Here's Why Making Australian Kids Learn Latin Isn't As Ridiculous As It Sounds

Charton Heston during the filming of the movie ‘Julius Caesar’, 1970, Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gianni Ferrari /Cover/Getty Images)

Learning Latin, a language whose prominence waned after the Roman empire was overrun with Germanic tribes, does seems rather pointless.

The Courier-Mail in Queensland ran this excellent front page after at least one private school in the state said it would make the study of the antiquated tongue compulsory for year seven students.

But it is not as absurd as it seems, for several reasons. Firstly there are the points of historians and classical scholars: that all romance languages — such as French, Spanish and Italian — are heavily influenced by Latin, and that historic texts need to be translated.

It is also a beautiful language with a wider range of expression than some contemporary ones. Understanding Latin can mean a greater appreciation for the power of language, and a respect for the true meanings of words.

To many parents who are paying school fees — not to mention students — this will seem marginal at best, and perhaps more than faintly ridiculous. And this is fair enough.

Money was set aside in the federal budget, around $1.8 million, to fund the study of classical languages in schools, which would, as the Courier-Mail points out, place them on par with Indonesian, Arabic, Mandarin and the other contemporary ones already taught.

For practical reasons Australian students would be better served learning Indonesian, Mandarin or Cantonese. Or failing that, any language still spoken by someone, somewhere outside the Vatican.

But, even if you accept all the points showing the study of Latin is an outrageous waste of time and money (as if you even had to think about it), there’s still a few positives.

Australian students will enter a professional world obsessed with chasing technology-driven instant gratification.

It would be good, especially since we are surrounded by rapid-fire bursts of information from an early age, to study something without instant benefit — to appreciate a language that has a deeper value for being the foundation of many modern languages, without much care for its real-world application.

There is so much information available everywhere, all the time, these days that people only bring value to all of it when they can think.

Processing information creatively, by running it through our various capacities that come through learning different disciplines – for example language structure, and the bit of history that comes learning Latin – is what people are really good at.

Also, given the many errors you see daily in everything from emails and restaurant menus to stock exchange announcements, some young Australians who grasp the importance of strict linguistic rules might come in handy one day.

Finally, I can attest from personal recent experience that learning a language helps other cognitive functions. I used to be terrible at remembering sequences of numbers. Terrible, as in I couldn’t remember my passwords or phone numbers I dialled on a regular basis.

After studying a (current, actually useful) language – Arabic – for around the past year, I found I can suddenly recall digits. If you know how bad I was with numbers beforehand, you’d appreciate what a step this was, and one that has actually made my life easier. But, of course, you don’t need Latin for that.

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