The Case for Eliminating Latin

An examination into why schools should stop teaching a dead language

Posted by Murphy Shimamoto on May 3, 2021

I have been taking Latin for about six years now, and the entire time I have wondered, “Why am I taking this course?” I’m not alone in my thinking, as everyone I know who’s taken Latin has been equally curious as to what the benefits are to learning Latin. Other Latin students constantly complain about the language’s uselessness and some have even said that choosing Latin was the worst academic decision of their life. I find myself weeks away from the AP Latin test in a rush to review all the esoteric grammar, complex conjugations, and arcane vocabulary of the language. In this frenzy to learn enough Latin to pass the test, now more than ever, I have begun pondering Latin’s relevance. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that what I’m doing is mainly a large waste of time with minimal, if any, benefits. While many academics will advocate for the perpetuation of Latin instruction by pointing out its strong literary and cultural past, lexical connections to English, and ability to broaden our worldview, I have come to believe that, due to the difficulty of the language, relevance of other languages, and Latin’s obsoletion in the modern world, it should no longer be taught in high schools.

The academic world loves Latin. Professors, scholars, and intellects have long lauded the language and held it up as “linguistic perfection.” Proponents of Latin today will emphasize the literary and cultural significance of the language to justify its instruction. It has been argued to me that appreciation for Roman history and culture increases with the study of Latin. Art in Latin is also held in high regard as the works of writers like Vergil still maintain clout in the literary community. However, I would argue that Latin is not essential to the appreciation of these subjects. One can surely fall in love with and study Rome’s history without learning its dead language. Reading about Caesar’s heroism or Augustus's triumphs in Latin will not increase one’s admiration for either. Knowing that “carthago delanda est'' means “Carthage must be destroyed” in contrast to just reading it in English most likely will not enhance the reader’s appreciation as they would end up mentally translating it to English. Latin is simply not essential to appreciating and understanding Ancient Rome. Secondly, the notion that learning Latin in high school is designed to connect people to the great art of Ancient Rome, a sentiment which I wholeheartedly disagree with. First of all, we can not reasonably expect a high school student to finish four years of Latin and expect them to be able to read any valuable Latin literature. It would be like expecting a high school student to take only four years of Japanese and then be able to read Yukio Mishima or expecting a Spanish student to be well equipped enough for Cervantes. It is unrealistic. There is also the issue that those skills, designed to prepare a student to read complex Latin literature, may never be utilized. On average American adults aged 20 to 34 spend 7 minutes a day reading and this only continues to drop the younger Americans get. If we can barely motivate adults to read in their native language, how can we expect high schoolers to do so in Latin. Finally, even if one did try to read a book in Latin, what is the point? All the great works have been meticulously translated by highly motivated Latin scholars. It is simply impossible for a high school class to teach a student enough Latin to reach their level of expertise. High School students will not be able to learn enough Latin to use it, and, in the off chance they do, it is incredibly unlikely they will.

Latin will prepare you for the SAT. My mother has always told me this and it appears that she is not wrong. The study of Latin has correlated to high scores on parts of the SAT (especially when it comes to vocabulary). But is it worth it? Is it the great effort spent trying to understand the five declensions, the subjunctive mood, the case system, and irregulars to get a slightly improved score on the SAT? Some would say yes and to them, I would offer them a counter: what if it wasn’t just Latin that could help you? French is a great example of this. After large amounts of cultural exchange between the French-speaking Normans and English hundreds of years ago about 45% of English vocabulary can trace its roots to French. Unlike Latin, French is very much a living language with more than 200 million global speakers. French art also remains vibrant as hundreds of French movies and albums come out every year compared to exactly zero films or songs in Latin. French can do all of this while remaining a much easier language than Latin. Its grammar is familiar, and its spelling and vocabulary are not so strange. Moreover, after putting in the great effort to learn a language, unlike Latin, you can use French to interact with real French people who will be thrilled to hear you speaking their own language. French is not alone in its ability to deepen your understanding of English. Spanish, Portugese, German, and many other relevant modern languages can also do the trick. Why spend time trying to learn Latin to develop our linguistic abilities with English when so many other usable languages fit the bill?

Latin will broaden your worldview. As a nation culturally descendent from England and by extent Western Europe, romanticism for Rome is common. Roman values, philosophy, and ways of life are still held in great esteem. Latin defenders will tell you that learning the language will bring you closer to these values developing a richer understanding for Ancient Rome. While this may be true to some degree, why does that matter? America is becoming increasingly globalized and will need to rely on multilateralism even more in the future. So why then should American students learn a language that will connect them more deeply with the Ancient World, as opposed to a language which will help them connect to our modern one. Why not learn Mandarin to give us a deeper understanding of our largest trading partner? Why not study Hindi to bring us closer to one of the world’s future economic superpowers and American ally, India? Why shouldn’t states like Louisiana teach French to their students to bring them closer to the state's Cajun roots? In order to be better prepared for our modern world, we should be learning languages that help us navigate it.

Finally, I would like to discuss Latin teachers. In my life I have had utterly brilliant Latin teachers. My current teacher skillfully breaks down the curriculum and makes what would normally be mind-boggling very accessible to his students. However, I can't help but wonder what if his talents were dedicated to another subject. If he was lecturing me about politics, history, or literature, I know he’d do an incredible job and that I would come away with a proficient comprehension of the topic. It is, in my eyes, unfortunate that his great aptitude for teaching be relegated to Latin. Why should we waste the great talents of our teachers by having them teach Latin?

There are definitely veritable rewards to learning Latin. It will refine your lexical understanding of English and broaden your perspective of the Classical Era. But, given everything mentioned above, is it worth it? The effort used to make sense of Latin could be directed towards simpler, more relevant, and more useful languages. One’s cultural understanding could be better improved through learning modern languages. The goal of teaching Latin cannot be met in high school and remains unnecessary as all the great works can be read in countless other languages. Despite the cognitive benefits tied with Latin, its negatives weigh much heavier and so I believe Latin has no place being taught in high school.