If Latin Is a “Dead” Language, Why Is It Still Taught in Schools?

Updated: Nov. 08, 2022

Latin might be a "dead" language, but it still has a lot of living potential.

As one of the most important languages in the world, Latin had humble beginnings. It originated along the Tiber River in Italy and only a handful of people spoke the language. Over time, Latin became more well-known as Romans gained political power. Many famous literary texts and scientific classifications were written in Latin, and Latin continues to be the Roman Catholic Church’s official language. Even though knowing Latin and Greek indicated a person was educated, according to Britannica, “in the mid-20th century the teaching of classical languages in schools declined significantly,” leading it to be classified as a “dead” language.

First of all, what is a dead language?

According to the Cambridge dictionary, a language is dead when it is no longer a main language or used in everyday communication. While Latin is a well-known dead language, other dead languages include Sanskrit, Biblical Hebrew, and Middle English. Here are 10 amazing words we no longer use (but should!) 

How does a language die?

There are around 7,000 living languages in the world, but, according to Britannica, “more than half are at risk of dying out by the end of the 21st century.” Civilizations evolve over time and so do languages. More often than not, a language dies because everyone who speaks the language dies. For example, Marie Smith Jones, perhaps the last native speaker of the Alaskan Eyak language, died at the age of 89 in 2008. Also, at risk of disappearing are 20 other native Alaskan languages. And that’s only in Alaska—here are 15 of the most endangered languages in the world.

Why should Latin be taught at schools and universities?

There are many reasons as to why Latin should be taught at schools and universities. “It is a window into a fascinating ancient civilization, and studying an ancient civilization cultivates empathy and teaches us to respect different points of view and unfamiliar cultural practices,” says Kathleen Coleman, James Loeb Professor of the Classics, Department Chair, Harvard University Department of the Classics.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what to say, yet learning a root language can help a students’ thought process in choosing words. “Because languages tend to simplify, an ancient language like Latin is relatively complex and systematic, and learning it makes students more conscious of the structure of their own language and therefore able to express themselves more precisely,” says Coleman.

How is teaching Latin as a “dead” language different from teaching other languages?

There are a lot of difficulties that arise from teaching a “dead” language. After all, since Latin isn’t used in ordinary conversations, it’s hard to figure out how certain words are pronounced. “Teaching a ‘dead’ language is different from teaching other languages,” explains Coleman, “because there are no native speakers to show us how it sounds or answer questions about the meaning of words or explain idioms and syntactical features, and we, therefore, have to work much harder to understand it and find the answers to our questions from the fragmentary evidence available in written texts (both manuscripts and inscriptions).”

What are the benefits of learning Latin?

Learning Latin gives students a huge advantage in studying other languages. According to the Department of the Classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “Latin students have a huge advantage in learning other inflected languages, such as Russian or German. Conversely, speakers of Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Rumanian) have an edge in studying Latin: Latin is the source of 75-80 percent of all words in these languages.”

How has teaching Latin changed over time?

Some of the most significant changes Coleman has seen in the teaching of Latin in her lifetime include more access to textbooks that help put Latin in various contexts including imagery from ancient Romans like coins and pottery and “increasing availability of textbooks and web sites that collect examples from actual Latin texts composed by ancient Romans, so that students are not reading ‘made up’ Latin all the time.”

Latin might be a “dead” language, but it still has a lot of living potential.