In School in Germany: Teaching Latin
There is a German saying that is stressed in the classroom at both the university as well as in school:
You don’t know about history unless you’ve mastered Latin.
Yet this argument can be encountered with that of Latin not being relevant to the curriculum:
Latin is dead, and so is Caesar!
In all the years I’ve been teaching English here in Germany, there is no subject that has been overly stressed as the language you have to master other than Latin. What is understood by Latin is NOT in connection with Latin American dances! If you connect these two elements, then you best move down to Costa Rica or Ecuador where you can get your training in.
Latin is a combination of language and history into one. Language because almost every single language derives from Latin, including English and German, as well as the Romance languages, like French, Spanish and Italian. Even the alphabet was adopted from Latin. It is one of the most logical languages ever to be taught in the classroom, yet also the most difficult if you struggle with grammar. History because Latin originated from the Roman Empire. At the peak of its powerful existence in 117 AD, all of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia were dominated by the Romans, and each culture occupied by the Empire adopted the vocabulary and the grammar rules pertaining to Latin. Even when the Empire ceased to exist in 476 AD (with the dissolving of the western kingdom through Odoacer and the relocation of the eastern Roman capital to Constantinople in 395 AD) elements of Latin were soon integrated into the languages of the areas once conquered, without knowing the fact that the languages we speak are derived from Latin.
There are many reasons why Latin is important and why some schools that have not introduced it should, based on my observations during my practical training as a high school teacher in Germany. Here are some reasons:
1. Grammar: The grammatical structure of each language originated from the Latin language, including some elements that exist in the English and German language. This includes various verb forms and tenses, articles and even suffixes that even exist today, just to name a few.
2. Vocabulary: No matter if it is from religion, history or even everyday use, it is certain that the majority of words we use have their origin in the Latin language. In fact, over half of our words in English come from Latin, 30 percent come from French thanks to the 1066 Norman Conquest of English, and the rest come from other languages, whose words we ended up adopting, including Spanish, German, Russian and even the Natives.
3. History: As a general rule of thumb, all forms of history run through Rome. Latin allows a student to learn more about the history of civilization, how empires rise, fall and be conquered, how certain sports like wrestling and track had its origins in Rome, political systems that exist today were formed, how buildings and the infrastructure were formed, and how half of philosophy had its origin (the other half came from the Greek side before the Romans conquered the country).
4. Foreign Languages: Latin serves as a key bridge connecting foreign languages, like the Overseas Highway connecting the islands in the Florida Keys. People having the basis of Latin are more likely to pick up languages in the same family more quickly than those with no foundation. The reason is the common traits that the languages share, in particular, with vocabulary. Another reason why more Americans should pick up Spanish and Canadians should also learn French. It has nothing to do with the minorities living there or any immigrants moving to these parts.
5. Translation Skills: Latin provides students a chance to learn how to translate from one language to another, avoiding pitfalls in the process. This is important for Latin is a bridge between two languages and some words do have similarities thanks to this language.
6. Religion: While Martin Luther became the first person to translate the Bible into another language (German) in 1587, much of the text about the rise, fall and ascension of Christ are still found in Latin, and in either the Bible, forms of music, or both. Speaking from experience singing for choirs in high school and college, it is important to have a true meaning of the song when reading the lyrics in Latin. Try Kyrie, Mozart’s Requieum and Agnus Dei, and you will understand why. With Latin you can decipher the meanings as you perform this at a concert.
Keeping these facts in mind, the next question is when and how to learn Latin. The first answer I can give you right now: as early as possible. Schools in Germany start with Latin in the sixth grade, and students are expected to learn Latin until they graduate. Yet given the course load students have to deal with and the degree of difficulty Latin has to offer, Latin should be given in medicinal sips until students have the basic foundation. The best way to approach Latin is to have the class run parallel to the ancient history class at the beginning, whereby in Latin, history is provided as background information but vocabulary and grammar are in the foreground. This way students can have a grasp at the language before learning how to translate from Latin into English.
In Germany, as the language is more logical than English, it is especially important that students are able to translate from Latin into German without having to commit many grammar mistakes in the German language. That is why one can expect a session to look like something I observed many times during my practical training as a teacher: Vocabulary review from last session, History (background info) for session, dictation in Latin, new vocabulary, translation, homework- learning new vocabulary and translation. In the end, tests that are more often than the tests in other classes. Materials in a form of book and supplemental materials are used very often, and frontal teaching (especially for vocabulary) is used almost exclusively. Tough if you lose track or are frustrated with the language, but effective.
But this is one way of learning Latin, albeit it is easy to learn it that way. There are many ways Latin can be taught in the classroom. It is a question of when to start teaching it in schools that don’t have it yet. But keep in mind: just because Latin is dead, it doesn’t mean it can exist in a different form, as seen under the various reasons why Latin should be introduced in the classroom. The danger of not introducing Latin in schools is as grave as life without bees. Without the bees, life cannot exist because they do a great deal for the food chain. Without Latin, we become too one-dimensional in our thinking. We have seen this in the US with several schools not even having foreign languages in the classroom, which is fatal to the development of the country and its influence throughout the world. But having such basics like Latin can open the doors to new dimensions and avert this ignorance.
To end this article, there is a nice German saying worth thinking about: Ich bin nicht am Ende mit meinem Latein, sondern am Anfang. I’m not at my end with Latin but right at the beginning. The most basics can make a big difference in the long term, especially as all roads go through Rome.