by Judy Ness
English translation: Why should we study Latin?
Teenage translation: Why do we have to learn this stuff? I mean, like, when are we EVER going to use it? (For additional dramatic effect, punctuate with eye roll.)
Genesis Classical Academy, like most classical schools, incorporates the study of Latin into the curriculum. Contrary to the opinion of many students (and some adults), there are many good reasons to study Latin:
The study of Latin vocabulary helps students decode words in the English language, since a large percentage of English words are based on a Latin root. According to dictionary.com, approximately 80 percent of the entries in an English dictionary are borrowed from another language, primarily Latin.
Latin is the foundation of modern Romance languages. In this case, “Romance” does not refer to hearts and flowers and a whispered “I love you,” but to languages that were derived from the language of the Roman Empire—which was Latin. The most prevalent modern Romance languages are Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.
One of the songs that Genesis students have learned to sing in Latin is Dona Nobis Pacem, translated “Give us peace.” The English word “donate” comes from the Latin verb donare, and the phrase dona nobis (give to us) is very similar in the following Romance languages:
Study of a foreign language helps us learn English grammar. I am not exactly certain why this is the case, but I recognized this to be true even as a teenager in high school Spanish class (thank you, Señor Frey). Perhaps as a native English speaker, you learn to “fake your way” through grammar because something “sounds right.” When you learn an unfamiliar language, however—especially one as methodical and predictable as Latin—you begin to understand the structure of the language and how the parts of speech fit together.
Latin was the language of the educated. Although it is unlikely that many of us would attempt to read Virgil’s The Aeneid or St. Augustine’s Confessions in the original Latin, serious students of classical literature, philosophy, and theology will read important works in the original language to gain the best understanding of what the author was attempting to convey.
Latin is also the language of scientific taxonomy and used extensively in the medical field. If you decide to take a hike through the woods, and stumble upon a foraging Ursus arctos horribilis(1) your day is likely to be rather….well, horribilis. If, however, you stumble upon a patch of Morchella esculenta (2) you will likely delight in your good fortune—unless that Morchella esculenta is contaminated with Escherichia coli(3) in which case you are back to a day that may end rather horribilis.
Much of classical music—Schubert’s Ave Maria, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, or the Christmas carol Adeste Fidelis—is sung in Latin. Although you can still enjoy the melody without understanding the Latin lyrics, the work is much more meaningful if you understand the poetry, rather than hearing only nonsensical syllables.
Learning Latin is power lifting for the brain. When you learn another language, you must first define clearly what it is that you want to communicate, and then figure out how to put that into another language. Doing so sharpens and strengthens language skills.
A number of years ago our family travelled to Mexico, accompanying my husband on a business trip. The first hotel we stayed in was cozy and quaint, and not many of the employees spoke English. Our bathroom light had burned out, which made navigating daily activities in the pitch darkness a challenge.
My husband found one of the maintenance workers, dusted off his high school Spanish from 25 years prior, and announced “El sol in mi baño es morte!” (The sun in my bathroom is dead)! Although not exactly a precise use of the language, he was able to get the message across. A few minutes later, the maintenance man showed up with a new light bulb—although he couldn’t stop chuckling. He kindly pointed out that “la luz” (the light) would have been a more accurate choice of noun. We were happy for the new light bulb, and happy to have provided him some entertainment for the day.
So—cur nos studium latinae? Because it is good for you!
¹ A grizzly bear.
² A morel mushroom.
³ A bacteria that causes food poisoning.
Judy Ness is a business owner, former teacher, and a passionate supporter of Genesis Classical Academy in Winnebago, Minnesota. She and her husband James have 3 adult children and 4 grandchildren. They count among their blessings the wonderful education that their grandchildren are receiving at Genesis.