Sunday, October 21, 2012

Latin Father, German Mother

As you all know, 50% of the English language is Latin, in spite of the fact that its origin is German.  Only 40% of our English words are now derived from our ancestral Germanic language (the language of the Angles, the Germanic tribe from which we get the name of our language, Angle-ish.)  You also know that almost all (90%) of the ‘big’ words in our language (3+ syllables) are Latin (9% are Greek and 1% are ‘other.’)  Because the Germanic words are the ‘little’ ones, they are also the ones that we learned in school and at home before the 3rd grade.  In this way, German was our ‘native’ tongue, because we learned it first.

However, around the 3rd grade we began to learn a foreign language, Latin, often without even knowing it.  Our classes became more difficult.  Our texts became more challenging.  We started learning ‘bigger’ words.  The percentage of Latin in school continued to increase every year until we graduated.  If we went to college, the percentage of Latin and Greek words in our texts far outnumbered the Germanic ones.

It’s as if you grew up with immigrant parents, a mother from Germany who dropped out of school after the 3rd grade and a father from ancient Rome with a Ph.D.  When you came home from the hospital, your German mother noted that her plump little baby was quite ‘fat,’ while your educated Latin father noted your ‘corpulence.’  Your mother wrapped you in a blanket covered with images of ‘horses,’ but your father doted on you swaddled in your ‘equine’ print.  Your German mom bought you a mobile with little blue ‘birdies’ while your father praised her for the azure ‘avian’ acquisition. 

As English speakers, we need to recognize the roots of our language.  We learn a predominantly German language in our youth, and as we mature, our language patterns shift toward Latin.  However, many parents continue to treat English as ‘English’ (i.e. German) for all twelve years of formal schooling and never teach the Latin grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that predominate after 3rd grade. 

Every student of English should also be a student of Latin from 3rd-12th grade.  And that does NOT mean a student of Latin ‘roots,’ but a student of the language.  Memorizing a list of 100 common Latin and Greek roots is NOT the same as learning Latin.  By the 12th grade, students should know around 3500 Latin words by having actually learned to read them.  In doing this, they will have increased their college-level vocabulary by more than 35,000 words.  It is no wonder that students who have studied even one year of Latin score 50-100 points higher on the SAT than their counterparts.

There are many fantastic Latin programs for parents who know absolutely no Latin but want to give the advantage of learning Latin to their children (for one such program, Latin for Children, see one of my earlier blog entries.)  If you see the competitive advantage of learning Latin, get out of your comfort zone and give it a try.

-Joe Klomparens