Finding meaning in Latin class – some thoughts from the National Latin Survey

Today’s guest post is by Elliott Goodman.
From June 2013 to January 2014, over 11,000 students participated in the National Latin Survey. There are some preliminary results posted online, but there are still approximately six hundred paper surveys to be added to the database as well as all of the short response data (i.e. written responses as opposed to opinions on a 1-5 scale) to be analyzed. All-in-all, this has been an exciting venture – there are currently over one million points of data about what teachers and students want from their Latin learning experience. It has allowed me the opportunity to develop a global view of Latin education in the U.S. – there are roughly 220,000 Latin students taught by roughly 4,000 teachers in all fifty states and D.C. However, Catullus’ grains of Libyan sand are worth more than all these numbers if we do not ask the correct questions in the analysis of these data. It will be easy to point to these data and justify a whole host of pedagogical decisions. All of these quantitative conversations need to be accompanied by qualitative, logical analysis, much of which might drive future research projects. (Hint, hint, PhD students!) Below we will walk through one such question – the issue of student interest in speaking Latin. I chose this because it is a hot topic and because it is a good example of how breaking data down can be revealing of the effects of Latin education.
Upon first glance, it appears that learning SAT vocabulary is the number one reason why students are studying Latin and that wanting to learn to translate well is the second with 77.23% and 76.55% agreeing with each statement, respectively. (Keep in mind that 1% is 86 students, a number larger than some schools’ entire Latin enrollments, but also see the note about the margin of error below.) However, when we break things down by how many years students have been learning Latin, students in their first year of Latin study (most of them in their first semester), rank translating well as first (76.57%) and speaking Latin as second (75.09%) with SAT vocabulary in third (74.36%). Compare this to students in their second year of study and beyond, who push SAT vocab to the top (78.89%), with translating well in third (76.74%) behind improving English skills and speaking Latin in a distant seventh (58.67%) behind ancient history, ancient mythology, and teacher popularity. To recap, for students beginning Latin, the second most popular reason is the goal of speaking the language. After spending a year in Latin class, that goal drops considerably while interests in translation, English vocabulary, and English language skills increase.
Survey (Click image to enlarge.)
Why? Why do students reprioritize speaking Latin? Why did they have that interest to begin with? One could conjecture that students mistake Latin for Spanish, thinking they will learn a completely different language. I have personally seen this on an individual basis but I would never think that this common enough to skew a dataset of 8,600 so wildly. (11,000 participated, but only 8,000-9,000 answered each question, hence this 8,600 number and the reference to 1%=86 students above.) Could it be that as students grow older, their priorities shift to the tests and essays needed for college admissions?
If first-year Latin students are true first-year foreign language students, they might envision the foreign language classroom as a place where language is spoken, regardless of specific language. Upon entering the Latin classroom, they learn that it is possible to find meaning in a language through translation. My hypothesis is that students enter the language classroom wanting to find meaning in a foreign language. They define this meaning-finding in terms of translation and speaking. As they continue through a Latin curriculum, so many of which are translation-based (more on this below), they begin to define what meaning-making looks like in the specific Latin context. Students hear the old trope of Latin as a dead language that is impossible to speak and they spend hours translating their textbooks. Wanting to find meaning in Latin becomes primarily defined as translating into a specific style of English, which is why translating well and English language skills are at the top of career Latin learners. What is significant, however, is that still well over half of these students still want to learn to speak.
This is not meant to be an argument in favor of teaching Latin as a spoken language, although the question deserves more attention given these data. Data were also collected from teachers about the role of oral Latin and translation in their pedagogy, which will be connected to their students’ data in the coming year, allowing for even more nuance in answering this question. In order to prove the hypothesis above, qualitative interview-based research needs to be done, interviewing students at different stages of their Latin career. (Utinam sit mihi tempus!)
This is just one example of the questions the survey can generate – questions that I hope engage Latin teachers with each other and with their students in creating Latin classrooms that best serve student interests and goals. In the coming year, all of the quantitative data from students will be paired with teachers from the same school, cleaned of personal information and errors, analyzed, and shared on the web. In the next two years, the qualitative data will be cleaned, analyzed, and shared as well. As you have questions, ideas, and thoughts, please share them, you will help us use the data to learn even more.
N.B. One crucial issue not addressed above is the margin of error. While the numbers above describe the test takers exactly, the margin of error tells us how much variation there is from these data to the total population of Latin students. The margin of error in this survey is approximately 1.35% at a 99% confidence level. While this is much higher than what Nate Silver used to predict the 2012 presidential election, it means that in the comparative ranking above where numbers like 77.23% and 76.55% are the difference between first and second, SAT vocab and translating well are essentially tied in the total population of Latin students. This is an important concept to keep in mind when looking at data about Latin. When the Center for Applied Linguistics reported that the percentage of elementary schools offering Latin was 3% in 1997 and 6% in 2008, this did not mean that there was a growth in elementary Latin because the margin of error in the study was greater than 3%. (For more on this note, see Pufahl, I. & Rhodes, N. (2011). Foreign language instruction in U.S. schools: Results of a national survey of elementary and secondary schools. Foreign language Annals, Summer 2011, p. 264.) Leuconoe, nec Babylonios temptaris numeros!
Elliott Goodman taught middle and high school Latin for five years at an independent school near Los Angeles, California before joining the Ed.M. program in Applied Linguistics (Second Language Assessment concentration) at Teachers College, Columbia University. He served as California JCL Certamen Chair from 2010-2012, volunteered at the Getty Museum’s Academia Aestiva Latina, and is an alumnus of SALVI’s Rusticatio Virginiana, the Classical Summer School at the American Academy in Rome, the Klingenstein Summer Institute, and the Classics and Linguistics departments at the University of Chicago. Elliott’s favorite texts to read with students are the Testamentum Porcelli, the poems of Sulpicia and Catullus, and the speeches and letters of Cicero.

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