According to legend, the Latin language was adopted by the people of Rome around the time the city was founded (753 B.C.). It was named for the surrounding region. The people of that city went on to dominate the whole Italian peninsula and establish an empire on the three continents surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The influence of this empire brought the Latin language to the the whole world. When the empire declined and disappeared by around A.D. 500, the Latin language was preserved by scholars and missionaries like the Irish monk Columba. They preserved the light of classical history and civilization through several centuries when it had crumbled and morphed into feudal kingdoms. Then in the Renaissance, students of history made a special effort to revive the learning that had been lost. Latin once again flourished, now used in schools, government, and religious settings. As in the Roman Empire, people in various places had their own languages and customs, but the Latin language was a way they could all communicate.
Classical schools teach Latin or sometimes Greek. They can also teach other languages. Languages like Spanish are taught as an elective to acquaint students with foreign culture and perhaps enable students to become fluent speakers, readers, and writers. When they are offered, those language courses are optional. They are a way that students can specialize their education, because so many languages are spoken in the world, and different students will want to pursue their particular interests. That’s entirely and completely different from the reason classical schools teach Latin or Greek.
When a classical school teaches Latin, students learn about the classical heritage of western civilization. They can join in the great conversation between some of the best minds in history. But more importantly, students learn the nuts and bolts of language itself. It’s easier to develop a mastery of language using Latin than using English or another modern language. English is a moving target, and its rules are chaotic in comparison to Latin. Students who are native English speakers have learned it naturally, and naturally presume to know it well without understanding how it works. Studying the stable grammar of Latin allows a scholar to set aside that presumption along with the frustration of constantly-changing inconsistencies.
Practically speaking, most English vocabulary comes from words borrowed originally from Latin, so familiarity with one Latin word produces a deeper understanding of many English words. Latin also helps with certain foreign languages of the present day, such as Spanish and French. Latin itself is still used worldwide for terminology in the fields of science, medicine, law, and theology.
When a student understands how language works in general, this understanding gives the ability to think in disciplined ways and communicate those thoughts effectively. It enhances the understanding of what is heard or read in the work of others. It helps to distinguish between sense and nonsense. Coupled with logic, an understanding of language allows the student to more easily and more beautifully express things worth saying. Even math and science are fundamentally based on an understanding of language.
The study of Latin or Greek is not considered a specialized option at a classical school. It’s part of the core curriculum. This is a great advantage and blessing for parents and students, even though many people may still misunderstand its purpose and underestimate its value.