Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why Study Latin?

Why Study Latin*

Parents often ask me why their children are studying Latin in this day and age.  It's a good question.

Latin is a dead language.  That means no one speaks it any more. So why on earth is it still taught?
Just because of a huge weight of tradition?  Because Daddy and Grandaddy both learned Latin? Because of its intellectual prestige? Because once it was the lingua franca of educated Europeans? 

These reasons aren't relevant anymore, but there are some real benefits to be had from learning Latin, for adults and children alike.

At the beginning of term I usually give the parents of my Latin pupils a piece of paper listing some of the reasons for learning this 'dead language':

1.  Learning Latin increases mental ability. In a recent study in America, children at a primary school were divided into two random groups. One group did a small amount of Latin per week, the other didn't. At the end of a term, the children who did Latin were doing consistently better at ALL subjects than the children who didn't do Latin. It has long been maintained that Latin helps develop logic and language skills. In fact, every few years a flurry of articles are published stating that a new study has shown the benefits of learning Latin. 

2.  Learning Latin teaches grammar and syntax. When I was at the University of London studying German with other post-graduates, it soon became evident that about half the class had no idea what grammatical terms like definite article, case and conjunction meant.  The teacher had to stop and ask how many of us wanted to review these basic grammatical terms before we started the course properly.  These were all adults with at least one University degree behind them, going on for an MA or  MSc, yet several of them raised their hands.  What did those particular students have in common?  They HADN'T studied Latin.  Those of us who had studied Latin didn't need to review grammatical terms.  

3.  Learning Latin helps us learn English itself.  One of my ten-year-old pupils, Ian, was in the hospital with an eye problem.  He noticed the word lachrymal on one of his forms.
'Does that have anything to do with tears?' he asked the staff nurse.
'Why, yes, it's the department that deals with tear duct problems. How did you know that?' she asked.
'I study Latin,' he replied.
Ian and three eleven-year-olds helped me make a diagram of the cases. (right)

Over 60% of all English words are derived from Latin (or Greek).  

4.  Learning Latin helps us learn the so called Romance Languages. A Romance language isn't one you speak with a guitar in your hand and a rose between your teeth; it's a language which developed from the language spread by Roman soldiers and colonists: Latin! Romance languages include Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. Compare the Romance words for 'friend':

Latin: amicus
Italian: amico
Spanish: amigo
French: ami

and some non-Romance words for 'friend':

Hebrew: haver
Russian: dryg
Japanese: tomodachi
Swedish: vaen

It is particularly relevant, now that the UK is part of Europe, to familiarise ourselves with the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Roman colonists. :-( 

5.  Learning Latin helps you learn other 'dead languages'.  What are some other dead languages? Biblical Hebrew and Greek, if you want to be a Bible scholar. Ugaritic, Akkadian or Egyptian Hieroglyphics, if you want to become an archaeologist like Indiana Jones.  

6.  In fact, learning Latin helps you learn almost any other language, because to learn Latin you must learn HOW to learn a language.  You learn to analyse words and sentences; you learn how to memorise vocabulary; you learn to put aside preconceived ideas (based on English) of how a language should work.  

7.  For this reason, anyone who wants to be a novelist, travel writer, pilot, journalist, diplomat, missionary or international business person – in other words, someone who will need to learn other languages – would benefit from learning Latin.  

8.  Anyone who wants to become a doctor, nurse, physiotherapist or vet would benefit from knowing Latin because the parts of the body are still referred to by their Latin terms.  The word valve means 'a folding door' in Latin, the atrium in the heart is a 'hall' or 'chamber', and it's easy to picture the structure of certain bone cells when you know the word trabeculae means lattice-work.   

9.  Anyone who wants to become a gardener, botanist or zoologist would benefit from Latin.  Most flora and fauna are known by their Latin names.  In fact the words 'flora' and 'fauna' are both Latin.

10.  Finally, Latin is fun.  Learning the language is like solving a giant puzzle.  Anyone who likes crosswords, codes or cryptograms will derive great pleasure from making sense of it.  Latin literature tells of myths and battles, love stories and philosophies, comedies and tragedies, poetry and prose. Latin history is full of fascinating men and women: Caesar, Cleopatra, Hannibal, Cicero, Nero, Hadrian, Spartacus, Marcus Aurelius, St Augustine, St Jerome and many more.  

I think this last reason is the most important for the children, and just to make sure they are convinced of this point, I start off each new school year with a Latin banquet.  We spend one or two lessons discussing what food the ancient Romans or Pompeiians would have eaten. Once we have eliminated chocolate, bananas, potatoes and tomatoes, I get each student to volunteer to bring a 'Roman' food. 

On the day, we spread out a large sheet or rug to catch all the crumbs and spread cushions to recline on. We put our food on plates in the middle. For greater authenticity you could wear tunics and garlands, and have a couple of children volunteer to be slaves. We serve well-watered red and white 'wine' - grape juice in jugs - as our beverage. Then we all recline on our left side, leaving the right hand free. No forks are allowed; they were unknown in Roman times. So we eat with spoons and our fingers.  

Our Roman Banquet menu could look like this: 

Gustatio (Starters)
hard boiled eggs with salt
black olives
almonds or pistachio nuts

Mensa Prima (Main Course)
smoked fish
cold roast chicken
warm pitta bread and hummus

Mensa Secunda (Dessert)
pistachio halva

During the banquet we each take turns reciting a poem or telling a story. Play some of Synaulia's ancient Roman music to help set the mood.
For end-of-term parties, I screen a Roman movie. My personal all-time favourite and the film I believe most accurately portrays ancient Rome is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

'Oh, Mother,' grumbled my teenage son the other day, 'You really shouldn't throw Latin banquets and show films; you'll give those poor kids the idea that Latin is fun.'

*This is a slightly updated version of an article I wrote way back in 1997, in the pre Minimus days when I was teaching my own ad hoc Latin course to primary school aged kids in London. Feel free to use it; I only ask that you give me credit. 1997 © Caroline Lawrence

[Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9 - 90. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]


  1. I studied Latin in high school because I planned to pursue veterinary medicine. I became a writer, instead. But, I enjoyed my Latin classes. We studied how Latin influenced English, and we spent a lot of time learning about Roman life and history. I was fascinated with The Last Days of Pompeii and Masada. And I had a wonderful teacher. I'm still interested in Christian history and have considered studying Latin again.

  2. Good luck with your writing, Debbie! I wrote this before I became a published author but Latin obviously helped me hugely in that. :-)

  3. We could also say the same of Greek language.http://greece.greekreporter.com/2013/03/14/you-speak-greek-you-just-dont-know-it/

  4. Salvete omnes amici lectores benevoli !!! Quamvisi potius latine quam latine scriptum libenter legerem, tamen bene rationes dicendi linguae latinae accepi.
    scriptori assentior. !!! recte scripsit.

  5. Anonymous9:01 PM

    Great article. You mentioned studies indicating the benefits of reading Latin. Do you know a good way to find some of this research? I'm in the early stages of attempting to start a charter school based on a classical model of education which will teach Latin as a core course.

  6. Most of the examples I give are experiential or anecdotal. The "recent study in American" was from a newspaper article but with no attribution. I'm sure you can find statistics if you have a look! Failing that, quotes from professionals are always good.