“You should take Latin.” I bombard every student I meet on campus with this phrase. So much so that normally students see me coming and instead of running away turn to meet me and see how long it takes for me to turn any conversation into an apologia for the Latin language. They think they are impervious to my wiles. They think they wont be the ones to give in. But they are wrong. Eventually many relent. Frequently it’s the ones who put up the biggest fights up front that tap out first. But what is my secret? How do I persuade? Here is favorite approach. I tackle head on most people’s chief complaint.
The most common objection students give to taking Latin is that they believe it is useless because it is a dead language. “Why should I learn Latin,” students complain preparing to play what they believe to be their trump card,”….no one even speaks it anymore.” Somehow most students think I have never heard about this. I somehow avoid the temptation to respond sarcastically with, “Wait, what? Are you serious? No one speaks it anymore? Why did no one tell me, the guy who spent all that time in graduate school studying this stuff. Dang it, I’ve wasted my life.”
Oh, by the way, Latin is in fact a dead language. Listen to me, fellow Latin teachers. Don’t go down the road of trying to make it a spoken language again. Doing so is tedious and eviscerates Latin of one of its prime benefits.
Instead, my answer goes like this: You know what else is useless? Exercise. You go to a gym and lift weights repeatedly for no reason. At the end of the workout, you put the weights exactly where you got them. No work has been done. You didn’t load a truck or build a wall. You DID nothing. When you run, you get on a tread mill or follow a path and ultimately end up exactly where you started. You didn’t go on a journey. You WENT nowhere. So why did you do it? Because you valued training your body even when you accomplish no other visible work besides.
Latin is like a bench-press for your brain. It helps you build mental muscle and intellectual stamina that enables you to train your brain to learn other things. I agree with Dorothy Sayers who said, “even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent.”
The fact that Latin is dead and not-spoken is an advantage. Spoken languages place a high priority on speaking quickly and simply. Reading a dead language enables the focus to be on reading deeply sentences of increasing levels of complexity. Instead of learning basic conversation, a 3rd semester Latin student is already reading one of the classics of Western Literature like Vergil’s Aeneid.
So you should take Latin, for a lot of reasons, but start with because Latin will train your brain to absorb, organize, and assimilate massive amounts of information as well as to perform multiple simultaneous calculations. This is the reason that Med Schools and Law Schools love seeing Latin on a transcript.
In short, you should totally take Latin. It’s good for the brain…and the soul.
This post originally appeared on the Bird and Babe Blog