Until recently, Latin was a staple of any Western curriculum. From medieval times to America’s founding, no education was considered complete without it. Instruction usually began at a young age; by graduation, students could recite Virgil or Cicero with ease. It was not until the education reforms of the 1960s that it was all but erased from American classrooms, dismissed as irrelevant and elitist. However, in recent decades, there has been a quiet resurgence in classical learning. Recognition for its beauty and usefulness has led to its slow re-introduction into a handful of classrooms. While there is much still to do, organizations (like the Davenant Latin Institute) are breathing new life into these ancient flames.
However, this resurgence is sometimes accompanied with overstatements on the benefits of learning Latin. We can excuse some excitement, but to hear some enthusiasts, one would think the architectural and mathematical aptitude of the ancient Romans could somehow be ingested through learning their language.
That aside, Latin is frequently credited for generic benefits that come with learning any second language. For example, when a study suggests learning Latin promotes logical processing or sequencing skills (which it does), it’s seldom shown why this wouldn’t also be the case with, say, Mandarin or German (which it is). Similarly, I have listened to many classicists sell what they offer on the grounds that “Latin is beautiful, and therefore ought to be pursued.” Again, there are many beautiful languages; this observance alone, while true, does not answer why anyone should take Latin rather than some other stimulating or beautiful language.
My mission here is to identify what is unique about Latin. And while my policy on languages is “The more, the merrier,” there are reasons to consider prioritizing learning Latin. I will categorize them under the three lessons I give my students on the first day of class: Latin is a dead language, Latin is a mother language, and Latin is an ecclesiastical language.
Latin Is a Dead Language
Latin is dead, which means no one speaks it as a first language anymore. This is widely considered a disadvantage. However, I consider it the reverse. It means Latin must be taught differently than your average language course.
When this point on Latin is raised pejoratively, I like to ask: “What language did you take in high school or college?”
After stating a living language, I ask, “Could you manage a conversation with someone in this language, either at the time you were enrolled or right now?” The response is seldom in the affirmative.
The supposed superiority of learning a living language is that it will actually be used. However, few students pursue their studies further after meeting their academic language requirements. Moreover, despite conversational proficiency being the ideal, very few students actually achieve it. That is a good deal of learning that is almost guaranteed to be useless.
Only a dead language can benefit a student whether or not they achieve conversational proficiency. Since Latin is dead, most curricula you come across do not preoccupy themselves with playing out social exchanges. There’s a joke that while other languages teach students how to say: “Hello. How are you? My name is Joe. What time is it?” Latin students learn to say: “When the lady entered on the field of battle, she found all the relics of a bloody fight: the little valley was covered with slain men and horses and broken armor, besides many wounded who were now too weak to save themselves.”
Jokes aside, the central point holds true: While a living language would ideally prepare students for a future conversation (which may or may not occur), Latin operates by a different standard of success that rewards students even if they don’t pursue Latin studies any further. Unless fluency is your objective, you will derive greater benefits through two years of Latin than two years of any other language. That conversational proficiency dictates our model of language education is evident in the fact that no one sees any point in a single semester of French to Spanish. However, a single semester of Latin has immediate rewards—although the rewards certainly multiply immensely as one goes further.
Instead of instructing language merely as a vehicle to convey meaning or intent, Latin compels students to dive deeper into the architecture of language itself. For my third-grade students, Latin gives English a transparent quality. Their grasp moves a step above literacy; they see beneath the surface at how words, phrases, and sentences are built and link together. Beforehand, words had an abstract character comparable to mathematical symbols, but now they have anatomy. This, furthermore, delivers a mastery beyond the means of a class in English grammar. (It is a mastery distinct from the purely grammatical. In fact, I once taught grammar alongside Latin. When we got to the lesson on prepositions, one student noted that preposition is two words, not one. A superb dissection! Grammar could not have taught him this.)
Naturally, this alternative standard of success is the model for any dead language, not only Latin—conversational proficiency is not the goal for a class in Koine Greek, either. However, the advantages of Latin are especially pertinent to native English speakers, which leads into my second point…
Latin Is a Mother Language
Latin is a mother language because millions of people today speak her offspring. Latin beget the Romantic (i.e., “Roman”) languages: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, etc. English is like a step-child, claiming her Latin heritage through French. However, the resemblance is striking: roughly 40 percent of the English vocabulary is comprised of Latin-based words. This percentage increases the more syllables you add. The structural similarities are also considerable.
Some courses will set aside a single class period to instruct second-year Latin students on how to read Spanish. With the right instruction, it takes only about an hour. Italian takes about two. Though I’ve suggested the benefits of Latin for students who have no interest in pursuing language studies, it offers much for those who do. With a solid background in Latin, another half-dozen languages can be mastered in under a year (with proper tutoring).
However, it remains the case that, for native English speakers, a single semester—even a single lesson—carries immediate benefits. This is most obviously demonstrated in the systematic way that Latin builds a student’s vocabulary. Latin students consistently outperform their peers in language and vocabulary sections on standardized tests. It’s reached the point that admissions officers will favor students who have taken Latin. Subsequently, much of the resurgence in classical education is taking place in low-income and minority neighborhoods in order to boost SAT scores and give students a better chance of getting accepted into university.
“Latin is a dead language,” a fellow tutor told me, “in the eyes of a dead mind.” Aside from its genetic presence in English, Latin also enjoys more explicit usage in the modern world. Science and medical terminologies are the most obvious, but Latin sayings and terms have embedded themselves in our everyday vernacular as well. When we tell the time, we indicate morning or evening with a.m. or p.m.—short-form for ante meridiem (i.e., “before midday”) and post meridiem (i.e., “after midday”), respectively. Other sayings abound: non sequitur (i.e., “it does not follow”), antebellum (i.e., “before the war”), semper fidelis (i.e., “always faithful”), ad nauseum (i.e., “to the point of nausea”), i.e. (id est, “that is”), etc. (i.e., “and so on”). Despite being declared dead, Latin continues to be spoken.
Put another way, scilicet latine loquor nonne faciunt omnes.*
Latin Is an Ecclesiastical Language
Here at last we arrive at the most distinctive, and for Christians the most important, benefit of learning Latin. I mean plainly that Latin is an ecclesiastical language because the Church is the one who speaks it. That is to say, it originally belonged to the Romans, but in their absence it was picked up like a discarded coat and put to good use. But it remains dead, so we speak it on loan, as it were. Latin is no longer developing or adding words to its vocabulary. It is static and out of time. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “A language must die to be immortal.”
What this means is the study of Latin to be intelligible must bring with it the context in which it lived. With conversational proficiency dethroned as the primary objective of a language course, Latin tends to measure the progress of its students on masterful translation of and engagement with original literature. Learning Latin is above all a matter of reading, and it opens the doors to some of the most important literature you can read. It is not all vocabulary and paradigms. It comes with a colorful cast of heroes, saints, monsters, and ideas.
The first Christian to write in Latin was Tertullian in the second century. For the next millennium and a half, Latin was the universal language of the church and the academy. For several hundred years, church services, homilies, and masses would be spoken in Latin; hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs would be sung in it. Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and others contributed to the arsenal of Latin theological writings. Even Luther, though he famously (and scandalously) wrote in common vernacular, still penned numerous works in Latin.
These giants of church history read their predecessors and wrote the greatest works of theology in Latin. Any modern student of theology who wishes to pursue his studies in-depth needs to gain access to this treasure-trove of Christian wisdom, and until we have an army of translators ready to render it all into contemporary English, that means learning to read Latin (or perhaps even training to become part of such an army of translators!).
I could name other advantages to learning Latin (e.g., casting out demons, summoning a Patronus, etc.), but I will end with an invitation. Whether you’re a seminarian, a student, an independent scholar, a minister, or a high-schooler with an interest in classical or theological studies, custom-designed courses (both in-house and online) are available for anyone at any level at the Davenant Latin Institute (click here to learn more or to enroll). As a Latin tutor, I am pleased that so many are beginning their classical studies at an early age. I envy them. I did not begin mine until my junior year in college, which shows it is never too late.
*Of course I speak Latin. Doesn’t everybody?
Blake Adams is an editor, educator, and aspiring scholar of Early Christian Studies. He has written for Salvo Magazine, World Magazine, Ad Fontes, and the echurch blog. He lives with his wife in Seattle, WA.