Posted by: mattcolvin | September 12, 2014

First It Killed the Romans, and Now It’s Killing Me

My twelve-year-old son protested this morning, “Why do I have to learn Latin? No one even speaks it anymore!” When I was 12, I’m pretty sure I said similar things.

To object to learning Latin because no one speaks it might seem plausible in the age of Twitter and Facebook. It assumes that the point of a language is primarily to express oneself, or to receive the communications of others who are alive now. But Latin was the language of learned men for 2000 years. Do we suppose that because they are dead and can no longer hear us, we therefore have nothing to learn from them?

Second, this objection misses half the point of a language. W.H. Auden quotes C.G. Lichtenberg: “I have drawn from the well of language many a thought which I do not have and which I could not put into words.” (Foreword to History in English Words) Auden goes on:

Many who write about ‘linguistics’ go astray because they overlook the fundamental fact that we use words for two quite different purposes: as a code of communication whereby, as individual members of the human race, we can request and supply information necessary to life, and as Speech in the true sense, the medium in which, as unique persons who think in the first and second person singular, we gratuitously disclose ourselves to each other and share our experiences.


Auden is pointing out that language is a medium not just of communication, but of thought: it is a way for us to think about the world or ourselves. Wittgenstein says the same: “What we cannot express in words, we must pass over in silence.” Or as J. M. Gregory puts it, “The very power of thought rests largely upon this fabric of speech…All true enlargement of a child’s language is increase of his knowledge and of his capacity for knowing.” (The Seven Laws of Teaching, ch. IV)

The difficulty, of course, is that a 12-year-old boy struggling with Latin perfect infinitives has no real conception of the rewards in store for him. C.S. Lewis reflects on this fact in his address, The Weight of Glory:

The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire.

To please his parents! Here is where it is so essential that the homeschooling parent have a relationship of trust with his child. As Aristotle puts it, Πιστεύειν δεῖ το­ὺς μανθάνοντας – “Those who learn must have faith.”

Right now, my son doesn’t believe me about Latin: he grants that it is useful for me as a scholar and teacher, but he doubts whether he will be in that line. And no amount of argument is likely to make a dent in the opinion of a boy for whom the rewards of Latin are in the future less vivid, while the difficulty and labor of learning the language are in the all-too-vivid present.

My mother knew well how to overcome this myopia: food was a shared love language between us, so she applied culinary carrots and sticks: chocolate chips given for vocabulary mastery, dessert withheld for shirking. But the underlying message was not lost on me: she loved me, and wanted me to have something that she knew was good. That is why I am bribing my son right now: “Finish that exercise on perfects in indirect statements, and I’ll buy you an iced coffee.” And off he runs to get his Latin done, motivated by a tangible and potable evidence, if not of the value of the language, at least of the fact that his father loves him.



  1. “””
    Wittgenstein says the same: “What we cannot express in words, we must pass over in silence.”

    But this was not advice to become adept speakers (as noteworthy as he might consider such to be), but of the limitations of language as such.

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