicero, Plautus, Ovid, Apuleius, Virgil, and so many more. God has given us history as an example of what to do and often what not to do; we gain much insight into the way God made the world by reading the works of these great men. “True,” you may be thinking, “but why can’t I just read the English translation of these works?” Well, you could and you should. But how much more do we have to gain by reading these authors in the original language? The way things are said in Latin cannot be easily translated into English because we do not have the same sorts of styles that Latin uses — the only way to truly understand a work of literature is by reading it in the original language. We understand so much more than what a translation into English could portray and we gain wisdom from these men whom God placed in history for us to learn from. When we read the Bible in Latin — the Vulgate — we gain so much more wisdom and insight from the text. With Latin, we have fresh eyes and see things we’ve never seen before.

Dorothy Sayers — brilliant author of The Lost Tools of Learning — wrote, “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 fifty percent.” Dorothy says this powerful statement for two reasons: First, Latin is the language of Western Civilization and is the glue that holds all of the other subjects together — science, theology, math, history, literature, philosophy, logic, and law all find their roots in the Latin language. But more than that, Latin makes our brains work in ways that no other subject can. When we learn math, we use the analytical and logical part of our brains. When we learn literature, we learn insight and perception. In history class, we learn judgment and wisdom. When we learn Latin, however, we learn all of these qualities combined — Latin is logical and ordered, but it also causes the student to use insight, patience, attention to detail, and wisdom. Not only do we read Latin, but we also write it and speak it and hear it. By learning Latin this way, our whole brains work and we process the language as a language rather than simply words on a paper. When we learn Latin, we are preparing our entire brains to learn any other subject with much greater ease.

These reasons are all well and good. But why did I fall in love with Latin? Why do I want to spend my days teaching it to middle and high schoolers? When I first heard my teacher read a Psalm out loud in Latin, I fell in love with the language. I loved the way it sounded and I desired to learn the ins and outs of this language so that I could read the Psalms one day as well. I loved that I had the opportunity to speak, read, and write in the same language as Caesar, Jerome, and Augustine. I loved that I could find new layers of meaning by reading the Bible in a language other than my mother tongue. I loved that I when I took change out of my pocket, I knew what was engraved on those coins. I loved that I was completely captivated by the most magical Fairy Tale of all time — Cupid and Psyche — written in Latin by Apuleius. I loved that when I took the ACT and SAT in high school, I was able to answer the English section with ease because I recognized the root words that came from Latin. I loved that I was that much farther along in my other classes because I knew the common denominator. But most importantly, I spend my days studying and teaching Latin to middle and high schoolers because I want to share this love and this gift that God has given me. I want my students to see the glory of God and to learn about who He is in all things — yes, even in declensions and subjunctives and conjugations.

Lauren Abens graduated Cum Laude from New Saint Andrews College and teaches Latin I and Latin II for Logos Online School. She hails from Minnesota and enjoys floral design, hockey, waterskiing, and carrots.

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