Why Learn Latin?


In 1905, when Pius X was pope, more than half of all high-school students in the United States took Latin. The benefits of Latin were assumed by all. Even today the educational advocates for Latin are loud. Among them:


  Bernard Knox: The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics

  E. Christian Kopff: The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition

  Victor Hansen, John Heath & Bruce Thornton: Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Improverished Age

  Tracy Lee Simmons: Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek or Latin

The religious, cultural, and literary benefits of Latin are astounding, far surpassing even algebra:

Even in its practical benefits, although algebra is good, Latin is far better -- both for verbal and even mathematical skills. In the United States, Latin students score 134 points higher (of 800) on the verbal section of the Standard Aptitude Test, used for admission to colleges and universities. But, what is even more interesting, they score 119 points higher on the mathematics section. Latin students far outperformed students of all other languages, including Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, and Russian. What other subject offers the cornucopia of benefits that Latin does:

  1. Latin builds English vocabulary like no other language. Some 85% of English vocabulary is derived directly or indirectly from Latin.
  2. Latin prepares students for the study of modern foreign languages. The Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian) derive 90% or more of their vocabulary from Latin, and students of inflected languages like German or Russian will benefit from the training that Latin provides.
  3. Latin teaches grammar far more effectively than any English curriculum. You need only look at the masters of English style from the Renaissance onward and ask what they all had in common. The answer: They did not study English, a subject not even available in their grammar schools, but Latin. Lots and lots and lots of Latin.
  4. Latin trains students in valuable habits of mind: memory, order, and attention to detail.
  5. Latin translation provides admirable training in English composition. In addition to mastering the grammatical exigencies of the language, students of Latin must learn to choose words with care. They are encouraged to understand and imitate the beautifully balanced sentences of stylists like Cicero. They learn to appreciate the brevity of the Latin maxim and proverb. Again, some of the English language's greatest writers cut their teeth on Latin composition exercises, not English.
  6. Latin study increases our knowledge of the past and of our own history. It is quite impossible to study Latin without delving into Roman history. This history is our history, the history of the West and substantial portions of the East as well. We cannot understand the roots of our own government, legal system, or religious traditions without reference to Rome and its deathless Latin.
  7. Latin study increases cultural literacy. European vernacular literature, art, and music take for granted a knowledge of the Latin language and history. Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Keats, and the rest -- there is no understanding them without a thorough grounding in Latin mythology, literature, and history. And that is to say nothing of the rich traditions of Christian Latin: theology, religious poetry, liturgy, and the musical delights of Gregorian chant, Bach's High Mass, Mozart's Requiem, and the countless Masses and Oratorios that crowd our classical music playlists.
  8. Latin literature and history offer outstanding models of moral insight and virtue -- and their opposites. The Latin student keeps before himself the "habitual vision of greatness," his mind and spirit inspired and uplifted toward the Good, while examples of perfidy and cruelty stir up his sense of justice.
  9. Latin provides us with a lifetime's worth of reading. A person who has sojourned with Latin works as a teenager may well find himself returning to them again and again throughout life, for their wisdom is undimmed by age.
  10. Latin is, quite simply, beautiful. At its best, Latin is a model of ordered, polished, and balanced language. It is a pleasure to read, to write, to sing, to pray -- and, yes, even to speak, as it is in many places yet today.