Should we learn Latin for the sake of learning English grammar?

A smart fellow named Matthew Case has authored a interesting piece for my friend Pamela Grath’s blog, Books in Northport. (Pamela is a bookseller, philosophy scholar, and all-around smart, lovely person, who keeps a great blog.) Matthew’s argument, in essence, is that we should take up Latin in schools again because it helps students comprehend English grammar. I encourage people to head over and read the whole conversation here. It was a nice reminder, for me, that people other than rhet-comp folks have things to say about writing.

Pamela asked me of Facebook to weigh in, so I did. I’ll re-post my response below, but I hope people will hop over to Pamela’s blog, as well.

That’ll do it for now, though a lot’s happened since my last post: PCA/ACA in Boston, the frantic end of the semester, quarter-sized hail Louisville. Before I sign off, I’ll just add that I saw George Takei speak at PCA/ACA. Your envy is justified.


Pamela asked me to weigh in on this conversation, which I’m glad to do. This is all very interesting, both the original polemic and the responses it’s generated. It’s nice to see such intelligent conversation happening online.

For what it’s worth, here are my credentials: I’m a graduate fellow the University of Louisville now, where I’m working on PhD in Rhetoric and Composition – a field for which writing studies is one primary front. I have an MA in Rhet-Comp, too, from Miami University (OH) and a BA in English from the University of Michigan. Most of the research I’ve read and conducted about writing has focused college-level pedagogy, so I’m admittedly less knowledgeable about high-school education. I can at least speak about that as a former student, though.

I agree with many of the points above. Certainly, I’m with Matthew that standardized testing harms and compartmentalizes writing instruction by confining student writing to a rigid set of genres that exist nowhere in the real world. Typically, students are tested on fabricated genres – five-paragraph themes, for instance, or the “identify the main point” essays Matthew identifies, which are rhetorical analyses stripped to their weakest and more puerile form. Such writing assignments will help students to pass tests, but not to fulfill any other writerly tasks once they finish their academic hoop-jumping.

I agree with Matthew’s main warrant, too: Learning foreign languages which share some lineage with English do help students (or adults, or anyone) rethink the construction of English grammar. I’d put it like this: learning a different language forces you to think abstractly about grammatical rules, and verbalize titles for those rules, in a way that speaking your native tongue does not.

I have a concern about the Latin proposition, though. Personally I’d love to know Latin, mainly for etymological reasons. I also agree, wholeheartedly, as I said, that learning Latin would help me think about English grammar in the abstract. I think, too, though, that any number of other languages can have a similar effect. For me, it was Spanish. My four years of Spanish (two in high school, two in college) did exactly what Matthew describes, spurring me to return to English grammar with a new vocabulary and linguistic awareness. A good thing, for sure. But learning a language is a serious undertaking, and I think it makes a lot more sense, now, to pursue a Romance language like French or Italian – or especially Spanish, given the influx of Spanish-speakers in the country. Maybe our educational push, then, should go in that direction – toward real, socially relevant bilingualism.

But my larger concern is about the importance of grammar in teaching writing. Ironically, I guess, the farther I’ve advanced in my postgraduate study of writing, the less of a stickler I’ve become. There is, in fact, a substantial body of scholarship concluding that teaching primarily grammar is detrimental to good writing at the college level. (Looking back, I think I’d argue something similar about middle- and high-school. No need to digress now, though.) Here’s the most useful way I can think of it put it: What you don’t want, as a teacher, is students who write every sentence in fear, whose anxiety over grammatical correctness impinges on their thinking about the substance, style, and audience of their arguments. Being able to talk about grammar is helpful, certainly, but a thorough understanding of grammatical terms and concepts doesn’t necessarily precede good writing. Much more valuable, I think, is the intellectual dexterity to adapt to one’s rhetorical context; thus I advocate a writing curriculum rooted in classical and modern theories of rhetoric (that is, theories of how discourse achieves persuasive effect). In such a setting, grammar still matters, but its value stems from rhetorical effect, not correctness alone. It is a tool, not an end itself.

So: Grammar is important, yes. But it’s ridiculously easy to write awful, directionless, useless prose that is 100% grammatically “correct.” Writing teachers see bunches of it. Also, I’ll say that students’ grammatical hang-ups tend to vary between individuals; thus, for a given group of students, a decision to allot 40 minutes of a class period to matters of subject-verb agreement might simply waste that time for two thirds of the class. This is why writing classes need to be small, and teachers need to talk with students individually and often. Usually, I’ll add, these talks can helps students with their grammatical woes without invoking words like “gerund” and “antecedent.”

My summative point, I guess, would be that writers don’t become good just by memorizing terms and rules, but by taking guidance from good teachers and then reading and writing—a lot, in manifold contexts, and working continuously to better understand these larger situations and conversations they’re writing themselves into. (Preposition at the end of that sentence, I know. Not a valid rule in all contexts. Neither is “Don’t use sentence fragments.”) To the extent, though, that some terminology is needed, I would rather my students know “ethos” and “enthymeme” than “subjunctive” and “participle.”

5 Replies to “Should we learn Latin for the sake of learning English grammar?”

  1. Thanks, Pamela! Just realized that my attempt to reply on your blog never went through because my post was too long. I just chopped it up so it could fit.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree your suggestion that educators should push “socially relevant bilingualism” in the classroom and I certainly think there is room for such instruction but one of my main concerns with this idea is that English is already the language that accomplishes this task everywhere in the non-English-speaking world. In those areas English accomplishes its task quite well largely because to not understand English is for these individuals a liability.

    The same is not the case for native English speakers, there simply is no language that offers anywhere near the sort of access English does and while arguments to the contrary proliferate (with the instruction of Mandarin being taught at a very young age in elite schools throughout the world), if students don’t see the value of using the language they are taught they will cease to do so. So students will retain something, but perhaps nothing close to fluency in the language.

    Which is not to say that second language instruction in the “living languages” is a waste of time (on the contrary, such study is often very fruitful in teaching culture, grammatical rules and in some cases becomes the door to fluency in that language), I simply believe that Latin offers its own, unique gifts (grammatical constructions and vocabulary building to name two). And I think there’s room for both Latin and spoken languages in language instruction. However, in order for change to take place there needs to be some major progress made regarding state standardized testing and unfortunately, given what is at stake for the schools, it will likely be a long time before either of our dreams take hold.

    1. I also liked your comment about students writing sentences in fear. I couldn’t agree more, there are many ways to write “correctly” in English. What matters most is that your writing can be understood by your readership, the rest is secondary.

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