Bryan Caplan  

The Case Against Latin

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The great Frederic Bastiat was an eloquent enemy of Latin in the curriculum.  In the Middle Ages, he admits, "There were only Latin books; writing was done only in Latin; Latin was the language of religion; the clergy could teach only what they had learned--Latin... Hence, it is understandable that in the Middle Ages education was confined to the study of the dead languages, quite improperly called the learned languages."  But, he asks:

Is it natural, is it good, that the same should be true in the nineteenth century? Is Latin a necessary means for the acquisition of knowledge?...

Knowing a language, like knowing how to read, means having possession of an instrument. And is it not strange that we should spend our whole youth in making ourselves masters of an instrument that is good for nothing--or not good for much, since nothing is more urgent when one begins to know it than to forget it? Alas, if one could only forget as quickly the impressions that this wretched study has left!

If that condemnation isn't clear enough, Bastiat later adds:

The study of Latin is much praised as a means of developing the intellect. This is purely a conventional judgment. The Greeks, who did not learn Latin, were not lacking in intelligence, and we do not see that French women are deprived of it any more than they are deprived of common sense. It would be strange that the human mind could not be strengthened without becoming perverted.

Modern educational psychology backs Bastiat up.  Here's a nice short summary of the century-long literature.  Studying Latin does not boost verbal IQ, nonverbal IQ, math scores, or native language performance:
E. L. Thorndike (1923) did not find any differences in the science and mathematics achievement of higher education students who learned Latin at school and those who did not. In the Nuremberg longitudinal study on learning Latin, Haag and Stern (2000) intended to find out whether these findings could be confirmed in Germany about 70 years later... To control for possible selection effects in foreign language choice, data on intelligence, school grades, and interests were collected at the first measurement point at the very beginning of Grade 5, that is, before the participants started to learn their first foreign language. No differences were found in either verbal and nonverbal IQ or grades in German and mathematics between the 115 students who started with Latin as their first foreign language in Grade 5 and the 93 students whose first foreign language was English.
Followups at the end of Grade 8 similarly found, "No significant differences... in deductive and inductive reasoning or text comprehension... among students with 4 years of Latin, 2 years of Latin, and no Latin at all."

None of this should surprise you if you're familiar with the literature on Transfer of Learning.  Contrary to teachers' wishful thinking, learning is highly specific.  The most promising place to look for side benefits of Latin education would be in the acquisition of other Romance languages.  Even here, though, Latin turns out to be less helpful than French, a language hundreds of millions of people actually use:
Students who studied Latin at school were less well prepared for learning Spanish than their contemporaries who had learned French at school. The superior performance of the French group was particularly marked in the correct use of grammar rules and was also obvious as a trend in vocabulary skills. The negative transfer effects of Latin on learning Spanish, which became apparent in the analysis of grammar errors, suggest that accessing Romance languages by way of Latin may not only be a detour but may also be
a complication.
The Panglossian labor economist might object, "If teaching Latin wasn't useful, the market wouldn't reward it."  To which I reply, "If the fact that the market rewards Latin isn't strong evidence in favor of the signaling model of education, what is?"
 

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Joel writes:

In what sense does "the market" "reward" Latin? I'm pretty sure I've never been in any situation ("market"-related or otherwise) in which knowing Latin would have particularly benefited me.

Kalim Kassam writes:

The knowledge of Latin I have now is less useful than almost any foreign language I might have learned instead to meet my curriculum requirements. That's largely why I chose to switch to Mandarin Chinese in 12th Grade.

Still, I'm grateful for my Latin studies in middle school and high school ('99-'04) because the stodgy pedagogical style had resisted many of the fashions which had overtaken English and modern language study at the same schools. My high school Classics Department used photocopies of a long-out-of-print textbook as its primary introductory text for goodness sakes. The formal approach to grammar (eg diagramming sentences) and all the terminology we learned was, I think, largely transferable to my study of linguistics in university. I might just have a mind for the stuff, but I had an easier time with the lower-level coursework than most of my classmates. My independent reading in linguistics was probably even more important when it came to previous familiarity with modern concepts and terminology, but the skillset that goes into drawing syntax trees is one that improves with practice--and practice I had. I studied Latin because I was a linguaphile and was pretty well served.

In addition, the approach to instruction also included a study of rhetoric (learning figures of speech, analyzing Cicero) and metrical poetry (reading Ovid, Virgil) none of which I would have learned in other available classes.

I realize all of the above is not a case for compelling everyone to study Latin--but just in case there are other atypical people out there like me (Latin-instruction was a factor in my high school selection!)--it's definitely a case for having it available.

Amaturus writes:

I don't think the German study is particularly valid for native English speakers. German itself is a language that has rigid and logical grammar, much like Latin, so I think many of the benefits for English speakers are lost on Germans. I say this as someone who learned both in high school. After learning Latin grammar, German was quite simple. Learning Latin improved my logic and reasoning abilities, so I'd argue it's great tool for teaching kids how to learn.

agnostic writes:

What about the case for Latin -- that you'll be able to read anything in Latin untranslated? That's the case for other foreign languages.

Sure they pretend like you're going to use it to talk to real-life people, to travel, etc., but we all know that rarely happens. It's mostly used for reading stuff in French, German, etc.

Is there more worthwhile stuff written originally in Latin than in most other foreign languages? Yep.

So why is Latin dying in high schools and colleges, while Chinese is exploding in popularity? Again no one really believes they're going to move to China and use it for daily conversations with native speakers. It's just their way of signaling which living group they identify with. Ditto for other languages.

I know I'd benefit a lot from learning French, but I just don't identify too much with the northern French culture. I did Spanish, Italian, and Catalan because I felt closer to the Mediterranean -- maybe wrongly, but that's how I felt anyway.

Quintilian II writes:

People who consider Latin to be a dead language don't realize how much Latin they already know and use. Far from being dead, it's very much alive under different names: Italian, French, Spanish, and even English. You wouldn't expect Latin or any language to remain exactly the same for 2000 years; all languages change over time. When we speak English, much of what we're saying is Latin as it has developed in modern times. Look up the etymologies of the words in the Declaration of Independence:"When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . ." You will find that most of those words are twisted Latin. If you didn't know some Latin -- even if you never realized that you learned it -- you couldn't understand English.

Brian Clendinen writes:

So would the same be true for Greek? I found Greek helped me some. Also in my mind Greek grammar is so much easier than English, which I have never been very good at. If I had been born Greek, I think I would be a lot better writer due to the constant rules of Greek verses English.

Jason Brennan writes:

Much to my surprise, Latin has been more useful to me than Spanish. In my experience, native Spanish speakers who could also speak English have been unwilling to speak Spanish with me (even though, at least for a time, my Spanish was excellent). In fact, Spanish was most useful for me in Brazil, to speak to native Portuguese speakers. That's too bad, since the reason I chose Spanish over French in middle and high school was because I believed Spanish would be more handy.

Floccina writes:

People will sometimes say that it is good to study Latin because it helps on verbal section of the SAT and I think wouldn't it be even better to study English vocabulary.

I think that testing has squeezed out much valuable education in schooling.

Even if schooling is mostly just a long test couldn't we make it a long test that teaches and tests more useful information.

I think that a separation of education and testing might help. IMO it is sort of Deming cross purposes problem that teachers are the educators and testers. Teachers want the status of being rigorous but also want to educate but the two are often at cross purposes.

Joe Marier writes:

It sure comes in handy if you're a canon lawyer.

English Professor writes:

The primary value of Latin in modern education is its power in SIGNALING. If you've studied Latin at some time, you've probably gone to a pretty good high school and have been thought of as honors material. And I say this without prejudice. I've long studied Latin and use it regularly in my scholarly work. Its primary benefit is historical. By reading ancient (or Medieval or Renaissance) works in their original languages (as opposed to translations), you get a better sense of how those people understood their world.

dr obviousso writes:

If we are going to teach school children a language they'll never speak outside of school, that language should be C, not Latin.

Biagio Mazzi writes:

I have a PhD in Physics and I love what Megan McArdle wrote about liberal arts in her article on tenure. That is to give an idea of the type of person I am.

Having said that I still remember what my italian high school teacher told me at 14 regarding Latin. Please forget all justifications for studying Latin, from developing logic to helping in learning languages, we study Latin because it is beautiful. I think early (I agree that at some moment it should stop) in life one should still learn things because they form one's character.

Anyway, in all the utility minded arguments, for any language no one seems to mention as a reason to learn it the ability to enjoy the literature. A reason to learn English is not only to speak to people but also to able to love Jane Austen in the original language. Why can't we say the same for Latin? Isn't it a pleasure to read Virgil or Ceasar in the original language?

hsearles writes:

I myself am very thankful for the education that I received in Latin not only because Latin classes are aimed at actually understanding the mechanics of the language rather than how to communicate mundane necessities, but also the fact that later classes often also translate authors like Cicero, Virgil, Ovid and Horace that are not only great examples of timeless Western literature, but are also great for understanding the nature of literature itself. I have benefited more from reading those four in Latin than I have through three years of English courses that read nothing but Shakespeare and bad contemporary authors.

jamie writes:

but I got to read Ovid and Cicero in their original language. How can you put a price on that?

Anonymous writes:

@ Quintilian:

It's widely believed that English is a germanic language, not descended from Latin, with Latin influences that came in through the French (especially in legal language, since post 1066, Norman French speakers and the Norman French language dominated the law and the power structure for a few hundred years).

Despite that edge in the legal contexts, in the sentence: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . ." Only 8 (I believe) of the 24 words come from Latin...and one of those, "political", Latin adapted from Greek. Most of the words and the grammar definitely come from German and are solid Old English.

That said, learning Old English to learn Modern English (let alone learning Latin for that purpose) would be like learning to play a cithara to improve your skills at Guitar Hero.

blink writes:

Yes, the study of Latin is strong evidence of the signaling hypothesis. But what are the practical implications? Stop studying Latin? Given that signaling will not magically disappear if the study of Latin ceases, this makes sense only if one can propose a more efficient method of signaling very similar characteristics. Is there a better way?

binary writes:

I think it's quite interesting to note that most people defend the use of Latin by saying how other languages are useless. Think about it. A language that is still in use opens up a whole new understanding of a culture etc... I am French and my parents decided to move to England. I am now bilingual and can go to study in America or England or France. Even Germany or Italy now seeing as I had time to learn both at school. That's five different countries. Someone wrote about only using the learnt language to read, I learn AND speak English. Quite more useful than Latin (Which I have learnt for four years or such). I have not spoken a word of Latin since my last class. I have a German and Italian pen-pals and visit those countries from time to time.

You can say whatever you like, Latin will not have a better use than any other spoken language. If you are already an English speaker, I recommend German. It's the gateway country of Europe in my opinion (does anyone understand what I mean?).

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