The Latin Myth

There is a widely propagated myth which I have attempted numerous times to dispel.  I’ve had this conversation so many times I now feel compelled to attempt to reach a broader audience.  It’s the misconception that studying Latin is essential to a well- rounded education.

It is widely accepted and taken as fact that the study of Latin is essential to classical education, even though it is a clear fallacy and does not hold up to the slightest scrutiny; much like global warming, extra-terrestrials, and the world being flat.  I have interviewed many people about this widely held belief and have come to realize its primary supporters and propagators are the mothers of tweenagers who are very concerned with their budding scholar’s holistic education.  These moms usually have a college degree but themselves have never studied Latin.  It is very seldom they have had post graduate study.  They are fed this myth by the authors of curriculums or academics whose advanced studies (at one time) required the study of Latin.

Of the academics who propagate the myth that Latin is necessary, they are, well – academics!  They don’t need to focus their time and efforts on activities which enable the average person to make money or gain business success.  In academia the more obscure your study the more prestige you gain. In fact, in academia those who promote the study of Latin are held in high esteem because they are keeping alive an otherwise dead language; just as those who promote global warming are regaled as saving the world!

The reality is that Latin is as necessary to elementary and high school classical study as airplanes are to clear skies. (It hurts, not helps).  The famed method of study we seek is critical thinking.  But the promotion of Latin is actually “classical thinking”, not “critical thinking”.  SO let us think critically for minute: what would help your child to better evaluate and discern the ideologies of the world; rote memorization or practiced examination (also called translation)?  Practiced translation!  What builds that skill in a child; rote memorization or practiced translation?  Practiced translation! How is Latin learned; rote memorization or practiced translation?  Oops!, that is correct: rote memorization.  Tsk, tsk.

In the ancient days the scholars, the men of authority, the men with important duties were all highly educated men – some of them were the original classical thinkers.  They were most noted for being well read (having read a lot of books) and for being able to discuss those books and apply their lessons to their lives.  The most important of all books for study was the Bible (If you study Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees and Sadducees you will study “The Master” of critical examination and translation).  And from roughly 300 AD til the late 1400s most academic books were in Latin.  During this same time pretty much all other books of philosophy and science were also written in Latin.  So naturally, in order to have their sons grow up to be leaders the parents had to make sure their children studied Latin.

However, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440.  Around 1522 Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and his friends used the Gutenberg press to mass produce it.  That was the beginning of the of Latin’s end.  Today no one drafts in Latin anymore.  And everything that was found only in Latin in the 1300s through the 1600s is now readily found in English, German, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Kurdish, and many more.  So we don’t need to know Latin to study any written material on the planet!

But what about the ancient manuscripts? you ask.  What about the original versions of the Bible?  What about the original manuscripts of other tombs of knowledge?  Well, here’s a shocker, first: the original Bible was not written in Latin, it was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  Those original manuscripts were later translated into Latin.  Second: if you or your child intends on becoming a bible scholar or researcher then when that goal becomes more focused (usually in college) he or she will study Greek and Hebrew.  If he or she has time left over, then go study Latin.

So why study Latin?  I can’t give you a single good reason.  In fact, every article supporting Latin which I read before writing this commentary could have the word “Latin” replaced with the word “Spanish” or “French” or “Italian” and would be just as true, and more appropriate.  Each of these languages, if studied with the same tenacity that Latin is heaped upon classical students, would achieve the same base root recognition, the same test score improvements and the same awareness of history.

The bonus, however, which cannot be achieved with Latin, is to also have a useful skill, a second language, which improves the young adult’s marketability, makes world travel easier, and opens up conveniences which Latin cannot.  Latin will never be a language that is spoken on the street, it is a language that is read and studied; which means it is only used in a library, classroom or office.  And if you are sitting in an office then you can surround yourself with lots of reference books and translation programs at the same time.  There is simply no reason to use up brain capacity memorizing Latin conjugations!

In fact, memorizing sports statistics or the history of Mormons or Muslims would be more useful, more interesting, and more likely to help you in your intellectual conversations at dinner parties thrown by bosses, wealthy intellectuals, or college presidents.

Spanish, Italian, German, or piano even, would be much more useful, practical and impressive to learn, and therefore a far better use of time.  Not only are you more likely to use these skills in the furtherance of your day to day business but you will be more likely to impress your boss or dinner guests as you converse with a living person in their natural tongue or provide the music for Christmas carols!

So, getting back to critical thinking and practiced examination and translation.  Training your mind to think of things in a different way and speeding up the ability to translate in your head would both be far, far better developed by studying Spanish.  After English, Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the world.  It is easy to find people with whom to practice Spanish.  And speaking Spanish, I promise you, will increase your child’s ability to travel, to earn a wage, and to grow his or her business.

Here is the real clincher: all those base roots to all those spelling bee words that you are (incorrectly) told you will discern more easily through studying Latin?; well Spanish (which came from Latin) has the same roots!  Death blow!!! Spanish wins!

Don’t believe me.  Let’s use the most obvious example I can think of: The Lord’s Prayer.  Here it is in both Latin and Spanish.  Notice how similar.

PATER noster, qui es in cœlis;

sanctificatur nomen tuum:

Adveniat regnum tuum;

fiat voluntas tua sicutin,

In cœlo et in terra.

Panem nostrum cotidianum

da nobis hodie;

Et dimitte nobis debita nostra,

sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris:

et ne nos inducas in tentationem:

sed libera nos a malo.

Or try this:

Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo,

santificado sea tu Nombre;

venga a nosotros tu reino;

hágase tu voluntad

en la tierra como en el cielo.

Danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día;

perdona nuestras ofensas,

como también nosotros perdonamos

a los que nos ofenden;

no nos dejes caer en la tentación,

y líbranos del mal.

Do you know which one is Spanish and which is Latin?  Do you notice how very, very similar they are?  In fact the major differences between the two are the variations of the prayer itself.  One says “forgive us our debts as we forgive those who debt against us”; and the other says “forgive us our offenses as we forgive those who offend us”.  Sorry, I could not find identical translations and I am not good enough in either tongue to do my own translations!

But alas!!!  If only I had studied Spanish back when I was young; because by studying Spanish back then I would have had many opportunities as an adult to converse with other Spanish speakers and improve my skill (never had that chance with Latin). If only my parents had loved me enough and had the foresight to push me into Spanish, then I might have been skilled enough to be able today to make that translation. (Sigh of despair).

So let me finish this little article by explaining my qualifications for busting this myth.  I am part academic, part business professional.  I am a lawyer who writes for a living.  I attended Catholic elementary schools back when you could still use your Latin knowledge to converse with professors as well as read the Bible.  I have a bachelors, a Masters, and a Doctorate.  I studied Latin for 4 years, French for 2 and Spanish for 2.  I make my living using critical thinking and rhetorical writing. I have traveled around the world and the only language I have ever needed beside English was Spanish.  Unfortunately I am not fluent enough to get by without assistance.  In fact, in my own business I went out of my way to hire a Spanish/English bi-lingual girl so I could serve a growing market segment.  Her bilingual ability alone brings in almost enough business to cover her salary.  Would never happen with Latin.

The only value Latin has ever given me was the parlor trick of reading a Latin Bible.  But the sad joke was on me (and continues to be on every one still studying Latin).  If I had put all those hours studying Latin into studying Spanish instead then I would have (a) learned to conjugate and would have memorized past present and future tenses as well as masculine and feminine words, (b) would have been able to easily communicate with most of the foreigners I meet in my own country as well as non-English speakers in the majority of the planet, and (c) could use that skill to conduct business in a growing market segment.  With Latin I could only do the first of those three.

Bottom line, not one of the people I have spoken to who vehemently supports the study of Latin has themselves studied Latin.  My professor friends, upon hearing the financial and logical arguments against Latin will change their tone and encourage its study based upon tradition and . . . tradition (remember the classical studies argument fails).  In fact, one of my friends is a Latin professor.  He agrees wholeheartedly that if you have limited time in your semester schedule then Spanish or German would be much better choices.  But he is paid to teach Latin, and very few others can teach it, so he is paid good money to use this rare skill (by a bunch of well-meaning moms and their unsuspecting husbands).

So let me finish with a few other facts: Any base root of a word from Latin will pretty much always be the same base in Spanish (and probably Italian, and possibly French).  So that covers all you spelling bee enthusiasts.  No business will ever hire you because you are fluent in Latin, but they will put you on the short list if you are even mildly conversational in Spanish. That covers all the people who will someday need to support themselves and possibly a family.  For those who are independently wealthy and will never work but will travel the world, news flash: most of the world that does not speak English does speak Spanish; no place in the world speaks Latin.  AND, most of the waiters, waitresses, cabbies, and merchants will also know either English or Spanish, but none of them will know Latin.  And if they know some other Romance language born out of Latin then they will understand your Spanish.  Finally, for those of you who seek to be Harvard Professors or future assistant deans, you will still get further with Spanish; but you can start studying Latin when you are 26 years old and your Spanish base will make learning Latin easy!

So do your kid a favor, as well as your future son/daughter-in-law and your grandkids; drop Latin and start Spanish – today!