Teaching Catholic Kids Latin

The inescapable truth: Catholic sensibilities are formed on Latin. Period. Full stop.

Two reasons for this are that 1) the clearest understanding of the intellect and 2) the subtlest and most elevated emotions and feelings flow from experiencing the use of Ecclesiastical Latin. Therefore, teaching Latin to your children is a priceless gift for their souls, hearts, and minds.

No matter how old your children are, it is never too late to start. (If they’re young, younger than about 7, you should certainly get them started with Latin by teaching them how to sing Latin hymns–see below.) If you are at all intimidated by the idea of starting your students with Latin, know that it will be easier than you might be fearing, but you’ve got to un-think one thing that you’ve been thinking.

It’s counter-intuitive–but the first thing that you need to do is forget you’re teaching them a language. You will teach Latin like you teach math. I mean that two ways: you already will tend to do it that way, and you should consciously try to keep the “math-y” nature of Latin in mind as you teach in the future. Latin is such an exact (and exacting!) language because it is made up of interchangeable word parts that have to be solved like equations to decipher the meanings of sentences and phrases. So, teachers and students should be careful, observant, and patient just as with mathematical studies, since Latin studies take a very similar mindset.

I have three other things for Catholic parents and teachers to keep in mind for use in fostering Latin in their homes and schools–three “M’s”. Use memory work, the missal, and music when teaching. They will certainly add an extra dimension or two to the learning process!

  • Memory work. This will be one of the most important things to do to get students’ brains furnished with Latin. Getting a solid stock of Latin hymns, poetry, and prose in their heads will make them feel bilingual faster than anything else will. I recommend assigning Latin hymns paired with Frs. Hopkins’ or Caswall’s translations–see the two below as examples. Scripture verses in Latin are excellent too, of course! Short psalms like Psalm 1 and Psalm 133 are superb to get started with, and I suggest that you use the Douay-Rheims translation in your classroom for memorizing the English translation simultaneously.
  • Missal (and Office) Whatever your official textbook or learning materials are, you should also be using the ongoing liturgy of the Church day-by-day as a living “sourcebook” for your classroom’s studies. Latin is very much a living language in the Catholic Church, after all! One way to use the Missal is to take just five to ten minutes a day, every school day,  working your way through the parts of Holy Mass. “Dominus vobiscum.” “Et cum spiritu tuo.” Take a short chunk like this each day, and parse it with your students as well as you can with a dictionary and your declension/conjugation charts, and then check the translation to see how it compares. This little exercise when repeated regularly will do wonders for your students’ understanding of Latin AND of the beauty of the Mass.
  • Music For any age and all ages, learning the melodies and the words to Gregorian hymns is a powerful, delightful, and profound experience. When these things well up in your children’s hearts and then come forth spontaneously from their lips (yes, it will happen, I promise you), you will know exactly what I mean. Probably the pleasantest of the ways to do memory work, learning to sing hymns and chants is going to educate not only in the use of Latin, but in the ancient melodic modes and is a school of beauty in itself. I have several posts (here and here and here) detailing how to get started with chant, but there are products specifically for students (which I am not endorsed for mentioning!) such as Memoria Press’ Lingua Angelica.

Always remember, while teaching, that it takes half a lifetime to get really good at Latin.  Be patient with your students and with yourself because of this fact! That said, even a tiny, single year of Latin study will repay your family richly for the students’ time and effort spent on it.

Latin has been learned and studied by children (and adults) for thousands of years, and, by now, probably just about everywhere in the world. Yes, it’s going to require patience and diligence, but Latin is accessible for everyone. If you are willing to put in the time and the work, and your students are, too, then you can have the glorious riches of Catholic tradition: language, sacred music, liturgy–and hopefully every bit of spiritual goodness that goes with them, Deo volente!

(This post originally appeared at the St. Catherine Catholic Culture Center website.)

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