Sure, we could give the same benefits of Latin—lofty and perhaps overstated—everyone else gives. We could say that learning Latin will enhance your study of history, the fine arts, and literature. We could tell you that reading Cicero and Virgil in their original language is divinely beautiful. We might add that you will be able to read the Latin in state mottos, hymns, and inscriptions on old monuments and buildings (thus granting you supreme bragging rights among your friends). We might even say that learning Latin builds character.
While all these things are true, the chances are good that you don’t care unless you’re already a Latin linguaphile—because, let’s be honest, Latin is a long-term investment in time and effort. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, “Category I” languages take an average of 600 to 750 hours of study to attain a “General Professional Proficiency”—that’s a big commitment!1A Category I language is a language similar to English. As a major contributor to the English language, Latin is either a Category I or Category II language depending on who you ask.
You may have questions about Latin. Is Latin worth it? Does Latin have real-world applications? Does Latin lead to academic success, provide career advantages, or develop cognitive skills? And will others—assessment providers, colleges, employers—recognize the value of Latin?
The answer to each of those questions is yes!
Table of Contents
Why Study Latin?
Important Note: There are some complicated words in this post, words like nominative, accusative, and declension. Unfortunately, words like these can intimidate students and teachers and stop them from considering the many great reasons to study Latin. But as with all subjects, the first step to learning Latin is to understand its “grammar” — or foundational knowledge — which unavoidably includes these terms. So, if you are new to the study of Latin, bear with us while we inevitably have to use these unfamiliar terms. Soon, with repetition and practice, you and your student will have the grammar of Latin memorized and will be able to reap the rewards of learning this subject!
The practical benefits of learning Latin are many. Latin offers enhanced language skills, numerous educational benefits, notable career advantages, and historical and cultural literacy. Furthermore, Latin is highly regarded by universities and accepted by the vast majority as a foreign language for the purpose of admissions.
The following list of the practical benefits of Latin will show you the contemporary relevance and long-term rewards of the language.
Now, here are the top three reasons why you and your student should learn Latin:
Reason #1. Latin provides a foundation for learning foreign languages.
Latin is the ancestor of the Romance languages. Major Romance languages include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and numerous minority languages such as Galician, Venetian, and Walloon. These languages derive a significant amount of their grammar, syntax, and vocabulary from Latin.
Consider the first line of the Apostles’ Creed. In Latin, the Credo reads:
Credo in Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae.
In Italian, il Credo reads:
Credo in Dio, Padre onnipotente, Creatore del cielo e della terra.
You don’t need to speak either Latin or Italian to see the similarities. Cognates in this sentence include Credo, the preposition in, Deum and Dio, Patrem and Padre, terrae and terra, and so on. Also, the syntax, or arrangement of words, is nearly identical.2Cognates are similar words in two languages that share a common origin.
Of course, there are some differences—notably, the del in Italian. Latin lacks articles (the, a, and an in English), but Italian has il, la, un, una, del, della, and more.
In French, le Credo reads:
Je crois en Dieu, le Pere tout-puissant, createur du ciel et de la terre.
French is further from Latin than Italian, but we can still observe a common vocabulary and a similar syntax. Near cognates in the above sentence include the preposition en compared to in, Dieu compared to Deus, Pere compared to Patrem, and so on.
You’ll also note the similarities between the French and Italian versions of the Apostles’ Creed. Unlike Latin, both languages have articles. Also, those articles are gendered: del and du are both masculine partitive articles, while della and de la are feminine.
Thus, if you speak Latin, you’ve already got a strong foundation for Italian and French (and Portuguese and Romanian and so on). And Latin also contributed to the Germanic languages, including our own—English. We’ll talk more about Latin’s contributions to English shortly.
1.1 Study Latin to speak the language of languages.
If the Romance languages are similar to one another, does it really matter which one you learn? Couldn’t you just learn Italian, and apply your knowledge of that contemporary language to French, Spanish, Portuguese, and so on?
As languages change over time, the grammar tends to simplify and certain features disappear (the addition of articles in the Romance languages is something of an exception to this principle). These features aren’t universal. French, for example, lost most of the Latin case system, while Romanian retained a simplified version.
And, of course, the phonemes (or sounds) of a language will also change significantly over time, diverging from other branches of the language tree in unpredictable ways. In Liturgical Latin, caeli is pronounced /t͡ʃe.li/ or shay-lee (or chay-lee). In French, ciel is pronounced /sjɛl/ or syel, and in Italian, cielo is pronounced /ˈt͡ʃɛ.lo/ or chay-lo. As you can see, the distance between the French and Italian pronunciations is greater than the distance between either language and Latin.
This means that the distance between any one Romance language and Latin tends to be closer than the distance between any two Romance languages.
So, Latin’s very similar to its descendants, and learning Latin, in effect, unlocks these languages (and contributes to the understanding of other Indo-European languages).
Reason #2. Latin improves English skills and provides academic advantages.
Latin is the key to the vocabulary and structure of the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents. —Dorothy Sayers
We mentioned in the previous section that Latin contributed to the English language. In fact, Latin continues to contribute approximately 60 percent of English vocabulary!
A very brief history of the English language: Old English was a Germanic language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, who settled in Englaland (or England) from Germany and Scandinavia. However, the Anglo-Saxons were conquered by the Normans, who came from France and introduced the Old Norman French language to England. After, the new elites spoke French while the natives continued to speak English. Middle English arose from this unusual situation. Meanwhile, new Latin vocabulary was introduced into English throughout the medieval and early modern period through the church and through academia.
Thus, English is sometimes described as either a hybrid language or a Germanic language with a hybrid vocabulary. English’s Germanic side tends to contain terms for more concrete concepts (such as house, man, woman, or shoe), while the Latinate side tends to express abstract concepts (such as masculinity, femininity, republic, and liberty). Each half has different root words, pronunciation rules, and even spelling rules.
Students will learn the Germanic half of English when they are studying phonics, but really, there’s 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.
2.1 Study Latin to become a better speller.
After students learn the roots of words, they will see the Latin influence in the English words. Similarly, students gain fortitude in that 90% of English words with more than two syllables once they study Latin spelling patterns.
Two words that come to mind are separate and definite. Separate comes from the Latin word pars meaning “part.” When a student learns that word’s derivation, it is unlikely they will misspell the word with “per” in the middle. The same is true for definite. It comes from the root finis meaning “end.” The study of Latin helps students sort and spell words based on their roots rather than memorizing isolated words. In a study of sixth-grade students in Indianapolis, IN, students who took Latin were four months ahead of their peers in spelling.
2.2 Study Latin to help understand English literature.
Dante, Milton, Swift, Tolkien, Lewis et al. studied Latin vigorously. Naturally, their writings reflect this study of Latin in word choice, sentence structure, and content. Although Shakespeare and Chaucer did not study Latin in much detail, each had studied English translations of Latin originals. Some of their tales are simply retellings of Greek and Latin myths. Not only does one’s knowledge of Latin help with reading comprehension, but it also acclimates one to vocabulary, sentence structure, and content used by these great authors of classic works.
2.3 Study Latin to speak the language of law and science.
Did you know that law school applicants who majored in classics consistently score the highest on the LSAT?3Interestingly, philosophy and theology majors also do very well—two subjects that often brush up against the study of ancient languages, such as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew!
Why? Because a classics major is rigorous. An education in Latin provides a firm foundation in language and analytic skills—the same sort of skills that lawyers employ in their practice and law students use to survive the bar exam.
Also, Latin provides the bulk of legal jargon. Here’s some pro bono advice for aspiring lawyers: recalling the difference between mens rea and actus rea is much easier when you know that mens refers to the mind and actus refers to an act. Know your Latin, and you won’t have to memorize alien sounds in your first year of law school.
Latin is also the language of science. Consider the scientific names of living organisms in the field of biology: ursus americanus, the American black bear; apis mellifera, the honey bee; and homo sapiens, that odd creature made in the image of God (or imago Dei).
Even the names of scientific fields come from Latin (or Greek): science comes from scientia. Physics comes from physica. Quantum mechanics comes quanta, which means “how much,” and mechanicus, which means “related to machines or mechanics.”
And, of course, most prefixes and suffixes come from Latin or Greek: milli means thousand, super means above, polar means end of an axis, and so on. Knowing these prefixes and suffixes helps students uncover the meaning of new and unfamiliar terminology. (The word terminology, by the way, comes from terminus, Latin for “term,” and -ologia, Greek for “study of.”)
In short, Latin supercharges your English grammar and vocabulary!
Reason #3. Latin promotes cognitive development and thinking skills.
Latinists often say the language is highly logical.
Latin grammar is precise, structured, and systematic, demanding attention to detail from students while rewarding a variety of skills: reading, writing, memory, analysis, pattern-recognition, and critical thinking. Students who master Latin will master these skills and cultivate discipline, creativity, and metacognition (the ability to think about their own thinking and learning and strategize accordingly).
What does that look like in practice?
Let’s consider the following threee lines from the Pater Noster, or the Lord’s Prayer in Latin:
Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie:
Et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris:
If we were to ignore the declensions of these words and translate the roots directly into English, we’d end up with complete gibberish: “bread we daily give we now and forgive we debts we as and we debt debtors we.”
Latin isn’t like English. Exact word order isn’t necessary. What matters are the word patterns, i.e., noun, pronoun, and adjectives endings modified by case, number, and gender, or verbs sorted by tense, person, and number.
Thus, in the Lord’s Prayer, the –em ending in panem tells us that the bread is accusative (that is, the direct object). Nostrum is an accusative masculine adjective meaning “our” (which means it modifies panem). Cotidianum is an accusative masculine adjective meaning “daily” (which means it also modifies panem). Da is the second-person singular imperative (a command) meaning “Give” (which makes this both the subject and the action of the sentence). Nobis is a dative first-person plural meaning “us”, and hodie is an adjective meaning “today.”
If you translate the first line of the prayer with an understanding of declensions and conjugations, you’ll succeed in understanding the actual meaning in English: “Give us our daily bread today” (or “Give us this day our daily bread”).
Whew! As you can see, Latin is like Sudoku for language. Master the puzzle of Latin, and English will look like a twenty-piece jigsaw puzzle in comparison.
3.1 Study Latin to become a great speaker.
When students read authentic Latin, they learn the great rhetorical techniques of Cicero, the speeches of Virgil’s Aeneid, and the persuasive techniques of Julius Caesar. Students not only see the strength of Cicero’s figures of speech such as anaphora and alliteration, but they also see his use of praeteritio (pretended omission for rhetorical effect — look at the opening paragraph of this post to see an example!).
3.2 Study Latin to decrease the effort needed in other subjects by 50%.
In tutoring Essentials and directing Challenge, I have noticed that students who study Latin struggle less in other subjects — much less. Indeed, Latin is the key to academic vocabulary and grammar, whether it is logic, biology, or English grammar. With a Latin background, students can learn any subject more easily because they can understand the vocabulary of that subject more readily.
My favorite quote from Dorothy Sayers’ famous essay promoting classical education, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” is this:
I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent. It is the key to vocabulary and structure of all the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.
This reason alone is enough to answer the question, “Why study Latin?” It is easy to point out the interrelatedness of knowledge when Latin is so vital to the study of all subjects’ vocabulary. Indeed, a thorough knowledge of Latin gleans many gifts for students.
Don’t Miss Out on the Benefits of a Latin Homeschool Curriculum!
These are some of the major advantages of knowing Latin. Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to study Latin, reasons not to ditch Latin, reasons why parents should care about Latin, and reasons why Latin is an enriching experience for the family. These reasons are often noble, and they should certainly be considered alongside the more practical benefits and the real-world applications of Latin.
On the search for a Latin homeschool curriculum? We recommend the parent-friendly Henle Latin textbooks in our community-based Classical Conversations programs.
Still, the thought of teaching Latin can be intimidating for homeschool parents no matter how good your Latin homeschool curriculum is. That’s why we also strongly recommend learning Latin in community; community can offer you support and help you stay focused and achieve your goals. And last, you can learn more about the Classical Conversations approach to Latin in our catalog.
So, do whatever you need to do to remember these reasons to learn Latin to help motivate you through your Latin studies, whether that’s printing out this post and hanging it on your schoolroom wall, writing down these five reasons on a notecard, or bookmarking this webpage.
3 Reasons to Study Latin
Check out this video below, which reinforces the importance of learning Latin today:
Looking for more reasons to study Latin? These resources below (used in researching this post) discuss the many benefits of Latin in more detail:
- Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences of Western Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002.
- Wilson, Douglas. Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctly Christian Education. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991.