How Knowing Greek and Latin Roots Can Help You Learn New Languages

by Melissa Burns

Learning a new language can be both tremendously fun and extremely arduous, unbelievably rewarding and mind-bogglingly time-consuming. To make sure that positive aspects of the process win out, you have to use every little bit of help you can find to make your task go smoother.

One of the topmost challenges one encounters when trying to master an unfamiliar language is vocabulary acquisition. You have to learn not just new names for familiar objects and concepts, but an entirely new system of perceiving the world and thinking about it. This task isn’t as unmanageable as it may seem at first, as the number of words you have to know to understand most conversations is pretty limited. For example, about 3000 most common words account for 90 percent of everyday communication in English, and the same is true for almost any language. This means that if you know them, you will be able to understand most of what you read or hear, and the rest you can deduce from context or ask questions about. However, it is still a lot, and you will have to expand your vocabulary further anyway if you want to carry out deeper conversations.

There are, however, ways to make this job much more approachable, and one of them is learning the meanings of common Greek and Latin roots. If you know enough of them, you will be able to either deduce the exact meaning of many new words you encounter and approximately understand what the others mean.

Of course, the usefulness of knowing Greek and Latin roots depends on the language you are learning. For example, Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, etc.) have all evolved from a common ancestor (Vulgar Latin), and as such contain huge amounts of words with Latin roots. These words include both common and rare ones, which means that knowledge of these roots will make learning these languages easier for the entire duration of the process.

But this doesn’t mean that their usefulness is limited to these languages. The thing is, for almost two thousand years Greek and Latin have been the languages of science. All educated people were expected to know them, and the majority of scientific treatises have been written in them. As a result, they’ve made a significant impact on many languages that weren’t directly derived from them. There are plenty of technical terms that are written and spoken in a somewhat similar way across many languages, and the very roots have become integral parts of languages that aren’t related to Latin or Greek.

For example, let’s take “chrono”, a Greek root meaning “time”. If you know what it (along with a number of other roots) means, you will be able to understand the meaning of many words you encounter easily. Chronology ("logia" means “science”) is a science about the sequence of events in time; chronometer (“metron” means “measure”) is a clock (or any timepiece, from a grandfather clock to Tag Heuer watches), “chronotope” (“topos” means “place”) is a connection between time and place in literary theory.

The same goes for Latin roots, although you will often see them in less scientific discourse, as parts of regular, commonly used words. For example, “bene” (“good”) is a basis for such words as benign, beneficial, benevolence, benefit, beneficiary and so on. “Manu” (“hand”) leads to manual, manicure, manipulation and so on. Knowing these roots, even if you don’t understand the exact meaning of the new words, you will be able to understand the general meaning of what is said or written.

In addition to immediately understanding the meaning of new words, a firm grounding in Latin and Greek roots has another function. It creates anchors you can use to recall words when they are necessary. If you have any experience learning a language, you know that the main problem is not to memorize how the word is pronounced, written and what exactly does it mean, but to recall it when you need it. Greek and Latin roots provide units of meaning you can trust and which can be used to recall words that contain them.

As you can see, knowing them can be of great help whether you want to expand your English vocabulary or learn a foreign (especially European) language.


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