Monthly Archives: May 2021

Should you learn the Latin names of plants? You should, but perhaps for a different reason than you think

Sarothamnus scoparius, according to recent nomenclature Cytisus scoparius. Photo by Evka Šmerdová (née Hettenbergerová), borrowed from

The title of this post is aimed at my Taiwanese students, but the content is hopefully good also for a broader audience. Since I started to teach at National Taiwan University in 2015, I am constantly facing one interesting resistance from my students: learning Latin names (of plants in my case, but it applies in general, also for other organisms). I know it’s not easy (well, what is?). Latin is very different from the Chinese language most students use, and it may not seem so useful at first, especially when others around also do not use it. So why bother? I did my own survey (highly biased and with very low n), asking students why they think they need to learn Latin names. Far the most common answer (just after “because you force us”) was: because of foreigners, they don’t know Chinese names, so if they ask us, we need to tell them “scientific name” (some directly say “English name”, as if Latin and English are the same thing). At that point, I felt a bit guilty, because it means if not me asking the names in Latin, they don’t need to bother, and can go well with Chinese ones. Fair enough, but maybe that’s not how it works.

Let me depart from the topic, but just for a while. Recently I read an opinion piece in newspapers, which commented on the strategy of the Taiwanese government to turn Taiwan into an officially bilingual country in 2030. The author of that article (a foreigner living in Taiwan for more than 30 years) claimed that this is an impossible task. Not because people cannot learn English. But because – why should they? Just because “the government decided” to show how progressive Taiwan is and how good a place for foreign investors it could be? That does not sound like a good motivation for people to climb on a top of so steep mountain, or even start thinking about that. Unless people experience the real need and usefulness of English, it is hard to motivate them to learn it. Just like the Latin names.

I started to learn Latin names in the first year of my undergraduate study at the Biological Faculty. During the first week of the first semester, which we spent in the field station in the middle of the lovely south Bohemian landscape, teachers told us: now, forget the Czech names of plants, you won’t need them anymore. Learn the Latin names. No “discussion” allowed, in fact, there was nothing to discuss: from the first excursion, teachers always show us all the plants and tell their Latin name first, Czech one only if someone asked. When we did the final test from the excursion, we walked with the teacher and had to say the name of any species s/he will point at; Latin name counted for 2 points, Czech name just for 1 point. It was not easy; Czech is a Slavic language, not a Latin one, and those Latin names, with few exceptions, really don’t sound like anything familiar. I still remember how I was walking there and back through the yard of the field station before my first final test, memorizing “Sa-ro-tha-mnus sco-pa-ri-us” and trying to find similarity with something in Czech (untranslatable Sáro, tam hnus! Skopárius!). And yes, at the beginning we murmured a lot with other classmates why should we learn something that we will never need in the future! How wrong I was, by the way; those who were not kicked out of the school in the first year of the undergraduate study will agree that it would be impossible to get a Master or even just finish undergraduate study without knowing the Latin names of the organisms we study. Not because teachers push us, later they don’t need to: everyone was using Latin names, and it would be really difficult (and embarrassing) not knowing them. Now, I teach vegetation ecology at National Taiwan University; how would it be if I resisted and kept learning only Czech plant names at that time?

For English, my beginning was even more painful. Till the Velvet Revolution (end of Communism in Czech, 1989) we learned Russian at school as the second language (I was eleven that year). Then, our Russian language teacher almost overnight turned into an English language teacher, and ever since I studied English, through the rest of my elementary, secondary and also university study. When I decided to travel to New Zealand for a volunteering job in the Department of Conservation (that was 2002 and I was 24, just with a fresh Master diploma in my pocket), I thought I speak English pretty well, after sooo many years of learning it. How wrong I was I learned already at Auckland’s airport, when I got out of the flight and (surprisingly) everyone spoke English, with that unmistakable New Zealand accent (Gud daj!). The immigration officer asked me “Do you have some food in your backpack?”, and I said “yes”, because I thought she is asking about “foot” and I thought that “foot” is the same as “shoes”. She said “but you cannot have any food in your backpack” and wanted me to throw them out; I resisted arguing “but it is hiking food”; after I showed her my hiking boots, it was clear that there is something not quite working. But yeah, after half a year in New Zealand, speaking English all the time and Czech only occasionally with my family and friends using a phone (no Skype or Facebook that time!), I learnt how to use English. I do have a weird accent, though (one British girl told me I sound pretty Indian, whatever she meant by that), but I can survive with that.

It never came to my mind that I would be learning the Latin names of plants or study English because of “foreigners”, who may not know the Czech plant names or ask me something in English on the street. And yeah, there are pretty many foreigners in Czech, but who cares. In the beginning, I was pushed to do that, mostly by my annoying teachers, who insisted we need to learn it (I can never thank them enough for their wiseness and resistance to our ignorance!). Later, no one needed to convince me to do that, because I found how important it is for me personally. You don’t learn something “because of others”. You always learn it because of yourself. The knowledge and skills you have are what makes you special, and opens new possibilities for you. So, please, don’t waste your energy by searching for arguments why you just can’t or don’t need to do that, and just do that.