Saturday, December 17, 2016

Is the study of Latin an English vocabulary enhancer?

Stephen Krashen  DRAFT
December, 2016, revised April 2017

There are excellent reasons for the study of Latin in schools, including the rich culture, literature,  and history of Rome,   as well as the opportunity to see the results of language change and borrowing, and the chance to study the litergical use of language.

But it is not clear that improving students' English vocabulary is a good reasons for studying Latin.  Studies done over the last century confirm that students who study Latin do better on tests of English vocabulary (1, 2).  The effect, however, may be swamped by another, far more efficient way of building vocabulary.

In every study of the impact of Latin, the tests of English vocabulary were given soon after Latin study ended, typically at the end of the academic year. There are no studies confirming the impact of Latin study in school on adult vocabulary later in life. In fact, there is reason to suspect that this impact may not exist for dedicated readers or be very weak.

There is strong evidence that self-selected reading for pleasure is a powerful predictor of adult vocabulary, no matter when it is done during the lifespan (up to age 42 that is; Sullivan and Brown  2014): Reading for pleasure, especially fiction, is a significant predictor of adult vocabulary size, and there is no critical age – more reading as an adult is strongly related to vocabulary size, controlling for earlier reading.

In other words, older readers who continue to read for pleasure and interest continue to increase their vocabularies. There are no studies I know of directly comparing the long-term effect of Latin study in school on vocabulary with the development of a reading habit.  (But see appendix 1.)

What needs to be investigated: Does Latin study in school have  a positive impact on adult vocabulary size independent of pleasure reading?  In other words, given two equally well-read adults, one who has studied Latin and one who has not not, will the former Latin student have a larger vocabulary?  My prediction is that the amount of reading will predict vocabulary size, but that Latin study will make no significant additional contribution.   

I am suggesting, in other words, that the power of reading alone is so strong that Latin study will make little difference.  This is, of course, only a prediction that needs to be confirmed by research, but if it is true, the argument that Latin is a vocabulary enhancer is only valid in the short run.

Appendix 1
Starch (1930) presents data that supports the prediction that the effect of Latin study wears off, but only compares high school juniors and college students, the sample is small, and no significance testing was done. Nevertheless, the trend is clear: University students have larger vocabulary test scores than high school students, and the "Latin advantage" is smaller for them (2% versus 4.5%).  In fact, university students with no Latin did better than high schools who had Latin.

HS junior
HS junior
From Starch, 1930, table 61.

Bowker (1975), also discussed in footnote one, reported that high-school students with two years of Latin study outscored those without Latin study, but the difference was modest, only 6% on a 150 item test: On a subset of the test contained only Latin-derived words, the Latin student advantage was only 2%.

My hypothesis is that a reading habit will eventually wipe out any advantage for Latin study on English vocabulary.  This hypothesis also predicts that there will be less of a Latin advantage if students have developed a pleasure reading habit. These privledged private school students most likely had the advantage of a print-rich environment, and most likely many were dedicated pleasure readers, which explains the weak results for Latin study.


1: The earliest studies I could find were Harris (1915) and Otis (1922). Some additional details about the studies:  Bassman and Ironsmith (1984) claim that Latin study resulted in "significantly greater gains in vocabulary than did the control students" (p. 41). But a close look at the data shows that the control students made no gain at all over the academic year, and the gain for the Latin students was about a normal year's growth (effect size = .31 on the Vocabulary Portion of Stanford Achievement Test).

In some studies, vocabulary tests contained only words of Latin origin (e.g.  Otis, 1922) and in some studies the list was not restricted, but Latin origin  words make up about half of English vocabulary (Fromchuck, 1984; Barber, 1985). Strangely, the Latin advantage for Bowker's subjects, high school students from a private school, was larger for a test containing both Latin origin and non-Latin origin words than for only the Latin origin subset. Latin students had only a 2% advantage over non-Latin students on the subset.

2. Could the Latin advantage be due to pre-existing differences between those who take Latin and those who do not?  If this were the case, we would expect that  those taking Latin as an elective would score better on English vocabulary tests than those who did not on tests given before Latin instruction begins.. There is evidence that this is true (Carr, 1921; Wilcox, 1917), but it was also the case that the gap between the groups increased with Latin study (Carr, 1921; Wilcox, 1917). 

Also, when students are matched for initial competence, some researchers report that Latin still has a positive effect on vocabulary test scores (Carr, 1919;  Perkins, 1914, who matched for English and foreign language grades; Paroughian, 1942, matched for IQ).

In contrast, Douglass and Kittelson (1935) matched students for SES, years of foreign language study, and English grades, and reported that Latin made only a small, but positive difference on an English vocabulary test, and Pond (1938), who also matched students on a variety of factors, reported similar results.

In summary, Latin students could indeed have an initial advantage, but Latin study still appears to have a positive effect on scores of English vocabulary tests.

3: It has been argued that the Latin advantage comes from knowledge of Latin roots and affixes. But the effect of context on comprehension (clues to meaning outside the word) may be more powerful than knowledge of  roots and suffixes (clues to meaning inside the word).
Even if knowledge of roots and affixes are of significant help to young readers, it is likely that well-read adults who have never studied Latin will have acquired much of  this knowledge through reading.
Test yourself: If you have never studied Latin, how many of these roots and suffixes do you know, without having studied them formally?
My guess is that you have acquired the meaning of least half of them.


Bassman, M. and Ironsmith, M. 1984. An experimental FLES program in Latin. ADFL Bulletin 14, 39-41

Barber, G. 1986.  Latin as a practical study. The Classical Journal 81, 158-60.

Bowker, R. 1975. English vocabulary comparison of Latin and non-Latin students.  Technical Report 831 Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, Human Engineering 
W. L. Carr, W. L. 1919. English vocabulary of high school freshmen. Classical Journal 15:20-29.
Douglass, H. and Kittelson, C. 1935. The transfer of training in high school Latin to English grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. Journal of Experimental Education 4(1): 26-33

Fromchuck, A. 1984. The measurable benefits of teaching English through Latin in elementary School. Classical World 78: 25-29.

Harris, J. 1915. A study in the relation of Latin to English composition. School and Society 2: 251-52.
Otis, A. 1922. The relation of Latin to the study of English vocabulary and composition.  School Review 30: 45-50.
Parounagian, M. 1942. The Portland derivatives test. Classical Outlook, 19: 84-95.
Perkins, A, 1914, Latin as a vocational study in the commercial course. Classical Journal 10: 716.
Pond F. 1938. Influence of the study of Latin on word knowledge. The School Review, 46: 611-618
Starch, D. 1915. Some experimental data on the value of studying foreign languages. School Review 23: 697-703.
Starch, D. 1923. Educational Psychology. New York: MacMillan.
Sullivan, A. & Brown, M. (2014). Vocabulary from Adolescence to Middle Age.
 London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London.
Wilcox, M. 1917. Does the study of high-school Latin improve high-school English? School and Society, 6 (132): 58-60.

1 comment:

  1. I have always felt that the 2 years of Latin I took in high school were very helpful for me in my college English classes, not just in vocabulary but also in grammar, literature, and history. For example, first year Latin which included Roman mythology helped me later on with literature and second year Latin which
    included Caesar's war commentaries helped with world history and geography. Unfortunately my high school did not offer third year so I missed out on Cicero. I don't know whether anyone has done any research on whether studying Latin improves one's English grammar, but I do know that declining nouns and
    pronouns in Latin helped us immensely in diagramming English sentences and helped us understand the objective case. If you listen to most Americans today,
    regardless of their level of education, you will find more and more of them
    incorrectly use the subjective case rather than the objective for pronouns particularly in the plural. For example, "The teacher returned the test papers to Jonathan and I." I certainly agree that reading can help with expanding one's vocabulary but only if what is read includes new words and if the reader learns the meaning of those new words. I am not the only one who has noticed a dramatic decline in the vocabulary used in modern reading materials including newspapers and textbooks. Even the required "summer reading" books assigned by many
    colleges for their new freshmen are more likely to be faddish new books.