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Why Learn Latin

This is part of the series: Classical Homeschooling

Susan Wise Bauer, in The Well-Trained Mind, notes “As you’ve no doubt noticed, Latin is not the defining element of a classical education” (188).

No, it’s not, but it is a necessary element and here’s why.

There are plenty of other things that could be considered “defining elements” of a classical education, such as it’s aims to cultivate virtue in students, or to help them learn to distinguish between good and bad, true and false, beautiful and mundane, harmony and dischord. A classical education could be defined by its commitment to excellence. A Christian classical education could be defined by its commitment to teaching the faith by recognizing the interrelatedness of all subjects, and their relation to Christ.

In today’s modern neo-classical renewal, however, one element is definitely true of classical education:

A classical education is centered on language.

While schools all around us are spending money up the wazoo on iPads, apps, or a laptop for every student, classical schools are conspicuously committed to paper and pencil. Classical educators read good books with their students. Lots and lots of good books, full of beautiful, complex language.

The first three of the seven traditional liberal arts are committed to words–the proper defining (grammar), ordering (logic), and speaking (rhetoric) of words.

The entire Trivium is all about getting students from a point of no language to a point of thinking, speaking, and writing language that can pursuade others toward Truth.

So how does Latin fit, when we speak English?

Barbara Beers, author of The Phonics Road and  The Latin Road, says Latin is the secret weapon of successful students. She points out1 that:

10% of English vocabulary derives from Greek

30% of English vocabulary derives from Teutonic languages (German, Dutch, Scandanavian)

A whopping 50% of English vocabulary derives from Latin

That’s HALF the words!

It makes more sense to ask, “Why would a school or homeschool NOT want its students to study Latin?” That sounds to me like a recipe for liguistically handicapping students. To my knowledge, no teacher ever said, “Nah, you don’t need that half of the English language,” but that’s what’s happening in effect when students aren’t given the opportunity to study Latin.

That sounds harsh. I get it. It’s a dead language. What could possibly be useful about studying Latin?

How about the fact that those who study Latin statistically do better on the SAT and ACT than those who don’t? I’ve written elsewhere about why that shouldn’t really matter, but it’s true nonetheless. Incidentally, students who study music also tend to do better in other academic subjects. (Hey! That’s another of the liberal arts!)

How about the exponential value of studying the source? One Latin word can be worth many derivative English words.

How about the exposure to specialize vocabulary like law, science, or history.

I could go on about how Latin explains why spelling in English can seem so random, or how Latin prefixes and suffixes give students invaluable clues to decode words they don’t know, or how learning Latin gives students the foundation to study other related languages like Spanish, French, and Italian. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Next up: What I use to study Latin (for myself and my kids).


  1. Latin, The Secret Weapon of Successful Students. Talk by Barbara Beers given June 15, 2013 in Puyallup, WA. 
Rhiannon Kutzer

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Nice to meet you!

I’m Rhiannon.

You can call me Rhi for short (as in “rejoice”). I’m a fiercely independent homeschooling mom of five, a Navy wife of 13 years, and a creator of various things: articles, a semi-regular newsletter, quilts, furniture, and the occasional knitted scarf. This is the site where I write about our homeschool journey and news and happenings in the homeschool world. more about me.

Rhiannon

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  • PSA: Don’t let curriculum publishers and internet ads scare you into thinking you NEED to buy their products to get your kids a solid education. #askamom #momsmentoringmoms
  • #Homeschooling when you didn’t choose it:
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I would feel totally overwhelmed and underprepared if I were in your shoes. Homeschooling is hard even when you did choose it. We’ve changed a little, too. Every meal is a reading meal these days if the kids want that. (They do🤓.)
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So, please ask me all your questions. I and other HSing mamas in your community have YEARS of experience with this atypical version of education. How can we help you and your specific kids in your specific situation? We have learned a lot of things the hard way and we are happy to help make this time smoother for you.
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What I desperately hope: those of you stuck in a situation you didn’t want AT ALL, might come to see education a little differently. It can be flexible. It can happen over the course of a whole day, with snacks, outside time, screen time, and play interspersed between lessons.
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This type of education is more about LIFE and HOME than you might think. While your students may be doing the same work assigned by the school, the setting change from school to home will change almost everything else about their educational experience this semester.
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Here are my two favorite tips to get you started:
1. Use short lessons. 
2. Alternate between types of work.
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The younger the kids, the shorter the lessons. Ballpark: elementary should be 15-30min/subject max. Middle school 30-45min/subject max.
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How does this look? Have your student read for 15 min, then do something physical for 15, then do handwriting for 15. That kind of a thing. “A change is as good as a rest."
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Don’t expect elementary kids to complete the whole assignment in such a short lesson. Just expect focused attention for that time, no matter how far he gets in the work. That builds the habit of, “when we sit to do school, we focus on school.” If you have to do 5 or 10 minute lessons because that’s all he had the attention for, that’s totally normal. Build up to longer periods, but it’s not really reasonable developmentally to expect hour-long math sessions for very young students. Those lead to tears. Ask me how I know.
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