Classical Languages: Latin & Greek

(CREDENTIALS: see Thor’s classics CV)

Why learn an ancient language, in particular Latin or Ancient Greek, in the 21st century?  I can answer that question as follows:

1) Vocabulary-Building: Well over half of the English language derives from Latin, and a solid knowledge of Latin vocabulary is extremely helpful in figuring out the meanings of unknown English words.

2) Analytical Skills: Since the function of almost every Latin and Greek word is determined by its ending, an understanding of these ancient languages helps to improve the students’ analytical skills in a way not found in many other subjects.  Latin and Greek generally appeal to students with a puzzle-solving mentality.

3) Structure and Writing: Through learning Latin and Greek, students become acquainted with the structure of their own language, English, and become much more aware of how to apply that understanding to their own writing.  In short, learning Latin and Greek helps to develop writing skills.

4) Preparation for Standardized Tests: It’s been demonstrated again and again that, on the basis of items 1-3 above, an understanding of Latin and Greek will help improve the students’ performance on the SAT and other standardized tests.

5) Romance Languages: A strong knowledge of Latin will help immensely if students study the Romance languages (e.g. Spanish, French, etc.), not to mention other Indo-European languages.

6) Fascination with the Ancient World: The Romans and Greeks have had an enormous influence on American society, a fact which becomes apparent by looking at any given publisher’s list of recently published books.

I offer two routes towards a thorough grounding in either language:

The Steep Ascent: This is the faster route by far, but it’s admittedly difficult, and students will be expected to memorize a large number of vocabulary terms and learn the fundamental grammatical and syntactical concepts in a deductive way, that is, in fairly large bites at a time as opposed to steady nibbles (see below).  For Latin, the recommended book is Wheelock’s Latin (revised by Richard La Fleur) and for Greek such books as Chase and Phillips’ A New Introduction to Greek, Keller and Russell’s Learn to Read Greek, and Crosby and Schaeffer’s An Introduction to Greek. There will of course be room for discussions of Roman or Greek culture, but the primary focus will remain on learning the given language.

The Scenic Tour: This route approach moves at a much slower pace, and grammar, syntax, and vocabulary are introduced inductively, meaning that students are ideally expected to arrive at an understanding of the given item through context and repetition, not through the memorization of noun and verb tables.  For Latin, the recommended book is Balme and Morwood’s Oxford Latin Course, and for Greek Gilbert Balme and Lawall’s AthenazeNote that these textbooks place a special emphasis on Roman and Greek culture and that there will be ample time given to discussing relevant cultural topics.

Both journeys are beautiful, each in its own way, and in making a choice each student should think about pace as the foremost consideration.

Thor Polson painting by Joe Paquet

Thor Polson (portrait by Joe Paquet)