Skip Mandarin. Learn Latin. And have a drink. It’s on me.


Seneca: One too many?

Old joke in Russia:  “The optimists in Russia study English, pessimists study Chinese, and realists study military equipment.”

But if you want to succeed in life, look no further than Facebook.  According to a recent article in Britain’s The Spectator:

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.)

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8 Responses to “Skip Mandarin. Learn Latin. And have a drink. It’s on me.”

  1. Bill Chapman Says:

    No, don’t forget Esperanto.

    Esperanto hasn’t yet gained the recognition it deserves. However, all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In just over 120 years, it has managed to grow from a drawing-board project with just one speaker in one country to a complete and living natural language with around 2,000,000 speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn’t taken the world by storm – yet – but it’s slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the Internet giving it a significant boost in recent years.

  2. Julian Smith Says:

    After two years of chinese studies, I’d swap to latin anytime!

  3. Second language proposal | Sit Talk Eat Says:

    […] the structure of language itself – including one’s native tongue. Such advantages extend even to such languages as Latin,which has been credited with giving its students great cognitive […]

  4. Every High School Student Should Speak a Second Language | Stanford Knowledgebase Says:

    […] the structure of language itself – including one’s native tongue. Such advantages extend even to such languages as Latin, which has been credited with giving its students great cognitive […]

  5. ecole montessori Says:

    hello i’m pierre-henry and I’m the director of a innovative montessori school situated in paris, france. I’ve never heard a montessori school was offering latin’s classes ! haha .. but why not in order to have a much better approach for others languages like spanish, portuguese and italian ! not a bad idea at all !

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  7. Says:

    I’m just a director for a brand-new elementary school in paris …thank you for this useful material.

  8. Nicholas James Says:

    Latin is a very challenging language! learn to speak French online