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Why Study Latin? by Mrs. Erika Ahern, RCA Director of Education

Posted: 1/15/2015

Why Study Latin?

Reality Makes the Case for Ongoing Latin Studies

    “...If I were asked what, of all the things I was ever taught, has been of the greatest practical use to me, I should have to answer: the Latin Grammar.” ~Dorothy Sayers, “Ignorance and Dissatisfaction” (1952)

Latin Grammar provides the backbone of classical education at Regina Caeli Academy. As early as 3rd grade, students memorize the roots of their English language and, in 4th and 5th grade, begin to chant Latin conjugations and declensions. By middle school, they have begun the study of Latin grammar in earnest, all in preparation for at least four years of high school Latin scholarship using the Henle series. Families new to RCA quickly discover that this study, while rewarding, demands attention and consistency. Understanding the value of this commitment is crucial to success in classical education.


In truth, this prolonged emphasis on Latin is one of the hidden treasures of the Regina Caeli and Mother of Divine Grace programs. Far from being dead, impractical, and a waste of precious effort, Latin is the cement of classical methodology. Its grammar and vocabulary has historically provided the practical, cognitive, and spiritual foundations children require to flourish in any field of study or vocation.


Classical education is a practical education in the sense that it provides students with the most broadly-applicable intellectual tools available: the tools of learning gained in the Trivium. It does so without frantically trying to “stay relevant,” adding subject after subject until students “experience” all things but master none. Instead, the classical method relies on time-tested subjects that not only provide knowledge but also strengthen skills applicable to any field. Until only 50-60 years ago, the study of Latin was the subject that encompassed all skills of the Trivium--grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Latin provided students with demanding memory work, training in logical analysis, and a quest for integrity united to creativity in translation.


In terms of academic benefits, the regular and consistent study of Latin remains unequalled. Together, Greek and Latin underwrite nearly 80% of English vocabulary; alone, Latin accounts for 50% of our vocabulary and derivatives. Latin’s linguistic structure is the foundation for English’s structure. Students who have mastered the rules of Latin composition and inflection are better able to write well in English, because they understand the tools of writing: diction, economy, and logical syntax. Apart from the grammar itself, the foundational thinkers of Western culture wrote, read, and spoke in Latin for nearly 2,000 years. Literature, law, and medicine all depend on a Roman heritage, mythology, sayings, law, syllogisms, and history: students of the Latin language and Roman culture are best prepared to master these disciplines and in turn transform their own culture.


These academic benefits translate into real-world success for our students. Latin students consistently outperform students of all other languages on the verbal portion of the SAT; they also go on to earn higher GPA’s in college. Multiple sociological studies in the 1970’s demonstrated that Latin--more than intensive English or other foreign language courses--significantly improved reading and comprehension skills. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf reports that students in one study


‘"climbed [in eight months] from the lowest level of reading ability to the highest level for their grade, equaling the achievements of pupils who had studied French or Spanish for 38 months" (Mavrogenes, N.A. "The Effect of Elementary Latin Instruction on Language Arts Performance." Elementary School Journal, 77 [4] 270). There were similar findings for low-level reading students in studies in Worcester (Mass.), Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and even a study in the New York public schools system in 1995. In Erie County (Pa.) it was found that Latin increased students’ scores in all areas, including "Word Knowledge, Reading, Language, Math Computation, Math Concepts, and Math Problem Solving."’


The question remains, however: how is Latin so beneficial to early childhood development? Why invest time and energy in memorizing Latin grammar charts rather than in, say, the Periodic Table or a “living language”?


Latin is a highly inflected language--that is, it depends on stems and endings. The meaning of each word comes from the stem. The syntax (or use) of the words, however, depends on their endings. Both stems and endings must be memorized. In addition, there is little regularity of word order, and this, combined with the pattern of stems/endings, demands that students keep track of what they read. In many translations, it is only after reading every word that students can go back and determine the meaning of the passage.


This exercise stretches the mind, forming an intellect capable of joining the pieces of a puzzle--whether a Latin translation, a legal document, a medical curiousity, or a philosophical conundrum--into a coherent whole. Highly inflected languages--and most of all, the foundational, inflected language of Western civilization--form in the mind the “lost tools of learning.” The student who perseveres into the rhetorical study of Latin translation enjoys a superior education because her mind has spent years picking apart this puzzle.


Finally, and most importantly, we study Latin because the Incarnation came into the world in the heart of the Roman culture. As a result, the Catholic Church grew up--and continues to grow--under a Latin patrimony. The Vulgate, the liturgies, prayers, writings of the Early Fathers, Magisterial teachings, and Creeds were very early on either translated into or written in Latin, the language of Christendom. A knowledge of Latin is thus an open door into the culture of the Catholic Church. To read the Fathers in their original language is to be closer to their meaning and hearts. To pray the Psalms or hear the Mass in Latin unites us to 2,000 years of saints, sinners, and our ancestors.


In many ways, then, Latin at Regina Caeli is the handmaid of the other “more important” studies: Latin trains the mind so that it can grasp more clearly and easily the truths of history, literature, science, and theology. Children who grow up with this common thread of --memorizing and reciting the forms; piecing together the roots, stems, and endings; translating original works--not only know Latin but also how to learn, memorize, analyze, translate, and create by analogy in any subject of study. The discipline of its study requires time and commitment, but this investment pays off in dividends.



Latin Advantages and SAT Scores presented by the Bolchazy Institute

A Vote for Latin by Harry Mount

The Role of Latin in American Education presented by the NCSSFL

The Greatest Single Defect of My Latin Education by Dorothy L. Sayers

Why Study Latin? by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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