Latin Was Practical!


So… I’m at a classical liberal arts college. For non-government majors, that means we’re required to take a classical language (read: Latin or Greek). That’s fine. I have no problem with this… on the surface. I’m starting Attic Greek next semester, and I’m excited! However, I do think that there are benefits to learning languages that aren’t dead.

I have friends who took Latin in high school, and they had this little rhyme: “Latin is a dead, dead language / As dead as it could be. / It killed off all the Romans / And now it’s killing me!” I liked that. It was funny, especially because I was taking Spanish, which in the United States is becoming an ever more practical language to learn. I love Spanish. I’m über-passionate about Spanish. Ask anyone on campus. They might even know me as “that freshman who walks around jabbering in Spanish.” I like that! =) Spanish is beautiful and practical and generally awesome! Latin American and South American cultures are so interesting! And then there’s Spain. I’m not as big a fan of Spain, but the culture there is still interesting, and the food’s good too! There’s so much to learn about Spanish and the cultures who speak the language! This is the language which gave us Don Quixote and Octavio Paz, Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, dozens of rebellious colonies and one unhappy Spain. But I digress.

My whole point is about Latin, right? My title would indicate such. And this is somewhat true. But if I’m honest, Latin is only a means to my end: why learning a language in common use is vastly important to our education. How am I going to use a dead language to support this point? By way of Ulrich Zwingli. I don’t know what other great men and women have said in the past about the value of learning Latin (other than the modern explanation that Latin makes other languages easier to learn), but Zwingli makes a point that I had never considered. In his piece, On the Upbringing and Education of Youth in Good Manners and Christian Discipline, Zwingli discusses the import of students learning Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (the latter two for Biblical purposes). I sort of sighed at this. I would love to learn Hebrew, I am going to study Greek, but this Latin emphasis is exhausting after a year or so with everyone around you having some knowledge of Latin. Then I read further… after all, I had to finish this assignment before class in a half hour.

Zwingli blew my mind with one sentence… or really one phrase in that sentence. He’s actually writing about Hebrew at this point and says, “I put Hebrew last because Latin is in general use and Greek follows most conveniently” (italics mine). What was that? “Latin is in general use.” That is why Zwingli wants young people to learn it. Because it’s practical. The language was in general use. I had never heard that argument before. With that one phrase, my entire understanding of the use of Latin changed. I hated Latin compared to Spanish, but I was not–and still am not–averse to learning the language. There is value in pretty much every language. But… the reason Zwingli urged students to learn Latin was because there was a practical value to it.

By this reasoning, Latin is not the language that modern students should be learning. We should be learning Spanish or French or Chinese. Or something practical.
This is NOT to say that Latin doesn’t have value–even practical value. However, as a dead language, its practical, day-to-day value just isn’t of the same quality of, say, Spanish. After all, you can hardly walk into your local grocery store without finding signs in Spanish and English… at least in some parts of the country. People from all over Latin and South America and the Caribbean islands are immigrating to the US. Sure, they don’t all speak English well. Many are trying to learn. But wouldn’t it be easier if they knew someone who spoke their language as well as English? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could communicate with your new neighbors or new members of your church, even if their children speak better English than they do?

On another level, if you want to travel outside the US, you need a few things. One important item is a passport. Next to that, I would say the best thing to take with you is a basic understanding of the language spoken in the country you are visiting–if at all possible! Knowing Latin is great… But I’m pretty sure they don’t speak it in China or France or Germany or Brazil.

So pick a living language, and learn it! That’s what Zwingli would say. He valued Greek and Hebrew because they aided in Bible study. The only other language he advocated studying was Latin because of its practical value and “general use.” That’s not to say Zwingli saw these as the only reasons for studying languages, but he certainly didn’t choose Latin because it’s what all the ancients studied. No! He chose it because it was part of the living international society he interacted with. It was the language of the learned. It was important to understand if you wanted to be erudite, if you wanted to study. It was useful.

Now, to close, to step off my Spanish rant, I would like to echo a few more words of Zwingli. Regarding the study of languages (particularly Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, though this applies generally), he writes, “No Christian should use these languages simply for his own profit or pleasure: for languages are gifts of the Holy Ghost.”
May we always use our study of languages to glorify our Father, whether we study Latin, Greek, Spanish, or French. =)
¡Dios te bendiga!


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