Academic journal article Educational Research Quarterly

The Benefits of Latin?

Academic journal article Educational Research Quarterly

The Benefits of Latin?

Article excerpt

Classicists have long claimed that the study of Latin has benefits that exceed knowledge of the language itself, and in the current economic times, these claims are made with urgency. Indeed, many contend that Latin improves English grammar and writing skills, cognitive abilities, and develops transferable skills necessary for success in the sciences. In and of itself, the study of Latin seems to be a topic of concern primarily within Classics departments. However, given the broad claims that have been made about the benefits of Latin for educational development, it is useful to investigate the role of Latin within elementary and high school curriculums as it relates to learning: does the study of Latin improve cognitive abilities and English skills, including grammar and vocabulary?

In order to address this question, this article will begin by surveying the historical background of the debate, beginning with the 1921-1924 study by the American Classical League (ACL). It will then consider the claims tested in the ACL study, using modem research to assess their validity. Lastly, it will consider the possible benefits of Latin in light of the surveyed research.

Arguments about the applicability and benefits of Latin can be found throughout history. Within the American educational system, Latin was a central part of primary, secondary and postsecondary education in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the early 1920s, classicists noted with some alarm a decline in the number of Latin and Greek courses being taught within America's school systems. A study by the newly formed American Classical League was commissioned from 1921 to 1924 in an attempt to ascertain if claims about the study of Latin were verifiable. The study designers undertook it with the assumption that the benefits of Latin would be validated, and thus there would be a resurgence of Latin courses taught. Classicists at this time contended that the study of Latin not only helped students to learn English grammar and composition, but that it imparted moral and cultural values to students (Mavrogenes 1979). Also, the academic discipline required to master the language arguably transferred into excellence in other studies.

The ACL's study was nation-wide and included figures such as Thomas Briggs, W.W. Charters and E. Thomdike among its advisors, though Thomdike was the only psychologist to contribute (Warga 2009). The study began by attempting to determine what was actually being taught in schools and then to examine any possible connections between Latin and English, and cognitive skills. Surprisingly to members of the ACL, Thomdike's test of the correlation between Latin and increased English vocabulary demonstrated that it was not as high as many had hoped (Warga 2009). When it came to the issue of grammar, students who had not studied Latin performed comparably to those who had. Many of the differences between the students were statistically quite small, one to two points on a one hundred point scale (Warga 2009). Following the startling findings of the ACL's study, classicists shifted their argument to focus on the connection between Latin and English. By effectively misrepresenting the study's findings, classicists claimed that the study of functional Latin, which did not emphasize aspects of Latin grammar, would help to improve knowledge of English grammar.

In the 1970s, the debate about the decline of Latin courses offered in schools was revived following an analysis of SAT scores. A study found that the average verbal scores dropped 33 points between 1957 and 1973 (Mavrogenes 1979). This revived interest in Latin, as proponents were quick to point to the findings of the ACL report and to offer Latin as a solution to dropping SAT scores (Mavrogenes 1979). Numerous studies were undertaken that reexamined the potential of Latin to improve not only test scores, but also Latin's relationship to cognitive abilities, its ability to enrich knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar, and its potential to transfer to other academic subjects. …

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