Sure, we could use the same tired reasons for learning Latin that everyone else uses
Learning Latin will enhance your study of history, fine arts, and literature. You’ll be able to read the Latin in state mottos, hymns, and old buildings. We could tell you that reading Cicero and Virgil in their original language is divinely beautiful, or even that learning Latin builds character.
All those things are true, but unless you are already a Latin enthusiast, chances are you don’t care.
Instead, here are 3 practical reasons why Latin can benefit the average person
1.) It will make you better at learning other languages.
Different languages and skills use different modes of thinking. Thoughts themselves are formed differently from language to language. One language may have words for a concept that another language may not. Here are a few examples:
- Sombremesa: Spanish for the time after a meal when the food is gone but the conversation is still flowing
- Pochemuchka: Russian for a person who asks too many questions
- Iktsuarpok: Inuit for the anxiety that comes with waiting for someone to show up, checking the windows and going outside (or checking your phone) to see if they’re here
Didn’t reading those make you think a little differently about the things they described? The act of learning a new language or even a single new word is the act of learning to think in a different way.
The same thing happens when learning skills out in the world.
You are learning to think differently each time you start a new profession, begin a new hobby, develop understanding of the emotional needs of adults or children, connect with the thoughts of authors, etc. Each activity involves learning a new mode of thinking—or in a sense, a new language.
But why Latin?
Why not computer code or French or Spanish? Why do we recommend Latin to teach these valuable language learning concepts? Isn’t Latin basically a dead language?
Latin is great for study because it has reached its full form. It is no longer evolving like every other language out there. Just as medical students study cadavers and mechanics study engines while they are turned off, Latin provides a stable base to learn from. You don’t have to deal with the confusion of keeping up with the latest slang or updates. Latin is consistent.
2.) It will make you better at understanding and speaking English.
For a lot of students, studying English grammar seems pointless and boring—and that’s not their fault. It’s difficult to stay interested as you analyze a language that you already use intuitively. In your native tongue it can be easy to take the small details for granted, like the difference between “a” and “the”.
Learning such intricacies in a new language stretches your brain, makes you smarter, and gives you a greater perspective of the world. It will give you the ability to compare languages and analyze the way ideas are conveyed. From inside your native language, it's hard to think about the words as carriers of meaning—word and meaning become synonymous. Once you know two languages, you have the objectivity to step out of one and think about how the words are doing their job without being bound to how words are expressed in your native tongue.
But why Latin?
Why not Danish or Hindi or Esperanto? What is it about Latin that teaches English grammar better than any other language? It is because English is a hybrid language, or a Germanic language with a hybrid vocabulary, as some might describe it.
English exists with two primary halves: the Germanic side, which contains more basic, concrete things (such as house, man, and woman) and the Latinate side, which expresses more abstract concepts (such as masculinity, femininity, republic, and liberty). Each half has completely different root words, pronunciation rules, and even spelling rules.
Students learn the Germanic half of English when they are studying phonics, but there is little to prepare them for the Latinate half of our language. So what’s the best way to learn the building blocks of the other half of English? By studying Latin.
3.) Latin grows your ability to think in both the big picture and the small—and gives you the dexterity to easily switch between those views.
Reading any foreign language is like solving a puzzle, but with Latin, it’s sudoku for the brain. You’re making conjectures based on easily identifiable patterns. Often you won’t know an English word, but the patterns found in Latin help fill in the gaps in your knowledge and allow you to identify its meaning.
Additionally, it is common in Latin for a word to only be translatable within the context of all the other words in the sentence. Because of this, readers are forced to conceptualize one thing in the context of many other things and to see the connections between all of it. This type of brain exercise will have applications as you study politics, economics, engineering, music, astronomy, home repair, crying kids, and anything else in life.
But, one more time, why Latin?
It all adds up to this: knowing another language allows you to express thoughts you would never have come up with in your native language. The modes of thought you use are all interconnected, and the more modes you're working with, the more complex thoughts you can have.
Because it is not evolving anymore, because it’s the other half of English, because it is consistent, and because it works all those benefits in your brain better than any other language, Latin is the ideal language to learn.
Video & script: Tobin Duby
Text adaptation: Sarah Iddings.