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Monday, August 22, 2011

Cultivating Realistic Goals for Foreign Language Study by William E. Linney

Cultivating Realistic Goals for Foreign Language Study by William E. Linney for A Slice of Homeschool #homeschool

“I had two years of Latin in high school, but can't really remember any of it.”

“I have a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, but I never speak it anymore.”

“I majored in Latin in college, but now I'm in a different career field and I never use it or read it.”

When I started writing language books a few years ago, friends and acquaintances began to strike up conversations with me telling me about their own language studies. The quotes given above are statements I remember from some of these conversations. Some people studied Latin, others studied German, French, or Spanish. But regardless of what language they had studied, a common thread ran through each conversation: They always made a point of telling me that they had forgotten most of what they had learned. Apparently, it's possible even to spend four years earning an undergraduate in a given language and then forget it later!

As parents, we would like our kids' minds to be like little computers, permanently remembering every piece of information that passes before their eyes. But as we can see from the quotes given above, the reality is that as human beings they will inevitably forget much of what they learn. With this in mind, how can we be realistic about our educational goals, especially regarding a subject like foreign languages? I think it is healthy for parents and educators alike to cultivate realistic long-term and short-term goals of foreign language study while discarding unrealistic ones. So let's ask the question: What should parents expect their children to gain from studying other languages (and what should they not expect)?

Perhaps you would like your child to become fluent in a modern language such as French or Spanish. If so, I would like to challenge you to ask the question, “For what purpose?” If your child studies French to the point of fluency, for instance, will he or she have enough opportunities to speak French in order to maintain that fluency, or will the words fade over time from lack of use? Perhaps they will have the opportunity to speak French if they travel or if they happen to run into another French speaker here in the United States. But day to day, will they really be able to use it for anything? Spanish, widely spoken across the United States, will provide many more opportunities to speak the language. But depending on where you live and how often you encounter Spanish speakers, it can still be difficult to keep your Spanish from getting rusty.

So let's be realistic about this. If you expect your child to become and stay fluent in a foreign language, he or she must have opportunities to use that language frequently. It's hard to be fluent in a given language when you can't practice speaking it. In fact, one of the best ways to learn a language is through having a genuine need to express something in that language---that need can generate the impetus needed to stay mentally involved and sharp in that particular language.

Here is a statement I have encountered repeatedly during my many years as a student of Latin: “I want my child to take Latin in order to improve his or her SAT scores.” The implication here (as far as I can tell) is that knowledge of Latin will enable the student to deduce the meaning of previously unknown words on the SAT, thus producing a higher test score. But an increased score on a standardized test is a poor reason to study any subject, and is unlikely to produce any motivation in a student. Education is a process, not a product, and this type of attitude misses the point of education (but that's another subject entirely).

Furthermore, keep in mind that deriving the meaning of an English word from its Latin root is possible, but it's not always a simple task. This requires a broad knowledge of Latin vocabulary which a high school student will probably reach only after years of concentrated study. Many English words come from Latin indirectly through French, obscuring the original Latin root word. Many other words come from Greek roots, not Latin roots, with Latinized spellings...well, suffice it to say that things can get complicated. After studying Latin and Greek for many years, I still find it very challenging to derive the meaning of an unknown word from my knowledge of Greek and Latin roots. Therefore, I believe that studying Latin simply to increase SAT scores is an idea that should be discarded in favor of goals that are more realistic and exhibit a higher value of education for education's sake.

So what can parents realistically expect their children to gain from studying other languages? In my thinking, the most important benefit of studying other languages is an increased awareness of how language works (i.e., grammar). This is especially true with inflected languages such as Greek and Latin. In my high school Latin classes, my friend Dan would often turn to me and say, “I never understood English grammar until I took Latin.” I agreed with that observation back then, and I still do. This astute observation gives voice to the idea that sometimes grammar is best learned not in one's own mother tongue, which one hardly thinks about due to speaking mainly from habit, but in another language that can be studied objectively. In other words, familiarity with one's own language can be a barrier to studying grammar because we so often feel the meaning of the words and phrases rather than thinking about their semantic meaning and structure. Studying another language usually requires students to learn about the various grammatical elements that one might never think about in one's own language. This can lead to knowledge of such specific grammatical elements such as articles, infinitives, and participles. Furthermore, the student is challenged to think closely about less obvious linguistic concepts such as idioms, subject-verb agreement, and the order of words in a sentence. Finally, the study of another language necessitates an in-depth study of perhaps the most important part of speech: the verb. Understanding the various characteristics of verbs such as tense, voice, mood, number, and person is so valuable from an educational standpoint that this alone makes the study of another language worthwhile.

In summary, it is my view that the study of other languages strengthens a person's general understanding of and ability to process language. No matter what path your child takes through life, the ability to process language in both written and spoken forms will be essential. Achieving this will require good teaching on the part of the teacher and hard work on the part of the student. The goal we seek in the midst of all this effort is simple: a strong mind. The value of a sharp intellect will remain long after the verb conjugations have been forgotten and the SATs are a distant memory---and that is a goal worth striving for.


William E. Linney is author of the books Getting Started with Latin and Getting Started with Spanish. A native of North Carolina, Mr. Linney holds both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in music from the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.

©2011-2013 A Slice of Homeschool Pie. All rights reserved. All text, photographs, artwork, and other content may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written consent of the author.

Mr. Linney has been gracious enough to offer one of my readers a chance to win a free copy of either one of his curriculums, Getting Started with Spanish or Getting Started with Latin.  (You can read my review about Getting Started with Spanish here.) All you have to do for a chance to win is share your thoughts about the subject of this article in the comment area. Include a note as to which book you would like to win.

Because I want to offer you as many opportunities as I can to win either one of these books, here are some extra ways for you to receive multiple entries:

  • If you haven't yet done so, follow A Slice of Homeschool Pie on Facebook.  You can do so by clicking on the "like" button located on the Facebook page. Include the words, "NEW FOLLOWER" in the comment area (of this blog). 
  • If you already are a follower of my Facebook page, write CURRENT FOLLOWER in the comment area (of this blog).  
  • Refer a friend to "like" my Facebook page and for each friend you refer, you will receive another entry. (Your friend(s) must let me know that they were referred by you by leaving me a comment on my Facebook page

Contest ends on Monday, September 12, 2011.  It is offered to US Residents Only.  Winner will be announced on Friday, September 16, 2011.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.



    Hi, I thought that this article was very interesting and I'd love to win the curriculum! The Getting Started with Spanish would be awesome. Reading through this made me think of language in a new way and it all made sense. Learning a different language really does make you think about how the word was made up and the different ways of saying it, rather than simply saying it if you just grew up speaking that language. I think it gives people some analytical skills they wouldn't necessarily have had they not learned that different language. Interesting. :) I enjoyed the article and I hope I win! LOL. :)

    I also referred 2 friends to your FB page, so I hope they say they were referred by me. ;)

  2. Alysa, you have a great head start in winning! :-)

  3. Just wanted to say I enjoyed your post!

  4. I would love to win the spanish set! I enjoyed your article. We also have a son adopted from Guatemala and we would love for him and our daughter to learn spanish now while they're young.

  5. Also a current follower :)

  6. New your posts and reviews so far.

  7. @Steph Johnson and Lrmom - which books would you like to win, the Spanish one or the Latin one?

  8. @Alysa, you mentioned you referred 2 friends to FB. One of your friends let me know but the other hasn't. Did your 2nd friend become a FB fan? If so, make sure they post it on FB so I can give you another entry.

  9. New follower :-)

  10. ASliceofHomeschoolPieAugust 28, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    Hi Ashley! Which book are you hoping to win, the Spanish one or the Latin one?

  11. Hi, I just sent a message to her to ask if she's now following you and to let you know. Hopefully her message will pop up soon! :) Thanks!

  12. .New follower. I took a Latin class in 8th grade because my mom thought it would improve my SAT. I don't know if it helped or not, but I enjoyed the class. I would like my son to learn Latin to improve his overall language skills. He's only 5, but I figure if we start now, slow & steady, he'll be the best he can be. And we all love pie here

  13. ASliceofHomeschoolPieAugust 31, 2011 at 3:52 PM

    I hope you'll enjoy my first pie recipe (scheduled to be posted by Monday). It's our way of ending the summer with a tasty treat. :-)

  14. Enjoyed the article. It always seems to be about moderating and checking your perspective. Getting Started with Spanish

  15. ASliceofHomeschoolPieSeptember 16, 2011 at 10:07 AM

    @Alysa, I don't have your email address. Please email me at

  16. NEW FOLLOWER I enjoyed this article, because I have a 6 year old who is interested in speaking other languages ever since one of our daughters came back from Haiti. I also have a freshman HS student who is interested in learning Latin since he is interested in science.
    I, however, have not learned or taught any languages other than ASL or Spanish.
    I am looking forward to learning more... ;0)

  17. ASliceofHomeschoolPieOctober 10, 2011 at 8:18 PM

    Thank you for becoming a follower! I hope you'll always find something useful at my website. :-)

  18. I feel that your short article pinpointed exactly why, suddenly, I have a desire to learn Latin. Recently, I started becoming more interested in reciting daily prayers from the Episcopal/Anglican book of Common Prayer. As you might know the BCP consists of Rites ! & II. The older Rite 1 is written with an abundance of older English terms that we know longer use. I was stymied by the beauty of this old style and also by the majesty of the Latin subtitles of prayers and invocations. In a sense there is a practical reason for me to begin studying Latin and my excitement is palpable (does this word have a Latin root)!! If at all possible, I would like a free copy of your Latin primer. Thank you for taking the time to read my comment.
    Iris Levy


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