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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL
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© 2010 Klaus Bung

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it

Klaus Bung:
What use is Latin?

Klaus Bung has just uploaded an article on: "What use is Latin?"  He explains how he personally benefitted from knowing Latin when learning several other foreign languages. Information about teaching of Latin and of Sanskrit as a conversational language. Link to a Latin chatroom.

English summary of a German newspaper article by Nadine Bös, with reference to Elsbeth Stern, Ludwig Haag and Wilfried Stroh, plus some personal comments by Klaus Bung and useful links, e.g. about teaching and practising conversational Latin and conversational Sanskrit. The original article is in German. An important study by Haag and Stern about the benefits of learning Latin, or otherwise, is referred to and has been published in English.

Is knowledge of Latin useful? Experiences in Germany.

An article, in German, in FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG, of 23 June 2010, discusses this question. A growing number of secondary school students are learning Latin. In the academic year 2004/2005 7.7% of all pupils were learning Latin. In 2008/2009 their number had grown to 9.3%.

Parents and education experts disagree amongst each other whether or not knowledge of Latin is an advantage for a career. Hardly any of the employers questioned insists on Latin, some employers and experts think Latin irrelevant, some employers favour applicants with Latin, other things being equal. They see it as a sign of general education and reliability, love of study for its own sake, a good family background, ability to think logically, likelihood to be good at learning other languages, to work in an organised and disciplined way, to communicate well, etc.

It is often asserted that knowledge of Latin makes it easier for pupils to learn other languages at a later time, especially Romance languages.

A study conducted by Professor Elsbeth Stern of the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, together with Professor Ludwig Haag, Bayreuth, "proved" that Latin does not bring advantages for logical thinking or for learning other languages. On the contrary, pupils who first learned Latin and then Spanish did worse than pupils who first learned French and then Spanish.

Defenders of Latin

Among the most prominent defenders of Latin (Defensor Fidei) is retired Professor Wilfried Stroh, (and another link here), who wrote the bestseller "Latein ist tot, es lebe Latein! Kleine Geschichte einer großen Sprache", Berlin 2007 (Latin is dead, long live Latin! Little history of a great language), translated into French as "Latin est mort, vive le Latin! Petite histoire d'une grande langue", Paris 2008.

He teaches his students not only to translate from and into Latin but to converse in Latin. Knowing Latin opens new worlds to you, he says, enables you to look with different eyes on 2000 years of history. It should be learnt as part of general education, even if it turned out not to help Latinists to have an advantage when hunting for a job.

"If irrelevance for job hunting is a reason for eliminating Latin from school curricula," says Stroh, "then why not also abolish music, religious education, sport and literature! They don't help you get a job."

One of Stroh's students, Robert West, was so enthusiastic that he founded a Latin chatroom, called "Rostra Nova" (New Stage for Orators).

Even more popular is a Latin chatroom run by Finish broadcaster YLE Radio 1, which even broadcasts a weekly news bulletin in Latin. It is called "Colloquia Latina". (Latin is competing with English as an international language. :-)   kb)

end of this summary

Nadine Bös: "Lateinkenntnisse - Für die Schule, nicht fürs Leben". In: FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG, online. 23 June 2010.

The study by Haag and Stern is available on the Internet. Details: Ludwig Haag (Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg) and Elsbeth Stern (Max Planck Institute for Human Development): "In Search of the Benefits of Learning Latin". In: Journal of Educational Psychology , 2003, Vol. 95, No. 1, 174 –178

Klaus Bung reflects on the value of knowing Latin when learning other languages

I must add a personal comment here, for I love Latin, want to protect and preserve the language, enjoy meeting like-minded people, and do not want eventually to be the only surviving dinosaur who knows it.

The Haag-Stern study does not try to prove categorically that learning Latin is useless for learning other languages. That would be an oversimplification. It shows that students who learnt Latin first and then went on to learn Spanish did, when tested, worse than students who learnt French first and then Spanish. The Latin-first students made mistakes in Spanish that were caused by their prior knowledge of Latin. To that extent their knowledge of Latin may have been harmful for them. "Formal rigor", otherwise often referred to as "clear thinking" (in praise of Latin studies) was not transferred from Latin to the students of Spanish.The ex-Latin students of Spanish also made mistakes as a result of not recognising "false friends", words which look similar or identical but have different meanings in two languages.

I do not know whether I ever thought I acquired "formal rigor" when learning Latin at school. Studying Latin successfully certainly did not help me with mathematics, a subject in which I failed at school, in spite of my continued love and respect for it. But I did benefit enormously, throughout my life, from intimate knowledge of Latin vocabulary and from my familiarity with Latin grammar.

While I cannot fault the Haag-Stern study and, as a single person, cannot stand up against statistics, I still feel that it would be a pity if Latin were to ousted from school curricula as a result. I am not the average student, but nevertheless there must be thousands of people across the globe who are like me or could become, blissfully, like me when given half a chance. I therefore think it is worthwhile to set out some of my personal experiences alongside the cold and stern rigour of the study.

My native language is German. My first foreign language was Latin (long before I started learning English). We did Latin for about 8 years, with 6 lessons per week, plus homework. Four years after Latin, we started with Greek, I cannot remember when we started with English, and it was only a few lessons per week.

My level of Latin may have been much higher than that of the guinea pigs used in the Haag-Stern study. So proficiency in Latin may matter.

Moreover the question arises whether, during the teaching of Spanish in the study, the relationships to Latin were systematically pointed out to those students who did not puzzle out the relationships (and the advantages of knowing them) for themselves (as I have done throughout my life). Perhaps they were not pointed out, and the students typically were too passive to figure them out for themselves and take advantage of them.

I personally like "false friends". They are worse than "good friends" but better than no friends at all. If I had to teach a Spanish class on the basis of Latin, I would take advantage of false friends, use them as memory aids, but warn against the pitfalls and practise the avoidance of pitfalls. I would, to stay within the realm of English and German, rather than Latin and Spanish, use German "Zaun" = "fence" as a memory aid for English "town" (fenced in settlement), make the student aware of the ever recurring correspondence of German "z" = /ts/ and English "t" (zu/to, zehn/ten, etc). (See "The skeleton in the cupboard: European languages reveal their family secrets" for a discussion of this approach.)

I would, in my teaching, actively work against the false omission of prepositions, and false endings for verbs and nouns. Getting "agreement" wrong, like in " *buena día ", or, worse, " *eso chica ", is something that can happen with or without the shadow of Latin.

I have spent most of my adult life in England, unceasingly, to this day, working to improve my English. My knowledge of Latin (not only of a few root words, but profound knowledge and love of the language), still enables me to cope with the spelling of English, especially with "cultismos", with learning new, rarer, words, and to do so much better than do most native English speakers (most of whom do not know Latin - the few English people who know Latin can also, invariably spell English well; but cause and effect in this is a moot point). I will continue to have this advantage for as long as the English spiiking kantriis du not introdjus fonetik speling.

But even at the very beginning, when I learnt English, not at school where my English was abysmal, but after leaving school when preparing to study in England, my knowledge of Latin was immeasurably useful to me.

At school I did not use Latin to help me with learning English because I was not keen on English; so I too would have produced bad results during the Haag-Stern study.

Since then I have progressed to learn French, with the help of Latin, then Spanish, then Italian and then some Portuguese - all with the help of Latin, which helped especially when learning vocabulary.

I have never experienced the particular problems described in the Haag-Stern study. Of course, I have made all those types of mistakes, but never to such an extent that I needed to search for a particular explanation.

Interference from other languages (which in my case could have been German and English, rather than my minimal French) is of course always present, but for me the only reaction would have been: "Correct my errors, follow good models, practise more, use better learning methods". So even interference was not an important or worrying problem. It was just a natural part of language learning to be overcome by patient and steady practice.

Letting me learn a "useless" language like Latin for its own sake was one of the best decisions my parents ever made for my education. I am grateful to them, not least because of the friendships and extremely enjoyable human contacts which indirectly resulted for me, much more valuable in terms of pleasure than a pay rise.

Knowing Latin not only helped me to learn other languages, it may also have ***induced*** me to want to learn other languages and have the courage to try it. This is in addition, of course, to the opportunities or vicissitudes of life which brought me into close contact with people from many countries, or brought me into those countries, and thus created the desire (but never the need) to learn the languages. Desire is a better motivator than necessity, I think, because it comprises joy.

It ***seems*** obvious that knowledge of ***any*** language can help in learning another of the same group.

An Indian student who had learnt Sanskrit at school, like we learn Latin, would find Latin a doddle if he ever had to learn it later in life. Unfortunately a university degree in Sanskrit is a common qualification for Indian taxi drivers and hotel receptionists. But they passionately love their Sanskrit, and that is worth a lot.

I have made friends in India by being able to tell them in Sanskrit that Rama runs into the forest ("Rama vanam celati"), the only Sanskrit sentence I recall. I made friends, and caused astonishment (and delight), in today's Athens by imploring my hosts, in ancient Greek spoken with a German accent, to tell me about the great deeds of the much-travelled man who has seen so many cities and studied the customs of so many people.

But when I inform a Frenchman (as I regularly do) that his country is divided into three parts, one of which is inhabited by the Belgians, I usually am not given the chance to dispense my wisdom about the Aquitanians or the Celts, "O, si tacuisses," (= Can't you keep your trap shut!) says my opponent in perfect Gallic, because he has learnt non scholae sed vitae, before landing a left upper cut in my face, leaving me with a broken jaw dangling from my ears and then, to add insult to injury, pretends to comfort me in Ciceronian Latin: "Sustolle cruente mentum" (Keep your bloody chin up!). I therefore always take a refresher course in Martial Arts before visiting the Gallic barbarians.

These are things which I have definitely learnt not only for school but for life. The important skill consists of making good use of the little you know. That includes the little Latin you know and, being situation-based, cannot be formally tested.

One question that arises from, or is unanswered by, the Haag-Stern study is how students fared when learning French, or English, rather than Latin. There would have been interference from German. There would have been interference from those language elements which are different, and help from those elements which are similar. Obviously, one cannot abolish the native language because it causes interference, but one can "abolish" any second foreign language which intererferes with learning the third.

What it all boils down to is not the "abolition" of a language like Latin but the *** sequencing *** of languages to be learnt. This is possible to the extent to which a sequence can be planned, e.g. in a national curriculum. It is not possible if the need of learning a foreign language arises out of the unpredictable circumstances of life, e.g. a new job in a foreign country.

Most of the linguistic observations of the Haag-Stern study fall under the heading of interference (negative transfer), mistakes caused by prior knowledge of Latin. There would, of course, also have been positive transfer, i.e. prior knowledge of Latin leading to correct Spanish in such a way that it would not have occurred without prior knowledge of Latin. I cannot quite see positive transfer (the opposite of interference) having been measured in the study; perhaps it was taken for granted or it is impossible to measure.

The following sequences of language learning are worth considering and would be informative:

  1. German (mother tongue) > Spanish (i.e. Spanish as first foreign language; let's discount English because its status as coming immediately after German is not up for debate.)
  2. German > Latin > Spanish
  3. German > Spanish > Latin

One could see from (1) how well Spanish is learnt immediately after German, free of the lamented negative but also positive transfer from Latin.

One could see by comparing (2) and (3) whether there is a positive transfer from Latin to Spanish or not, rather than having the insiduous comparison with transfer from French rather than from Latin.

Assuming that Latin is not easy coming immediately after German (because of its declensions and conjugations, and because of its non-Germanic vocabulary) one could see by comparing (2) and (3) whether the the Latin hurdle can be made less difficult by putting Spanish in front of it like a stepping stone.

I suppose it is axiomatic that in any case of ***second*** (and further) language learning there will be negative interference or "support" (positive transfer). From the linguistic point of view (e.g. through contrastive analysis, rather than through performance tests like the Haag-Stern one), it should be possible, at least in principle, to decide for any pair of languages whether positive transfer or negative transfer will be greater. Negative transfer is the price we have to pay for positive transfer. In a given set-up, is the price worth paying? That, it seems to me, is what the Haag-Stern study tried to establish for Latin and Spanish, as opposed to French and Spanish. (Starting with Spanish and then moving to French was, of course, not considered in this experiment. Nor do we know how Latinists would have coped with learning French rather than Spanish.)

All previously learned languages will affect the learning of the next language. Given a small set of languages under consideration in a certain country, e.g. in Germany: Latin, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese, it should be possible to predict for all pairs of these languages whether positive or negative transfer will be greater. It would also be interesting to develop a formula which can measure the cumulative transfer of a *** chain *** of "prior languages" so that a optimal sequence for these languages can be established and rationally defended.

If I had learnt French (or another Romance language) with the same intensity and duration as I learnt Latin, and with my attitudes, I would also have benefitted, this time from knowing French, but it would, of course, be impossible to "prove", for one person, whether I would have benefited more or benefitted less.

But considering that I proceeded to learn several Romance languages (and not only one, as the students in the Haag-Stern study did), it may make more sense for me to use Latin (the historical source of all of them) as my reference language or turn-table language rather than French or any of Latin's other modern descendants.

When talking of the personal benefits of which I am so conscious, I do not mean logical thinking and the like, but almost entirely learning and guessing vocabulary.

I point which I consider an advantage for my success in language learning is that I did not study these languages in an institutional environment (e.g. at university or at school) but entirely under my own initiative (greater initial motivation), with books, recordings, friends, girl-friends (hope for irresistable rewards), private lessons (having to pay a private teacher out of my meagre apprentice's allowance will have made me a very effective learner), and in the target country.

As evidence of my known attitude at the time, I remember that, when I was only a few weeks into Spanish, the first present my then Spanish girlfriend gave me was a Spanish etymological dictionary written, of course, in Spanish. She must have thought this appropriate for me and so it was, and I still use it. It does, of course, often refer to Latin, and each time I discover such a root, I find it helpful. I now find etymological dictionaries in other languages equally helpful for actually learning the living languages. On occasion I would not be able to see, and confirm, the mutual connections between words in two modern languages if I could not trace both of them to the same root, e.g. Latin.

My father was a Frankophile, had studied in Bordeaux and spoke French fluently and intelligently. He was also an Anglophobe, resented the replacement of French by English as the world language after World War 2, and throughout his life refused to learn English (or at least pretended not to know it). His Latin, even in his old age, must still have been alive and well. When he met my daughter, his granddaughter, who speaks only American (native) and Spanish, for the first time, during her first visit to Germany at the age of 17, the two had no language in common. I am told of a scene where the two sat on a hill overlooking Maria Laach Benedictine monastry, south of Bonn, and somehow communicated, my father speaking Latin and my daughter speaking Spanish. It is a nice story for Latinists. Is it apocryphal? It seems too good to be true, but I have no positive reason to doubt it. It depends on how good my father's Latin was (could he really converse in Latin?) and how good my daughter's Spanish was (Do they really teach Spanish that well in the USA?).

Latin helped me even to learn (to a lower standard) more distant languages, like Hindi and a smattering of Sanskrit, where my knowledge of Latin simply meant that I did not rebel, like so many English students do, against the use of endings for nouns and verbs. It does not matter so much WHAT the endings are. That can be learnt fairly easily.

What matters is that the student accepts without an emotional rebellion THAT meaning is expressed through some endings or others, and that doing so is not a Hunnish perversion. Latin made that easy for me, not only when learning French, but also when learning Hindi which, in a way, looks like a dead easy variant of Latin in its use of endings.

Latin syntax also came in handy when I started learning Hindi because I quickly developed an instinct (language feeling/Sprachgefühl) for the finite verb needing to be at the end of the sentence and FEELING that anything else sounded clumsy and plain wrong.

Spoken Sanskrit

Readers of this article may be interested to know that there is also an ever growing movement to teach and use Sanskrit as a conversational language. One of the representatives of this movement is Dr Prabhu Shastri (London), who has contributed a paper on the history and present state of this movement to the DYLL website, which will soon be uploaded. Dr Shastri runs courses on conversational Sanskrit in the UK (and elsewhere) on request. He says he can teach you to converse in Sanskrit in 20 hours. He will make further contributions to this website. So watch this space. If you are interested in arranging a conversational Sanskrit course (minimum number of participants is 10), contact Dr Shastri through us to obtain further information.


Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it