Posted from the April 2016, edition of The Cardinal.
Everyone understands why it is useful to learn modern languages, but why should today’s students learn a language like Latin? Why does the Fairfax Christian School include Latin roots and phrases throughout its English curriculum? A background in Latin has many unexpected benefits.
First, though knowing Latin is unlikely to help you talk to someone who does not know English, it will help you talk to someone who does. English has been significantly influenced by Latin vocabulary, so those who learn Latin words, their various forms, and prefixes will be able to understand and use many more English words. Even better, learning Latin opens the door to a better understanding of the terminology in several important career fields—the legal and medical professions are saturated with Latin terms, as are the hard sciences.
Latin can do more than help students understand the vocabulary of other subjects. Its second benefit is that it can help improve reasoning ability through contrast with English.
Unlike English, which is an analytic language, Latin is highly inflected. In other words, English sentences depend on word order to determine their meaning, but Latin determines meaning by changing the endings of words to show their relation to other parts of the sentence, regardless of word order. Once students grasp this way of constructing meaning, they will better understand how English works by contrast, and will be able to think more deeply and logically about how thoughts are put together and relate to each other.
A final reason Latin is useful is because of the culture it embodies. Roman culture had a major influence on Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, and its influence continues today. To know a culture deeply, you must learn its language, because it is a window into the culture’s thought. Learning Latin helps students understand where many parts of western culture came from. Such knowledge is not only interesting, but also useful. You can most effectively shape the culture of the future when you know both what it is and where it came from.