Monday, February 24, 2014

Latin is a World Language!

Consider the diversity of the world.  In your mind's eye paint a picture of the culture and language of Western Europe with countries as different as France and England, Spain and Belgium, Greece and Italy.  Imagine your painting with Italians saying "buon giorno" around the colosseum and the French around the Eiffel Tower whispering "s'il vous plait."  Now add the countries of Eastern Europe into your mental picture.  Consider Serbia and Bulgaria, Romania and Bosnia, Macedonia and Hungary.  Now paint in the Middle East.  How will you paint these countries, countries in the news on a daily basis, countries like Lebanon and Israel, Syria and Jordan?  Finish your mental painting with North Africa.  Consider Egypt with its pyramids and Libya with its vast deserts.  What do all of these countries, so diverse in language, culture, and religion, have in common?  All of them were once united under one political power and language.  That power was Rome.  That language was Latin.

Latin was the language of international politics and trade on three continents.  It bridged the gap between languages as diverse as Hebrew in the province of Judaea and Anglo-saxon in the province of Brittannia.  Today, it functions in much the same way.  Latin is still a vibrant world language spoken in a number of communities.  More importantly, however, Latin bridges the gap between east and west, north and south, between English and the thousands (> 6000!) of modern languages spoken around the globe.  Latin is in a perfect position to act as this bridge because of its vocabulary and grammar.

Fifty percent of the English language is Latin.  Learning Latin helps students master the basic vocabulary of English by mastering its prefixes, suffixes, roots, and abbreviations, all elements of the 'Common Core.'  Of the bigger words in our language, our academic vocabulary and the words on the SAT, Latin comprises an even greater percentage.  How great?  Nine out of ten college-level or SAT words are Latin.  Almost all of them.  A typical Latin student will acquire roughly 500 new vocabulary words in a single year of high school. With 10+ derivatives for each of those Latin words, a student with one year of Latin will increase his/her SAT vocabulary by 5000+ words.  It is no wonder that on the verbal portion of the SAT Latin students regularly outscore Spanish students by around 100 points.

The benefits of learning Latin are obvious to an English speaker, but what about those speaking other world languages like Spanish or French?  Spanish, French, Romanian, Italian, and Portuguese are what we call "Romance languages."  We do not call them "Romance languages" because they are the languages that "woo women," but rather because they are "Roman."  Remember when I said that Latin united diverse communities living on three continents?  That unity remains today in the languages spoken by the people of Spain (plus South America and Mexico), France (and its former colonies in Africa), Romania, Italy, and Portugal (and, therefore, Brazil.)  These languages contain a vocabulary that is more than 90% Latin!  You may have heard that Italian and Spanish speakers can understand one another if they speak slowly enough.  Latin is the reason.  They understand the Latin that underlies their languages.

Latin is not only foundational to English and a unique bridge to diverse languages like French, Spanish, and Italian, but also provides a grammatical basis to learn all modern world languages.  At the high-school level the ability to acquire new languages is far more important than the acquisition of any one language.  In our diverse world, students may need to learn Mandarin Chinese, or Arabic, or Russian, or any other of the 6000+ world languages in existence.   For example, in my experience, my three years of high-school and one year of college Spanish were never put to use.  The Spanish-speakers I met all seemed to know a little more English than I knew Spanish (and I was a muy bien Spanish student!)  After all, most of them were immersed in an English-speaking world.  However, my years of college Latin helped me to quickly acquire enough spoken French, Italian, and Turkish for several international trips. Latin was uniquely equipped to teach me the science of language learning.  

You may have heard that the best way to learn English grammar is by learning a foreign language.  That is true.  In this regard Latin is particularly well-suited as a bridge language because of its terminology and inflectional system.  The grammatical terms we use today, terms like "noun," "verb," and "preposition," come from Latin (< nōmen, verbum, and praepōsitiō.)  Terms like "predicate nominative," while difficult to understand in English, become simple when understood in Latin (students of Latin learn the nominative case in the first week of school!)  Subject/verb agreement is clearly understood through the concept of nominative singular and nominative plural (learned in the second week of Latin.)  Why not "split an infinitive"?  A Latin student knows that you can not split amāre, the infinitive meaning "to love," because it is a single concept expressed by a single word.  Concepts like these, which Latin teaches so naturally, are the very concepts tested on standardized tests like the writing section of the PSAT/SAT!  It is no wonder that students with no Latin background have difficulty with them.

Why can't students learn grammar in another way?  Why is Latin particularly well-suited for teaching grammar?  The answer lies in its inflections, inflections which are not present in English or in Romance languages like French or Spanish.  Let's discuss this concept of 'inflection.'  Have you ever diagrammed a sentence?  If you have, whether you loved it or hated it, you have seen the grammatical structure of our language.  You know that when you diagram, you show how words and phrases are related to one another conceptually rather than in the order that we speak them.  In Latin, all of those structural relationships are shown by the endings of words.  This is called inflection.  Two common languages that do this are German and Russian.  English does not and neither does Spanish.  In short, Latin shows the grammatical function of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns through endings rather than word order. This places Latin in a unique position to teach the concept of case/inflection for whatever language students choose to study in the future.  English and the other Romance languages, with their reliance on word order, simply cannot do this.

Latin is a bridge language that is perfectly suited to connect today's high-school students to the broader world community.  Besides connecting students to spoken Latin communities at schools like Vivarium Novum in Rome, Latin connects students to the languages and cultures of England, France, Romania, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.  Of course, it also equips them to learn rapidly any modern language they might need to acquire in a business, military, or academic setting. Latin is a solid bridge to the past, present, and future.

  • The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington State offers the "WEST -E" endorsement test in "World Language Latin":
  • World Languages Day at the University of Washington includes Latin among 48 world languages:
  • The International Baccalaureate diploma includes Latin in its language acquisition group to meet its diploma requirement:
  • The Cambridge Pre-U diploma program includes Latin as one of its three principal subjects:


Latin provides a foundation for the rapid acquisition of other languages.  Compare the conjugation of “to be” (present indicative) in Latin, French, and Spanish.
I am
ego sum
je suis
yo soy
you are
tū es
tu es
tu eres
he is
is est
il est
el es

Compare the Latin and Spanish perfect tenses of “to be”:

The Subjunctive mood can give Spanish learners fits.  Compare the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive in Latin and Spanish: