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What's So Great About Classical Languages?

I was recently asked by a student why we study Latin and Greek instead of a modern foreign language at Samuel Fuller School. My quick response was the standard list of benefits – helpful in learning other languages, improves critical thinking, boosts SAT scores . . . But even as I said it, that list of benefits didn’t quite seem a complete enough answer.

So often the reason for studying classical languages can be misunderstood. This can be true for two reasons: 1 – Most of us never studied classical languages ourselves, and we are not naturally bent to value or understand what we have not experienced, and 2 – Our culture worships the practical, the useful, the expedient, and when asked why we do something, our natural response is to find the most practical use when making our argument. Of course, there ARE many practical benefits for studying ancient languages. But I think we first need to be convinced of the importance, the “essentialness” of learning the classical languages before we can truly appreciate the benefits.

Essential #1 – Roots matter – Through Latin and Greek, students better understand Christianity, the West, and the basis of our own language. We came from somewhere. This is what a classical Christian education is all about – our deep roots in the past. Modern foreign languages provide a more horizontal study of language that is of this moment in time, while the learning of classical languages allows us to go deeper, to go further back in time. If we want students to be equipped to say something compelling, coherent, and lasting about this moment in time, they will have to reach far back in time, and knowing ancient languages are the key they will need to open the door of the past.1 This is not to say that disciplines studied and skills learned for the present day are not useful, but there is a great richness in a deep dive into the past that should never be underestimated.

Essential #2 – Literature matters - At SFS, we find value in original texts and understanding historic cultures. The best stories ever written were written in ancient languages. Our students get access to those texts in their study of classical languages in a way that no modern translation can provide. Classical Greek and Latin aren’t spoken today, but they have left a great treasury of riches, which still endures after thousands of years. The classical languages are the golden key to unlock the storehouse of wisdom and great ideas deposited in antiquity’s literature. If the classical tradition believes these authors are still worth reading, then they are worth reading in the original language.2

Essential #3 – Scripture matters – Because we are a Christian classical school, we have even greater motivation to study the classical languages, not only those that gave form to Greek and Roman thought, but also those that honor our forefathers in the faith. By learning Greek and Latin, students can read for themselves ancient translations of the Scriptures, such as the Greek translation of the Old Testament - the Septuagint, Jerome's 4th century translation of the Bible - the Vulgate, and most importantly, the Greek New Testament in its original language. By devoting the time to learn Latin or Greek, we are humbling ourselves to a tradition we did not create but have received.”2

Although I have emphasized the “essentialness’ of learning Latin and Greek, the pragmatic benefits are the ones our modern society is likely to look for first. And, fortunately for classical educators, there are benefits galore. To name a few . . .

  • Classical languages form the mind, imprinting habits of precision and attention to detail. “Every lesson in Latin is a lesson in logic.”

  • Knowledge of classical language increases English vocabulary by giving students tools to decipher meaning in their own tongue.

  • Classical languages aid in the understanding of English grammar.

  • Latin is the key to modern languages, many of which have Latin origins.

  • Latin students perform exceptionally well on standardized tests and are sought after by competitive colleges.

  • Several careers (medical, legal, ministerial, etc.) require knowledge of classical languages.

What’s so great about classical languages? Latin and Greek are worthwhile, not simply because of their practical benefits, but because language is the key to knowing and understanding what is true, good, and beautiful about our cultural and past.

(1)“Can we talk about what happened in D.C. the other day?” Joshua Gibbs January 2021

(2)“Are Classical Languages Necessary to a Classical School?” Austin Hoffman June 2020

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