To learn or not to learn Latin, that is the question! 

by Anna-Sophie Bulder

Latin is a language, as dead as dead can be. It killed the ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me!

This rhyme is known by many Latin pupils and teachers and I have heard my own pupils cheerfully chant it a few times and my dramatic reaction to it gives them a good old laugh. They know how much I love all things Latin and especially the stories about Caecilius, a character from the Cambridge Latin Course. I do believe, or secretly hope, that most of my pupils actually enjoy reading about the household of Caecilius and finding out what silly things his slaves, Clemens and Grumio, have been up to or what happens to his dog, Cerberus, at the end of Book One.

However, as teachers we cannot assume that pupils will find our subject interesting just because we intrinsically enjoy studying it. It is common for pupils to respond in a disgruntled fashion when they have to translate or read long texts, especially when they are in a language that is not even spoken anymore, nor has been for a very long time! Indeed, pupils will never even have to do a Latin oral examination in school or ask for directions to the train station in Latin. Moreover, a lot of pupils often believe that learning Latin is too demanding and difficult. As a result, many easily dismiss Latin as a subject that has little relevance to their own lives or is only accessible to the most academic pupils.

Interestingly, since the second half of the 20th century the importance placed on Latin in the education system has been in decline because of its perceived lack of relevance, difficulty, as well as it being thought of as socially elitist. But if Latin is perceived by so many in a negative light, why do we still want our pupils to master the subject?

Many know that Latin is the building block for many other languages. It is the ancestral language of the Romance languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish, and over half of the English language derives partly through these and partly directly from Latin. By having an understanding of Latin vocabulary and the principles of grammar, it will be easier for pupils to learn other modern foreign languages. For example, the Latin word civis meaning citizen, can be transformed into a handful of English derivatives: civic – of or pertaining to citizens, civility – politeness; civil rights – rights of a citizen; and civil law – law protecting the private rights of citizens.

Another argument for studying Latin is that the Romans did not only influence our language but also our culture, literature, architecture, and political and legal systems. Many ageless social, political and moral issues can be explored through Roman history. Form 4 is currently analysing ancient sources to explain why Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Their knowledge of the three major political phases and the different classes in Roman society is helping them to question the motives of Caesar’s rivals. Soon, they will be able to make their own informed judgements about Caesar’s rise and fall. Through other significant Roman events, developments and people, pupils will also assess Roman slavery, marriage, citizenship, wealth and property. This gives them the opportunity to study a fascinating, shocking and surprising past while using transferable skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Latin develops problem solving skills, which I believe is the most important reason for teaching Latin at preparatory school. In order to construe and read original Latin texts, pupils need to analyse each word in the sentence carefully. This is important because Latin often has a different word order from English. Latin nouns also change their endings depending upon their role in the sentence; the six cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, and ablative) explain these different roles and the cases also change depending upon the number, singular or plural, and gender, masculine, feminine or neuter. Nouns belong to different groups (declensions) that share the same endings for the cases, but it gets even trickier as some nouns are irregular in their stem and some cases look the same! Verbs likewise belong to different groups (conjugations), which are dependent upon the different vowels in its infinitive. Now, verbs also have different stems and endings for each person, number and tense. There are of course plenty of irregular verbs that need to be memorised. The point I am trying to make is that there is so much to remember, but rote learning vocabulary and grammar rules allows pupils to apply this knowledge to simple translations progressively. This type of ‘hard’ work builds character, trains the mind and develops logical and systematic thinking, allowing pupils to solve any problem that comes their way, in or outside the classroom.

Let me give you an example of this kind of problem solving. The Latin sentence servus puellae epistulam ostendebat needs to be picked apart completely in order for us to translate it correctly. First, we need to recall the English meaning of each Latin word: servus – slave; puella – girl; epistula – letter; and ostendo means I show. We then need to look at how the endings have been manipulated: the noun servus ends in –us, which means it is in the nominative case (the subject), masculine in gender, singular in number, and follows the 2nd declension; the noun puellae ends in –ae, so it is in dative case (indirect object), feminine in gender, plural in number and part of the 1st declension; the noun epistulam ends in –am, telling me it is the accusative case (direct object), feminine in gender, singular in number and also in the 1st declension; the verb ostendebat ends in –bat, which highlights it is the imperfect tense (continuous action in the past ) and the third person singular. Since we understand the structure of this Latin sentence, we can now translate it as: The slave was showing the letter to the girl.

In truth, for the past two millennia, the Romans’ influence has remained constant in so many aspects of our lives. Thus when pupils are studying the Latin language, they are accessing not only the world of the ancient Romans but also exploring the foundations of their modern Western world. The question then remains, how can we help pupils to recognise the value of Latin to their own lives? As teachers we must look for opportunities to relate the past to the present and the future so that our pupils can understand why they are studying the classical world. It can be challenging to do this in a convincing way, but luckily our engaging teaching methods ensure that learning Latin is relevant, fun and transferable.

Children in Latin lessons