Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Compelling Case That the “Dead Language” Is an “Eternal Language”

“I tried to get Latin can­celed for five years,” says an exas­per­at­ed Max Fis­ch­er, pro­tag­o­nist of Wes Ander­son­’s Rush­more, when he hears of his school’s deci­sion to scrap Latin class­es. “ ‘It’s a dead lan­guage,’ I’d always say.” Many have made a sim­i­lar­ly blunt case against the study of Latin. But as we all remem­ber, Max’s edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy over­turns just as soon as he meets Miss Cross and brings up the can­cel­la­tion to make con­ver­sa­tion. “That’s a shame because all the Romance lan­guages were based on Latin,” she says, artic­u­lat­ing a stan­dard defense. “Nihi­lo sanc­tum estne?” Max’s reply, after Miss Cross clar­i­fies that what she said is Latin for “Is noth­ing sacred?”: “Sic tran­sit glo­ria.”

From ad hoc and bona fide to sta­tus quo and vice ver­sa, all of us know a lit­tle bit of Latin, even the “dead lan­guage’s” most out­spo­ken oppo­nents. But do any of us have a rea­son to build delib­er­ate­ly on that inher­it­ed knowl­edge? The video at the top of the post offers not just one but “Three Rea­sons to Study Latin (for Nor­mal Peo­ple, Not Lan­guage Geeks).”

As its host admits, “I could tell you that study­ing Latin will set you up to learn the Romance lan­guages or give you a base of knowl­edge for fine arts and lit­er­a­ture. I can tell you that you’ll be able to read Latin on old build­ings, hymns, state mot­toes, or that read­ing Cicero and Vir­gil in the orig­i­nal is divine­ly beau­ti­ful.” But the num­ber one rea­son to study Latin, he says, is that it will improve your lan­guage acqui­si­tion skills.

And lan­guage acqui­si­tion isn’t just the skill of learn­ing lan­guages, but “the skill of learn­ing oth­er skills.” It teach­es us that “thoughts them­selves are formed dif­fer­ent­ly in dif­fer­ent lan­guages,” and learn­ing even a sin­gle for­eign word “is the act of learn­ing to think in a new way.” Study a for­eign lan­guage and you enter a com­mu­ni­ty, just as you do “every time you learn a new pro­fes­sion, learn a new hob­by,” or when you “inter­act with his­to­ri­ans or philoso­phers, inter­act with the writ­ers of cook­books, or gar­den­ing books, or even writ­ers of soft­ware.” Latin in par­tic­u­lar will also make you bet­ter at speak­ing Eng­lish, espe­cial­ly if you already speak it native­ly. Not only are you “unavoid­ably blind to the weak­ness­es and strengths of your native mean­ing car­ry­ing sys­tem — your lan­guage — until you test dri­ve a new one,” the more com­plex, abstract half of the Eng­lish vocab­u­lary comes from Latin in the first place.

Above all, Latin promis­es wis­dom. Not only can it “train you to con­cep­tu­al­ize one thing in the con­text of many things and to see the con­nec­tions between all of them,” it can, by the time you’re under­stand­ing mean­ing as well as form, “grow you in big-pic­ture and small-pic­ture think­ing and give you the dex­ter­i­ty to move back and forth between both.” Just as you are what you eat, “your mind becomes like what you spend your time think­ing about,” and the rig­or­ous­ly struc­tured Latin lan­guage can imbue it with “log­ic, order, dis­ci­pline, struc­ture, pre­ci­sion.” In the TED Talk above, Latin teacher Ryan Sell­ers builds on this idea, call­ing the study of Latin “one of the most effec­tive ways of build­ing strong fun­da­men­tals in stu­dents and prepar­ing them for the future.” Among the time­less ben­e­fits of the “eter­nal lan­guage” Sell­ers includes its abil­i­ty to increase Eng­lish “word pow­er,” its “math­e­mat­i­cal” nature, and the con­nec­tions it makes between the ancient world and the mod­ern one.

Latin used to be more a part of the aver­age school cur­ricu­lum than it is now, but the debates about its use­ful­ness have been going on for gen­er­a­tions. Why Study Latin?, the 1951 class­room film above, cov­ers a wide swath of them in ten min­utes, from read­ing clas­sics in the orig­i­nal to under­stand­ing sci­en­tif­ic and med­ical ter­mi­nol­o­gy to becom­ing a sharp­er writer in Eng­lish to trac­ing mod­ern West­ern gov­ern­men­tal and soci­etal prin­ci­ples back to their Roman roots. And as the School of Life video below tells us, some things are still best expressed in Latin, an eco­nom­i­cal lan­guage that can pack a great deal of mean­ing into rel­a­tive­ly few words: Veni, vidi, vici. Carpe diem. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. And of course, Latin makes every expres­sion sound weight­i­er — it gives a cer­tain grav­i­tas, we might say.

If all these argu­ments have sold you on the ben­e­fits of Latin, or at least got you intrigued enough to learn more, watch “How Latin Works” for a brief overview of the his­to­ry and mechan­ics of the lan­guage, as well as an expla­na­tion of what it has giv­en to and how it dif­fers from Eng­lish and the oth­er Euro­pean lan­guages we use today. You might then pro­ceed to the free Latin lessons avail­able at the the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas’ Lin­guis­tics Research Cen­ter, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. The more Latin you acquire, the more you’ll see and hear it every­where. You might even ask the same ques­tion Max Fis­ch­er pos­es to the assem­bled admin­is­tra­tors of Rush­more Acad­e­my: “Is Latin dead?” His moti­va­tions have more to do with romance than Romance, but there are no bad rea­sons to learn a lan­guage, liv­ing or oth­er­wise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

Hip 1960s Latin Teacher Trans­lat­ed Bea­t­les Songs into Latin for His Stu­dents: Read Lyrics for “O Teneum Manum,” “Diei Duri Nox” & More

Why Should We Read Virgil’s Aeneid? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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