Saturday, February 12, 2011

10 reasons to NOT teach Latin (reductio ad absurdum)

There’s often a tension in education between the traditional and the progressive. But when the traditional hauls us back 2000 years, we really do need to worry. So, whenever I hear ‘Latin’ recommended in curricular discussions, I want to reach for my pedagogic gun, as it’s invariably subliminal snobbery. The perfect example is the toady Toby Young, who wants Latin to be a compulsory subject in all secondary schools. Yes, a D-list celebrity, who’s made a living from writing about being feckless and hapless, wants us all to listen to his petty, inner-city, London, middle class concerns about the quality of schools in his area. His solution – learn Latin!
Now you have to have some pretty convincing argument to put Latin into your core curriculum, so here goes? I’ll be a devil and advocate.
1. Helps you learn other languages
Sorry, it doesn’t. The metastudy Research and the teaching of English by Sherwin, found that “the study of Latin does not necessarily increase the ability to learn another language… No consistent experimental evidence in support of this contention was found.” The argument runs along these lines, that the Romance languages have Latin roots, so knowing Latin helps one learn French, Spanish and Italian. Now there may be some marginal advantage to knowing Latin before you learn these languages, but only if your Latin is very extensive, and you do Latin before you try the other languages. Why scratch your ear by going over the top of your head? Learners have limited time and that time is clearly better spent on the target language itself. You don’t have to go out with the grandmother to help you understand your wife. This argument is simply a non-sequitur.
2. Cognitive skills
One could argue that Latin teaches one to think. But what does that mean? If it’s true of Latin it’s true of any language, so why not learn one that is at least useful? What special cognitive skill(s) does dead Latin confer over dozens of other living languages or dozens of other analytic subjects for that matter? Stephen Pinker, Harvard’s world renowned expert in psycholinguistics backs this up in The Language Instinct, “Latin declensional paradigms are not the best way to convey the inherent beauty of grammar”. He recommends computer programming and universal grammar on the grounds that they are “about living minds and not dead tongues”. reductio ad absurdum
3. Latin language mavens
Pinker also has a go at the Latin language mavens who want to pointlessly foist Latinate rules of grammar into English. As Pinker explains, this snobbery took root in 18th century London, when Latin was used as a mark of social class (still true today) and Latin grammar rules were crudely pasted into books on English grammar, for example, ‘don’t split infinitives’ and ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’. Latin simply doesn’t allow you to split an infinitive and to stupidly insist that it’s wrong in English, is as ad hoc as making us wear togas.
4. Latin is misleading
It can be argued that learning Latin grammar is simply misleading as there is no real transfer to the target languages, certainly not English, and similarly in modern Romance languages. Latin has seven (six for some) cases, five declensions in nouns and doesn’t have articles. Far from being useful it’s positively misleading. And in terms of vocabulary, one would be far better spending one’s time studying etymology, rather than only one root language.
5. Waste of time
Of course, the cardinal argument against learning Latin is the fact that there’s only so many hours in a day for learning and there’s dozens of other subjects that should take precedence. We have to make choices in learning and this one is irrational. So as we’ve seen, there’s no real argument for learning a dead language on the basis of utility (unless one wants to become an ancient history scholar) as no one speaks the damn thing. tempus fugit
6. Lingua franca of the world - English
Learning a language, to a reasonable level of competence, is as difficult a learning task as one can imagine. This is made all the more difficult in the UK by the fact that English has become the world’s unofficial, and in some fields official, lingua franca. The vast majority of children who take a second language in the UK fail to achieve any real level of competence because it has to be taught in classrooms with no contextual opportunities for practice. Many therefore argue that the global reach of English has greatly reduced the need to learn another language, let alone a dead one!
7. Romance is dead
And why this obsession with learning romance languages over say, German or Mandarin? You are far more likely to hear Punjabi, Bengali or Urdu (the top three minority languages spoken in the UK). I suspect that there’s more than a whiff of snobbery in our selection of languages at school? “Mum - I’m dropping French and taking Urdu”. “You’re what!”
8. Illusion of utility
A GCSE in Latin barely enables you to decipher a few Roman inscriptions and numbers. It will certainly not allow you to interpret the works of Seneca and Cicero. Even at A-level you’d have to be exceptional to get as much from these texts, as you’d get from a good translation.
9. Why not Greek?
Wouldn’t you prefer the riches of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Socratic Dialogues and works of Aristotle; a far richer literary and philosophical tradition that the Roman? If so, learn Greek. Our literary, philosophical and political traditions have far more to do with Greek texts than Latin. Graecum est; non legitur
10. Pomposity
The benefits of a ‘classical education’, they say. But is there anything more annoying than those who drop in Latin phrases and confuse erudition with pomposity? I saw that hideous snob Rees Mogg do precisely this on a documentary on class recently and it made me wretch. Enoch Powell was the last politician who felt the need to pepper his speeches with this nonsense. Latin remains the cold, dead language of exclusivity and exclusion. It’s a peacock’s tail, the luxury of being able to ignore utility for superfluous acquisition of a useless and purely academic exercise. It says, subliminally, to hell with vocational subjects, I’m not ‘trade’. The dirty truth of the matter is that Latin has long been used as a marketing device by largely private schools to advertise their posh pedigree and attract parents of a conservative bent to cough up the fees. quid pro quo


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Unknown said...

And the letter J didn't exist until the 14th century but it's used world wide and has become the first letter in the name of a very popular diety. I believe the point is being led astray.

I will first say that I am not a woman of the world and have been publicly/self educated my entire life, ok moving forward.

As a middle-class person, I find you extremely pompous and flagrantly condescending. Why are you so moved to write a blog attacking the reasons one would chose to study Latin? Honestly who cares?
You chose not to, good for you. Besides that pedestal you're standing on probably doesn't have much more room for your ego to get any larger.
The point of learning a language is just that, learning it. The outcome/application is mute, just as many college degrees are. seeing how many graduates never end up working in their chosen field.

I find this entire post utterly unhelpful with my decision to/not to teach latin to my children. You have failed to touch on any of the real questions that plague this decision and instead have babbled on and on, spitting snobbery with no real goal other than attempting to prove how your opinion is valid.
If you want to help, then help. This is just arrogance for conversation sake.

Anonymous said...

Latin doesn't have to be required in school or part of a core curriculum, but it's good to offer it -- as well as lots of other less commonly taught languages -- to people who are interested in learning it. Because we can now use MOOCs or other similar platforms for teaching online across time zones, there's no reason not to make it possible for people to study all sorts of languages that happen to interest them.

JPKerpan@gmailcom said...

Once you have learned how to read, write, and do arithmetic, you have exceeded the "practical" applications of any formal schooling.

Most people go through life without (consciously) using algebra.
Most people go through life without knowing the actual origin of their own National holidays.
Most people go through life without needing to speak any foreign language.
Most people go through life (amazingly and sadly) without reading literature of any sort past school.

So why do we teach algebra, geometry, calculus, history, modern foreign language, English literature, philosophy, humanities etc. at all?

Of course any of these courses contains some value. Some of it is potential, future-job value. If you plan to go into engineering, then more advanced math and physics is helpful. If you plan to be a writer, then English literature (and as many foreign literatures as you can handle) is helpful. But all of their value is subjective.

Latin lets you practice thinking logically; it does not guarantee that you can, but it gives you a rich culture playground to expand your critical thought. Like it or not, Latin language and culture has huge relevance in daily life (if you choose to look for it).

The main value is that it provides so much potential for critical thinking. Again, this potential will not be realized in all students. It is the responsibility of the teachers to teach the students critical thinking, analysis, logic and all the rest, using the amazingly versatile tool that is Latin.

As for Latin versus a modern, used language. Modern languages get tied down by forcing students to become fluent in communication. Modern languages change, and because they are so widely used, there are many different dialects and variations. Latin does not change (except for the creation of new vocabulary to benefit the few who still use it to communicate).

Sure, it could be replaced with any other discipline. But Latin works well, and anything beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic is "unnecessary" in a practical sense anyway.

Anonymous said...

I learned Latin for 3 years, and I believe that it could help someone in say History or certain Art subjects, nonetheless I was forced to do Latin for 3 years and it so far has proved no benefit to my life. Latin should be an option in schools for those passionate to learn it, but for those who are not interested should be able to choose another subject.

We have to remember that Latin is a dead language, it is no longer used in todays society, it is a language for historians and such. It is a tiring language to learn, you must be very dedicated to learn such a burden of a language. And to want to put yourself under the pressure of learning such a language is stupid.

Trent the Wonder Dog said...

I became a Latin teacher by conscription. My having taken Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic was a recommendation when a local latin teacher became sick. And most of your argument is just false, in the extreme.

three points right off the bat :

1) Yes, Latin just might be the first time a student (esp nowadays) learns any grammar at all.

2) Books like the Vulgate (which had a thousand years influence) define culture. As does the Roman influence on our laws, government, and Founders.

3) Logically an argument can be made that a second language, any, will be a source of illumination about thought and the expression of thought. Is Greek better ? That's a false alternative since there is much in Roman culture that recapitulates Greek culture. For example see
The Roman Search for Wisdom
by Michael K. Kellogg

MOST ODD to me is your silence about the modern lack of Civics classes and philosophy classes and critical thinking classes and speech classes. A good dose of Augustine or Cicero will take care of the latter 3 and Roman law and government will do ably for the first.

Trent the Wonder Dog said...

Latin is not a dead language.
The Catholic Church just published its standard text of the Bible, the Nova Vulgata.

For a Church that is worldwide, this has several undeniable benefits as an earlier Catechism stated so well

Q. 566. Why does the Church use the Latin language instead of the national language of its children?

A. The Church uses the Latin language instead of the national language of its children:
1. To avoid the danger of changing any part of its teaching in using different languages;
2. That all its rulers may be perfectly united and understood in their communications;
3. To show that the Church is not an institute of any particular nation, but the guide of all nations.

And witnessing an African monk speak to a Chinese priest using Latin would seal it for me.

Dr mike said...

I did 5 years of Latin and was a really poor student, but have retained much of it esp Vocabulary. In retrospect, 3 of the brightest guys in school went to Oxford and read Greats (Latin & Greek) and became school teachers teaching Latin, kind of perpetuating the whole process but possibly loosing minds that might have been better applied.

Iain Fraser Grigor said...

Alan Turning went to secondary school on the first day of the 1926 General Strike.

When the boy was 14, his headmaster called in his parents, and said something like this. "Look, we all, know that young Alan is a whizz at mathematics, but if he wants to consider himself educated, he must stick-in at his Latin".

With the weight of that idiocy still to be felt in our education system, is it any wonder that the STEM subjects have less appeal than they ought?

Anonymous said...

You are a bigot, which is why you are against learning Latin. Simple. I can see it very clearly. You simply don't like the Latin culture and are against anything Latin. Your blog makes a lot of sense when we know a person who hates everything Latin is writing it.

Anglyn said...

I have to agree with the chap above (Anonymous). It is thought that learning languages (and music) increases cognitive puissance and staves off dementia. I learned Latin at 33 years old (I did not have the chance when young) and since doing so my mastery of the English language has been significantly enhanced. Your post about Latin displays the greatest level of ignorance about a profound language which you do not understand much less are capable of appreciating. Learn Latin, then you will be qualified to criticise it from a position of authority.

Unknown said...

English, is 50/50 Latin and Germanic, ie 50/50 Latin and English.

Teraisa said...

Thanks, I came to the conversation late. I'm not for nor against, though I've passed a few years in a Latin class myself. While I wish I knew another language fluently, I am grateful that I took Latin because until my second year, I never fully realized how little I understood my native language. At the time, I could easily read and write my language relatively well, I didn't understand it nor why it's the way it is. But then again... I'm an information freak (I have seven kids and NONE of them care!).

Anonymous said...

This is an extremely poorly argued piece, and it doesn't build a remotely persuasive argument against the study of Latin in schools.

Contrary to what Clark's flawed, pseudo-scientific studies may imply, Latin does not weaken a person's facility with other languages. Nor is Latin useless and irrelevant to an appreciation of English. I wouldn't necessarily recommend a Japanese person learn Latin, but more than a third of all English words have Latin roots (whereas apparently only around 5 percent of English words derive from Greek), and fluency in Latin tends to make abstract words in English no longer feel abstract, but concrete, tactile, and alive. Shakespeare, and indeed almost all the major poets in English, had a solid grounding in Latin that informed their style, and it would have been utterly Impossible for Shakespeare to have achieved what he did without Latin.

Clark, operating from a position of bellicose ignorance, snidely disparages posters who suggest that a translation is not an adequate substitute for the original language. And yet, that really is the case. I have read Balzac and Proust in the original French, and Nietzsche in the original German, and I can tell you that some of the translations out there are very fine and can give you almost the full meaning and reverberation of the original texts. But the same CANNOT be said of any translation I've encountered of Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal, or Horace. The peculiarities of Latin syntax and grammar constitute a real stumbling block to effective translation.

Anonymous said...


Amazing job trolling everyone... that's what this was, right? Your arguments were so ignorant (I understand this was your intention) that I couldn't believe how many people fell for this. I mean, you managed to reel in some rock-solid counterarguments from some smart people. The joke's on them. I especially enjoyed the juvenile insults you dished out. Classic trolling. Keep up the great work!


Anonymous said...

Wow there are so many incredible reasons for learning Latin....

It shows you the etymology of other words you never even thought of being related to each other and puts english into a completely new perspective if you are a writer.

Yes the grammar is difficult but you can find spoken communities on the app discord and practice.

It is a beautiful language and has its merits.

Unknown said...

I started reading these opinions to help me decide whether to learn Latin. In fact I did glean much of value, but gave up after too many posts from both sides making personal attacks on those with opposite points of view. Personal attacks serve only to relieve the feelings of the attacker. They do not take the place of reasoned argument, an in fact nullify the attacker's expressed opinions.

Unknown said...

I started reading these opinions to help me decide whether to learn Latin. In fact I did glean much of value, but gave up after too many posts from both sides making personal attacks on those with opposite points of view. Personal attacks serve only to relieve the feelings of the attacker. They do not take the place of reasoned argument, an in fact nullify the attacker's expressed opinions.

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