How Learning Latin Helps with English Grammar
It is a common truism that Latin is logical and helps you to learn grammar. However, the reasons as to why this is the case are oftentimes more nuanced than simply saying, Latin is logical. “[Latin] represents a verbal analogue to the teaching of mathematics as a cumulatively organized subject area,” Dr Joyce VanTassel-Baska, a professor emerita of education at William and Mary College, said. Simply put, Latin is a very structured language that has precise rules with no exceptions (like math).
The language’s grammar is inflected, meaning that all parts of speech change their form in order to reflect a specific grammatical function. In order to properly learn Latin grammar, you must analyze the sentence and the context of each word and determine how it is related to the other words. English grammar, on the other hand, is neither structured nor inflected, leaving it so amorphous that it is much harder to analyze and, as a result, taught through memorization. Learning Latin grammar provides you with the analytical skills to understand English grammar beyond memorization. The question that we pose, though, is how?
Latin vs English
Latin has multiple grammatical variations on single words, including number and case for nouns as well as time and aspect for verbs. It establishes a relationship between words in a sentence that simply does not exist in English. “What [Latin] gives [students] is a standardized set of terms in which to describe words in relations to other words in sentences, and it is this grammatical awareness which makes their English writing good,” William Harris, a professor emeritus of Latin at Middlebury College, said.
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There are six grammatical cases in Latin and both the noun and verb of a sentence change their ending based on these cases. English, however, only has three grammatical cases that have to cover the same range of contexts. This means the same noun and verb endings have different relationships depending on the context of the sentence. For example, in the simple sentence “the girl greets the queen” both the subject (girl) and direct object (queen) appear the same in English. They are not differentiated, so an English student simply has to memorize which is which.
However, in Latin the same sentence reads “puella reginam salutat”. Puella means girl and is the subject of the sentence. Reginam means queen and is the direct object. Switching the sentence around leads to “regina puellam salutat” or the queen greets the girl. Regina still means queen while puellam still means girl. Even if you were to substitute “puella” with a specific name, the ending still changes depending on the context. Those two sentences now read: “Mary reginam salutat” and “Regina Mariam salutat”. If this were done in English, no student would ever again confuse “who” and “whom” or vice versa (a Latin idiom, by the way).
Based on the relationship between the two nouns, regardless of whether they are proper or common nouns, the ending has changed. Students learning Latin grammar can literally hear the difference between parts of speech, which is certainly not the case in English.
Getting more than you bargained for
Learning grammar in English is challenging, hence why no one was ever excited to go to grammar school. It is also a bit unnatural. English grammar as we know it today was developed in the eighteenth century as English began replacing Latin as an academic language. Scholars felt that English should follow a standard grammar, like Latin does and, rather than create a whole new one, superimposed Latin’s grammar on to English.
So, if you are considering learning a foreign language, but want to chose one that will be practical in your everyday life, you should look no further than Latin. Not only is it helpful for English grammar, but it also helps to improve your vocabulary and think logically.
Has learning a foreign language helped you better understand English grammar? Tell us how in the comments section below!