By Derek Hopper, an Irish lecturer, writer and editor living in Bangkok. 

Using modern technology to teach and study languages is not something new. For decades, millions learned French and Italian and Japanese using Linguaphone cassettes and CDs. Back in the 1990s the language centre in my Dublin secondary school was the most hi-tech place in the building. After this, companies like Rosetta Stone began to unleash the power of the PC, making the process of language learning more interactive.

The latest chapter in technology-driven language education is undoubtedly the emergence of smartphone apps like Duolingo, Busuu and Babbel. These are ideal not only because they are more “fun”, but because they enable learning on the move. Language learning has adapted to the modern world and become mobile. People with a few minutes to spare can acquire vocabulary and grammar rules as they commute or wait in line at the ATM.

All this ubiquitous technology might make a native English speaker assume that the future of language learning is Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Spanish; that economic pragmatism and crude numbers must win the day. The truth is it might be. But I must confess that I’ve been disappointed with the lack of classical languages like Latin and Ancient Greek on apps like Duolingo. Yes, you read that right. You’re on a technology site and about to read about the pros of learning dead languages.

It seems that in our rush to study languages purely for material gain — to get that job promotion, to sell more of something to a foreign market, to date that attractive foreigner who lives next door — people have forgotten the intellectual benefits of familiarity with these ancient languages. An example: studies show that two years of Classical Latin augments a person’s English vocabulary by 20,000 words. Is there anyone alive who wouldn’t benefit from being more articulate?

Almost every day we come across cultural snobbery in our lives. It might be a colleague laughing at our taste in music or a family member making fun of the television shows we like. Well here is your chance to be laughed at for being too highbrow. Studying classical languages enables a person to enter the world of Horace, Aquinas, Spinoza — as one professor of Latin wrote: ‘there is nothing in comparison to the world that opens up when you can sit down and read Livy and understand what you’re reading. This is like growing wings, or being born into another existence’.

The benefits of acquiring these languages are not simply cultural. The cognitive advantages of knowing a second or third language are obvious and well-known, but a perusal of average SAT verbal scores (by foreign language studied) throws up some interesting results. The average for an American student on the verbal section of the SAT is about 500 points, but students who study Spanish score considerably higher, averaging around 560. Students who study French and German attain even more impressive scores. A budding francophone can expect to score 630 points on their SAT verbal. But those who study Latin fare even better, averaging a whopping 680 points. No other language does as well. Why is this?

The classicist Victor Davis Hanson states that ‘nothing so enriches the vocabulary, so instructs about English grammar and syntax, so creates a discipline of the mind, an elegance of expression, and serves as a gateway to the thinking and values of Western civilization as mastery of a page of Virgil or Livy’.

Studying classical languages was a near-universal experience in schools just sixty years ago. Why not today? Was our education system really so backward back then that we had to abandon Latin? To this some might respond by asking why anyone should study a ‘dead language’, but that would be missing the point on two scores. Firstly it ignores the aforementioned cognitive benefits of a grounding in the language. Secondly it attributes death to something that is immortal.

Hanson reckons four years of high-school Latin would dramatically arrest the decline in (American) education. I suspect he’s right, and that these languages have much more importance to us than we realize. They are in many ways the parents of western civilization. It is said that Ancient Greek bequeathed around 150,000 words to English, many of which are used in science and technology, and if we create our social reality with language then surely a greater knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek would open our minds to even more lexical and conceptual ideas.

Duolingo and other language apps have no shortage of users making requests for Latin and Ancient Greek, and given the age of the languages concerned it is unlikely the requests will stop any time soon. We are entering a profoundly exciting stage in human development, one where technology is helping us all to learn at breakneck speed. But instead of looking blindly towards the future, we should unleash further the power of the languages that built western civilization and allow them to shepherd us through this brave new world.


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