Why learn Latin?

Latin Tutor, Nathaniel Hunt, talks about the benefits of studying Latin.

1. Who is learning Latin in Hong Kong?

There are more Latin learners in Hong Kong than you might expect! From my own experience, the largest part of the cohort is those who are about to transition to UK education, or who have already transitioned and are looking for a booster in between terms. In many UK schools, the study of Latin is a core part of the curriculum, and we endeavour to make sure Latin is something for which they are both well prepared and excited.

Other students of Latin normally fall into one of two categories: voracious readers of myths and ancient history who are interested in further immersing themselves, and students who are already talented linguists looking to add another arrow to their quiver. Latin has a lot to offer for both types of learners, and it is not uncommon to see students who initially take on Latin as a casual extracurricular pursuit then make a stronger commitment by choosing it as a GCSE or A-Level/IB option.

2. Why learn a dead language?

There are several reasons why it can be beneficial:

  • Learning Latin offers the chance to explore ancient history and culture.

  • Studying a ‘dead’ language brings the same cognitive benefits as a living language, such as improved memory skills.

  • Latin survives in the form of its modern Romance language descendents: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. Picking up any of these will be significantly easier with an existing knowledge of Latin.

3. Does learning Latin have any cross-disciplinary benefits?

Absolutely! First and foremost, a working knowledge of Latin will help students with mastering other languages. The most obvious beneficiaries of this are French, Spanish and Italian, which draw most of their vocabulary from Latin. Not only will these connections help students decipher unknown words in their reading and conversations, but being able to relate new words to their existing Latin vocabulary will help ensure long-term memory. English, too, has its roots in Latin, and the two work well together when students are expanding their vocabulary or delving into the works of Shakespeare and Dickens. From my own experience, I would also point to Latin as a vital tool in helping develop a strong understanding of Russian grammar; the two share many concepts for which counterparts do not exist in English. Students of German will also be able to reap the rewards of this symmetry.

Beyond the realm of languages, Latin ties into a variety of other subjects. Reading Latin passages by authors such as Cicero and Julius Caesar himself ties in with the historical skills of source analysis and piecing together a picture of the past. Latin’s grammatical system is a hearty mental challenge, which triggers the same areas of the brain as Maths. Finally, many technical terms in the spheres of law, science and medicine are of Latin origin; a strong foundation in Latin will help a student ease into these disciplines later.

4. What exercises might you do in a Latin lesson?

The methods used in the Latin classroom have thankfully changed since the days of yore, where learning verb and noun endings by rote was often the order of the day. Part of my task is helping students absorb the necessary grammatical knowledge without assigning onerous memorisation tasks. Reading remains important, and I make sure to select passages that cater to an individual student’s interests - whether that be warfare, gods and goddess, or different parts of the Roman Empire. Some of this reading is in the form of conversations that might have taken place in Roman households or businesses, and students always enjoy playing the role of a character and bringing them to life.

Indispensable too are the historical and mythological tangents that Latin allows students to explore. From the eruption of Vesuvius to the Roman conquest of Britain, and from Icarus’ regrettable oversight to Paris’ big decision, students have the opportunity to discuss captivating stories from the past. One of my favourite activities is to challenge students to modernise a myth. One student decided to bring the Tasks of Hercules into the present day, resulting in much less slaying of beasts and much more unsubscribing from spam emails!

Sentence and story construction is conspicuously absent from much of the British Latin curriculum, and is treated as something of an afterthought. This is a huge shame, as students in my classes are often most enthusiastic about this! It helps transform Latin from a series of words on a page to a living language that students can wield to tell funny and surreal stories. The nature of Latin helps it distinguish itself in this arena. In French or Spanish, you might write about your daily routine or describe your local area. In Latin, we’re often writing about clashes with the gods or epic battles!

5. Give us some Latin to love...

My favourite phrase would have to be ‘alea iacta est.’ (The die is cast.) Attributed to Julius Caesar as he crossed the Rubicon on his way to seize power, I apply it in my own life in a much less militaristic way! For me, this phrase extols the benefits of not worrying about events or things over which you have no control.


Nathaniel Hunt

Nathaniel Hunt is a Humanities and Classics tutor with British Tutors. He holds a first class degree from Oxford University in Modern Languages.