Why Is Latin So F$%&ing Hard To Learn?

We rounded up some Latin class alumni to try to find out why Latin is hard to learn and whether or not it’s ultimately worth it.
roman statue

Latin has a reputation for being, well, difficult. Tens of thousands if not millions of school children have been through the excruciating pain of learning all the necessary declensions and translating ancient texts. But why is Latin hard to learn? Is it harder than learning any other languages?

We rounded up all the Babbel employees who are alumni of Latin classes to try to track down the answers to that oft-asked question: Why is Latin hard to learn? But it’s not all negative. We also wanted to see if these common complaints about Latin make the language more worthwhile to study.

Why Is Latin Hard To Learn? Some Of The Most Cited Reasons

Latin Isn’t Useful

Your typical Spanish textbook will likely be filled with dialogues along the lines of, “¡Hola Miguel! ¿Cómo estás?” “Hola, Fernanda. Estoy bien. ¿Y tú?” Latin texts, however, are a tad different. You’re more likely to be reading ancient texts about Roman politics or religion. And the language that is used isn’t exactly applicable to modern life.

Elin, one of the members of our didactics team, recalled one such example: “‘in malam hora canicula nos vexat,’ which supposedly means ‘in the bad hour, the dog star is tormenting us,’ which is a complicated way of saying that August gets very hot in Rome.” Which is probably not a phrase you’ll be whipping out at dinner parties.

Trying to figure out why exactly learning this is useful to you can be a challenge, and this can affect your motivation. And when learning anything, motivation is hugely important. For some, this is a huge roadblock to ever committing to Latin and one of the most cited answers to the question Why is Latin hard to learn?. It can be hard to want to learn it!

Is This Different From Other Languages?

Compared to living languages, Latin can seem useless. Then again, some people (especially those in monolingual countries like the United States) doubt the usefulness of learning any foreign language at all. You can get around with only English in plenty of places. So it may not be so much a question of how useful a language is, but rather how you plan to use the knowledge.

Actually, It’s A Good Thing!

Some people who have taken classes have found it helpful in several aspects of their lives. Diana, a video producer here and native speaker of Spanish, said, “Learning Latin was of great help to understand how our language evolved to what it is now. The history of the Romance languages and our differences is very interesting. And now, Latin is of great help when I’m learning new languages like Italian, or even when I speak English.” Latin is especially good at teaching you the deeper patterns of the Romance languages, which are Latin’s linguistic descendants.

Even those who didn’t have much of a use for it still found it fun. Ally, a Babbel graphic designer who took Latin in high school, said, “The uselessness of it to my life specifically was kind of fun.” Learning for learning’s sake is a joy in itself. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Nobody Speaks Latin

We don’t know quite how to tell you this, but Latin is dead. And it’s been dead for a while at this point. Yes, you can still find the language used in certain contexts. Science, religion and law all have a smattering of Latin. But there’s no country in the world you could travel to in order to immerse yourself in Latin (unless you count the Vatican). Because of this, it’s impossible to practice the language like you would Spanish or French. 

Another disadvantage of nobody speaking it is that you’re much less likely to absorb Latin through osmosis outside of the classroom. Taylor, another Latin alum on our panel, pointed out, “With most other languages you’re kind of socialized beforehand, so you have an idea of what certain phrases are, like hola and other common words. But with Latin, for the most part, it’s a blank slate.” And starting out with a blank state can make it a lot harder to get into than other languages.

Is This Different From Other Languages?

There are thousands of dead languages out there, but Latin is certainly the most widely taught of them. This is probably the main factor that separates Latin learning from any other language learning you’re likely to do. 

Actually, It’s A Good Thing!

Depending on why you want to learn a language, the fact that Latin is dead can be useful. For one, you don’t have to learn all the intricacies of communicating with a native speaker, and can instead focus on learning the logic of the language. Instead of worrying about slang and figuring out regional expressions, all you’ll need is the finite body of texts written in Latin. Plus, the list of vocabulary to learn is a lot smaller than with other languages. If your least favorite part of learning a language is speaking to people, Latin is a great way to avoid that.

Latin Grammar Is Incredibly Hard

If there’s one thing that everyone who’s studied Latin could agree on, it’s that the grammar rules are incredibly hard. The word “declension” is enough to send shivers down one’s spine. The word order is arbitrary, each of the verbs has several cases and all the nouns have gender. Why is Latin hard to learn for an average English speaker, you ask? This is probably the number one reason why. It can be a real struggle to learn all of this. 

Is This Different From Other Languages?

If you look at the world fully objectively, there’s no language that has a single most difficult grammar. Babies are able to learn any grammatical system. When you’re learning a second language, however, some are more difficult than others. It would be easier for a Spanish speaker to learn Italian than Japanese, because Spanish and Italian have more in common. Latin is different enough from English that it is going to be harder than, say, German. So if you’re asking yourself Why is Latin hard to learn?, remember that compared to even more distant languages like Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, Latin can be a bit more approachable.

Actually, It’s A Good Thing!

Turning this one into a positive is not easy. The fact is, Latin won’t exactly be a walk in the park. If you like a challenge, however, or want a way to treat a language like a puzzle, Latin may be a good option for you. All of the members of our Latin panel said they felt like they gained something from studying the language. And if it’s not for you, there are plenty of other languages to learn!

Want to learn a Romance language?
Get started with Babbel!