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Learning Greek and Latin - Benefits Anyone Can Enjoy by Studying Classical Languages

The author won an award for his performance in a nationwide intercollegiate ancient Greek translation contest.

The Classical Greek Alphabet

The Classical Greek Alphabet

Ancient Greek and Latin are called “dead” languages because they are no longer used except in academic circles, and this term distracts many people from ever realizing just how much they can benefit from studying these languages. I have studied classical languages, that is, ancient Greek and Latin, both informally on my own, and formally for two years at the University of Tennessee. In the following article, I'll explain how anyone can reap many tangible benefits from the study of classical languages.

Easily Learn Modern Languages That Are Highly In Demand

To begin with, learning Greek and Latin makes it much easier to learn many modern Indo-European languages because these were so heavily influenced by classical languages. A 2000 study by Jamie Draper and June Hicks, published as a report by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign languages, showed that over 88% of secondary school students who took a foreign language took Spanish, French, or Italian, compared with less than 3% who took Latin. However, since Spanish, French, and Italian are all derived directly from Latin, if one were to first learn Latin, it would be much easier and take much less time to become fluent in any one or all three of these languages.

Gain A Richer Understanding Of English

Not only do classical languages help us learn foreign languages, but they can help us better understand our own language. In fact, learning Greek and Latin is a great way to improve vocabulary scores on the GRE or SAT. Phillip Geer, who received his Master’s in education and has taught English for years, tells us why this is so. “Approximately 60% of English words come from Latin and Greek roots”, he says in his book Essential Words for the GRE. Because of this, we can better grasp the history and meanings of English words we already know by analyzing them for classical roots. “Philanthropy” for example, comes from the Greek words “phileo” (to love) and “anthropos” (human being), land so it means “a love of people”. Similar analysis can also help us guess at the meanings of words that we don’t know (both in English and in other languages). While I doubt that most of us would know the meaning of the English word “somniloquy”, if we know that in Latin, “somnus” means sleep and “loqui” means “to speak”, we can correctly guess that “somniloquy” means “talking in your sleep”. This, by the way, also makes it much easier for us to memorize new English words like "somniloquy".

The design of the White House in the United States was strongly influenced by a classical Roman architectural aesthetic. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_House#Design_influences

The design of the White House in the United States was strongly influenced by a classical Roman architectural aesthetic. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_House#Design_influences

Explore The Foundations Of Western Civilization

Knowledge of classical languages allows us to understand the real meanings of texts which are foundational to Western philosophy, literature, religion, theater, and law. Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations for all of Western philosophy. The works of the Greek poet Homer have profoundly influenced Western thought and literature. And of course, the entire Christian New Testament was written in Greek. Robert J. Sklenar, Ph.D, serves as associate professor of Roman poetry at the University of Tennessee. When I interviewed him, Sklenar emphatically stated that something is always lost through the act of translation, and so to best understand a text, it should be studied as it was written. I took Greek primarily to read the New Testament in its original language. Through my study, I came to believe that many things said in various English translations of the Christian Bible can or should be interpreted differently. The word “fornication”, for example, is a translation of the Greek word “porneia”, which can most literally be translated as “prostitution”. “Porneia” was eventually used to refer to other taboo sexual acts, such as adultery or incest. The English word “fornication”, however, has come to mean much more than even these extended meanings, denoting any sexual act outside of marriage. By studying Greek, I have come to see how faulty meanings have been imposed on this, and many other words, in translation to English.

Stay Young And Healthy Forever! (Relatively Speaking)

Finally, Greek and Latin are both “inflected” languages. While I’ll not go into what that means in this article, suffice it to say that it implies that these languages are structurally very different than English. Learning either one of these languages forces the English-speaking brain to begin thinking in radically different ways, and this expansion of conceptual frameworks within the brain can only make the mind sharper. There is an old saying, “use it or lose it”, and perhaps nothing could be truer of our mental abilities. The more we exercise our minds (particularly in such novel ways as learning languages that are structured very differently from our original language), the fresher and sharper our minds remain. If you want to stay young and increase your mental health, challenge your mind with learning radically new things. Greek and Latin are perfect to this end.

A depiction of the human mind created by the author using a Google AI program called DeepDream. Keep your mind young and nimble!

A depiction of the human mind created by the author using a Google AI program called DeepDream. Keep your mind young and nimble!

Conclusion

The preceding points have shown that learning Greek and Latin can help us better learn languages that are currently in-demand, better understand English, find deeper or different meanings in a variety of important ancient texts, and keep our minds sharp and healthy. So, although they may be technically designated “dead languages”, classical languages can still benefit anyone who studies them in numerous ways. And enjoying these benefits is as easy as signing up for classes at a local college (as I did), or taking a class online, or even ordering a Greek or Latin primer off Amazon.com

© 2010 Justin Aptaker

Comments

Malapani Athina on December 06, 2012:

I find your comments and aspects wonderfull! You can persuade a graet deal of people and especially, young people to start studying ancient languages and on the whole, the classical literature which are thought to be dead, but actually they can endawn us with useful knowledge of high level.

Bernadette on April 18, 2012:

Thank you for your insight into learning greek and latin and the recommended readings. I have been interested in studying this for many years but have always put it aside. Now its time to go for it! Thanks!!!

Justin Aptaker (author) from United States on February 16, 2012:

Glad to hear it, Oyinlola!

Oyinlola on February 14, 2012:

I've just been offered 'classics' at a university in Nigeria and i detested the course,wants to quit but you motivated me.

helpmeplz on March 07, 2011:

hi. im a7th grader learning roots and prefixes and im having the hardest time ever finding one thing...what do the words "three and cut", have in common but the word has to be latin any suggestions

Justin Aptaker (author) from United States on January 18, 2011:

Thank you, hemustincrease, for your encouraging comment. You couldn't have said it better when you pointed out how much we've lost as a society by not studying these languages. It is most admirable and praiseworthy that you have decided to educate yourself and your children in the classics.

hemustincrease on January 17, 2011:

Thanks for this. I am just about to begin teaching my children Latin and i hope to teach them Greek also in the future. I personally think today's generation has lost so much (myself included, as i will be learning right along with my children) through not being taught these languages.

daravuthz from Cambodia on December 17, 2010:

Excellent information. Thank you so much for sharing your story. We all need to know. More importantly, you provided the guide book.