Learning Latin

Among the many reasons to learn Latin the least important (although a sufficient reason in itself) is to learn how to speak Latin.

A much better reason to learn Latin is to learn how to speak (and write) English!

Learning Latin is really nothing more than learning language itself. It would appear that apart from simply providing the Romans with the most effective language for governing the secular world, and the Church for governing the spiritual world, Latin was designed expressly for this purpose.

The celebrated English Author Dorothy Sayers:

It is the quickest and easiest way to gain mastery over one’s own language, because it supplies the structure upon which all language is built.  I never had any formal instruction in English grammar, nor have I ever felt the need of it … the study of English grammar in isolation from the inflected origins of language must be quite bewildering. English is a highly sophisticated, highly analytical language, whose forms, syntax and construction can be grasped and handled correctly only by a good deal of hard reasoning, for the inflections are not there to enable one to distinguish automatically one case or one construction from another.   To embark on any complex English construction without the Latin Grammar is like trying to find one’s way across country without map or signposts… (full article here)

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www. OLWclassical.org), former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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4 Responses to Learning Latin

  1. Jonathan P says:

    I guess no one was smart enough – or, more likely, those who knew non-Latin languages well also knew better than the ridiculous claims that Dorothy man – to point out a few embarrassing counter-examples of “non-inflected” languages. Of course, Sayers – the vanguard of too many Christian liberal arts schools – did not have *orthodox* ideas about the origins of language, so she could say what she willed about that.

    The apodicticly assumed “Among the many reasons to learn Latin the least important (although a sufficient reasons in itself) is to learn how to speak Latin.

    A much better reason to learn Latin is to learn how to speak (and write) English!”, unfortunately, follows in Ms. Sayers confused path.

    Just as in the “Speaking Latin humbug”, we are treated to a curious caricature that rather demonstrates something other than the apparent aim of the blogpost.

    Mr. Langley, if you are truly interested in the liberal arts, perhaps you are also able to give some reason for this new rationale – a rationale wholly averse to those used by the Jesuits and Christian Brothers, with fair success. In fact, even the most audacious proponents of the grammar-translation method (whose aims seem to match your own) don’t dare suppose that their goals precede the Prussian models from a century or two ago. I’d hoped that the Lyceum et al. would know that from a serious study of classics and history.

    Can you provide any support (from before 1850, say) from sources that suggest such an idea of language study? I’m curious whether or not they exist, since none have been brought forward in other auxiliary studies of such matters.

    Good tidings in Christ,

  2. marklangley says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thank you for your comment. I am not certain I understand everything you are saying, but let me reply as best I can reading through your comments in order:

    I am not a huge fan of Dororthy Sayers either and agree somewhat with you remark about her. Nonetheless, I do think her famous essay made a great contribution to the discussion about what primary and secondary school education should focus on (i.e. imparting to students the “tools of learning” etc). That being said, I don’t think her ideas should be followed too closely in desigining a curriculum.

    I do think you are understanding me correctly in my proposal that the best reason to learn Latin for English speakers is in order to understand English. But, what I really mean is not just English- but rather language itself. Sayers alludes to this when she says that Latin “supplies the structure upon which all language is built.” So I would propose that the French, German, and Chinese students should also study Latin so that they might have a better grasp of the French, German, and Chinese languages. Or rather that they might have a better grasp of language itself -or the “universal Grammar” common to all languages.

    I would assert that the idea of learning the liberal art of Grammar (i.e. “universal grammar) through Latin is the foundation upon which the Jesuits and Christian Brothers and others based themselves in making the study part of the education of every youngster in their schools. My reading of Fr. Robert Schwickerath’s book “Jesuit Education” only strengthens me in this opinion. Although I don’t think that Fr. Schwikerath was necessarily an authority about the philosophy of the Liberal Arts.

    At any rate – the point I am really trying to make is this

    1) The idea of learning (what I am calling) “Universal Grammar” is of course as ancient as are the Liberal Arts.
    2) Latin is the most effective way to teach Grammar because Latin is the most highly inflected language (with the sole exception of Greek)

    Thus among all of the other reasons for studying Latin (learning to speak it, read it or write it), its use in the secondary school is more substatively rooted in the teaching of Grammar.

    Unfortunately, this point did not come through too clearly in my posts-

    Thanks once again!

  3. Andrew Zepeda says:

    I found fascinating Sayers’ article about her dissatisfaction with how she was taught Latin and never gained fluency in Latin when she did so in French and Italian. What is important to note is how early she began to learn Latin and how early she encourages us to begin teaching our children Latin. She is talking about beginning with 7 year olds. Of course, seven year old children are not ready for learning Latin as a way to learning the Universal Grammar. They are learning Latin as they would another language. But imagine where they are positioned when they enter high school. After learning Latin well enough to speak it and gaining fluency in translation, they can then be introduced to a more speculative investigation of the principles of grammar. Would they be in a better position to make that inquiry? One would think so.

    What is also interesting is the brief she makes in that same article for reading medieval and church Latin as opposed to the highly stylized classical Greek written by a rather small set of very refined Latin writers. Here we seem to face the same biases found in the modern teaching of classical architecture which focuses on the Palladian and ignores what some of us recognize as the greatest architecture and art the world has ever seen, to wit, the medieval Gothic cathedral. (See Paul Johnson’s writing on the medieval cathedrals.) How does St.Thomas’ Eucharistic poetry rate against the pagan poets of old? Any time a writer making a case for reading medieval Latin calls upon her friend for help and that friend is none other than C.S. Lewis, I sit up and take notice.

    What Dorothy Sayers has proposed, few have followed. Maybe it is time some school gave it a whirl to see if it works. It strikes me that this is precisely how St.Thomas learned Latin.

    • marklangley says:

      Great points Andrew! I completely agree. Although I need to bone up on my architecture! (I have to admit that I had to look up “Palladian” and subsequently found out a little about “Andrea Palladio”)

      The thought of having a well thought out incremental Latin program in elementary school is thrilling! Someone indeed needs to do this (although many Christian schools do to some extent (i.e. start Latin in kindergarten- but I think they make the mistake of trying to teach the forms and grammar too early) additionally they are generally not aiming to take their Latin any further after high school.

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