The argument for Latin to be taught in the classroom

When I was in high school in the 1990s, there were three foreign languages offered to students, Spanish, French and Latin, but it was very clear, even then, that Latin, the “dead language” no one speaks, was on its way out. Latin, I recall, had very few students, while most of us, myself included — although I dropped it, twice — were pushed, by the school system and by general opinion towards Spanish, with the argument that Spanish, spoken by so many Latin American immigrants and Puerto Rican nationals, would prove the most practical and the most useful foreign language in everyday life, something I now think is demonstrably untrue, but I’ll explain that shortly. If I had it to do over again, I would have chosen Latin.

Today, the only students in the HFM BOCES who have the opportunity to choose Latin are in Gloversville, where a wildly successful Latin program with about 90 students in grades eighth through 12th was started about 10 years ago by the 2015 New York state teacher of the year, Charles Giglio, and has been continued by the district after Giglio’s retirement with the hiring of Sara Watkins. Watkins has a Ph.D in Latin and had been working as a visiting professor at Union College before the district hired her.

Spanish on the other hand remains the most popular foreign language choice being taught both locally and nationally. According to a 2008 Center for Applied Linguistics survey, Spanish is taught in about 93 percent of secondary school programs. According to the survey, the second most popular language taught was French, then German, then Latin and then Mandarin Chinese.

I think this is mostly predicated on the argument from practicality — that students are going to use their Spanish education — and also of limited funding for foreign language instruction. At least several local school district’s in the HFM BOCES, Spanish is now the only foreign language taught.

But I think trying to teach Spanish on the secondary level has proven itself to be an extremely unsuccessful attempt to promote bilingual skills for Americans. Although students and parents are still sold on the notion that a foreign language is important because you could someday use it, the amount of time students would need to devote to actually achieving fluency in a foreign language is far too great for the constraints of most high school or even college students. The U.S. Department of state estimates it can take as many as 4,400 hours of study — that’s 20 hours per week for four years —  to actually become fluently proficient in a foreign language.

The well-regarded, General Social Survey, conducted in 2000 and 2006, showed that only about 25.7 percent of Americans speak a foreign language “very well” and of those, only about 7 percent learned that foreign language in school, which roughly boils down to about a 1 percent success rate of actually teaching a foreign language in school as a practical skill.

“We teach language at the wrong age in this country,” HFM BOCES Superintendent Patrick Michel said to me recently when I interviewed him about the topic of this column. “We should teach language from kindergarten to sixth grade. We should not be teaching language at the high school level. If you go to any European country a lot of the people speak two or three different languages. They start teaching the language in kindergarten. Those statistics are very poignant about the penetration of language because most foreign language is taught at the high school level.”

So, if it’s so hard to teach foreign language to older students, why do I think it’s better to try to teach Latin instead of Spanish? Because Latin is one of the key building blocks of English. Spanish, unlike French or Latin or even German, has very little connection to English. Spain, despite the best efforts of the Spanish Armada in 1588, never conquered England. The Romans, the German-speaking Anglo-Saxons and the Norman French Vikings all did conquer England, each bringing with them their respective languages, which over centuries welded together to form modern English.

In the English language most of the words we use for complex subjects like science, medicine or the law, all come directly from Latin, or French, due to that cultural history. In English we don’t go to the heart doctor, we go to the cardiologist. In English, we have equine sports in Saratoga Springs over the summer, not horsey fun time games. When you need a hip replacement you go to an orthopedic surgeon, not a bone cutter. If we sucked all of the Latin out of English, even to our own ears, we would all sound like cavemen.

But for many students not exposed to Latin, many Latin-based scientific or legal terms are just fancy words they aren’t going to get right on the SATs.

Anecdotally, I had a friend from Johnstown tell me a story once about how she was drilled meticulously in Latin prefixes in an English class at Knox Junior High School and when she got to college she had a roommate who was a science major who would bring vocabulary quizzes home to their dorm room. The Johnstown student would consistently stun her science-major roommate by outperforming her on these quizzes without doing any studying, because she could figure out the meaning of all of the words. That’s the Latin advantage.

Michel told me he wishes more school districts were able to offer Latin education because of the many benefits it offers, but he said he thinks Gloversville is unique in the entire Capital Region for still offering Latin, in part because there are so few Latin education certified teachers left in New York state. Giglio himself actually came out of retirement to revive Gloversville’s program before retiring again.

Watkins is pursuing a special fast-track teacher certification available to individuals who have the highest-level degree in their respective field and are backed by a school district that wants to hire them. She told me at the college level there is a great surplus of PhD-educated classics professors, many more than the available number of tenured faculty positions, which is why she was excited to take the opportunity to continue Gloversville’s Latin program on the junior and high school level. She explained how Latin can help a student’s overall education.

“With Latin, we kind of do a little bit of everything. In any everyday class in Latin, we’re talking about history, we’re talking about religion, we’re talking about philosophy, we’re talking about literature, we’re talking about the roots of words,” she said. “So, I think those types of skills that we use whenever we are translating a text in Latin, those are the real transferable skills. Even if students don’t remember a lick of Latin when they are done, they are learning to think in a more analytical way and that’s what everybody is trying to get at these days. We’re worried about critical thinking; Latin is definitely a place to develop that.”

Sounds good to me.