What Taught Me English

Yes, the title of this post is correct. Not “who” but “what” taught me English.

I was born and raised in the USA, and learned American English. With its faults and easy abuse of the mother tongue, American English is easy to speak when you learn it as a native, but difficult to spell some words or worse, write with proper grammar.

It makes me cringe sometimes to read other blogs where writers do not proofread their work, and post blog articles that are riddled with misspellings and have many grammatical errors. Yes, then, I admit, I am a stickler for proper written English.

So if it were not “who,” then what taught me English?

Latin. Latin taught me English. Allow me to explain how I arrived at this conclusion.

When I was in my early teens, my typical English class in school required reading books that were of little interest, and drills on spelling and grammar, with occasional requirements to write a composition about something or other. A composition being one to two pages or about 100 – 200 words.

I found those classes and writing assignments quite tedious. I would procrastinate writing compositions and often my first years of required written compositions were riddled with mistakes because I was hurried to complete them before they were due.

Instead of advising how to correct my errors, I would receive compositions back from teachers with flowing red ink, circled all over my papers. Often the compositions had a barely passing grade circled at the top. Receiving a “C” on a composition was considered an accomplishment.

I hated writing, but realize now in my older years that I developed a distaste for writing because the methods employed to teach writing (in English classes) were poor. However, in the ’60s, those were the methods that teachers were taught, and without exception, my loathing for those methods increased each year.

During the summer between eighth and ninth grade, an uncle and I had a discussion that I remember to this day, more than 40 years later. He explained about his love of writing. He shared some short stories and books that he had written with me. Reading the writing of someone I admired initially turned me on to reading, because it was more meaningful to me to read the writing of someone I loved.

My uncle also pinpointed why I detested writing assignments so much. “Rote repetition is not how to love writing!” and also, “you can love to write when you no longer have to worry about your spelling and grammar. When you write without worry about those details, then your thoughts, ideas, and creativity will flow forth.”

I showed my uncle some of my written compositions with all the circled spelling and grammatical errors and poor grades at the top. He tore up three of them in front of me, threw them up into the air and shouted, “it is awful how you have been forced to write and then be chastised for technical errors without any comment on what you were writing about!”

I remember asking my uncle, “how can I improve my grammar and spelling for writing so I don’t have to worry about it any more?”

His answer: take Latin. He explained how Latin is alive in American English, and by learning a language upon which 70% of English is derived, including grammar (noun-verb agreement, case, tense, and so forth) and also including spelling, then you will learn the technical matters of the language and reduce them to be of little concern.

I was intrigued. Latin was offered in ninth grade, so I signed up. I did that because my uncle recommended it, but also because I knew that I had to take a “foreign language,” but already knew Italian and did not want to take another romance language for fear of confusion. I also did not want to take German for fear of confusion with English (and the German teacher was known to be a strict disciplinarian.) In my school, one only had the choice of taking Latin, French, Spanish, or German.

I had a great Latin teacher who taught me how much fun it was to learn a “dead” language and gave us many challenges to prove “how alive” Latin was in modern-day American English. My ninth grade Latin teacher inspired me to continue with more Latin classes throughout high school. In tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades, I was taught by the teacher who taught Julius Caesar Latin. (She was in her 60s, but had the wit and charm of a much younger person; however, my high school Latin teacher seemed to be much older than any of us imagined.)

By grades 11 and 12, I was writing “A+” compositions. I became Salutatorian for my high school class. LS beat me out for Valedictorian spot, but that was okay with me, because I got to give the fun, amusing speech, not the serious one.

I learned to love writing. Just as my uncle predicted, Latin taught me the technical mechanics of American English and I no longer worried about them. I also have to give credit to my high school English teachers, who by then, were employing “more modern” teaching methods than relying on memorization and rote repetition.

I doubt this can help an adult who has already graduated school. However, if you have the opportunity to influence someone who is struggling to write well, encourage him or her to learn Latin, or at least another language that has similar structural characteristics and vocabulary that originates from similar roots.

It is amazing to me how much Latin influenced my writing skills. It got me better grades and ultimately, better jobs. I have always had a requirement throughout my career to have “superb writing skills.” I can demonstrate that easily … all because of having taken and learned to love Latin.

Life is short: love Latin. Aere Perennius.

3 thoughts on “What Taught Me English

  1. I’m English, my mum was an English teacher, I studied Latin at school and I am a bit of a stickler for good grammar, spelling and vocabulary. I found your blog when I googled “where are Frye shoes made?”- very instructive, thank you. I just bought a pair of Fryes over the ‘net and was disappointed to see they were made in Mexico and not the States. But after reading your blog, I’m just relieved they were not made in China!
    Anyway, I thought then that you write divinely, and now I know why. It’s rare to find such a well written blog.

  2. Since you can read and write Latin, then you have a second career – if you should want it – as a pharmacist. That’s because only writers and readers of Latin can understand doctors’ handwriting. You would be a natural, correct?

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