Distance Learning in Foreign Languages
The Role of Latin In American Education
A Position Paper from the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages (NCSSFL)
The National Council of State Supervisors for Languages endorses and encourages the teaching of Latin in American schools.
The renewed interest in the study of Latin dates back to the late seventies and the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. That commission presented its recommendations to President Carter in 1979 by suggesting that "the study of foreign languages must be promoted for the utilitarian ends of increasing communication among peoples and developing cross-cultural understandings." The study of classical languages was widely believed to contribute to these goals.
After a brief decline in the 60's and 70's Latin study has rebounded with enrollment increasing by 25% at the high school level since the early 80's. Interest in middle and elementary school programs has been even more remarkable (LaFleur, p. xi. 1998).
Classical Languages and National Standards
Foreign language education was the seventh and final subject area to receive federal funding to develop standards for students kindergarten through twelfth grade. The resulting document Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Preparing for the 21st Century defines content standards for students in grades four, eight, and twelve. The classical languages were incorporated in this document from the beginning.
The United States must educate students who are equipped linguistically and culturally to communicate successfully in a pluralistic American society and abroad. This imperative envisions a future in which ALL students will develop and maintain proficiency in English and at least one other language, modern or classical...(Standards for Foreign Language Learning, p. 7).
The American Classical League (ACL) in conjunction with the American Philological Association (APA) and regional classical associations formed a task force to adapt the foreign language standards to the learning of classical languages. Their work resulted in the Standards for Classical Language Learning.
The Standards for Classical Language Learning are organized within the five goal areas which make up classical language education: communication, culture, connections, comparisons, and communities. Each goal is one strand in a fabric that must be woven into curriculum development at the state, district, and local levels. (Standards for Classical Language Learning, pl. 4).
Benefits of Latin Study
Once regarded as a subject for college-bound students, Latin has played an important role in helping to develop literacy skills and English vocabulary skills for students at all levels. Additionally, through the study of Latin, students can build a solid base for the subsequent study of Romance languages such as Spanish, French, and Italian.
The benefits of Latin study have long been documented. Barrett in a 1996 paper states:
Students of Latin develop skills and strategies for acquiring new vocabulary and sentence structures, which increase their readiness to acquire other languages as needed. Latin helps cultivate such mental processes as alertness, attention to detail, memory, logic, and critical reasoning.
Literacy Skills and Vocabulary Expansion
Latin contributes to the literacy of students and helps them better understand their native language because it teaches them how language works, it introduces them to grammatical structures far different from English, and it helps them focus on and appreciate the uniqueness of English.
Moreover, Latin vocabulary is easy for speakers of English to acquire because over 65% of all English words come from Latin. So many Latin words have entered the English language, both in everyday language and in technical vocabulary, that the study of Latin can help students organize and understand this vocabulary.
The study of word derivation provides a better understanding of the many English words of Latin origin. Latin is also the basis for 75-80% of all Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese words. At the same time, Latin grammar and syntax are very similar to those of the Germanic and Slavic languages. Hence, through the study of Latin, students can lay a solid foundation for the study of many languages and at the same time improve their English skills.
In addition, because of its non-English word structure and sentence patterns, Latin promotes the development of qualities such as observance, accuracy, logic, and analysis. Qualities which can be transferred to the English language arts program.
Finally, through the study of Latin, students have the opportunity to develop their literacy skills by reading the great authors from Roman antiquity and by becoming familiar with tales from Roman mythology.
The increased level of literacy is highlighted on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and is documented in studies by LaFleur (1981, 1982) and is reported in articles by Barrett (1996). Tests conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) from 1988 to 1997 show that Latin students outperform all other students on the verbal portion of the SAT.
Through the study of Latin, students have an opportunity to discover the larger cultural and historical heritage that they share not only with Europe but also with the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa, which the Greeks and Romans had united into an ecumenical whole. They can see the influence of Greco-Roman civilization in their own lives and see how they fit in the world in general. The historical perspective thus gained enables students to envision future possibilities more fully.
Furthermore, Latin has been shown to develop students' ability for abstract reasoning.
"Because it lacks direct applicability in most circumstances (a walk through Rome or attendance at a Latin mass being exceptions), it must be viewed and manipulated as a system with its own internal rules, form, and possibilities. In this respect, Latin helps provide many of the essentials of mental discipline while it prepares the mind for the richest kind of intellectual play" (Basic Education, Vol. 5, No. 7, March 1991, pp. 6-7).
Latin for Everyone
An increasing number of elementary, middle school, and high school students are signing up for Latin classes. Latin programs are reaching out to include groups which have not traditionally studied Latin: Limited English Proficient students, Learning Disabled students, "at-risk" students such as students who are economically and culturally disadvantaged. Changes in methodology and materials are ensuring that all students can obtain some level of success in learning and expanding their own vocabulary and sentence patterns through Latin and in studying about Roman daily life, customs, and mythology.
Length of Study
Although benefits do accrue from even a brief encounter with a foreign language, it is generally recognized that language competence results from an extended elementary, middle and high school sequence of study.
Growing numbers of successful elementary Latin programs in the United States evidence the value of introducing language study at an early age and having students continue in a sequential, articulated language program (Polsky, 1998). The majority of elementary programs do not view the learning of the Latin language as their primary goal. Instead they offer Latin as a springboard for further Latin study. Several programs have approached the study of Latin as a means of improving English language skills and of understanding different cultures.
Enrollment in middle school Latin programs has also risen over the past decade. Increases were reported by Osburn (1992) and by data from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (LaFleur, 1997). Some middle schools offer a sequential program leading to high school or focus on the exploration of Latin. Others have designed specific stand-alone courses that benefit English skills and/or develop cultural awareness and can generate enough interest to lead to a beginning level I course either at the middle school or at the high school level.
At the high school level, the study of Latin usually takes place in grades 9-12. Students enroll in level I courses and have the option of continuing a lo0ng sequence of language study, especially if their school has adopted block scheduling. Advanced Placement (AP) courses offer students the opportunity to pursue college-level studies while still in secondary school and receive AP credit for college placement.
The quality and survival of the Latin program is directly dependent on the effectiveness of classroom teaching. For this reason, ensuring that teachers are qualified and/or receive appropriate training and staff development activities to acquaint them with all available methods, pedagogical strategies, and materials is essential. Cynthia White from the University of Arizona states that teachers must not only be "skilled Latinists", they "must also be skilled at teaching Latin."
The study of another language and culture enables students to become better citizens by exposing them to a different way of thinking and living. For this reason, it is the position of the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages that the study of Latin is beneficial for all students. NCSSFL acknowledges the many changes in methodology and materials which ensure that all students, from the elementary schools to the high schools, profit from Latin study. NCSSFL also realizes that the value of any foreign language study is directly dependent upon the effectiveness of the teacher.
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