Why are We Teaching a Dead Language? Latin’s Ability to Transform Students

By Jenni Carey, School of the Ozarks

It happens every year. Some student or parent comes to me, the K-8 Coordinator of our small classical Christian school, with a daunting and urgent concern. Why do we torture our poor students by forcing them to sit through Latin classes? Isn’t Latin a dead language? What possible practical benefits could students be acquiring from learning a language that no one even speaks anymore?  Do you realize how long my child spends on Latin homework? Shouldn’t we be focusing on teaching them something they will actually use?

Having to repeat so often the reasons why Latin is one of our school’s required classes might seem like a mundane task, especially considering that enquirers are usually not in the greatest of spirits when approaching me with these questions. In reality, explaining to these weary souls the many benefits of learning Latin is quite satisfying for me, due to the fact that I get the opportunity to see first hand how the “grueling” study of the Latin language transforms students… into better learners, deeper thinkers, and stronger young men and women.

Learning Latin is not just learning Latin. It is learning English. By the time our seventh grade students reach Latin class, and the dialectic stage of learning, they have had many years of English grammar. They have learned the parts of speech, capitalization and punctuation, and the five things it takes to make a complete sentence.[1]

They may also have picked up things like direct and indirect objects, objects of prepositions, types of sentences, and the like. All of these concepts have been happily poured into their basins of knowledge over the course of their years of grammar education. These things were pleasant for them to learn. The chants and jingles were fun to sing and pleasing to their ears and to their hearts. These exercises are all crucial for a basic foundation of understanding grammar, but a foundation is meant to be built upon. All too often, in schools with no Latin, the foundations built during the grammar stage later crumble, having no structure of protection to sustain them.

When striving to learn English grammatical concepts that require the dialectic skills of making connections, comparing and contrasting, and applying logical rules in various situations, students often take the easy way out. It is much easier to write an answer to an English grammar question because that is the way they have always spoken their native language than because they actually understand the application of a particular grammar rule or concept. This is because students are able to construct meaningful sentences by the time they are four years old and have no need to ask how the language works. They can already speak it.

This is not an argument that students need not learn English grammar, but quite the contrary. Familiarizing students with grammar principles and terminology fills their writing and speaking toolboxes with what they will need to be the thinkers and communicators we would have them to be. In order for students to think about how grammar works, though, they need a way to learn the principles of grammar that require them to make connections and apply logical rules to grammatical problems. In short, they need to learn a language that forces them to think.

Latin does just that. Not only does it provide a language of regularity with few exceptions, Latin is inflected so that students may recognize the job of a noun in a sentence by the ending tacked onto that noun or the type of verb and its function by its particular ending. Latin forces students to recognize that different types of nouns and verbs carry out different jobs and are associated with different meanings and that all of this can be recognized because of how they are declined or conjugated.  With Latin, a student can commit to memory a relatively small amount of information compared to other languages and use that information to logically construct meaningful language, even when using Latin words they have never before encountered.  Learning Latin turns humanities into something logical and ordered, appealing to students who think mathematically, and the dialectic stage of learning is the perfect time for students to experience this logical component of language.

Not only does Latin study provide students with a consistent, predictable way to apply grammar principles, it forces students to reevaluate English grammar in order to compare and contrast concepts in both languages. New learning happens when students are able to connect a new idea with their own prior knowledge.  Being presented with a participle phrase in Latin will force a student to ask themselves if such a thing exists in English, and if so, what it looks like in their own language.  This is true for any grammar concept. No longer will students be able to just write in the answer that sounds correct.  They must actually learn the principles and apply them based on what they are able to compare with English and what they have already memorized about Latin.  This kind of comparative thinking fits best within the dialectic phase of learning. Latin asks students to explain how a language works and why certain words are used for certain purposes in communication.

Incunabula_distribution_by_languageLearning Latin is its own vocabulary study. Students are exposed to the building blocks of reading during their phonics studies in grammar school. This knowledge helps them with the English words that are easily “sounded out,” or understood through phonemes, rules, and simple repetition. What about the rest of English vocabulary? Words requiring students to possess knowledge of root meanings cannot be communicated in basic phonics instruction.  There are many vocabulary programs out there for teachers who want to build student word knowledge, but perhaps none as effective as teaching students the Latin language.  The insight students receive when they learn Latin roots takes them further than the foundation of phonics.  This is due to the frequent use of Latin roots in many English words.  Once a student has learned one Latin root, they can apply that knowledge to decoding many English words containing that same root.  Through a student’s study of Latin, access is gained to words in the fields of law, medicine, and other sciences that would have otherwise required isolated memorization.

All of the benefits of learning Latin mentioned so far have something important in common. In each instance, Latin is requiring students to make connections and categorize separate bits of information into chunks with common characteristics that are easily stored and accessed in their brains. The complex thinking skills of analyzing and synthesizing require a student’s ability to chunk large pieces of knowledge together and separate each pile from the other piles based on contrasting traits. It is this process that helps students figure out the “whys” and “hows” that they so often ask in the dialectic stage. It is a wonderful thing to witness a student declare during Latin class that they finally understand how an English grammar concept works or that they realize that English is pretty sloppy in its usage compared to Latin. It is even better for me, an English teacher, to see students applying the grammar they have learned in Latin class to understand their native language more fully.

It is these connections and explanations that are actually training students to think deeply, to think well.  Once trained in this discipline, students will not be able to keep this skill from spilling into how they think about all subjects.  The organization of thought and the process of chunking information will serve them tenfold in other areas of learning.  Instead of being lost in a sea of unrelated, memorized facts, they will think, “In what category does this verb belong? It is a verbal noun, so it is an infinitive.  In what time period did this take place? Well, it was after St. Augustine and before Martin Luther, so it took place in the Middle Ages.” Connections are vital to understanding and wisdom, and Latin forces students to learn how to categorize by making these connections.

“Okay,” the parent listening to all of this explanation may reply, “that all sounds great, but it does not solve my problem of trying to help my student when he is ‘stressed out’ with Latin homework.” This is true. And it is good. The Vice President of Character Education at my college often tells parents, “To struggle is good.  Let them.”[2]  Each time I hear her repeat these words to the parents of our incoming students, I smile and know that she is wise.  Students will inevitably struggle with Latin, perhaps more so than with any other subject.  This is because Latin asks students to be adept in a variety of skills all at once.  Some students may have natural abilities to contemplate and create, which lend themselves well to the study of humanities. Others may possess logical skills and love the study of mathematics.  Latin asks students to use both sides of the brain, inevitably requiring them to sharpen both skill sets. Students tend to flock to subjects they feel confident in, because ease of effort makes things enjoyable.  The joy that comes with ease and little effort, though, pales in comparison to the elation of working through a difficulty and coming out of the experience having heartily earned a new skill.  The process is not often enjoyable, but the outcome is. Parents of classical Christian students do want their children to work hard and rise above the temptation of taking the easiest path. It is just hard to remember that late at night, when they see how miserable the challenge can be for the student and how tired they themselves are of hearing complaints or feeling helpless to provide support.  The support truly needed by students who are facing this task is the assurance that their efforts will pay off in the end, and that nothing good ever comes easy.

By allowing students to struggle, parents give them the gift of discovery, remind them of their dependence on God for support and strength, and reveal the beauty of their efforts when knowledge comes, and it will come. It will come in leaps and bounds not only in the subject of Latin, but in all those studies which benefit from the disciplines of deep thinking, hard work, and character instilled in the souls of those students who choose the “road less traveled.”[3]  Latin is truly not a dead language. It has been frozen in time and preserved for use in instruction and righteousness, to transform students into the young men and women of God’s plan.  Latin lives on to help create tomorrow’s thinkers, communicators, and producers.

Bibliography

Frost, Robert. The Road Less Traveled. Poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken.

Head, Dr. Sue. Vice President of Character Education, College of the Ozarks, 2017. Verbal citation.

Shurley English Level 5, Shurley Instructional Materials Incorporated: 2013.

 

[1] Shurley English Level 5, Shurley Instructional Materials Incorporated: 2013.

[2] Dr. Sue Head, Vice President of Character Education, College of the Ozarks, 2017.

[3] Robert Frost, The Road Less Traveled. Poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.com

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