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.

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

  1. Sheng-Hsin Su

    Nice post, David. Your description of personal experience is so vivid that make me suddenly fall into my undergraduate school days.
    For “undergraduate” me, learning plant Latin names was not a big problem. We all knew the Roman alphabet already, so it’s just about how to memorize lots of combinations of Roman letters and further to figure out some “rules” and meanings of Latin words. It’s much easier than identifying so many plants in Taiwan and learning the classification systems of plants (if there are no good teachers…).
    During my undergraduate period, I can always find pieces of time to do such memorizing exercises, e.g. waiting for my girlfriend, waiting for buses/trains, …., things like that. Since we don’t have mobile devices except for pagers at that time, reading or learning exercises are still good options to kill time.
    So it was almost like learning English for me. But I also suffer similar bottlenecks in these two “language learning”. That is speaking English or pronunciation of plant Latin names. As you might understand now, for general people in Taiwan, it is not easy/common to communicate with others in English. Latin, surely applies to academic usage only. Therefore, for students who do not decide to do researches, learning Latin names is absolutely painful and kind of “meaningless”. Even for students who are willing to learn Latin names like the young “me”, the benefits and uses of Latin are not quite obvious (surely it helps me a lot along with my career). So, it is a bit difficult for students to realize the “fun” or “necessity” of learning Latin names.
    Besides, as far as I know, there are no Latin language classes in most universities of Taiwan. During my university years, teachers of plant taxonomy/systematics rarely (almost never) spent time on teaching basics of Latin. And books or handbooks on learning Latin written in (traditional) Chinese are also rare. All these elements make learning Latin to be merely memorizing Latin words, which is really boring.
    It is just some thoughts of mine. Anyway, thank you for sharing your ideas.

    1. David Zelený Post author

      Hi Sheng-Hsin, thank you for stopping by! And thanks for sharing your experience from your undergrad years and learning Latin. I perfectly understand what you mean by “students who do not decide to do researches, learning Latin names is absolutely painful and kind of ‘meaningless”, I also had that feeling when I was the first time pushed to learn Latin names. But maybe it’s time that teachers start to put higher effort to let students feel that it has meaning, not in the way they will “require” students to learn it, but simply by frequently using these names, praise students if they know also the Latin name, just to show that they are meaningful and useful. I discussed this with my colleagues who teach botany, and they agree it would be great if students learn Latin names of plants, but the same colleagues will eventually give it up in their classes because students resist too much. Also, I don’t think that only students who plan to “do research” should learn that, others don’t; first, in the undergraduate you often have no idea where you will end up in the future (at least I was like that, just studied because I like plants), and second learning Latin names of plants is not necessarily just to learn those exact names; “learning Latin” is a skill which can be transferred for other uses. For example, when you learn how to use a computer, you don’t learn how to use “that particular computer”, but you learn “computer literacy”, which can then be transferred to other electronic devices (OK, not sure if that is a good example, but anyway :).
      I had a Latin class at Master grade of university, our algology professor gave us a short introduction on how Latin works, it was good. Maybe full “Latin class” would be too heavy and students would not take it anyway, but to plug in a brief “botanical Latin” into the class (or seminar) may help.
      I don’t think that students will overnight turn into Latin professionals 🙂 But if more people use Latin names, learning Latin will justify itself. At school this needs to start with teachers; if teachers will let students feel that Latin names are difficult to learn and not useful, hard to expect students will start learning them…

  2. S.H. Hsu

    Every time I see Machilus thunbergii in the hiking trail, I would recall that teacher David (Prof. Zeleny) asked me to read its scientific name, and I could never forget it since then.

    1. David Zelený Post author

      Hi Shih-Hsien, happy to hear that, at least Machilus thunbergii is forever written in your memory 🙂 When you talk about “reading scientific names”, it reminds the problem we often discuss in the lab when doing “Latin moments” (ca 10 minutes presentation by some of the students, selecting five species, showing their photos, and saying Chinese and Latin names, while also spending time to explain what the name actually means in both Chinese and Latin – very useful, because then students see that Latin name actually provides also quite a useful description of species appearance, similarly to Chinese one – just needs to know what those Latin words mean). It’s quite difficult to read the Latin name “right”; I pronounce them as I learnt it at school (basically as it is written), but my students tend to pronounce the name “in English”, as would Americans do. Problem is that we don’t have the sense for “English” pronunciation of words which are mostly not English at all (me neither), so in the end each student pronounces the name in a slightly (or very) different way. I think this is fine; I kinda keep insisting on my own pronunciation, because I feel weird that I should start to “fake” the English one I have no experience with. And students are free to stick to theirs or follow my one. The most important is to know the Latin name itself, not so much how to pronounce it (anyway, Latin is a dead language, no one is really using it these days, and people in different countries have their own “Latin accent”; for me the cutest one is Italian, and I guess also the closest to how the real Latin may have sound in the past).

  3. Jana Janáková

    Latin names were necessary as soon as I started traveling abroad and I was interested in foreign plants. All good Floras and identification keys use Latin, so it makes sense to learn Latin plant names because they work all over the world. The same goes for ornamental, exotic or invasive plants – it’s much easier to find information about them if I use their Latin name – I get more “professional” results and I don’t have to browse useless web pages. It’s great, David, that you’re trying to convince your students to start with Latin. Just keep on 🙂 !


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