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March 20, 2024

A Spicy Manifesto on Classical Languages

with Tim Griffith

Language is central to reality and the way God made the world. God spoke all things into existence, and in John’s gospel, he says that the Son is the word through whom all things were made. In Genesis, the first human task was linguistic, naming the animals. The work of language has not changed. It is the way to know and understand God and what he has made. Studying language is not a peripheral activity but is central to educating the next generation of leaders.

Mr. Griffith, senior fellow of classical languages at NSA, lectured in a recent Disputatio on the importance of studying classical languages and teaching them the right way. He has dedicated the last 20 years to teaching Latin in a modern context, drawing heavily on the work of the great Latin educators of history, such as Erasmus, Comenius, and W.H.D. Rouse. He oversees the college’s language program and is director of the Institute for Classical Languages and the Universal Latin Exam. 

In his lecture, Griffith stressed the nature of language and how it shapes thought. Language is the vehicle for thoughts; this is how people think about and describe the world. This means studying another language will empower a student to better understand his own thinking and the world around him. “It is like having two eyes instead of just one,” Mr. Griffith said. Latin, in particular, has had a significant impact on the shape of English today. 

"Studying a second language is like having two eyes instead of just one.”

Anglo-Saxon, the early form of English, was a limited language that could describe some specific things well but needed a more highly developed theoretical language for science, theology, and politics. Latin fortified English and gave it the tools to expand and become a powerful resource. However, English has declined for the last couple of centuries because schools have neglected to teach classical languages. Griffith exhorted the audience to strive to restore English to its former glory by studying Latin and Greek. 

In the middle of the current cultural decline we see all around us, studying languages like Latin and Greek is particularly important. He said, “But now more than ever, when the world has changed so drastically, and our categories for the world have shifted equally as much, it is critical that we actively pursue an understanding of the thought system found in ancient literature.” 

Mr. Griffith also discussed how student results in classical languages vary across the current classical school movement. Even those students who are really good at Latin still don’t seem to have gotten as far as they should have. He explained that results will vary no matter what you do in life. He compared teaching language to the parable of the sower. A language teacher starts casting seeds, and some land on hard ground, like a student bored with the world. Other seeds are snatched by birds, like videogames or social media. And other seeds are strangled by weeds, such as health issues or family concerns.

Mr. Griffith said, “But the majority of the seed takes root and grows and produces fruit, but even there the results are varied. Some students get a thirtyfold yield, some get sixty, and some a hundred.” He went on to describe the various results of those who are good students. He said, “But it isn’t just the ones who make it to reading original texts that get a yield. If students are learning to enter the ancient world through its own words and thoughts, they are developing an ancient perspective and one that matters to us historically. That will bear fruit in how they read, write, and understand all areas of life.”  

"If students are learning to enter the ancient world through its own words and thoughts, they are developing an ancient perspective and one that matters to us historically."

Finally, Mr. Griffith gave a short explanation of his teaching method. He believes that students must understand the linguistic rules of the language while also writing and speaking the language. He described these methods as theory and practice. Students need grammar explanations to learn the rules and understand how they work. Students also need real Latin examples to read and time to create Latin independently. This method is the classical way to teach languages as seen in other teachers of the past: Quintilian, Erasmus, Comenius, W.H.D. Rouse, Hans Orberg, and others. 

At NSA, students are taught Latin as a living language, with grammatical explanations and lots of written and verbal practice. Students are grouped in small sections inside the Latin program to work together and sharpen their skills. Students prepare for class by working on vocabulary, grammar, and texts. When students come to class, teachers coach them through verbal and written examples, giving helpful feedback and grammatical explanations so that students can improve their linguistic comprehension. This mentorship model of language teaching is vital in grounding students in the target language. Students thrive in this program, and many students can read, speak, and write Latin in their second year of study. Mr. Griffith’s work in language teaching is one of the most potent aspects of NSA’s undergraduate program. To learn more about his teaching method see this Latin Practicum he is offering at the ACCS conference this summer.

Language learning is critical in our time. The world is crumbling around us because people are fundamentally at war with God’s natural order. By trying to make up pronouns and renaming themselves, they are rebelling against the language that is central to God’s creation. NSA understands that language study helps us recover the work that Adam was given in the garden. Leaders who shape culture must follow in Adam’s footsteps and use language to the glory of Jesus Christ.