I like to talk about language issues with my friend Janis Koike, who has an enviable background in Spanish, French, and linguistics.
In a recent email, Janis made some comments about the study of Latin. She told me that she knows someone “who took Latin throughout junior high, high school and college. He was a finance major, but his academic hobbies were journalism and Latin. He insists that Latin was a great aid for understanding English grammar. I, of course, disagree. I think the study of any foreign language enhances the command of the native language…so why not study a language that people speak?”
Guess what: I took four years of Latin in high school, plus another semester in college (we studied St. Augustine’s Confessions). So I’m going to weigh in here…and agree with Janis. (If you’re not interested in Latin, there’s a larger question here about a theory called “transfer of learning” – so I hope you’ll read on.)
I signed up for Latin because the teacher stopped by my eighth-grade English class and begged us to take her class (enrollment was low). (A contributing factor was that Latin was the official language of the Catholic Church back then, so I had some contact with the language every Sunday.)
I had exactly the same experience that Janis’s friend did: I learned grammar. If it weren’t for those Latin classes, I don’t think I’d ever have been exposed to terms like “nominative,” “indirect object,” and “past perfect.” Whatever grammar I know was drummed into me by Miss Walsh.
But wait…there’s more! Latin also helped with my vocabulary, and I learned some ancient history and had some exposure to Virgil.
So you might be surprised that I agree 100% with Janis: Don’t study Latin. You’re better off studying a language that people speak. (I did take Spanish in college, and several years later I got along pretty well chatting with some very patient Mexicans on a trip South of the Border.)
The veneration of Latin goes back to an old idea that it’s the best language and will make you smarter. But – as Janis says – exposure to any foreign language will improve your language skills. And if you choose a living language, you can talk to people!
Latin (despite a lot of wishful thinking in some academic quarters) isn’t better, or purer, or more sophisticated than any other language.
Most important (and faithful visitors to my blog already know what I’m going to say): you learned almost all the grammar you need before you were five years old. Most errors are diction problems, not grammar mistakes. If you grew up speaking English, working your way through a grammar workbook will not make you a better writer.
So what should you do to get better at writing? Write. Often. A lot. You also need to read, read, and read some more. And you need to get feedback from someone who cares about you and about language. If you can enhance your program with some curiosity about the English language – and language in general – that’s even better.
Have at it!