By Jorge Guajardo '21
I can already see you, a fourth year Latin student, scrolling down to the comments section ready to write a comment roasting this article. Before you do that, I hope you can read this article and get a sense of where I’m coming from. I was once a Latin student myself, so I understand your frustration when everyone ridicules your language choice but still, I implore you to consider my argument.
First, let’s differentiate between a dead language and an extinct language. As know and are told by many students and even teachers, Latin is a dead language. By the definition that it is not the native language of any community, this is true. There are no communities in the world that speak Latin as their primary language. What Latin is not, however, is an extinct language. An extinct language is a language with zero speakers, especially if it has no living descendants. The fact that Latin is taught at schools across the country disqualify it as an extinct language. So given these definitions, let us agree that Latin is, in fact, a dead language.
Now, setting aside its rich history and usefulness in specific situations such as in a hospital or in the courtroom, it’s simply not practical enough to be taught as a full language option. The goal of the language department should be to cultivate a foreign language in a student’s head that can then be directly applied whether it be through reading and writing or more importantly, communication. Latin, due to it being dead, cannot do the latter, which is arguably the most important facet of a language. What is language if not communication?
We are all rather blessed to be native English speakers. English is becoming the lingua franca, or bridge language of the world, and we are lucky that we speak it so effortlessly. However, not everyone in the world speaks English. Per the website of language learning program Babbel, about 1.5 billion people speak English; this amounts to 20 percent of the population. Of those 1.5 billion, 360 million are native speakers.
If you look at some European countries like the Netherlands, around 71 percent speak English as a second language. This is because from the third grade all the way to high school, they become fully proficient in English because of its inclusion in their school curriculum. This shows how efficient proper schooling can be in teaching a foreign language. Imagine if everyone on the close were fully proficient in another language, be it French, Spanish, or Chinese. Able to converse with an entirely new set of people, they broaden their horizons to a significant degree.
Some say that a strong base in Latin is actually beneficial to learning another language in the Romance branch. This is true. A Latin scholar would have an easier experience picking up Spanish or French than someone who studied only English would. However, one could also argue that any Romance language could easily substitute the role of Latin in this case. Instead of learning Latin to then learn French, learn French and then use the knowledge you now have in French to branch off to Spanish or other Romance languages like Italian and Portuguese. In that scenario, you already have a practical and useful language in French that you can use in conversation and can assist you in other languages. With Latin, you may have the same advantage in learning other languages but you lose the practicality of conversing in it.
While Latin may be still an attractive language from a cultural standpoint, as mastering it leads to unlocking rich Roman culture, it lacks in real world application. It is, as we concluded earlier, dead. Even if you want to become a doctor or a lawyer, it can only do so much for you. Learning another language and becoming fluent in it would serve you better than being proficient in reading and writing Latin.
This is why I think Latin should be taught as an elective, and not offered in the same way as the foreign languages currently are. Roman culture is undeniably rich and filled with stories and fables, and the culture section of Latin class was some of the most interesting history I’ve had. Our Latin department is strong and by no means should Latin be abolished as a choice here on the close. However, students should be encouraged to take a language that will benefit them directly in the form of conversation, and Latin should be offered as a secondary choice in order to still maintain the teaching of the classics and satisfy those who wish to pursue it in addition to other languages.
Now here is where you may be questioning the logistics of offering Latin as an elective instead as part of the language department with classes progressing in the same way math does, building on past years’ work. The answer to that, rather disappointingly, is that I’m not sure. Perhaps it could follow the same path Ancient Greek does right now, where after one reaches a proficiency in a certain language by taking certain years they can take Latin as their full language, already proficient in one of the other languages offered on the Close. But at the end of it all, I am not at the head of the curriculum review and I can’t really say what the most realistic option is.
My point is, learn a language. Ideally, a language that allows you to travel to new places and converse with people of entirely different origins. While Latin does many things, it unfortunately does not allow for communication with a different set of people. Because of this, it should not be offered as a main language option but instead as a supplementary elective for those who have already reached proficiency in their previously chosen language.