Learning the Latin language can have its advantages, but I’m not so sure that it endows students with all the rewards and benefits that everyone says it does. Nor am I convinced that most of the supposed benefits of learning the Latin language can’t be learned elsewhere or by other methods.
First off, learning the roots/combining forms of Latin and Greek will increase a student’s vocabulary. That little bit of knowledge is most likely irrefutable, though I know of no randomized controlled trials to support it. I know from personal experience (anecdotal evidence) that my vocabulary increased exponentially by memorizing Latin and Greek roots in high school. I’ve read different figures stating that between 50-80% of the English language is based on Latin roots. If that’s the case, learning Latin roots would be beneficial. No one, however, needs to learn the Latin language itself to be able to benefit from memorizing the roots and their meanings.
As for learning Latin–the actual language itself–why? Some say because it’s so logical that it’s training for the brain. Some say that it trains the mind to think in a logical fashion. Okay … so it’s a good exercise for the brain. So is Algebra. So is Logic. No one *has* to learn the Latin language just for brain exercise. You don’t have to learn the Latin language to be able to think in an orderly, logical fashion. Why not exercise the brain while learning something a little more practical?
Some say that learning the Latin language early makes it easier for students to learn other Romance languages later. But … um … why learn one language (Latin) just to make it easier to learn another language (Spanish)? Why not just learn Spanish in the first place? We could just as easily say that learning Spanish will make it easier to learn the Latin language later. Further, Latin only helps with the Romance languages, it won’t help with the myriad other prevalent, spoken languages in world (Chinese, Russian, Arabic).
Some say that you’ll understand the English language and its grammar better by learning the Latin language. But wait, English can’t easily (or intelligently) have Latin grammar forced on it–see Ruth Beechick’s You Can Teach Your Child Successfully for an *expert’s* opinion. (pp 167-171) You don’t need to learn the Latin language to understand English grammar in depth.
I’ve heard that it will help with phonics studies–those that didn’t get a good phonics foundation will get a better one by learning the Latin language because it is a phonetic language. Spanish is also phonetic. English is fairly phonetic also (depending on who you’re talking to). This can’t be a good reason to learn the Latin language. A phonics course would be a more efficient way to brush up on phonics.
One parent emphatically stated that learning the Latin language teaches Logic and that it’s so much easier to learn a complete language than its roots out of context. Learning the Latin language doesn’t teach Logic; it can’t. Additionally, learning the meanings of 300-500 (your choice) roots is much easier than learning a whole vocabulary, syntax, meaning, declensions, etc.–things that are necessary when learning a complete language.
Quite possibly a few people learn/teach Latin as a *homeschooling fashion statement.* It’s quite fashionable to be learning Latin right now. Maybe it’s a *I’ve gotta keep up with the Joneses* type of thing. Maybe not. But there’s always something new and trendy–in homeschooling and in life in general.
Maybe some folks learn the Latin language because there are curricula publishers out there writing and marketing Latin programs–kind of a *if we build it, they will come* type of thing. And once the market has been created, it needs to be sustained and is sustained partially by people that keep defending their position on why the Latin language needs to be learned–possibly. Of course, there are true believers, but there are also those that are less altruistic.
I really think that learning the Latin roots and their meanings to gain a larger vocabulary is imperative, but all the other reasons I’ve heard explaining the *need* to learn the Latin language seem to be flimsy–or rather, seem to be side benefits (side benefits that can be learned in other ways, I might add) instead of substantive reasons for learning the Latin language. There’s quite a good chance that many of the supposed benefits of learning the Latin language can be gained by learning Latin roots.
If you are one of the many homeschoolers considering learning some form of Latin (complete language or its roots), it won’t hurt a thing for you to examine your goals and the best method to attain them. If folks want to learn the Latin language, great. This is not a bad thing. But I hope folks aren’t choosing the Latin language when learning the roots would supply the same results. We all need to examine our reasons for our curricular choices. Socrates, a great classicist, said (in translation), “… the unexamined life is not worth living….” We could possibly change that to, “The unexamined language is not worth learning.”
Quick disclaimer: The Latin language is sometimes learned by those going into fields such as linguistics or the clergy. Another reason would be to read ancient writings in their original language or because translating them is desired. Reasons such as these for learning the Latin language are not addressed in this essay.