by Scott C. Wilson, Latin Teacher, Tutor, and Founder of Tutor Tango LLC
I’ve been a Latin teacher and tutor for over 12 years, and in that time I’ve discovered that learning the language of the Ancient Romans has so many more benefits than I imagined it would when I opened my very first Latin textbook back in the seventh grade (Glenn Knudsvig’s Latin for Reading, by the way). Like many Latin teachers, I’ve spent quite a bit of time--especially at school admissions fairs, parent-teacher conferences, and other similar events--trying to sell anyone who would listen on some of the language’s most obvious benefits: “you’ll gain a better command of English grammar”; “mastering Latin roots leads to improved SAT-Verbal scores”; “Latin can be an excellent springboard to the Romance languages.”
But to be perfectly honest, I’m a little tired of these stock selling-points because I know firsthand that Latin learning offers a multitude of unforeseen, surprising benefits that make the ancient tongue perhaps even more relevant and useful now than ever before. Here are but four of them:
1. Learning Latin enhances the enjoyment of reading literature. Writers from Shakespeare (Et tu, Brute?) to J.K. Rowling (exspecto patronum!) have sprinkled countless Latin words and phrases throughout their works of fiction. In my experience, when a reader unfamiliar with Latin encounters these words and phrases, he or she simply skips past them, missing out on the interesting and sometimes even critical information that is absorbed easily and enjoyed by the Latin student. Beyond this, readers of Latin literature are always delighted to discover that some of the greatest stories in Western literature, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, have their roots in classical Latin texts (which, for Romeo and Juliet, is Ovid’s Metamorphoses).
2. Learning Latin leads to a greater understanding of Western History. Scan the annals of the past 2,000-plus years of Western History, and you’ll find a long list of powerful leaders, most of whom have one thing in common: they were all well-trained in Latin. American students in particular can gain a better sense of the literary and philosophical influences of their founding fathers. Legendary figures like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, just to name three, were all fluent Latinists whose knowledge of classical texts informed their own authorship of documents (think: The Constitution, The Bill of Rights) central to the formation of the United States government.
3. Learning to read Latin promotes greater focus and patience. Latin verbs often come at the end of a sentence. In the rich, complex prose of a Latin author such as the orator Cicero or the historian Livy, readers have to navigate through numerous subordinate clauses and strings of prepositional or appositive phrases until, at long last, the verb at the very end of the sentence unravels the mystery of meaning and ties it all together. Learning to get through such sentences requires that the Latin student be patient and focused on the task of translating. I like to think that the structure of a Latin sentence is itself a metaphor for language learning (or even learning in general), as the greatest rewards of higher understanding come only to those who have stuck with it for years and years.
4. Learning Latin encourages non-linear, “outside-the-box” thinking. Figuring out how to wind one’s way through the type of sentence described above also encourages non-linear thinking. Many Latin teachers train their charges to begin the work of translating with the verb, which is often at the end of the sentence, and then to identify the subject of that verb, which is often all the way back at the beginning of the sentence, and so on until all of Latin words can be reordered into smooth, idiomatic English. In this way, Latin students learn to move non-linearly through language, and they often begin to apply this approach to other disciplines as well (by thinking, for example, about the conclusion of an argumentative essay in English class before composing the introduction).
These are only four of the many, many unforeseen, surprising benefits of learning Latin. So give it a try for yourself and find out why there are so many Latinists out there, like me, who just won’t shut up about it!