Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Is Latin really making a comeback?

by Viva Avasthi

Ancient Rome

Despite The Economist's conviction that Latin is making a comeback, as described in their article from a couple of days ago, I beg to differ. In fact, I believe that the question is not, "Why is Latin making a comeback?" but rather, "Is Latin really making a comeback?"

I'm afraid the answer is, "Not really, no."

Although it would be brilliant if Latin really were making a comeback, The Economist's argument that Latin is becoming more popular can be refuted in two parts: by observing the ancient language's popularity in young people and by analysing just how popular the Latin-based services the newspaper refers to are. I'll also try to attempt to use ideas from behavioural economics to explain why Latin is not making a comeback any time soon.

How popular is Latin among young people?

Being a student of Latin myself, I do know that the popularity of the subject among young people in Britain is dwindling. For one thing, I wasn't able to take the subject at school because it was replaced by drama eight years ago - I am being taught by a private tutor. Although Latin is compulsory at GCSE level in some private schools, many other schools, including state grammar schools, have as recently as last year stopped teaching the subject because of lack of student interest.

It might seem that things will soon be changing. Among others The Telegraph reported last year that "all primary schools will be expected to teach foreign languages to pupils from 2014 as part of a major drive to boost education standards." It elaborated that "at least one subject from a seven-strong shortlist – French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin and ancient Greek – will be offered to seven- to 11-year-olds."

However, schools will find it very difficult to find enough teachers who are proficient in Latin, and thus many will simply opt to teach the modern European languages as it is far easier to find, say, French teachers than Latin teachers. (The same problem applies to ancient Greek, although that, of course, is not the language being discussed in this article.)

All of this suggests that in young people, at least, there has not been a surge in the popularity of Latin. Unfortunately, there is unlikely to be a rise its popularity among youngsters in the near future either. This is largely because if there will be problems finding teachers now, then there will undoubtedly be greater problems in the future as fewer students take Latin at higher levels.

There is clear evidence to support these thoughts. The BBC wrote in 2008 that "there is [...] a shortage of teachers - largely due to the falling number of postgraduate teacher training (PGCE) Latin courses around the country. Just two centres run PGCE Latin courses - Cambridge University and King's College London."

Are Latin-based services such as Latin Wikipedia actually popular?

In its article, The Economist chose to impress upon its readers the rather impressive statistic that "Latin Wikipedia ['Vicipaedia'] has 94,000 articles". That there are 94,000 articles written in Latin and all on one site is really quite cool. The Economist forgot, however, to mention that many of the articles are terribly brief (more so than can be explained by Latin being a highly inflected language) and so cannot really be compared to the massively long articles that we have on the English version.

To illustrate, if the article on Vicipaedia entitled 'Canis' is compared with the English equivalent 'Dog' , the difference in article length is immediately clear to the observer. But perhaps it would be better to compare how a topic more suited to the Latin language (i.e. related to Roman history) has been written about in both Vicipaedia and Wikipedia. For this reason, let's compare Vicipaedia's article on Gaius Iulius Caesar with Wikipedia's Julius Caesar . The Vicipaedia article discusses only 12 topics about Caesar compared to Wikipedia's 25, suggesting that Vicipaedia's contributors really aren't as active as Wikipedia's.

These comparisons are deliberately crude and basic. I realise that a better, more scientifically correct analysis would involve looking at a far greater sample of a variety of articles, comparing them and then drawing relevant conclusions. However, I don't feel that a more detailed analysis would significantly better illustrate my point and I also have a lot of reading to be getting on with!

Similarly, the other Latin-based services which The Economist's article discusses can be looked into to show that they're probably not nearly as popular as the newspaper tries to make out.

Why is Latin not making a 'comeback'?

Now my attempt to use economics to figure out why Latin isn't becoming significantly more popular. The problem that I face here, however, is one that The Economist's columnist clearly also faced: the lack of substantial data to support any claims. As one commenter pointed out, the newspaper's article doesn't really contain "any data to say that [Latin is] more popular now than at any point in the last hundred or so years. It has more papal twitter followers than Polish, but it seems something of a stretch to go from that to 'Latin is making a comeback.'"

So why is it unlikely that Latin will make a 'comeback' any time soon? I'll try my best to make an educated guess from what little knowledge of behavioural economics I have.

This issue involving the popularity of Latin can be related to what behavioural scientists call the 'bandwagon effect' and what the Economist Paul Ormerod labels 'the rational copying person' in this programme on what's wrong with economics.

The bandwagon effect (in the sense that I'll be using to argue my point) is often seen in consumer behaviour when something rapidly becomes increasingly popular because of its already great popularity. The Economist has written a great article about the implications of the phenomenon.

Latin is a type of product which will most probably never benefit from the 'bandwagon effect' due to the fact that you can't buy expertise in a language; you have to work long and hard to develop your skills. Therefore although particular books such as 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and certain songs such as 'Gangnam Style' can attribute a lot of their success to the bandwagon effect, a language can practically never experience the same level of sudden interest.

Historically, the reason why Latin was so popular was because it was the language that all of Europe communicated in, especially through documents of science, religion and philosophy. Due to this, Latin played a fundamental role in young men's education (sadly, until recently women were marginalised) until the middle of the 20th century, when the educational emphasis became focused on more 'practical' education involving reading, writing and arithmetic. Today, it is largely ignored by Europe's education systems.

The idea of the 'rational copying person' also plays a part. Students, when faced with the choice to learn a language, would rather learn whichever language seems to be the most rewarding or easiest as determined by the opinions of their peers or elders. Since many people genuinely (and, in my opinion, incorrectly) feel that Latin is a relatively useless language, others are likely to feel the same.

It would be great if what The Economist is suggesting about Latin's popularity were true. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be.


  1. I'm amused that a throw-away article by The Economist prompted this self-serious response. But, keep it up, teens!

  2. As a student of Latin, the history and popularity of the ancient language is of great interest to me. That's why I felt the urge to respond to The Economist's, yes, 'throw-away' article. Personally, I found others' extremely positive responses (on Twitter) to the newspaper's article amusing because they just accepted the falsities they'd been fed!

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment :)

  3. Viva,

    Interesting article. Ego discipulus linguae latinae sum, and I would suggest that there are methodological issues at play.

    It certainly makes sense to focus on a particular geographic area for the sake of time, but surely it is possible that interest in Latin is growing elsewhere in the world even though it may be dwindling in the UK.

    Second, part of the perception of "comeback" may be exposure to programs that have existed but were hitherto unknown to the journalists. There are very active Latin fora online, spoken Latin programs throughout the world (such as the Vivarium in Rome, the Paideia Institute, and so forth), and more. But a more public event -- such as the introduction of a Latin twitter feed by the Vatican -- may prompt investigation into an issue and uncover a "comeback" that is actually just sustained (but previously invisible) interest.

    1. Thank you for commenting!

      I definitely agree with you. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that interest in Latin could potentially be growing outside of the UK, especially as we don't currently have any solid data to work with to draw proper conclusions for either side of the debate.

      Unfortunately, time constraints and my involvement in other activities meant that I wasn't able to look properly into whether interest is growing elsewhere.

      Again, I agree with what you are saying. However, perhaps this raises the point that journalists ought to be careful in how they present information. Is it right for (respectable) journalists to give the impression that they've uncovered new interest in something when in reality the interest is just sustained? Perhaps it varies depending on the 'importance' of the topic that is being discussed...

  4. "However, schools will find it very difficult to find enough teachers who are proficient in Latin, and thus many will simply opt to teach the modern European languages as it is far easier to find, say, French teachers than Latin teachers. - See more at:"

    Why do you think this? At my university, for example, the number of Classics majors has steadily increased over the past 30 years ( Of course Classics is not one of the most popular majors, and it won't be, its popularity is certainly increasing. While this is only anecdotal evidence, the truth seems to be that there is a growing number of Classics majors and a shrinking number of professorial positions (due to the elimination of tenure track jobs). This funnels more and more recent graduates towards high school and elementary school teaching positions.

    1. Hi Tori,

      The graph shown on the article you've linked to certainly shows a small but noticeable increase in Classics majors. However, although what you say is probably an excellent description of what is happening in the US, we don't have the same situation here in the UK.

      As I've mentioned in my article, the BBC wrote that "there is [...] a shortage of teachers - largely due to the falling number of postgraduate teacher training (PGCE) Latin courses around the country. Just two centres run PGCE Latin courses - Cambridge University and King's College London."
      Despite those comments having been made in 2008, they still hold true as no new training centres have opened - perhaps suggesting lack of demand. See this link:

      In any case, it's great to hear that Classics is becoming more popular in the US.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Good article and a sobering one for a Latin teacher like me, but one worth considering. The irony, however, is that, outside of Britain, Britain is held up as having a (modest) Latin revival and, in the conditions that I am familiar with in Canada, they are. However, the problems are similar.

    The most worrying element that you highlight is the declining pool of available and trained teachers. That seems to be getting serious in Britain, but, in Canada, we have, currently, have no institution offering teacher training and haven't for around five years. In many ways, this is a key problem which both Canada and Britain is facing.

    Any rate, you are right to call attention to the negative factors. Sometimes we Latin teachers are so happy to have positive attention that we don't think about the obstacles facing us. Latin has been an economic tough sell for decades, but we can't afford to ignore this kind of hard-headed analysis.

    1. Latin is a fascinating language, so it's disheartening to hear that Canada doesn't have an institute for teacher training. I really hope that this situation changes soon. Tori Lee has suggested in her comment above that the conditions in the US are quite different to those in Britain and Canada. You might want to read her comment if you haven't already done so.

      Thank you very much for commenting and sharing your thoughts :)


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