Efficacy of Latin Studies in the Information Age
Alice K. DeVane
(thanks to Amy Rountree)
If you read over this paper, you will note several difficulties presented by the studies it cites.
One is that Latin is not teased out from foreign languages in general, so you are left with nothing peculiar to Latin in terms of benefits.
The other very serious one is that only one study, as I recall, showed a gain before and after the study of Latin; most simply said Latin students are a cut above, which can just as easily be attributed to their being the sort of people who elect Latin as to anything studying Latin did for them.
Naturally, vocabulary in English will be augmented by the study of Latin due to the large amount of words borrowed into English from Latin. It’d be the same for an Urdu speaker studying Persian and Arabic, it’s the source of much of the higher level vocabulary in the language.
The higher cognitive functioning is a dilemma for me. I do not believe people learn languages by studying rules, but I also see that if Latin is presented as a giant puzzle to be solved – and I did notice a reference to translating as opposed to learning the language – then we can surmise that some benefit in the area of higher order thinking skills might result.
The language these quotes were couched in reveals a lot; whenever anyone starts out with “there is no doubt” (Macro)or “”the single immutable and nonoptional fact about skillful reading is that it involves relatively complete processing of the individual letters of print”, a point many researchers in reading would find both mutable and optional, in fact, wrong. (Frank Smith) Such statements reveal, rather than unmoveable certainty, a great deal of doubt, needing buttressing by frank statements of certitude.
Even a statement like “It has been shown to increase native language communication skills, increase higher order thinking skills, and impact student’s knowledge in the area of global understanding” must be analyzed in terms of the research it is based on; “… it has been shown….” may or may not be the case. Most of the other studies quoted used more appropriate language like “it is suggested that…” or “… one might surmise…”, etc. That is the language of science.
That doesn’t mean we cannot use our impressions and experience to recommend Latin as a valuable class to take. As long as we so label our “findings”, no one can dismiss what a veteran teacher has to say. Several such comments were included in the review of the literature presented here and that’s fine.
Where the person posting the question has some legitimate concerns is in the rash statements some advocates of Latin make. If those statements can be shown to be founded on sand, it hurts all of us advocating for Latin. We should be on firm ground if we make statements to parents and students. So what do we know?
The study of any language benefits students’ language skills. How do we know this? Frankly, I don’t know the studies; I imagine they exist. But we all have an intuitive grasp of the value of immersing students in language and the foreign language class has some distinct features to offer. Latin alone provides features such as word order, aspect marking, special rules for transition word placement, and a lot of other points of study that will widen their linguistic horizon. The culture of any language is unique and thus that of Latin is, too.
As I stated above, a focus on grammatical analysis, while not recommended as a method of learning the language, does provide many opportunities for the application of analytical skills.
And finally, to show how complex all this is, take a look at this quote from the discussion on the listserv:
“With the stress on science came the loss of Latin as part of the curriculum in most school systems in the country. “Public school Latin enrollments plummeted, falling 79%, from 702,000 in 1962 to a low of 150,000 in 1976” (LaFleur, 1985, p. 342). Gradually “a drop of thirty-three points in the average verbal score on the national Scholastic Aptitude Test…and a sharp increase in college remedial English courses” (Mavrogenes, 1977, p. 268) was evidenced between 1957 and 1973 during a time of continued drop in the number of students enrolled in Latin and increase in the number of science and math classes required. In fact, students who had studied Latin made slight increases in SAT verbal scores (LaFleur, 1985).”
What is not accounted for in this narrative is the major shift in school populations and testing policies. Who of my age can forget the effects of racial integration of the schools, greater access to higher education of students formerly unlikely to go to college (I was one of those), and the impact of increased foreign immigration due to the Cold War? In the face of all that, to direct us to think that the decline of Latin fomented all these changes is asking a lot.