Learning Latin makes learning another language more difficult!

Henry Stewart's picture
Donald Clark has given me permission to reproduce this article from his excellent blog Donald Clark Plan B:

"In an odd article, in the Spectator, Toby Young, who seems obsessed with Latin, recommends it as a compulsory subject in state schools, with a string of ridiculous anecdotes. He describes how a friend used Latin on an easyjet flight to communicate with others on the plane. “If I’m on an EasyJet flight with a group of European nationals, none of whom speak English, I find we can communicate if we speak to each other in Latin,” says Grace Moody-Stuart. (I’m checking the passenger list next time I fly easyjet, just in case there’s a chance that awful Grace sits next to me!) Young even claims, with no evidence whatsoever, that Latin would help inner-city kids speak better as they’d practice unusual word endings!

He does, however, produce one piece of academic evidence, which he claims gives us “chapter and verse” on the subject, a 40 year old study by from the journal Phi Delta Kappan, where a group taught Latin was compared to another similar group and positive effects found.

Latin is not the cause

Of course, he simply trawled back through the literature to cherry pick a study that fitted his case, ignoring the more recent, superior, work In Search of the Benefits of Latin by Haas and Stern (2003) in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

In a review of the literature they found that Thorndike “did not find any differences in science and maths in students who learned Latin at school and those who did not”. And in the Haag and Stern (2000) follow up study to the study quoted by Young, two groups of comparable students, where one studied Latin, the other English, were assessed after two years, “No differences were found in either verbal or non-verbal IQ or grades in German or Maths”. In general they found an absence of transfer effects of learning Latin in reasoning. This had been predicted by Thorndike decades before, namely that transfer needs common ground in the source and target.

Now for the bad news: Latin makes it worse

The problem with understanding Latin is that you need to pay close attention to word endings; case markers on nouns and time markers on verbs. But in English and Romance languages word order and prepositions are more important. Endings play a minor role.

What Haag and Stern found, predictably, was that students who had learned one Romance language first found it easier to learn another Romance language , that those who had learned Latin. But it gets worse, as Latin caused incorrect transfer, such as the omission of prepositions and auxiliary verbs in Romance languages. In other words, learning Latin was detrimental to the learning of the new language.

They took two groups of German students, one who studied French, the other Latin as their second language. Both groups were then given a course in Spanish and the results measured. When the results were analysed by a Spanish assessor (who didn’t know who had taken French or Latin) found no group differences in verbal intelligence.

However, the French students made significantly fewer grammatical errors than the Latin students. As predicted the Latin students wrongly transferred the rules of Latin to Spanish. For example “misconstructions in verbs emerged to be either highly reminiscent of or identical to Latin verbs”. The French group turned out to be much better prepared to cope with Spanish grammar. Psychologically the Latin students had suffered from negative transfer using false friends in their new language. The fact that the grammatical similarities between modern Romance languages are much greater than that between Latin and modern Romance languages, means that the defenders of Latin are flogging a dead horse.

Incidentally, if you’ve heard the argument that Latin helps medical students learn and understand the considerable amount of medical vocabulary that has to be learned in medical schools. This also turns out to be false as shown in Pampush and Petto (2010)


This is not an unimportant or esoteric debate. Our state education system is in danger of being hijacked by minor celebrities, wannabes and TV chefs. Much of the debate is purely anecdotal, and worse, the anecdotal memories of a small clique of inner-London types who want to impose their worries and idiosyncratic ideas on the rest of us. It is important to counter this nonsense with the real evidence. The plural of anecdote is NOT data."
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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 16:17

In the Spectator article, Toby Young repeated the claim made on this website that UK private schools were the best in the world according to the OECD. I asked him to give the link to the evidence backing up this statement. He has yet to do so.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 16:34

Brian’s Latin lesson: http://www.epicure.demon.co.uk/latinlesson.html

It’s even funnier when you watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIAdHEwiAy8

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 16:47

Mary Beard, the classicist soon to be seen on Jamie's Dream School, offers this answer to the question "Why then learn Latin?" in her book "It's a Don's Life" (page 17):

"Certainly not for conversation..." (Alas, Easy-Jet passengers)

"And not - at GCSE level, at least - just to learn about the ancient world (there's an excellent Classical Civilisation exam for that)."

"Nor to learn formal grammar (which can be taught more economically in a myriad of other ways)."

"The central point of learning Latin is to be able to read some of the extraordinary literature written a couple of millennia ago. It can be formidably hard. Asking a school student to reach Tacitus is a bit like asking an English learner to go off and read Finnegans Wake."

Mary Beard says learning Latin is intellectually worthwhile BUT if GCSE Latin were to be made easier (with multiple choice and omitting the set books) then the intellectual rigour would go, and that would kill the subject.

If Latin were to be made compulsory in all state schools for all pupils then it would be dumbed-down in the way Mary Beard fears. However, I think it should be more widely available as an option.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 16:54

I have got Latin A level. I did enjoy it but can't remember very much - obviously getting on the wrong easy jet flights so not getting enough practice.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 18:20

Henry you make some fair points in analysing Latin as a school subject, but isn't this all really a sideshow to the main debate?

Why don't we just let children and parents choose what and where they are going to study?

Let's restate two recent illustrative opposing positions. We have Henry saying Toby Young and his chums are hijacking the state school and imposing an outdated reactionary pedagogy and topics on children; and Toby Young says that LGBT Fabian nonense is foisted on children instead of proper learning at SNS.

Now it is up to parents and children to make what they will of these opinions and actions, but here is where I agree with Toby Young - propositions are made by educators and parents and children choose which they wish to take up. The idea of FORCING people in to local schools and educational programs is illegal and immoral.

Consider the government's own advice about educational choice - there is not even a legal obligation to put a child in school, only the requirement for full time education from five:


Why does anyone at LSN think they should have the right to force children in to local schools according to the misnamed "fair banding"? Where is your legal authority? Where even is your moral authority?

Parents should just simply choose where they are going to educate including if necessary at home. Why on earth should teachers and the whole administration of education continue to get paid when the children and parents don't want to use their services? It is an inversion of the proper values, the money and the child proceed from the individual parents, they are not chattel of the state. The purpose of the state school is not to create national socialists under totalitarian authority.

Please feel free to continue to support your local schools and encourage people to use them - but recognise that the power belongs to the children and parents about whether they use them. They will come if they like what they see, but have the right not to use them and should have the right to alternatives in law such as in Alberta CA and Sweden.

I have faith in most people, even the urban poor, to trust their judgements about knowing what kind of school is going to help their chld as much as the middle classes. Why can't you also just trust the public to choose?

Sarah's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 20:20

Allowing parents to decide what their children are taught is tantamount to allowing the lunatics to take over the asylum. You wouldn't expect patients to be setting up 'Free Hospitals' where they could opt for operations not considered by the professionals to offer the best medical outcomes, purely on the basis of offering 'choice'. This is taking the commodification of education too far. We employ educational experts to guide society about what an appropriate curriculum is - whilst parents should certainly be engaged with their child's education to the maximum extent possible most are not equipped to make the distinction between an appropriate and an inappropriate curriculum.

What survey after survey has shown is that most parents don't want choice. They want good local schools and if parental effort, particularly that of the influential, organised and articulate was focused on improving what is already provided there would be a far greater likelihood of raising standards for all children.

Education is a common good, a public service. It isn't a washing machine or a tin of beans.

Henry Stewart's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 22:28

Ben: I can't claim credit for this article, its by Donald Clark. But I re-published it here as the evidence it quotes calls into question the claims that Latin has the power to transform learning.

But i'm puzzled by your claim that anybody is advocating forcing people into local schools. LSN exists to promote local schools, not to force anybody to do anything. "Fair banding" isn't forcing people into schools - you have to apply to a school to take part in fair banding for it.

Johnson Thomas K's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 12:12

I think learning Sanskrit is eminently more sensible than learning Latin. Many people Greek and Latin in the belief that Greek & Latin origins of English words are cited in English dictionaries. Others can't make the connection between English and the Indo-European family of languages although it is the largest language family in the world spoken by the largest number of people in Asia and Europe. In a world of ideological divide and academic expediency what is forgotten are the true connections between languages. It is believed the Silk Road has been existence for about 4500 years connecting Europe with Asia which in a sense laid the foundations of the modern world as we know it. The Silk Road was not sort of a "curry trade route" involving some spices like pepper, turmeric, silk, sahutosh, pashmina, cashmere and of course diamonds, pearls, saphron, precious stones etc but was much more than that. The Silk Road or Silk Route or whatever that infrastructure is called allowed Europe to learn about the religions like Hinduism (the oldest major religion), Judaism, Budhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam which all originated in Asia. Jesus Christ was a Jewish Rabbi born in Asia (Israel/Palestine) and whether he has had blonde hair or not is not the issue the issue is about the assimilation of languages, cultures, philosophies, science between the the two continents. I believe there is more connection between Sanskrit, Latin and English than realised as Latin is also an Indo-European language. I am not an expert in Latin but can give the similarities between English and Sanskrit (Some Sanskrit words are difficult to be spelt in English as the former has 48 letters whilst the latter has only 26 however I will give my best shot as below;

English Sanskrit

Mother Mathar
Father Pithar
Brother Brathar
Sister Svasar
Daughter Duhitar
Navy Nav (Naavig)
Nine Nau/Nav
New Nava
Diva/Divine Devi/Dev
Duo/Duvet/Dual Dvaya
Two Dva
Three/Trinity/Trident Thri/Thraya/Trishul
Same Sama
Cereal Siri
Dental Denda
Rhythm Rtham
Saint Sant
Matter Mathr
No No
Nano Nanna
Mind Mana
Serpent Sarpa
Me Mam
Thee Thvam
That Tat
New Nava
Navel Nabhi
Octo Astha
Decem Dasham
Centam Satam

Whilst history including history of languages written by victors may be tittillating it creates complacency and complacency self delusion. This is the philosophy behind the saying pride goes before a fall. The English dictionaries are teaching the children a wrong etymology to suit their political ideology and is hurting the children in the long run.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 12:28

Ben Taylor has widened the debate about Latin to one of parental choice. In a democracy like ours there is a balance to be struck between individual demands and the needs of society (of which we are all members). Mr Cameron has declared he wants more community cohesion but this will not be served by the setting-up of a myriad of organisations in response to disparate demands. Individual choice is not absolute. Take a hypothetical case of 20 parents all wanting different schools for their children: single-sex, faith (CofE, RC, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and so on), co-educational, vocational, all-age, selective, comprehensive, middle-school, 14-19 technical, Steiner, Montessori, Summerhill-type, boarding, specialist Sports/Drama/Business and so on. It is obvious that all these demands cannot be met - it is impractical and uneconomical. Add to this mix a desire from extreme groups who want their children taught that other groups (defined by faith, race, ethnicity and so on) are inferior and to be despised, then it becomes apparent that society would be divided to the detriment of the whole of society.

To repeat: there needs to be a balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of society.

Chris's picture
Sat, 12/03/2011 - 21:03

Sarah (comment 4480): "Allowing parents to decide what their children are taught is tantamount to allowing the lunatics to take over the asylum. You wouldn’t expect patients to be setting up ‘Free Hospitals’..." Well said, this is the primary issue here. Dealing with people who think they are experts on education, just because they were once a student. It happens in no other profession, why education, other than the fact that certain people have big chips on their shoulders, usually involving excuses in perceived failures in their lives? No one throws advice out to a chef, just because they can cook. They are more likely to listen attentively and pick up tips. Why aren't teachers treated the same way? PS I am not a teacher, I just feel sorry for a lot of them.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Wed, 16/03/2011 - 20:38

I learnt Latin for two years at school. It was enjoyable and interesting and I have found that making sense of other European languages was a lot easier as a result. To have pursued it further would have meant foregoing something else, and there was enough pressure on my time, even then however my more linguistic friends went on to do Latin O and A levels having been persuaded that it was necessary to get into a good university or to take language degrees.My partner however has an O level in Latin but none in any other language. When in France a few years ago he amazed me by translating what a tour guide was saying using his knowledge of Latin. He thought it was a wonderful skill until I suggested that if wanted to be good at French, learn French. My response therefore to Toby Young is to learn a few European languages in order to converse properly with others, not rely on school boy Latin and no doubt arm waving and lots of pointing. If you have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish you can probably get by in Italy and Portuguese speaking countries.
Its however interesting that Sydenham Girls School, a state secondary in Lewisham not known for well off or above average incomes or results, is now offering Latin at A level, hopefully for more career advantage than being travelling journalists or cabin crew.
So Toby, eat your heart out, or move over to the SE postcodes, as guess what, this classical education is now being provided free of charge by a state school!

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