Why it's worth studying Latin

August 05, 2015
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Vanessa Manfrin won’t hear a bad word said about Latin.

“There’s so many people who say Latin is useless because it’s a dead language, which angers me,” she tells Hijacked.

“It definitely has its values, and I think they’re often overlooked.”

The 20-year-old University of Melbourne Arts student is in her second year of studying the classic language, and is capable of translating “a tonne” of complicated Latin text. She even spends her uni holidays reading Latin in order to relax. Yes, you read correctly.

“I actually find it really therapeutic,” she says.

Vanessa’s an ordinary arts student who just happens to love conjugating verbs. Her passion for the ancient Roman language seems uncommon, but she’s certainly not alone.

The University of Melbourne School of Historical and Philosophical Studies offers Latin at first, second and third-year level. Students who complete all six semesters finish up with advanced language skills, making them capable of reading highly complex texts. The uni also offers Ancient Greek, Ancient Egyptian and Syriac.

And before you start thinking these courses are some kind of anomaly, it’s worth noting Latin is offered at many major universities around Australia, including Monash and La Trobe in Victoria, Sydney Uni and Macquarie Uni in New South Wales and the University of Queensland.

Vanessa’s first language is Italian, and she grew up in Australia in a bilingual household with a love of language and literature. She admits Latin is “ridiculously difficult” to learn.

“I’ve been exposed to so many different languages in my life, and I have to say that Latin tops them all in terms of difficulty. But I think that’s why I love it so much.”

She describes how often she impresses people by revealing what her major is, but says the main reason she enjoys learning Latin is because of the incredible brain-training it provides.

 I often describe Latin to friends as being like a puzzle – you have to put all the pieces together. It’s a very mathematical, equation-like language, and it requires a lot of mental exertion.

“I often describe Latin to friends as being like a puzzle – you have to put all the pieces together. It’s a very mathematical, equation-like language, and it requires a lot of mental exertion.”

Vanessa plans to tackle postgraduate law once she completes her BA, and appreciates the huge advantage her knowledge of Latin will give her in this field.

“There’s nothing better than actually learning the language of law.”

Honorary Fellow Dr Sonya Wurster, who lectures in Latin at the University of Melbourne, says many students take Latin to bolster their law studies.

“We also get quite a lot of biomed students and students who want to go on to become doctors, who often do the first year of it to get the basics of Latin grammar,” Sonya says.

The abundance of Latin terminology in medicine and law means the language is an essential tool for any student with aspirations in these fields. Students interested in archaeology and ancient cultural studies also find Latin useful. Many take their Latin language skills into an academic career or the public service, while possession of such sound grammar skills can even lead students towards publishing or editing.

Sonya’s own interest in classics was sparked by a fascination with Greek and Roman mythology, and she began learning Latin in early high school. Her love of words fuelled the fire further.

“I like words and language. I like cultural history, and thinking about how these texts actually operate in their cultural and socio-political environment,” she says.

Take note: Sonya is not the grammarian Grandma you’re probably picturing. She’s only in her early 30s – proof that the classics are held in high regard by younger generations.

Sonya encourages prospective students to give Latin a go for a myriad of reasons: it boosts your understanding of English while exercising the brain; smaller class sizes guarantee a valuable cohort experience; and most importantly, “It makes you sound smart.”

Meanwhile, Vanessa employs the tactics learned from deciphering Latin to guide her in everyday activities.

“I don’t approach things from a conventional standpoint because of Latin,” she says. “I’m forced to look at things from a different point of view. In the same way I approach a sentence, I’ll approach life.”

It seems Latin is far from dead, and the arguments for studying it are pretty convincing in anyone’s language.

Phoebe Hartley

Phoebe makes films, eats dumplings and studies journalism. She tweets sporadically at @phoebehartley.

Image: Kevin Wong, Flickr Creative Commons license

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