High School Latin Programs Are…Numerically Healthy

Rocco Romano recently entreated high school students to study Latin, but before extolling its virtues, he informed the reader that “students are most likely to study Spanish, French, Japanese or German.” He noted that these are “the most common languages taught in high schools,” but Latin “seems to have been lost over time.” His assertions here are incorrect: American high schoolers are essentially just as likely to have access to Latin as German, and far more likely to be taking Latin than Japanese. And why didn’t Mandarin make the list?

Romano misapplied the source for his source (a study on college enrollments) to a high school setting, but fortunately more data can be found. This post relies on two studies. The first is 2002’s Foreign Language Enrollments in Public Secondary Schools in Fall 2000, and the second is 2017’s The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report. Both studies are gloriously dry and meticulous affairs abundant in data and worth careful perusal.

It may be best just to dive into the messy data and splash around, noting that the findings aren’t ironclad. These two studies don’t complement each other perfectly. The older study focused on public schools, whereas the more recent one included data on private schools. The former was unable to collect consistent data from all 50 states, and the latter reported that only 10,879 out of 26,000 contacted high schools participated. Ultimately, both studies bemoaned the state of data collection on educational practices and enrollment and the difficulty in reaching out to stakeholders and administrators. This comparison of these two studies is therefore informal, and takes the research with a grain of salt. It would be shocking if these findings were substantially in error, but don’t take the numbers as Gospel.

So let’s splash around! In 2000 and in 2017, Spanish and French were the most popular languages among American high schoolers (Spanish is far ahead of all languages in enrollment). However, Latin proved itself a bit healthier than one might imagine in comparison to German and Japanese.

In 2000, 4.8% of high school language learners were studying German, while 2.7% were studying Latin. By 2017, 8.71% of examined high school language programs were German, and 8.51% were Latin. German still had about a 120,000 more students, but both Latin and German had over 1500 programs (Latin’s 1513 to German’s 1548). Beyond traditional scheduling, Latin had 10 more summer courses than German (70 to 60) and essentially the same number of after-school classes (27 for Latin; 29 for German) and Saturday classes (10 to 11). From a bird’s-eye view, it looks like German and Latin have essentially the same presence in American high schools.

Let’s put it more bluntly. For American high school students, the top five languages in 2017 by number of programs were (in order): Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Mandarin. By enrollments, switch Mandarin and Latin. All three of the “lesser” languages were present nationwide, not simply clustered in particular regions.

In 2000, Mandarin barely had a presence in American high schools. In 2017, it had fewer programs than Latin or German, but more enrolled students than Latin (around 17,000 more were found in the most recent study). Russian had ten times the enrolled students over Mandarin in 2000 (there were once, or perhaps still are, geopolitically cogent reasons to push for Russian), but Russian has lost a great deal of ground (it is, however, still the only language at Staten Island Technical High School, perennially a ten top high school nationwide). These observations aren’t meant to support the notion that the push for Mandarin is merely an ephemeral geopolitical trend, as some would entertain. Russian never had the enrollment numbers that Mandarin and Latin have had recently.

It’s important to note that the The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report found that Mandarin and Latin had comparable numbers of K-8 programs and enrollments, exceeding those of German.

And Japanese? It had over 125,000 fewer students than Latin reported in 2000, and with a slightly larger gap in 2017. Japanese had around 1100 fewer programs than German or Latin in 2017. More high schoolers are taking American Sign Language than Japanese now.

A reminder: both studies noted the difficulty in data collection. This post isn’t wielding these numbers authoritatively. For fun, however, look at the language program distributions in this article on Massachusetts and this one on the Chicago area and see how they compare to the numbers thus far quoted.

The numbers don’t need to be reckoned competitively. Latin lost hundreds of thousands of students in the 1960s, but has been essentially stable ever since. German has also been steady over the years, and Japanese’s strong growth in the 90s has led to a consistent presence. As Steve Drummond pointed out a few years ago, the narrative of Latin making a comeback is a reliable story for cutesy journalistic puff pieces. It simply isn’t tenable from the data however. Latin is holding on, or holding strong. So are other languages. A brief look at a third study covering 2004-2005 and 2007-2008 confirmed this.

To simplify: American high school students are basically just as likely to be taking Latin as they are German or Mandarin, and are more likely to be taking Latin than Japanese. If, one must note, they even bother (or are bothered) to study a second language.

Three tentative musings:

1. If Latin unlocks advanced English, then there is great potential for integrative root instruction in Spanish and French courses. Advocates of either may claim studying a Romance language will unlock English’s Latin roots, but the derivations aren’t always easy to trace. One can easily move from an understanding of the Latin fabula (“story”) to advanced English such as “fabulist” or “confabulate,” but it’s harder to imagine its Spanish derivative hablar being as productive without concerted guidance. The Latin dicere can not only illuminate the Spanish decir (yo digo, nosotros decimos), its principal parts can help students make connections to “interdiction,” “dictatorial,” and other advanced English words. The Latin verbum (“word”) appears throughout advanced English (“verbatim,” “interverbalization”), but the same can’t be said for parabola (root of Spanish palabra) or muttum (root of French mot). However, with concerted guidance, one can imagine Latin roots being integrated into Spanish and French curriculum and instruction without overwhelming the coursework. If millions of students are taking Spanish and French, though very few are gaining or retaining fluency, those programs seem like ideal places to help students appreciate the Latin (and Ancient Greek, Arabic, and proto-Germanic) roots in Spanish and French which would help unlock advanced, academic English. Latin class need not be only place where students are pointedly shown linguistic interconnectivity.

2. Classics programs at the university level should be interested, if not concerned. Upwards of a couple hundred thousand American students have been taking Latin regularly for years, but those taking the language in college number in the tens of thousands. Now, these numbers aren’t too disturbing. Millions of American high schoolers take Spanish, but only about 700,000 took that same language at the college level in the fall of 2016. Not all high school language learners go to college, and not all seek to continue language studies there. Still, an initial musing is that perhaps students aren’t taking Latin in high school in anticipation of a Classics degree. Curriculum, instruction, and testing approaches could reflect this.

3. The National Latin Exam really is well-received by Latin teachers. At first glance, it looks as if the vast majority of Latin programs have their students sit for the exam.

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