Not so sure about Latin.

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Have you ever had an opinion that you knew would cause a knot of an argument?

Well okay then.

So I have one.  It is that as a foreign language teacher, I am just not sure that Latin is worth it.

caesar coin

I am reading and looking and trying to find a convincing argument that it truly is worth it, but I haven’t been successful yet.  Any friendly inputs are welcome.  Here are some arguments that I have heard.

as you learn it (Latin) you gain an understanding of the mechanics and structure of language streets ahead of any you will gain from the study of a modern tongue.

The writer of this phrase does a common thing.  She makes an assertion and doesn’t really back it with anything.  Anything that Latin offers can be obtained from a Romantic language that is spoken today if learned thoroughly.  Learning the “maths” of language use?  What is learning any foreign language but an exercise in decoding? It is no different to learn Spanish deeply, the conjugating, the agreement of noun and adjective or subject and verb, formal and informal registers, cognates and verb tenses…AND they are both romance languages, meaning they are very, very similar.

Only there are still people who speak Spanish.  Every day.   Which makes Spanish or any other Romance language practical.  Charlotte Higgins, the writer of the quote, asserts that Latin is just plain superior to a “modern tongue”.

It seems that quite the opposite is true.  So many things are going on in ones brain as they try to put all the “rules” together to actually speak this language spontaneously, so much brain work, how could a language that lacks the conversant component be superior?  Latin is not meant to be conversational, so it is missing a huge language component:  communicative usefulness.  It takes quite a bit of work to make a person fluent in a foreign language because it is rigorous to put all that information into spontaneous use.  Latin can not provide this.  So,  how is it “superior” in to a “modern tongue”.  Because it has grammar?  All languages have that.  Often in abundance.

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Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian are all Romantic languages, meaning they are Latin based (Latin is in the Italic language family within the Romantic languages).  Pick any one of them, study it deeply and whatever benefit that can be derived by studying Latin can be derived from any of these living languages.  One can use these languages to contextualize the comprehension of parts of speech like verbs, nouns, grammar and word order, or study literature that has come from the culture.  Don Quixote?  El Cid?  Are these not epic heroes?

I have heard it asserted that Latin will help one learn Mandarin, but have yet to find a person that could illustrate just how that works.  It’s not just Latin, if you learn any language beyond your mother tongue, the next language will be easier.

Any other language – not just Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, but German, Russian, Arabic – becomes easier for a child with a grounding in Latin. A student can use Latin to grasp the bones and sinews of any language.

The study of any foreign language can facilitate future foreign language study.  Any foreign language learned will make any subsequent foreign language easier to learn because the discipline, study habits and place where language lives in the brain.  It is discipline, but once that path is walked initially in the brain, any language learning becomes easier.  It’s not just Latin, if you learn any language beyond your mother tongue, the next language will be easier.  Period.

I read much about the statistics which report that students who have learned Latin do better on SAT scores.  I suppose if the only reason I sent my kid to school was to get a good SAT score, then maybe I would scratch my chin about that.  But why require a kid to take a dead language for 5 years to improve one metric for college entrance boards?  What are the SAT statistics of a kid who is fluent in a romance language as well as English?  And isn’t it safe to say there are some socio-economic influences there as well?

Cicero

Children learning it (Latin) will quickly start to read the great classics of Latin literature. After a couple of years, Catullus and Martial. After three, Virgil, Pliny, Ovid, Cicero. Soon come Horace, Lucretius, Tacitus. This is tough, uncompromisingly difficult stuff – but also offers entry into an astonishing world, a lost world that paradoxically offers itself up vividly and excitingly through its literature. These great writers lie at the head of a western tradition in writing that enfolds Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Eliot, Heaney.

Reading the classics in Latin does seem like attaining the pinnacle of being “well educated”.  And after listening to how transformative it has been to some students, it makes me want to go do it.  And I would!   I once knew a really cool guy who majored in classics in school at the University of Washington.  He worked at a video store.

Public schools stopped teaching this stuff in favor of more practical subjects for the general population.  It is still fascinating, it is just not practical or useful for the job at hand in our democratic capitalist society:  getting a job.

To be a good reader of English and Irish literature alone, knowledge of the literature of the Romans offers an inestimable advantage.

English is a Germanic language influenced by French, so I struggle with an assertion that Latin helps one understand English language better.   As to the value of literature, as an avid reader I know that literature is a key part of continued learning beyond school years, but really, the classics have all been translated.  And while there might be some mood or nuance that is missing from not reading them in the original Latin, education is expensive and there is only a finite number of years the average student spends in school.  What service are we doing for young learners if they can read Cicero in the original text but have no idea of how to take care of themselves or their finances?

Studying the Classics and Linguistics are two areas where I can see true value for Latin, but isn’t requiring Latin then like requiring a student to take preparatory coursework to become say, a paleontologist?

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And I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one…

As someone who speaks two foreign languages well (French, German) and two reasonably (Spanish, Turkish) I have to say that my seven-year, compulsory study of Latin not only hardly helped, it hindered through sheer stultifying boredom. Had I studied Italian during those early years I would be fluent now and have acquired an equally efficient basis from which to learn other Romance languages. The keys are early exposure, interest, relevance and motivation, not any particular language. rdb1

All of this doesn’t come from a place for me of wanting to attack any one.  Personally I am looking at what path my own children will take in their education.  One of the options is for classical education, so I have been thinking about that.  And many questions come up about what am I training/educating my child for, a balance of discipline and discovery in their learning as well as coming up against different philosophies of education.  And I am also a language educator, so I have a proclivity to think about foreign language stuff.  It fascinates me, and so I wonder, why Latin?  I mean really?  Why not just be serious about Spanish?  Start younger than 9th grade.  Like music foreign language study is good for the whole brain, and ones whole life as it opens doors to other places, relationships, careers, service opportunities… all which are educations in themselves.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. I agree with most of the points in this article. I have met a couple of people who were big proponents of Latin, and one of my nieces is being taught it in elementary school. In my opinion it’s better to learn Spanish, French or one of the other romance languages instead of Latin because, as you say, you get two benefits out of learning one of the other languages:

    1. you get conversation skills that you can use, which further facilitates your language development

    2. just like if you learn Latin, if you know Spanish or another romance language, you will have an easier time learning French or another romance language.

    In other words, if you learn Latin, you get a partial benefit, but if you learn a romance language that is in use today, you get the full benefit of current and future language development. I can attest to this personally because I have learned Spanish (very well) as an adult and when I hear my coworker speak in French I can basically understand her, even though I have barely studied French. I doubt studying written Latin would have gotten me this far…

    And of course, as you said in your article, learning any foreign language is going to help prep your brain for future language development. 🙂

  2. I agree with the general statements made about how learning any foreign language will help the person learn another. However, I think the importance of Latin a downplayed a little too much here.

    Even though Latin is a “dead” language in that no one learns it from birth, there are people who converse in Latin. In some high schools, Latin is taught as a spoken foreign language. Because Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian are essentially Latin dialects, it would seem that one who has a good grasp of Latin could pick any of these up more easily than a French-speaker picking up Romanian since it is easier to see where Romanian (or any other Romance language) retains and modifies or diverts from Latin.

    Not only does Latin (along with Greek) help to improve SAT scores, but GRE as well. It’s true that English is derived from German with some French influence, but something like 80% of English words are derived from Latin. What parent wouldn’t be happy with her or his child holding an advanced-level degree?

    The comment about knowing how to read Cicero but not being able to take care of finances seems to have a number of mistaken presuppositions behind it. For one, it seems to assume that the time spent learning Latin to read Cicero will take up al the time that could be spent learning about finances. I doubt that would be the case at a good university that offers a liberal education. In my high school (and I’m sure the following would apply to many other high schools as well), we had the option of taking Spanish and at least one class on what was called “survival,” which dealt with finances and personal care. Now, what if we replaced Spanish with Latin. Well, one could see that the student would be able to learn Latin to read Cicero and at the same time be educated on finances and taking care of oneself. Even if a given high school did not offer a survival class, don’t the parents play a role in survival education? Wouldn’t such real-life education have more of an effect on teaching the child how to manage finances and take care of herself or himself?

    I could also point out mistaken presuppositions in the comment about the UW classics major who worked at a video store. It’s fairly common, at least among those I know, that those who graduate from college end up in jobs that don’t use their degree. Some of those jobs are awesome (two of my friends work at Boeing) and some aren’t (like the video store, although if the person loved working there and it suited his needs, then I certainly won’t judge). What concerns me is the implication that those who get degrees in classics can’t get a good job. I wonder if what the case would be for the aforementioned person 10 years from now. It’s always possible he ends up with a well-paid teaching position at a respectable university. To take one person who ended up with a less-than-desireable job and use that as the sole reason not to learn Latin is terrible reasoning. I’m sure that among degree-holders in other disciplines there will be such people with less-than-desirable jobs. At the same time, I’m sure that there are also degree-holders in all disciplines (classics included) who have well-paying jobs—and they might not even be using their degree for what they originally had intended.

    I’m not sure a single comment that says Latin was a hindrance validates anything. A broader survey would be more helpful. At any rate, the use of such comment seems to expose the bias of the author.

    I’m not saying Latin is an essential, but I think it can be important, so I just thought I would offer a different side, and address what appear to be some of the more problematic statements made.

  3. Heather says:

    Wow, that was a complete commentary. I agree that my post was not at all meant to be studied, or say something I would submit to a professor. It was more of a commentary with some not particularly compelling commentary to to sort of back it up a little, but thanks for the time you took to consider my rather pedestrian, tongue in cheek arguments.

    Am also smiling b/c you are a student at the school in the town where I live :o) and where I have the opportunity to teach a class next semester. Thanks!

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