Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why Latin?

     My friend, Pam, has requested some information on our Latin studies. Four years ago I never dreamed that something like this would happen. I never expected to learn Latin much less tell anyone else about it. I knew homeschoolers who actually studied Latin, but I never understood why. Then I started learning about the benefits of classical education and I was sold! My 15yod began her Latin studies 2 years ago. I’ve been studying to keep up with her and I am convinced that Latin, indeed, has many benefits, including preparing a student for the SAT exam and even impacting our world. Here are some of the reasons why.  

     Latin study increases vocabulary skills. Because much of our language is derived from Latin, it makes sense to study our roots. After all, the ancient Romans did conquer the known world, including the European continent and the British Isles. They left more than architectural monuments that can be visited today; they also left behind their language which seeped into the cultures they left behind. From simply knowing one Latin root, such as nauta, nautae meaning sailor…a host of other words can easily be understood like nautical, aeronautics, nautical mile, and nautilus. Obviously this is a big help with SAT study preparations!

     Since Latin has pervaded many languages from ancient times, the study of Latin enhances other foreign language studies. Recently we read a literature book about the French voyageurs in Canada. Despite the numerous French words in the book, dd and I were able to understand some of the words merely from our Latin studies. We are surrounded by much Spanish influence here in San Antonio. Without any previous Spanish studies, dd correctly translates some of the Spanish vocabulary because of her Latin knowledge. Even my previous Spanish studies have been clarified by Latin.

     Logic skills are also enhanced while studying Latin. Because there can be more than one correct answer when doing translations, one must analyze the sentence to see if the chosen translation is clear or if there is ambiguity. Latin is like a verbal puzzle, moving the pieces around until there is clarity. Through much practice in Latin, my dd now understands the importance in applying this to her papers. She is learning how to scrutinize the word order in her sentences to find the best meaning which she is trying to articulate.

     English verb tenses that we have chanted for years in our English grammar books have given us pause in Latin. We have had to carefully analyze their precise function before doing translations. Little studied concepts like indirect objects and passive verb tense are magnified in Latin usage. It wasn’t until our recent study of passive verb tenses that I finally understood how to strengthen verbs in writing assignments. My dd now has clear understanding of passive verbs versus strong verbs and is learning to apply this. In her weekly papers I am challenging her to replace unnecessary passive verbs with strong verbs and she has been delighted with the results. Language comes alive when lifted from a workbook page and applied to writing skills. Latin has been the bridge to make this connection easier for us.

     Of course one could simply learn English grammar by listening and speaking the language itself. After all, that is how toddlers first learn their language. Like looking through a window and viewing the wonders of the outdoors, English grammar is practically learned through experience. Discovering and interacting with a living language gleans as much wonder and joy as in sitting on a window seat and observing clouds drifting through a summer sky, lightening flashing from a storm cloud and leaves rustling in a tree.  

     The next level of learning grammar is with an actual curriculum, learning parts of speech and their proper use and order in a sentence. Training our use of words to have strength and power, one can engage more effectively in communicating with the world. This could be likened to lenses that allow us to see things from afar. Powerful lenses such as field glasses allow one to see the precise coloring of a bird in the distance and amazing rock formations in glacial valleys viewed from across a gorge. Further studies in formal grammar continue to solidify the power of language to more effectively communicate difficult ideas in the same way telescopes allow us to see distant planets and stars in the night sky. One of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, had little formal schooling. Apprenticed as a printer, he became skilled with his hands by using a trade. Yet, a deep desire for learning drove him to study on his own. "I fell far short in elegance of expression…I…thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement." (From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin) We remember him today with a smile as we recall his experience with lightening, wise and witty sayings, and his contributions to society and our country. He encouraged the signers of the Declaration of Independence when they committed treason in signing the document by declaring, "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

     Studying Latin fine tunes the study of English grammar. Like using a microscope that proves the existence of microbes, germs, and the amazing complexity of the human cell, so Latin scrutinizes concepts easily taken for granted in a familiar language. Understanding subtle nuances of word choice, part of speech and verb tense allows us to strike a chord in the human breast when conveying matters of importance. Many of our Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, used their Latin and other classical studies to influence the world and shape a nation historically unique from any other. They are remembered today for their understanding, power, clarity, and eloquence. In fact, Thomas Jefferson himself, as a 17 year old law student was spell-bound, along with other members of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765, when Patrick Henry condemned King George for his treatment of the colonies. Ablaze with passion, Patrick Henry challenged the House, "If this be treason, make the most of it."

Jefferson later described Henry’s speech as "torrents of sublime eloquence" which he had "never heard from any other man."

    As microscopes have proven new worlds in drops of pond water and onion roottips, so has Latin proven the rhetorical skills of famed speakers of the past who helped to form a new nation. 

     Read more about the benefit of Latin.


  1. You've discussed the very reasons I've been wanting to introduce Latin into our homeschool these last two or three years. I am praying we can finally begin this fall!!!

    Hugs, Marsha

  2. Wonderful reasoning and description Laurie! Good job on the writing too. :-) I completely agree with your reasoning, and am excited for you that latin has enriched your other studies so much. I'm excited to start this in our own homeschool in the fall!



  3. Great post! I am going to be starting Latin with my two little ones (a program designed for little ones =) in the next few weeks. I am very excited to begin this journey, for all of the great reasons you have pointed out! Thank you for sharing this at Trivium Tuesdays!