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Does studying Latin help in learning other languages?

  1. Jun 17, 2017 #1

    StatGuy2000

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    Hi everyone! I've seen a number of threads here on PF about studying languages. Here is a question I would pose to all of you. Would studying Latin first help in learning other languages, specifically the other Romance languages (e.g. Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, etc.)?

    I ask this question because all Romance languages are based on Vulgar Latin (i.e. vernacular forms of Latin), so there is a common feature in all of these languages. So I'm curious if there are people here on PF who studied Latin in school, and whether they quickly acquired French/Italian/Spanish/other Romance languages because of this.
     
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  3. Jun 17, 2017 #2

    symbolipoint

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    No. Study and Acquisition are not the same thing. I don't however qualify to the kind of member you specified, because I have not studied Latin. Still, to study a language and to acquire a language are very different things. Also, do an internet search about "living latin".
     
  4. Jun 17, 2017 #3

    fresh_42

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    It will help you a lot with the vocabulary of Roman languages, and even English has a lot of words of Latin origin. But in the end, even words of the same origin are slightly different today:

    Latin: revelare
    English : reveal
    French: reveler
    Spanish: revelar
    Italian: rivelare
    Portuguese: revelar

    And this example is typical. However, the older or more common words are, the more did they change and old English words are of Germanic origin, not Latin. In addition they are pronounced very differently (at least French and Portuguese). So to learn Latin might help you to basically follow a newspaper article in these languages, but you're far from being able to talk to people.

    Latin might also help you to understand grammatical structures better, but only the technical side of it. Those languages have very different rules and often less cases than Latin, though still more than English. (Russian as a not Roman language has even more.) @symbolipoint is right with the distinction he made. To be honest, even the English I had learnt at school wasn't of so much help in everyday communications. And most of the Latin I learnt is long forgotten.
     
  5. Jun 17, 2017 #4

    Nidum

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    Strangely Latin can be more use in the sciences than in learning spoken languages .

    The very structured formal training in parsing which most Latin courses incorporate is excellent basic training for work in fields such as systems analysis and computer programming .

    Historically Latin was the universal language of communication in scientific work .
     
  6. Jun 18, 2017 #4

    symbolipoint

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    Very believable. A "human" language in a written form is a form of Mathematics. We have learned to use writing to express things in very precise ways, just as we do with other kinds of Mathematics.
     
  7. Jun 18, 2017 #5
    Eh?!

    You might be able to make a case for this or that instance of a small structure within a particular language having some sort of symmetry or order that you contend is "mathematical" in some fashion; but would you really be able to make a case more broadly than that? Have you ever tried?

    We should first note that "writing" in natural language can be considered a form of speech; the rules of usage are somewhat more formal than oral speech, but not terribly so. So writing is not more precise by its nature than oral speech; just as with spoken remarks, writers must struggle for precision; precision and single meaning are difficult to achieve. In fact writers (well, those writers who care) have commented across the centuries that whatever the language they write in, it is not easy to make precise - quite the opposite; it is found to be promiscuously, provocatively, poetically imprecise. Jargon is one way to get around imprecision; but jargon has limits on what it can accomplish, including that it obfuscates as much as it enlightens. And on the other side of the fence, one reason I've heard people give as to why they love math is its precision - quite pleasing when compared to the maddening ambiguity of natural language.

    If we move to academia, I don't think very many people who've formally studied grammar, linguistics, or natural language vs. mathematical logic would agree with you. Nor would beginners taking a predicate logic course for the first time; nor would teachers teaching such a course - e.g. Keith Devlin, who built & taught the MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Logic that I took early this year, repeatedly pointed out how shocking predicate logic often is to persons first encountering it, who hitherto have been used only to ideas of causation as expressed in natural language. Examples of natural language being ambiguous in a way that logic is not make up many of the quiz questions in the early going of Devlin's course.

    And there is an entire field in computing which struggles to bridge the gap between computers, which can only "understand" very strict mathematical logic, and the much more sloppy natural language used by people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_language_processing

    And finally if natural language were as inherently precise as you claim, we wouldn't run into so much argumentation & misunderstanding of each other as we do here on PF!

    BTW having studied Latin for 2 years in high school, I'd go with "No" - it is unlikely to help someone learn further languages; not even romance languages.
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2017
  8. Jun 18, 2017 #6

    symbolipoint

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    You misunderstood. WRITTEN language and SPOKEN language are too often used differently. Let the linguists argue the idea, since they should be able to, according to their education about languages.

    Latin can be learned for two purposes: One, is for reading and writing, and it would be very formalized and focus on formal understanding. The other, not very common for Latin, is as a living language, for which a person will learn to think in Latin, and be able to converse person-to-person in Latin without the need to focus on formal grammar rules and all the details that go in to using everything in a well planned organized way; no conscious, formal focus on following the rules, since it must become automatic.
     
  9. Jun 18, 2017 #7

    Bandersnatch

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    I agree with those saying that Latin helps - especially if you follow up with some basic linguistics. Learning languages is all about making connections in your mind, and Latin - being the foundation of so many European languages - is a handy tool for that purpose. You don't need a whole lot, just enough to recognise basic structures and commonly used words.
     
  10. Jun 18, 2017 #8
    I did understand your distinction between written & spoken language. You claim they are used sufficiently differently such that writing is quite precise. However I dispute that; I contend written natural language shares most of the same qualities of oral natural language, and therefore the same problems. Meanwhile, you still have not provided any evidence for your claim. I doubt you can provide any that is convincing.

    And by the way, that's an example right there of the imprecision & ambiguity of written language! You and I have had a brief interchange; and now we claim different things transpired during that interchange. If writing were as precise as you claim (and presuming we are both skilled & experienced at writing), how can this be so? Answer: You're wrong about writing.
     
  11. Jun 18, 2017 #9
    Did you personally find this the case? How long did you study Latin for, and what Romance languages did you learn thereafter? Do you still read/write Latin today?

    Myself, I tend to think it's a meme that has little practical application & is repeated mostly because it sounds plausible. Two important points against it:
    1. Persons learning languages typically have limited time; so time spent on Latin, which will typically never be used in speaking or writing on a regular basis (unless you love Latin for its own sake), will be time unavailable for those languages that you really do want to learn to write & speak.
    2. The point about correspondence with modern Romance languages has to do with similarities of vocabulary. However in my 2 years of studying Latin in high school, grammar was much more difficult than vocabulary; and so we spent most of our time studying the grammar; which does nothing for learning Romance languages. This is not just my experience; others report the same - e.g. see the first reply on this thread by "Latin": http://www.antimoon.com/forum/t5506.htm
    There is a much more practical way to leverage the overlap of vocabulary within the romance languages: learn more than one romance language! For example my uncle, who learned French as a young man & taught it at high school level as a career, found it easy to learn Spanish after retirement due to the large overlap.
     
  12. Jun 18, 2017 #10
    To add to my point #2 in my previous comment - I was curious enough to do some Googling; and I found a blog post cautioning against teaching Latin in school as a way to promote learning either science or math, or else Romance languages; that blog post referenced a 2003 study that found that in fact, teaching Latin appears to interfere with learning other Romance languages!

    Here is a link to the study abstract and here is the cite: In search of the benefits of learning Latin. Haag, Ludwig; Stern, Elsbeth, Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 95(1), Mar 2003, 174-178. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.95.1.174

    And now here is the study abstract:

    The authors studied whether Latin or French as a foreign curricular language is a better preparation for learning Spanish. Fifty native German speakers who took a university Spanish course concluded their course with a translation test. English was the 1st foreign language for all students, whereas half of them had learned French and the other half had learned Latin as their 2nd foreign language at school. Participants who had learned French at school made markedly fewer grammar errors and slightly fewer vocabulary errors in the Spanish test than participants who had learned Latin. Knowledge of Latin is probably not an optimal preparation for modern language learning.​

    If you are a member of Academia.edu, which I am, you can download the full text of the study for free via this link. For those who aren't members of Academia.edu, you can still get a sense of the study's details from reading the blog post I mentioned; link here to that post, and here is an excerpt:

    The problem with understanding Latin is that you need to pay close attention to word endings; case markers on nouns and time markers on verbs. But in English and Romance languages word order and prepositions are more important. Endings play a minor role.

    What Haag and Stern found, predictably, was that students who had learned one Romance language first found it easier to learn another Romance language, than those who had learned Latin. But it gets worse, as Latin caused incorrect transfer, such as the omission of prepositions and auxiliary verbs in Romance languages. In other words, learning Latin was detrimental to the learning of the new language.

    They took two groups of German students, one who studied French, the other Latin as their second language. Both groups were then given a course in Spanish and the results measured. When the results were analysed by a Spanish assessor (who didn’t know who had taken French or Latin), the assessor found no group differences in verbal intelligence.

    However, the French students made significantly fewer grammatical errors than the Latin students. As predicted the Latin students wrongly transferred the rules of Latin to Spanish. For example “misconstructions in verbs emerged to be either highly reminiscent of or identical to Latin verbs”. The French group turned out to be much better prepared to cope with Spanish grammar. Psychologically the Latin students had suffered from negative transfer using false friends in their new language. The fact that the grammatical similarities between modern Romance languages are much greater than that between Latin and modern Romance languages, means that the defenders of Latin are flogging a dead horse.​

    My suggestion to the OP: @StatGuy2000, if you have a hankering to learn Latin for its own sake, do so; I think the chief benefit would be reading classical Latin literature in the original; this is the same motive for learning classical Greek. But if you just want to learn a Romance language - or two or three Romance languages - don't waste your time or cause yourself problems by detouring into Latin.
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2017
  13. Jun 18, 2017 #11

    Bandersnatch

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    Yes. I learned rudiments of Latin when studying for an English teaching (as a foreign language) degree. It was but one-semester course, although pretty intensive. I don't use, nor ever have used Latin outside that one course.
    Yet, I have found it very helpful in learning English (not even a Romance language per se) - especially its vocabulary. Furthermore, with what little I got from it, I can get the gist of e.g. Italian, despite never having attempted to learn it.

    My point is that a bit of Latin helps, not that you need to master it. It helps in the same way as learning basics of linguistics does - you stop seeing the language you're learning as a collection of arbitrary rules, and start seeing recognisable patterns.
     
  14. Jun 18, 2017 #12
    See my follow-up post if you haven't already - the one showing that in a fairly well designed study, learning Latin rather than a Romance language impeded learning a second Romance language.

    We are all free to have our personal opinions, but I think a well-done study is usually more credible than personal conjecture. However . . . everyone is different, and studies by their nature typically fail to catch such differences. Clearly your own experience of Latin was quite positive.
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2017
  15. Jun 18, 2017 #13

    symbolipoint

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    This is overly academic. You just want to get into an argument in order to win. Are you a linguist? Maybe then you can honestly win. You MISUNDERSTOOD What I said! Since I'm not a linguist, I have no better way to say what I had.
     
  16. Jun 18, 2017 #14
    Argue? Yes, that is part of what PF is about. Win? No, what I really wanted was for you to present evidence or clarify your claim or both.

    However please know that I didn't intend to irk you. It is simply that I have been a writer for my entire life, from child through late middle age; and I enjoy arguments about language. I was expecting you might have something very interesting to say. I am sure if you think about it you could amplify your statement without needing to be a linguist; and if you do I won't bite.
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2017
  17. Jun 18, 2017 #15

    symbolipoint

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    Fine. Then EXPLAIN! EXPLAIN! Learning of human languages is done for two very identifiable purposes. One is person-to-person or conversational communication, and for this the instruction is arranged so that the language can be acquired. The other purpose is to read and write, so that communicating can be done through time and through distance and be in a recorded form - the way I tried to call it, as "Mathematics".. Learning to read and write will at some point, include studying Grammar and Sentence Structure and identifying parts of speech. Look: We ACQUIRE our first or native language WITHOUT any study. We live in it, and the learning is not formal. Later, in school we (about age 7 or 8) begin to STUDY our language, and then we start to see instruction for spelling, pronouning, grammar, and such. By this time, we had already acquired much of our language. Maybe you or somebody can explain this better.

    I already made my comments about Latin - either to learn as the formal language, or as a living language. Neither is bad if it is what one wants. However the purposes are different.
     
  18. Jun 18, 2017 #16
    Thanks for your reply!

    You are using "mathematical" to characterize language acquisition in a way that I think is unusual in English and might lead toward misunderstanding (as it already has); if I were to try and paraphrase, more appropriate words for what you mean might be "formal" - or "structured." That is, you are saying that just as mathematics can be taught in a structured way, natural language can also be taught in a structured way; which would especially apply to written language, which tends to be more formal than spoken language. Am I close?

    And also, you would be correct in saying that written language can at least attempt to be more precise, because precision aids its purpose - which is to transmit or store knowledge in a way that can survive long distances or long periods of time. However it gets tricky: Spoken conversation is aided by our ability to hear tone of voice or watch facial expressions; but this sort of additional context is not available in written language; and in addition, whereas we very often are aware of how much a conversational partner knows about a given topic, we very often do not know how much a reader knows about a given topic! So although it may seem paradoxical in some ways, far greater care must be taken to achieve clarity in written language than in spoken language. In fact, this makes me think this is partly what you mean in your followup comment: Unlike speech, which we learn easily as children, writing benefits much more from formal instruction, so that we can learn to be more precise in just these ways.

    At any rate, I would certainly agree with these sorts of statements. The only clarification I would suggest, from my readings in grammar (which are not extensive, but more than most persons do) is that actually, "grammar" can refer to either of two quite different approaches to working with language:
    • Prescriptive grammar is what is taught in school; however it is not really "grammar" in a linguistic sense; rather, it is rules for usage, e.g. to give a simple example in English, "Never write ain't, always write isn't." The fact is, ain't is perfectly grammatical from a linguistic sense; however it is out of place in a formal document. So this is the sort of instruction I think you are referring to when you talk about how we can learn language more formally, after having first learned it instinctively as a child.
    • Descriptive grammar, on the other hand, is that which linguists practice; it is a scientific look at how language is actually structured and used by native speakers; i.e,. it describes explicitly what native speakers know implicitly. Another way to say it: when persons who aren't native speakers of a given language make a mistake that makes native speakers wince, the mistake is typically better described by descriptive grammar than by prescriptive grammar. A very simple example in English might be consistent failure to use articles in front of nouns that require them. Also difficult for non-native speakers to acquire are idioms; idioms can be very puzzling indeed in terms of literal words versus actual meaning!
    Descriptive grammar books can be rather strange to read - very tough going, even though interesting things pop up here & there. I have two books on grammar that I enjoy dipping into - but not often; it is like going swimming in the winter, bracing but sometimes a little too bracing. These books are Cambridge Grammar of English, by Carter and McCarthy; very tough going indeed; and A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, by Huddleston and Pullum, much more friendly. I recommend the latter for anyone interested in learning a little more about grammar in English. I also own a very useful dictionary of usage, Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which I would recommend to anyone with questions about what words to use or not use, and why, when writing in English; the only down side is that it was published in 2002 and thus is beginning to fall out of date.

    By the way, another reason I am really interested in grammar & in teaching/learning languages is that although I am a monoglot myself (I speak only English), when I was teaching essay writing to adult students at New York University, I very often had students who were not native English speakers, but who desperately wanted to learn how to write well in English. Typically they would be offered courses in the ESL (English as a Second Language) department at NYU. However, the problem always came up that such persons (at least those who wanted to join my class) were typically extremely smart; were doing extremely well in their other courses, often physics or another hard science; and the ESL courses were much too primitive to appeal to them. They wanted an intermediate course of some kind; but it did not exist.

    I found that whether I could accept such a person as a student in my class depended very much on when they first learned English. If they learned a bit as a child, then usually they had enough of an idiomatic grasp that they could make it in my class; I would be able to help them trust their English vocabulary much more than they believed had been possible; often they surprised themselves by discovering how well they could already write in English if they stopped worrying and just wrote. However if they had learned English later on, for example as teenagers, they typically did not have an idiomatic grasp; they made the sorts of errors that cause native speakers to wince, and that are covered by descriptive grammar. It was painful for me to have to turn them down, but I had no choice; they simply did not have the basic intuitive structure of the language in their head & I was not the person to try and teach them this. This goes back to the common observation that it's easy to learn a second language as a child, but often very very difficult or impossible to do so as an adult; it also suggests that formal instruction in writing when we are older depends very much on whether we had the chance to learn informal speech as a child.

    Regardless, I really enjoyed those persons who did have just enough English to get by in my course and start using what they knew more freely; they were some of my best students.
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2017
  19. Jun 18, 2017 #17

    fresh_42

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    Firstly, I do not want to reheat this debate, which is in my opinion based on the ambiguity of words, esp. adjectives. Secondly, I want to add some remarks anyway.

    There is a mathematical branch called theory of (formal) languages and I think Latin is the closest you can get with an example for it. Thus it is in deed "mathematical". The structure of Latin obeys more strict rules than other languages do, esp. when spoken. How often have I heard a or even read (outside of books) a "do" in third person present singular?! And as many other languages, Latin has a history of development through times, an ordinary people version (vulgar Latin) that is not taught at school, and even grammatical exceptions. Nevertheless, the way it is studied is in deed at least to my experience similar to the study of natural science and mathematics, namely by learning rules of deduction. A few people on earth still speak Latin as a hobby, but their Latin is rather different from what is taught.

    Of course one has to learn basics of grammar to be able to speak correctly, but the crucial part remains the vocabulary. I remember my first real life communications in English when I had been fresh from school. I literally built, constructed sentences rather than spoke them. It sometimes felt as learning English a second time, not to mention the various dialects that range from almost not to understand to funny or annoying. No teacher has ever prepared me to listen to Scottish people. I remember I once listened to an interview on tv with a football player from Liverpool: I hadn't had any chance. Zero. It is a big difference between reading a book and to order a meal in urban Liverpool or any other place. (My sister would probably have chosen the American south as an example.)

    To go back to the OP's question:

    It would very likely make more sense to study Spanish rather than Latin. This way you can learn the vocabulary as well, while you gain a good basis to speak to a large part of the world. The variations Italian and Portuguese can be added afterwards more easily. French will take some more effort. So why Latin, if Spanish does the same job with more advantages?
    And the "structural part" of it? Language theory (math.) can be very exciting as well, or logic in general. I don't really see any use in Latin grammar, except that I know that the plural of status is status (pronounced differently) and not "stati" and some more examples. Someone should make a list to shortcut the way over Latin.
    And as a hobby? Have you considered Klingon? :wink:
     
  20. Jun 18, 2017 #18

    jedishrfu

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    Personally i found that latin helped throughout my career. It helped decipher the meaning of words and helped appreciate the relative simplicity of words.

    A side benefit was understanding where yodas speech patterns were derived from.

    To be fair, the most precise languages are programming languages which use compiler tech to jealously preserve their syntactic elements and even they arent immune to ambiguity.
     
  21. Jun 18, 2017 #19

    symbolipoint

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    UseableThought,
    I just now signed in to the forum and started to read, and I should comment more carefully first about this, from post #16:

    (Just in case the quote tags do not work, not using them)
    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    You are using "mathematical" to characterize language acquisition in a way that I think is unusual in English and might lead toward misunderstanding (as it already has); if I were to try and paraphrase, more appropriate words for what you mean might be "formal" - or "structured." That is, you are saying that just as mathematics can be taught in a structured way, natural language can also be taught in a structured way; which would especially apply to written language, which tends to be more formal than spoken language. Am I close?
    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    I call the formal use of READING and WRITING of a language as "Mathematics". I do not call learning for language acquisition as "Mathematics". The process of language acquisition may be mathematical in some way, but I do not say it to be so. Language acquisition is a very complicated but NATURAL process and is often done without any formal consciously focused effort.
     
  22. Jun 20, 2017 #20

    jim hardy

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    I'm with Jedishrfu.

    I had first year Latin in ninth grade. The rigor of its syntax and inflection is good for brains that are learning.
    It taught me to look up the etymology of words i do not know, to get a sense of what early users were trying to convey. That's often very enlightening.

    Does it help you learn other languages ? I cant say, i never learned another one. But it sure improved my English.
    Fifty six years later i still feel enriched by Mrs Wright's Latin class.

    old jim
     
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