Monday, December 19, 2016

Does Latin study help with the study of other Romance languages? Maybe. but is it efficient?

Stephen Krashen, December 2016  DRAFT

The goal of this paper is not to discourage the study of Latin. It is, rather, part of an effort to distinguish valid reasons for being interested in Latin from bogus reasons.

There is some evidence supporting the idea that the study of Latin helps with the subsequent study of Romance languages, but the effect appears to be small and temporary.  I divide the research into three categories:


Starch (1915) found very little difference in first-year French grades, freshman English grades, and overall grades in modern languages in college between those who studied Latin and those who studied German in high school. 
Haag and Stern (2003) found that students of Spanish with previous French study made fewer errors in translating from their first language (German) into Spanish than those who had previously studied an equivalent amount of Latin.


Kirby (1923) found low correlations between years of high school Latin study and first semester college grades in French (r = .22, meaning that knowing a student's high school grade in Latin provides about 5% of the information needed to predict the student's French grade). The relationship to second semester French grades was about the same (r = .25). (1)


In agreement with Kirby, Henman (1924; cited in Jordan, 1942, p. 290) found a small advantage for those who had studied Latin for French vocabulary and grammar, but this small advantage was not present at the end of the second year. 
Swift (cited in Starch, 1930; pp. 230-231) studied only the impact of previous Latin study on Spanish class performance in high school for 15 weeks. Swift found that the impact was obvious on weekly tests given the first week, but by the 15th week, the no-Latin students had made up about 2/3 of the difference.


The studies reviewed here lead to the conclusion that Latin study cannot be justified because it helps with other Romance languages. The impact is small and wears off. 

I suspect that experience with any other Romance language will help with another, but exposure to the desired target language itself will be even more useful. If you want to acquire French,  the most efficient path is to take a good French class or find other sources of comprehensible input in French, not Latin or Spanish (2).


1. Cole (1924) also reported modest correlations betwen years of high school Latin study and first and second semester French grades in college (r = .36), and beetween years of Latin study in high school and first and second semester Spanish grades in college (r = .24).  in all Cole's analyses, the effect of measured IQ was controlled. Cole's sample, however, did not represent a fair test of the effect of Latin, since nearly all Frency stdents had two years or more of Latin in high school and all Spanish students had at least two years of Latin.  This incomplete distrbution may have attenuated the actual correlation.

2. It needs to be pointed out that in all the studies cited here, both Latin and other Romance languages, were taught using traditional methods.  There is no research I know of examining the effect of Latin taught with a compehension-based approach on other languages taught with traditional or comprehension-based approaches.


Cole, L.E. 1924. Latin as a preparatin for French and Spanish.  School and Society 29 (491): 618-622.
Haag, L., & E. Stern. 2003. In search of the benefits of learning Latin. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 95(1): 174-178.

Jordan, M. 1942.  Educational Psychology New York: Holt. Third Edition
Kirby, T. 1923.  Latin as a preparation for French. School and Society 18: 563-569.
Starch, D. 1915. Some experimental data on the value of studying foreign languages. School Review 23: 697-703.
Starch, D. 1930. Educational Psychology. New York: Macmillan.

1 comment:

  1. Having acquired Italian in a naturalistic-type setting (no kitchen duty involved) over a course of several years, I can tell you that spoken Spanish always appeared semi-opaque to me. I have recently broken into this language by ear after a nostalgia-fueled binge of my favorite animated programs - things I used to watch in Italian many years ago. Portuguese always intimidated me. Phonologically it appeared as impenetrable as a Roman turtle but after about 300 hours of exposure to a variety of TV content, I can comfortably follow a lot of programs.I can comfortably pick up new words and grammar from such content.

    Latin - I studied it in high school. I remember studying lists of words and sentences like Terra est stella. I don't find written Latin nearly as approachable as written Spanish.