Give Our Children the Gift of Latin

“The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself.” —Pope St. John Paul II

Ancient Christian funerary plaque in Santa Maria degli Angeli, Rome, Italy, for a man named Apollinaris, who lived 29 years, 7 of which with his wife Virginia.
Ancient Christian funerary plaque in Santa Maria degli Angeli, Rome, Italy, for a man named Apollinaris, who lived 29 years, 7 of which with his wife Virginia. (photo: Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto. ICUR [Inscriptiones christianae urbis Romae, Nova series], I, 464. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

I took Latin for the first time as a high school freshman. This was at a public school in Boulder, Colorado, and the teacher was a crusty old gentleman who had been on the faculty for decades. In our eyes, he was practically from the paleolithic age. His class was easily my favorite.

Unfortunately, I got to enjoy Mr. Craig’s instruction for only two semesters. After that the school announced that it was discontinuing its vaunted Latin program. Enrollment was low, and the school thought it better for students to focus their energy on languages they could speak. Why waste time with “dead languages”?

What could I do? I switched to Spanish, returning to Latin only a decade later, when my facility for language-learning was much diminished. In my first two years of graduate school I made Herculean efforts to make up for lost time, and across my dissertating years I spent many long hours with a dictionary at my elbow, reading and sometimes translating medieval texts. This was a wonderful experience, and I’m grateful to have had these opportunities. Still, I was aware of my limitations. Given my age, I was never going to read Latin fluently. I still feel a pang when I remember that high school Latin class, and wonder what might have been.

It’s not surprising, of course, that my school failed to appreciate the treasure they had in Mr. Craig. Looking back, it’s actually fairly remarkable that the school still had a Latin program as of the mid-90’s. Latin programs have been decimated over the past half-century; modern people simply don’t understand the value of learning “dead languages.” Most seem to see Latin as a snooty affectation, on a level perhaps with ballroom dance, jousting, and the etiquette of high-end dining. Maybe it’s okay to learn some if you’re a historian, a priest, or a posh aristocrat with nothing better to do. But if you can’t find time to learn the harpsichord, you probably don’t have time for Latin either.

This is quite wrong. All children, but especially Catholic children, should learn Latin. For that to be possible, parents also need to be instructed in the value of this course of study. Understandably, it can be hard for parents to appreciate a subject that they themselves never studied. It’s more difficult, too, for the children to succeed in a subject their parent don’t know; there’s nobody to help with the homework. These are real obstacles, which may persuade lower-level schools especially that Latin isn’t worth the trouble. It’s worth confronting the challenges though, because young children have a specially strong capacity for language-learning, which will largely be gone by the time they’re old enough to take a personal interest in the classics. As youngsters, they probably won’t find it all that fun to memorize vocabulary and complete grammatical exercises. If you force them, though, many will thank you later.

Why do kids need Latin? Obviously, they can grow into functional adults without it. Unless you’re looking to become a Classics professor, Latin probably won’t come up in any job interviews. Latin verse plays a very minimal role in modern courtship. And of course, there’s a reason people don’t keep Latin phrase books on their shelves. But even though you don’t need it, the language is well worth learning, for a simple but important reason. It is the language of the Church, which was studied and used by educated people literally for centuries.

An enormous number of important texts, devotions, and liturgies were written in Latin. It’s a kind of Rosetta Stone, offering unique access to the Catholic tradition. People often disparage Latin by calling it a “dead language,” but this is actually rather ironic, because the language would probably be far less valuable today if it had remained “alive” in the relevant sense. Of course, Latin was at one time a living, spoken tongue; Roman children taunted one another in that language, and people used it to call their dogs and scold their horses. Across the Middle Ages though, Latin was mainly a scholarly language, used for liturgies, histories, and philosophical texts, as well as for correspondence among important people. Because it was not being spoken in the streets or the marketplace, the language stayed relatively stable across that period. It wasn’t continually changing and evolving in the way that living languages do. Latin today is like a bridge spanning centuries of Western history, offering windows into ages past. It’s a precious tool, enabling Catholics to appreciate and participate in our own tradition in a more complete way.

To many, this justification will sound dubious. Classic texts are fine, but isn’t there such a thing as translation? Why slave over Latin exercises when scholars can just render great texts in our native tongues?

A good translation is, to be sure, a gift. All of us use them on occasion, because we can’t realistically learn every language in the world. Even so, we should recognize that translations have significant limitations. Reading a book in translation is a bit like eating fruit-flavored candy as a substitute for the real fruit. A cherry-flavored jelly bean does give you a bit of a sense for how cherries taste; if you’re allergic to the fruit itself, it’s worth trying. It’s a very imperfect rendering, though. It would be ridiculous to pass on fresh cherries, on the grounds that Starburst has already familiarized you with the taste. A similar rule applies to books in translation. We shouldn’t shun them, but it’s worth going to some effort to read great texts in their original language.

Latin can be useful in other ways too, as a language that has influenced so many more. The grammar should sharpen a child’s understanding of English grammar, and the vocabulary will come in handy if he ever wishes to learn one of the dozens of modern languages that have Latin as an ancestor. The study of Latin may also help to deepen a child’s interest in the development of language and the etymology of words. Those are all nice perks. For Catholics though, they are secondary. Latin is uniquely significant for us — though Greek is a close second — as the language of our faith. If we truly want our children to treasure their Catholic tradition, we must give them the gift of Latin.

Rachel Lu, a moral philosopher, wife, and mother of five, writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.