Learning Latin used to be considered the key to learning other foreign languages, writes Neil Martin.
Generations of schoolchildren knew that nobody spoke it any more and it seemed useful only to genealogists and people who described insects. But we were reassured that it was not a dead language but one that enabled us to appreciate the richness, vocabulary and grammar of other tongues. Research, however, suggests that the skills supposedly conferred by learning Latin do not transfer terribly well.
According to a recent study from the University of Erlangen and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, exposure to a living language may be a significantly better predictor of successful second-language learning.
The researchers studied how well German-speaking women learnt Spanish after attending a university course. All speakers had English as their first "second language" but half had been taught Latin as a second foreign language, whereas half had been taught French. When their translation of Spanish was assessed, the researchers found that not only did the speakers who had learnt French perform better than those who had learnt Latin, but their use of grammar and vocabulary was superior.
Ludwig Haag and Elsbeth Stern, who published the research in the Journal of Educational Psychology , conclude that learning Latin is not all it's cracked up to be. "(Our data) suggest that accessing Romance languages by way of Latin may not only be a detour, but may also be a complication." Latin, controversially, may no longer be the conditio sine qua non of the linguist.