Top Five Things You Might Not Know about the Study of Latin
By Kathy Sheppard
We all know that the study of Latin helps students with their SATs and that 50 to 60 percent of the English language comes from Latin as well as 90 percent of words that are more than two syllables. We know that Latin increases a student’s vocabulary exponentially and consequently augments reading comprehension. It also facilitates the study of the Romance languages. However, there are several lesser-known benefits of Latin.
1) Latin helps with mental acuity. Simply put, Latin exercises a person’s brain and trains the brain to be detail-oriented. Students not only must translate a verb in the correct person, number, tense and mood, but they also must translate the word in the correct context. For example, the word peto, petere means “to seek, beg, ask, attack or aim at.” Look at the following sentence:
Petimus is in the present tense and has the ending “-mus.” From that, we know that the subject is “we.” Auxilium means “help” and is a second-declension neuter noun, which means that it could be either the nominative subject or the accusative direct-object singular. Based on this, we know that the basic sentence is going to be translated as “We ____ help.” It would not be good to attack help, so the best translation would be, “We seek help.” Not only do we need to understand the sentence syntactically, but we also need to figure out what makes the most sense in English. This is just one of the few ways that Latin gives the mind a workout.
2) Latin helps students become better spellers. After students learn the roots of words, they then can see the Latin influence in the English words. Likewise, once a student studies the patterns of Latin spelling, he/she gains fortitude in those 90 percent of words with more than two syllables. Two words that come to mind are separate and definite. Separate comes from the Latin word pars meaning “part.” When a student learns the word’s derivation, it is unlikely he/she will misspell the word with “per” in the middle. The same is true for definite. It comes from the root finis meaning “end.” The study of Latin helps students sort and spell words based on their roots rather than memorizing isolated words. In a study of sixth-grade students in Indianapolis, students who took Latin were four months ahead of others in spelling.
3) Latin helps students with their study of English literature. Dante, Milton, Swift, Tolkien, Lewis et alii studied Latin very vigorously and their writings reflect that in word choice, sentence structure and content. Though Shakespeare and Chaucer did not study Latin very assiduously, each had studied English translations of Latin originals. Some of their tales are simply retellings of Greek and Latin myths. Not only does the knowledge of Latin help students with their reading comprehension, but it also acclimates them to vocabulary, sentence structure and content used by authors of classic works.
4) Latin helps students become great speakers. When students have the chance to read authentic Latin, they learn the great rhetorical techniques of Cicero, the speeches of Vergil’s Aeneid and the persuasive techniques of Julius Caesar. Students not only see the strength of Cicero’s figures of speech such as anaphora and alliteration, but they also see his use of praeteritio (pretended omission for rhetorical effect—you can see an example in my opening paragraph).
5) The study of Latin decreases the effort needed in other subjects by 50 percent. In tutoring Challenge and Essentials, I have found this to be very true. Latin is the key to academic vocabulary and grammar whether it is logic, biology, or English grammar. With a Latin background, students can learn any subject more easily because he/she can access the vocabulary more readily.
My favorite quote from Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning” essay is this:
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 50 percent. It is the key to vocabulary and structure of all the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.
This is one of the strongest reasons to include Latin in a classical education. It is easy to point out the interrelatedness of knowledge when Latin is so vital to the study of the vocabulary of all subjects. A thorough knowledge of Latin gleans many gifts for students.
If you want to read more about the benefits of Latin, here are some resources:
"School spreads the word on Latin class; Schools report Ancient language proves a smash hit.(News).” South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales). MGN Ltd. 2008. HighBeam Research. 19 Feb. 2011 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
Olenchek, Christina. "Classical approach.” Central Penn Business Journal. Journal Publications Inc. 2006. HighBeam Research. 19 Feb. 2011 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
JUDITH JUDD, Education Editor. "Latin lessons demanded for all seven-year-olds.” The Independent (London, England). Independent Print Ltd. 1996. HighBeam Research. 19 Feb. 2011 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences of Western Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002.
Wilson, Douglas. Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctly Christian Education. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991.
Kathy Sheppard has a B.A. in Latin from the College of William and Mary and a M.Ed. from George Mason University as a reading specialist.
She taught Latin at Spotsylvania High School in Virginia for nine years and has taught home-schooled students for six and a half years. She also has taught online for three years and has been the director of Challenge II for Classical Conversations Fredericksburg Campus for four years. This year, she also teaches the Essentials of the English Language through Classical Conversations.
She studied in Rome in 2003 as part of the American Academy of Rome's Classical Summer School.
She lives in Virginia with her husband, Dave, and her two daughters, Annie and Elizabeth.
Her website is www.latinandclassics.com