“What does it even mean to have a successful Latin program?” Someone recently asked me.
I can hear the children melodically chanting now from the courtyard,
Latin’s a dead language
Dead as dead can be,
First it killed the Romans,th
Now it’s killing me.
Okay. The standard defenses of Latin are somewhat okay, “It builds vocabulary, grammatical understanding, and ‘critical thinking.'” Is that convincing?
At some level, yes. Consider how many words have a Latin root in English. No, it’s not 80% as some overly enthusiastic patrons of Latin claim. But, the more realistic 40% is still a large chunk for a language of over 2 million words. Grammatical? Yes Latin is helpful for grammatical learning. But so is Russian, Spanish, German, and Farsi. As for critical thinking, certainly Latin is not the only road.
However, I think, first and foremost we are Catholic. Latin, it so happens, is a huge part of our heritage. To sing the Eucharistic hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Latin of the Gloria, and to recite the Creed is great. But to understand these is a specially important way to cherish our tradition and allow it to become part of us. If we ignore Latin entirely, our personal faith will miss out on some of the most wonderful treasures bequeathed to us.
Latin acts as a foundational language art at our school and provides our students access to a rich treasury of prayers and hymns, a greater understanding of English roots and stems, a more robust understanding of grammar and rhetoric, and an initial connection to a 2300-year tradition of science, history, religion, and literature.
As JPII wrote, “The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself.”
So what is a successful Latin program? It is one in which the students gain a proficiency to understand the prayers of the Church. All the other benefits, college credits, grammatical knowledge, vocabulary, and critical thinking are ancillary to that goal.
At least, this is how I submit we should see it.