Westminster Academy begins Latin instruction in the second grade and it remains a required course through grade nine. Many ask, “Why Latin?” This is addressed in the following piece written by Peter H. Vande Brake, Head of North Hills Classical Academy, North Hills, Michigan.
Latin is an important language to learn for many reasons, but especially because it helps to increase linguistic skills and understanding, and it teaches students a method of learning that will help them with any subject they want to study.
Contrary to popular thought, Latin is not really a dead language; it is just hidden well in other languages that go by different names. Over 80% of the English language comes from Latin and Greek roots. Over 50% of English comes from strictly Latin roots. English vocabulary tests reveal that students of Latin score higher than students of other foreign languages. When a student studies Latin first, any language he or she chooses to study next will be much easier, especially if is one of the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Romanian, Italian, and Portuguese) because they derive as much as 90% of their vocabulary from Latin.
Another important reason to learn Latin is that it helps you to understand the culture of the western world better. Language is the circulatory system of a culture. If you want to really understand a culture, you have to learn its language. Without a mastery of the language of a culture, you will never understand completely how it thinks or how it works. A proper study of Latin includes elements of mythology, Roman culture, law, poetry, literature, and history. If we want to comprehend our own culture, we must understand where we have come from. The Latin language dominated Western culture for well over 1,000 years. All scholarly writing was done in Latin regardless of the author’s native tongue. The Vulgate was the most common translation of the Bible for centuries. The Catholic church held on to the Latin translation of the Bible well into the 20th century. For these reasons, Latin helps to make one culturally literate. America is, in large part, the product of Western culture--a product of the Graeco-Roman world with Judeo-Christian influences.
The main characteristic that makes Latin such a valuable language for linguistic understanding and methodical learning is that Latin is an inflected language--that is the nouns in the language are declined. There is a nominative case that is equivalent to our subject of a sentence in English, there is a genitive case that signifies possession, there is a dative case that acts as an indirect object, there is an accusative case that acts as a direct object, and there is an ablative case that takes on several different grammatical functions.
The English language signifies these different grammatical functions by word order. In Latin, and other inflected languages, the words can be in any order in which the author chooses to put them; the function of the words in a sentence is determined by the endings on the nouns. Thus, the study of Latin depends on a good understanding of the way language works. To understand Latin one must also understand the syntax and grammar of language. The study of Latin will improve the grammar skills of the student in both their native language and in Latin.
Because Latin is a precise and systematic language, it trains the mind to learn in a systematic way. You move from the building blocks of the language, namely vocabulary, syntax, and semantics to mastery of the language and translation of complex passages and grammatical structures. It was the study of Latin and Greek that gave impetus to the initiation of the Trivium. To learn Latin, you have to learn the basic parts of the language and then learn how those parts fit together into intelligible sentences and then learn how to put the sentences together into paragraphs and finally into stories or arguments or some other kind of communication. In Medieval times, students would learn Latin grammar and then read the classic Latin texts. These texts would cover history, philosophy, science, logic, math, rhetoric, mythology, and theology. The study of each of these subjects would spring naturally from the study of Latin.
The precision of the Latin language also requires the student to hone the skills of observation, comparison, and generalization. Small differences between words will change the function or the meaning of the words entirely. So the student of Latin will have to cultivate an eye for detail. This ability is useful in other disciplines such as science. In the early 20th century, the great German chemist, Bauer, was asked by one of his colleagues whether his best students came from the Real-Schulen (a modern school where chemistry was taught as a subject) or from the Gymnasien (a traditional liberal arts school where Latin grammar was stressed). The assumption being that the best science students would come from the Real-Schulen.
Bauer replied, “My best students come from the Gymnasien. The students from the Real-Schulen do best at first; but after three months work here, they are, as a rule, left behind by those coming from the Gymnasien.” The colleague wondered at this because the Real-Schulen students had been especially instructed in chemistry. “’Yes,’ he replied; ‘but the students from the Gymnasien have the best trained minds. Give me a student who has been taught his Latin grammar, and I will answer for his chemistry’” (Kelsey, Latin and Greek in American Education, New York, NY: Macmillan, 1911, p. 24, as quoted in Douglas Wilson, ed., Repairing the Ruins, Moscow, Idah Canon Press, 1996, 135).
Thus, the reasons, we teach Latin at North Hills are many. It may not be a spoken language anymore, but that certainly does not mean that it is not useful. It not only teaches students a higher level of linguistic competency, but it also trains the mind in the skills that are needed for systematic learning of any subject. This fact, more than any other, makes Latin one of the most valuable learning experiences a student can have.