Latin’s a dead language,
As dead as dead could be;
First it killed the Romans;
Now it’s killing me!
Dear graduating Latin student,
Congratulations! A year of hard work is complete and you have turned in your final exam.
You know the noun declensions. You know something about adjectives, pronouns, and prepositions. You know many verb tenses. You know more about Caesar and the Gauls than you ever wanted to know.
This summer you may have a conversation that goes something like this:
Curious uncle: “So, what do you learn at Classical Conversations?”
You list your studies.
Uncle (skeptically): “Latin?! How can that ever help you? I thought you were going to be an engineer!”
This is when you turn to him and persuade him with three good examples of how learning Latin provides lifelong benefits.
Uncle (amazed) turns to your father, who is beaming with pride: “Impressive! Where can my son learn Latin?”
Okay, maybe not, but seriously, what would you tell your doubting uncle? I suggest, “Latin helps me in at least three important ways: it helps me understand English grammar, it helps me use verbs well, and it trains my mind to think logically.”
First, Latin makes us aware of the grammar of our own language. It is the secret behind countless excellent writers. What is the first thing every Latin student learns? That nouns have purpose. Right from the beginning the student becomes aware of the subject of the sentence, nouns that rename the subject, which noun the subject is acting upon, and to whom or what it is given (e.g., Caesar gave what? Rewards. To whom? To the soldiers.). He understands objects of prepositions and possession. He has to know what role the nouns in the sentence play in order to translate it. He learns that in English we use “of” both as possessive (e.g., the troops of Caesar; Caesar’s troops) and in a prepositional phrase (e.g., a number of soldiers). He learns our seven basic sentence structures. He sees how adjectives are handled and he suddenly hears how English strings all its adjectives ahead of the noun (e.g., the large, round, rough, red ball). After learning that verbs usually come at the end of sentences, he is puzzled to find some that appear before “and” or “but,” and he learns that conjunctions can link complete sentences. Because a pronoun matches its noun in case, gender, and number, he will forever after keep in mind his pronouns and antecedents. When he writes a paper, he is much more aware of sentence structure, the building block of all writing. A good grasp of grammar is necessary for clear communication.
Next, Latin makes us more aware of verbs. Conjugations are more complex and harder to memorize than declensions, are they not? But think of what they tell us! Does the action happen in the present, past, or future? Is the action completed? Will it be ongoing in the future? Has it started in the past and continued until now, or did it recently end? Is the subject acting or being acted upon? Did the action really happen or do we wish it might? What the student learned inductively through childhood he now categorizes and names. Once you know what you can do with verbs, you can communicate precisely when you tell your uncle you “had been” skeptical yourself, but now you “are enjoying” Latin, a clue that you will be studying Latin on your own into the summer. It confirms what you learned in your writing class—that the shrewd use of verbs produces compelling writing.
Finally, the study of Latin has the side effect of training the mind to think logically. At first, translation work goes very slowly as the student evaluates the possibility of each word, since endings may suggest more than one use for a noun. Experience makes her more familiar with the options and she picks up speed. Her brain forms pathways as she encounters the same patterns over and over. She easily memorizes more and more of them. Eventually, she can handle complex sentences at sight. This is the result of lightning-quick calculations of the options. If a mind were a muscle, Latin takes our minds from flabby to fit. A toned mind tackles logical operations with more alacrity. Look for better results in algebra, in arguments, and in games of chess.
Latin has: taught you the grammar of your own language, given you greater facility with verbs, and trained you to think logically. Many more benefits (from bene factum, good work) accrue to the Latin student who may never take another language, but never forgets what he was learned about English. When a young man has a mature understanding of his own language and it shows in his speaking and writing, he will communicate well and persuade others. If we have a message to deliver, is this not a fantastic benefit?