Old joke in Russia: “The optimists in Russia study English, pessimists study Chinese, and realists study military equipment.”
No doubt some people will persist in questioning the usefulness of Latin. For these skeptics I have a two-word answer: Mark Zuckerberg. The 26-year-old founder of Facebook studied Classics at Phillips Exeter Academy and listed Latin as one of the languages he spoke on his Harvard application. So keen is he on the subject, he once quoted lines from the Aeneid during a Facebook product conference and now regards Latin as one of the keys to his success. Just how successful is he? According to Forbes magazine, he’s worth $6.9 billion. If that isn’t a useful skill, I don’t know what is.
The Spectator claims that “there is actually a substantial body of evidence that children who study Latin outperform their peers when it comes to reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as higher order thinking such as computation, concepts and problem solving.” But what about Mandarin, you may ask — wouldn’t that boost cognitive skills even more?
All very well if you go to China, but Latin has the advantage of being at the root of a whole host of European languages. “If I’m on an EasyJet flight with a group of European nationals, none of whom speak English, I find we can communicate if we speak to each other in Latin,” says Grace Moody-Stuart, a Classics teacher in West London. “Forget about Esperanto. Latin is the real universal language of Europeans.”
Well, not entirely. I’m half-Hungarian, a language whose closest forebears (and they’re not very close) are Turkish and Finnish. It’s on an entirely different language tree — or rather, no tree at all. But that doesn’t entirely get me off the hook:
Unlike other languages, Latin isn’t just about conjugating verbs. It includes a crash course in ancient history and cosmology. “Latin is the maths of the Humanities,” says Llewelyn Morgan, “But Latin also has something that mathematics does not and that is the history and mythology of the ancient world. Latin is maths with goddesses, gladiators and flying horses, or flying children.”
My kid was lucky, I guess: At a Montessori school, she got French, Italian, Latin, and a smattering of Greek before she entered high school. She had studied with a popular teacher who had taught at the Boston Latin School. She went on to a Japanese minor at UC-Santa Cruz. But the problem in the U.S. is that having a language other than Spanish is little more than a curiosity, like having a sixth finger. Where do you use it? Hard for me to believe I used to be able to read La Chanson de Roland in the original…
Over the years I’ve picked up a little Latin of the debauched medieval variety, but not much of the purist’s classical kind. Most usable quote from Seneca the Elder. I pass it on to you:
“Bibamus, moriendum est.”
(Death’s unavoidable, let’s have a drink.)