Why Learn Latin

This is part of the series: Classical Homeschooling

Susan Wise Bauer, in The Well-Trained Mind, notes “As you’ve no doubt noticed, Latin is not the defining element of a classical education” (188).

No, it’s not, but it is a necessary element and here’s why.

There are plenty of other things that could be considered “defining elements” of a classical education, such as it’s aims to cultivate virtue in students, or to help them learn to distinguish between good and bad, true and false, beautiful and mundane, harmony and dischord. A classical education could be defined by its commitment to excellence. A Christian classical education could be defined by its commitment to teaching the faith by recognizing the interrelatedness of all subjects, and their relation to Christ.

In today’s modern neo-classical renewal, however, one element is definitely true of classical education:

A classical education is centered on language.

While schools all around us are spending money up the wazoo on iPads, apps, or a laptop for every student, classical schools are conspicuously committed to paper and pencil. Classical educators read good books with their students. Lots and lots of good books, full of beautiful, complex language.

The first three of the seven traditional liberal arts are committed to words–the proper defining (grammar), ordering (logic), and speaking (rhetoric) of words.

The entire Trivium is all about getting students from a point of no language to a point of thinking, speaking, and writing language that can pursuade others toward Truth.

So how does Latin fit, when we speak English?

Barbara Beers, author of The Phonics Road and  The Latin Road, says Latin is the secret weapon of successful students. She points out1 that:

10% of English vocabulary derives from Greek

30% of English vocabulary derives from Teutonic languages (German, Dutch, Scandanavian)

A whopping 50% of English vocabulary derives from Latin

That’s HALF the words!

It makes more sense to ask, “Why would a school or homeschool NOT want its students to study Latin?” That sounds to me like a recipe for liguistically handicapping students. To my knowledge, no teacher ever said, “Nah, you don’t need that half of the English language,” but that’s what’s happening in effect when students aren’t given the opportunity to study Latin.

That sounds harsh. I get it. It’s a dead language. What could possibly be useful about studying Latin?

How about the fact that those who study Latin statistically do better on the SAT and ACT than those who don’t? I’ve written elsewhere about why that shouldn’t really matter, but it’s true nonetheless. Incidentally, students who study music also tend to do better in other academic subjects. (Hey! That’s another of the liberal arts!)

How about the exponential value of studying the source? One Latin word can be worth many derivative English words.

How about the exposure to specialize vocabulary like law, science, or history.

I could go on about how Latin explains why spelling in English can seem so random, or how Latin prefixes and suffixes give students invaluable clues to decode words they don’t know, or how learning Latin gives students the foundation to study other related languages like Spanish, French, and Italian. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Next up: What I use to study Latin (for myself and my kids).


  1. Latin, The Secret Weapon of Successful Students. Talk by Barbara Beers given June 15, 2013 in Puyallup, WA. 

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