Far From Dead: The Relevance of Latin by Head of Classics Department Dan Matlack

“Why should anyone take Latin? No one speaks it anymore.” I have addressed these naively simplistic charges many times in my career. Allow me a moment or two to take them head on. Latin is much more than a language and the study of language builds much more than a mere ability to speak it or hear it.

Nobles is a college preparatory school, and despite all the modern improvements in media and information, students’ success in the nation’s most selective colleges is, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, intimately related to how they manage the English language. Students must read it, hear it, write it and speak it and college will require them to build their skills with it. Before college they need to acquire a deeper and richer vocabulary as well as be able to comprehend more complex language. Years ago my oral Nepali language fluency was assessed on a scale, the low end of which reflected an ability to understand simple speech and the upper end the ability to converse with a college professor. Latin increases students’ understanding of grammar and syntax and thus their reading and comprehension skills. Foreign language study in general improves this skill, but Latin study has been shown to increase performance further and faster. Nobles’ commitment to Latin’s encompassing a separate set of skills is clear through our departmental separation from Modern Language.

Up until early in the last century many colleges required a knowledge of Latin and Greek for admission. Years have passed and requirements have changed in college admission and in Nobles’ curricula. Many of those changes have been reactive, fashionable or budgetary rather than thoughtful and foresighted. Now Latin, modern languages and visual and performing arts compete for students’ elective attention beginning in the Class V year. There are many good choices here for your child. However, parents should know that studying this non-spoken language improves SAT scores, ameliorates the study modern languages and develops the use of higher order cognitive skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Evidence even exists suggesting that studying Latin improves math scores.

For Middle School students, Latin provides a valuable discipline for the mind and builds a valuable foundation for all the other disciplines. You may hear or recall yourself that it’s difficult. Indeed, it can be, but academic rigor appears in the first line of Nobles’ mission statement and confronting challenges provides valuable discipline. Students benefit from learning that sometimes there are no short cuts. Again in a similar way to mathematics, one needs to build a foundation of study, to master Chapter 1 before mastering Chapter 2, etc. For Middle Schoolers, who are so much “on the go” and racing from one obligation to the next, learning this truth is a good thing. Difficulty must be overcome by practice, and the resulting achievement builds confidence.

Don’t be dissuaded by specious reasons to not enroll your child in Latin. Its study has more far-reaching benefits than many recognize and provides a perfect course for young students. And I haven’t even mentioned its cultural and historical attributes.

Some of these points and others are addressed more broadly, but thoroughly and academically, in a paper, “Efficacy of Latin Studies in the Information Age” by Alice DeVane found in Educational Psychology 1997.

Dan Matlack has been at Nobles since 1995. In addition to his roles as Classics teacher and coach, Dan works with the Admission Office.

This entry was posted in Academics, Middle School, Upper School and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>