Written by Pastor Johann Caauwe
I would like to suggest that the study of Latin, even today, be considered as an elementary instruction in language, and second, that this instruction is best begun in the elementary years.
The schools established by Martin Luther and other reformers in the 16th century were Latin grammar schools. Their chief purpose was to teach grammar—Latin grammar (Luther, 1958). This is the origin of the term “grammar school.” They were also commonly called “Latin schools” (Korcok, 2011).
In other words, children learned Latin early in their education, beginning usually around age 7. During the 20th century, the majority of Latin study was shifted to high school. At the beginning of the century, nearly half of all high school students took Latin. By the end, it was down to less than 2%.
That’s unfortunate, because the benefits of Latin are many and well-established.
- Latin builds vocabulary. Over half of all English vocabulary is derived from Latin. And if you consider just the polysyllabic words, the percentage of Latin roots rises to 90%. What that means is that the more difficult, the unfamiliar, the scientific and technological words are within reach of a Latin student. Just consider all the words that might be deduced by a student who knows that porto means “I carry”: port, portal, porter, porch, airport, import, important, transport, export, report, portable (Perrin, 2004).
- Latin teaches grammar. Actually, Latin, unlike English, requires the knowledge of grammar. Learning grammar from Latin helps students visibly see what is usually hidden in English (like cases and personal endings). Those who point out that “Latin is a dead language” identify one of its strengths. Latin does not move, does not change, which makes it perfect to study, like a cadaver in a medical laboratory. It is also highly regular, without the many exceptions that frustrate English learners.
- Latin prepares students for the study of modern foreign languages. Latin is the mother of the Romance languages of Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese. Ninety percent of their vocabulary is inherited from their mother tongue. Generally, the Romance languages reflect a simplification of Latin’s spelling, grammar, and inflection.
- Latin gives students a window into history and Western culture, and unites them to millennia of educated thought. There are, of course, the great works of literature in Latin. But beyond that, many of the greatest English authors assume a background knowledge of Latin. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Keats come to mind, not to mention Tolkien, Lewis, and even Rowling. American history is likewise replete with founding fathers whose thought and words are shaped by their knowledge of the Latin language (Campbell, 2008).
- Finally, the rigor of Latin trains students to think logically and inter-connectedly. It requires memory, a sense of order, and attention to detail.
All these benefits together may explain why students of Latin regularly outscore all other foreign language student on SAT scores in both Critical Reading and Writing (College Board, Table 19).
With all these benefits, why wait until high school to receive them? The ability to deduce the meaning of new words from Latin roots serves students as soon as they begin to read and becomes critical for them when they move beyond sight words. Introducing children to Latin early allows them the ability to decipher unfamiliar, Latin-based words before they get to high school literature or science, where they must learn biology vocabulary or names of elements.
Those concerned that our grade schools just don’t have time to fit another subject into their busy schedules might consider that a working knowledge of grammar makes formal English grammar instruction nearly unnecessary (Lowe, 2014).
The study of Latin does require a great deal of memorization, but students of middle elementary age are especially suited to this very thing. Being able to master something like a verb conjugation or noun declensions might seem boring to an adult (and even more a high school or college student), but can be proud mark of achievement for a 4th grader.
Once this foundation of vocabulary, grammar, and ordered thought is laid, a student can go on to read the great works of Western civilization in their original languages. Or they could take the grammar and vocabulary of Latin and shift their study to one of Latin’s daughter languages.
In the 16th through 18th century, young children learned Latin, and it was the centerpiece of curriculum. More recently, Latin curricula were mainly aimed at high school and college students. Today, there is a resurgence of publishers who have prepared Latin programs aimed at young learners. This instruction can begin as early as second grade. Here are a few examples.
Pastor Johann Caauwe serves Trinity Lutheran Church in El Paso, Texas. He and his wife, Sara, teach their nine children at home. He writes about life in the home and parish at shepherdstory.com.
Campbell, A. (2008). The Ltatin-centered curriculum (2nd ed.). Non Nobis Press.
The College Board. (2015). College-bound seniors total group profile report. Retrieved from https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/pdf/sat/total-group-2015.pdf
Kitchell, K. (2002). Teaching of Latin in schools: enrollments, teaching methods and textbooks, issues trends and controversies. Encyclopedia of Education. Retrieved from: http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2160/Latin-in-Schools-Teaching.html
Korcok, T. (2011). Lutheran education: From Wittenberg to the future. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
Lowe, Cheryl. (2014) Latin: The next step after phonics. Memoria Press. Retrieved from https://www.memoriapress.com/articles/latin-next-step-after-phonics/
Luther, M. (1958). Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors. In Bergendoff, C. Editor, Luther’s works: Church and ministry II (Vol 40. pp. 269–320). Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press. (Original work published 1528)
Perrin, C. A. (2004). An introduction to classical education: A guide for parents. Classical Academic Press.
Spitz, L. W., & Tinsley, B. S. (Eds.). (1995). Johann Sturm on Education. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.