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Why learning Latin stays with you forever

What’s the use of learning a language that’s not spoken in conversation nor used in business transactions, and which most people consider “dead”? Writer Frankie Thomas shares her humble opinion on why it’s time to learn Latin.

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  • William Brangham:

    There are many benefits of learning a foreign language. It opens up work and travel opportunities, and studies have shown that it might even slow the onset of dementia.

    But what about a language that is rarely spoken in conversation, never used in business, and one that most people consider dead?

    Writer Frankie Thomas shares her Humble Opinion on why it's time to learn Latin.

  • Frankie Thomas:

    If you can possibly get away with it, you should study Latin. OK, hear me out.

    Yes, any modern language offers more practical benefits than Latin, but Latin offers more fun. It has all the pleasures of puzzle, a time capsule and a secret code. You say dead language; I say ghost hunting.

    My favorite thing about Latin is that all of its native speakers are dead. You will never have to talk to them. This makes Latin the perfect subject for introverts. There's no pressure to become conversationally fluent, and no Latin teacher will ever force you to turn to your classmate and have an awkward scripted conversation about your winter break.

    Unlike beginner's Spanish or French, which teach you to say, "I would like a salad," and "Where is the library?" beginner Latin teaches you to talk like a supervillain.

    "Wheelock's Latin," the standard beginner textbook at the college level, teaches you how to say the following sentences, "You are all to blame, and, tomorrow, you will pay the ultimate price," and "Our army is great, and because of the number of our arrows, you shall not see the sky," and, "Human life is punishment."

    How can you not love a language that immerses you in this epic world of war and gods and gladiators, where every sentence is fraught with portents, and someone is usually about to get murdered?

    My middle school textbook had a passage about a barber. Pretty tame, right? A barber who accidentally cuts his customers' throat. To this day, we all remember how to say "Much blood flows."

    By the standards of middle school entertainment, it beat "Dawson's Creek."

    That barber, by the way, was a real guy. He lived in Pompeii, as did all the characters in that textbook.

    Here are some other vocab words it taught us, volcano, to erupt, ashes, to be in despair. Did I mention that all native Latin speakers are dead? Not only that, but many of them died horribly, buried alive in volcanic ash, which is why we know so much about them today.

    To study Latin is to engage with the dead. True, you can't talk to them directly. And thank the gods for that, because what would we talk about? Winter break?

    But they have a way of getting into your head with their beautiful, useless words. No one speaks Latin anymore. No one needs Latin anymore, and yet here we are, here I am, watching my favorite sitcom, mentally translating the dialogue, and remembering that nothing is permanent, not emperors, not gods, not even me.

    So that's how studying Latin will change your life. You might never get a chance to use what you have learned, but it will live in your memory forever.

    And, in that sense — here's the secret of Latin — it's not really a dead language at all.

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