If Latin is a dead language, why do so many people want to study it? Today on Home School Heartbeat, our guest Barbara Beers talks about what makes Latin worth learning.
Mike Farris: This week I’m talking with Barbara Beers, who’s the author of the curriculum The Latin Road to English Grammar. Barbara, welcome to the program!
Barbara Beers: Thank you, Mike!
Mike: Barbara, this is sort of a stock question when discussing this topic, but it’s important, so give us your perspective: Why study Latin, and not some other modern language?
Barbara: Well, first and foremost, there is no language in the world that affects English as much as Latin. We’re over 60 percent Latin-based in our vocabulary, and we learn as we study it that that vocabulary comprises our most sophisticated English words—those of our sciences, medicine, law, even our technology.
We also learn that Latin is the mother language of our most common spoken languages: Spanish and French, as well as Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. So my students get a good working introduction to five commonly spoken languages in the same amount of time that others spend in just learning one language.
And by comparing and contrasting Latin and English for three years through translating, a student learns the basics of how most languages of the world work, as both Latin and English represent the two most common language structures.
Mike: Barbara, I know that you and many others encourage Latin even at the elementary-school age. Why so early?
Barbara: Well, a student will begin encountering English spelling words that are made up of Latin components in about second or third grade. And this is the perfect time to start teaching them how those Latin components of prefixes, root words, and even those suffixes not only give us clues to the meanings of our English words, but also how they affect our spelling. Most people don’t realize that the majority of doubled consonants and silent letters in English words have a Latin reason behind them. And students love knowing the reasons why our words are built the way they are.
Mike: Just so a student doesn’t get ahead of himself, what skills would you say a student needs to have acquired before he begins studying Latin?
Barbara: Well, a young student really needs to have a good two years of English spelling and reading skills behind them before they’re comfortable enough with English letters and letter teams to not confuse them with the pronunciation of Latin letters and their diphthongs that may look the same, but are pronounced totally differently. This is my emphasis in my program for young students called the Phonics Road to Spelling and Reading.
Mike: Barbara, our listeners and I really appreciate your input. Tell our listeners something about the effect that Latin study has on the skills needed for success in college.
Barbara: Well, in the 23 years that I’ve been studying Latin—first with my own children, then in writing the Latin Road to English Grammar for other parents and teachers—I have experienced firsthand this quote from Dorothy Sayers, found in her article entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” in 1947. I quote:
I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this . . . because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences, and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.
End quote. Latin students not only have the areas of the sciences, history, literature, and languages opened up for them, but the discipline of translating stimulates such qualities as being observant, accurate, analytic, and even logical. Thus the mind is developed in demanding and practical ways.
Mike: Barbara, we’ve talked a lot about the benefits of learning Latin, but clearly there are a number of ways to go about it. Some are better than others. How is your methodology different from other Latin curricula?
Barbara: Well, my emphasis in The Latin Road to English Grammar is built around the classical method of translating between Latin and English, teaching students how to look beyond the mere forms of words to the meanings behind them. To do this, we need to know how English is structured, to translate those same word relationships in a sentence into Latin, and the same from Latin to English.
So, not only do we achieve a high level of word mastery, but also become careful and skillful at expressing ideas in two different language structures. So built into my study is not only a study of Latin, but advanced skills in English grammar in all its details.
As a homeschool parent myself, this was the best use of my time, because coordinated in about an hour each day we were studying our foreign language for high school credit, all our advanced English grammar, advanced vocabulary, and even spelling helps.
Mike: Well, Barbara, all I can say to that is res ipsa loquitur, which I guess in law school they taught us meant, “The thing speaks for itself.”
Barbara, we’ve been talking a lot about academics in our previous programs, but let’s step away from that for just a moment and ask you about the spiritual life of the Christian. Is Latin valuable there? Or should we focus on New Testament Greek instead? How has Latin benefited you in this area?
Barbara: Because much of Latin vocabulary and structure developed from Greek, they are both extremely helpful into giving us insight into the scriptures that sometimes is missing from a straight English reading. For example, in one of our word studies we look at John 21, where Christ asks Peter, “Peter, do you love me?” and Peter answers, “Lord, You know that I love You.” Christ says to him, “Feed my lambs.”
To those reading only in English, one might wonder why Christ asked the same question three times and Peter answered the same way each time he asked. Without going into the details of the study here, the Latin in those verses shows us that Christ and Peter were using two different words for love, and we get a depth of understanding of the relationship between the two of them that one just doesn’t get from the English reading.
Mike: Barbara, thanks so much for encouraging your students to focus on the Scripture, and, ultimately, the Lord. It’s not all just about academics. I’m Mike Farris.