The most obvious reason to learn a new language is so that you can use it to speak to people. You might learn Hindi, for example, so that you can talk with your cousins who don’t speak English, or maybe you’d study Korean so you can chat with fellow K-pop enthusiasts online. But some languages, like Sanskrit and Latin, have no native speakers currently living. So why study them?
In this blog post, we’ll outline a few reasons why you might want to explore learning Latin. (And if these reasons are enough to catch your interest, you’ll be happy to hear that learning Latin is free and easy with Duolingo’s new Latin course.)
Verba volant, scripta manent
For hundreds of years, the Roman Empire governed a swath of land stretching from the British Isles to the Caspian Sea. This was a multinational, multilingual state; to speak to one another, people used a casual, spoken form of Latin sometimes called “Vulgar Latin.” (It wasn’t called “vulgar” because it was full of swear words or anything — it’s because the word vulgus means “the people.”) Meanwhile, the writers and orators and scientists and lawyers of the Roman Empire used a more formal version of the language, now known as Classical Latin.
Over time, the casual spoken version of Latin changed, with every group of speakers making the language their own. Eventually, these language varieties evolved into the Romance languages — Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, et cetera.
Classical Latin, meanwhile, lived on in the courtroom (many legal terms come from Latin), the science lab (every species has a Latin name), and the medical field (Latin has been used used to describe a vast number of medical conditions).
Ex nihilo nihil fit
Polyglots — people who can speak multiple languages — have a secret. The secret is this: once you’ve learned two languages, it’s easier by far to learn a third, and a fourth, and a fifth1.
For aspiring polyglots, Latin is an excellent language to learn. A knowledge of Latin will help you build your knowledge of a number of European languages. For example, it will help you build vocabulary in the Romance languages, which can give you a start on learning them or boost your existing proficiency even more. Additionally, Latin’s grammar resembles the grammar of other case languages, such as Russian, Sanskrit, and even Turkish, which makes learning them easier.
Learning Latin won’t just help you get better at understanding new languages. You also may gain a better understanding of your own mother tongue if you speak a Latin-influenced language. In the next section, we’ll discuss the benefits of learning Latin for English speakers looking to understand English a bit better.
Nosce te ipsum
Why is someone who works on teeth a dentist, and not a toothist? Why do we describe someone as paternal, and not fathernal? Why do we talk about things being dual instead of twoal?
Even after the Roman Empire disappeared, Latin was maintained as a formal written language across the world. Consequently, while English words (like “father” and “two” and “tooth”) ended up being used for practical, everyday items, Latin words were used in formal settings. When the profession of dentistry emerged, it wasn’t the English tooth that was used to name the profession — it was the Latin dentis.
As a result, English has an enormous number of words that come from Latin. This is especially true when it comes to vocabulary that you don’t encounter in your daily life. This is probably a big part of the reason that Latin students do well on the SAT2: when someone who knows Latin sees an unfamiliar word, they can recognize the roots and break down its meaning. Latin gives you the tools you need to be able to read books loaded with unfamiliar terminology and ace those verbal tests.
Knowing Latin may also help you understand a little more about what’s around you. In the United States, you might be familiar with the slogan E pluribus unum, which can be found on American currency. That’s Latin for Out of many, one, a reflection of the American philosophy of pluralism and multiculturalism coming together to make a single nation. Latin sayings are found throughout a lot of different languages (carpe diem, caveat emptor). And how about abbreviations? Etc. comes from Latin et cetera (“and so on”); there’s also i.e. (“id est”) and e.g. (“exemplum gratia”). Even when you reply to someone’s email, you’ll see that Re: on the subject line — that’s Latin for “on the matter of.” Latin surrounds us.
To top it all off, there’s evidence that learning Latin might just make you happier. Researchers have suggested that Latin students have more self-confidence, global awareness, and cultural appreciation3. Why?
Many modern institutions, myths, and ways of understanding the world emerged from the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece. The body of work written in Latin is enormous, including history, philosophy, drama, biography, satire, every imaginable kind of poetry, and a cornucopia (another Latin word) of religious texts. This literature documents a long and vibrant history of debates over good governance and the way to live well. In addition, there is an abundance of Latin texts from daily life all around the Roman Empire: homework assignments, recipes, invitations, contracts, epitaphs, personal letters, and of course graffiti — and hundreds more of these everyday texts are discovered each year. You may not be able to use Latin to speak to anyone outside of the Vatican, but through Latin the past (and present) speaks to you: this language can be used to connect to a people who lived centuries ago, but whose concerns were very much like ours.
People talk about Latin being dead. Yet it’s living around us, in our daily lives — and learning it can actually enrich your own life. If you want to find out more, you can check out the website of our partners, the Paideia Institute, who developed this course. Or you can jump right in and try Latin for yourself.
Cenoz, J. (2003). The additive effect of bilingualism on third language acquisition: A review. International Journal of Bilingualism 7(1), 71–87. ↩
Holmes, C.T. & Keffer, R.L. (1995). A Computerized Method to Teach Latin and Greek Root Words: Effect on Verbal SAT Scores. The Journal of Educational Research 89:1, 47-50. ↩
Bracke, E. & Bradshaw, C. (2017). The impact of learning Latin on school pupils: A review of existing data. Language Learning Journal 1–11. ↩