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[Grammarphobia.com:] The study, published in 1973, offered this breakdown of sources [of English vocabulary]:
Latin: 28.34%;  French: 28.3%;   Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch: 25%; Greek: 5.32%;   no etymology given: 4.03%;  
derived from proper names: 3.28%;  all other languages, < 1%.

I use the terms from p 186, Linguistics For Dummies (1 ed, 2012; by Déchaine, Burton, Vatikiotis-Bateson). Abbreviate 'Ancestral (ie: Mother) Language' to AL and a Daughter Language to DQ.

This Quora answer induced the entitled question, because it avers that knowledge of Latin will improve English, 'in ways that most any second language will improve your first language usage'.

Eg: Since English vocabulary is 26% Germanic, will a dual Francophone Germanophone Classicist (expert in Greek and Latin) know more about English, than just a Francophone Classicist?

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    Your quotation to the effect "that most any second language will improve your first language usage" suggests that the answer to your question is "no". "Most any" is terrible English. – fdb Apr 11 '15 at 22:44
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    @fdb Sounds like the OP is American. They use most to mean almost. – CJ Dennis Apr 12 '15 at 1:24
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    @CJDennis. I think only in a colloquial/semi-literate register. – fdb Apr 12 '15 at 11:20
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    @fdb I can't recall ever seeing almost in any American writing and I have read books by many different, well respected American authors. But then again I haven't been specifically looking for it and most stands out as "wrong" (in my dialect) so that's what I notice! – CJ Dennis Apr 12 '15 at 11:43
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    @fdb I regret to inform you that "most" for "almost" is now accepted in American written English, except the formal academic register, which is currently being revised. – user6726 Apr 13 '15 at 2:05
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You have actually asked a few related but different questions here.

Does learning ancestral languages enrich a subsequent language?

Learning any language may enrich your native language(s):

  • By learning the grammar rules of another language you may become more aware of grammar in your native language(s) by contrast
  • Related languages may reintroduce you to a word you already know but rarely use. This may increase the vocabulary you use, rather than the vocabulary you know. You might discover a new word in your native language but this is much less likely. You may be introduced to a new concept in the other language and learn a new word that way too
  • Words from a related language may give you an insight into why certain words in your native language(s) mean what they do, rather than just accepting the words as "just the way they are"
  • Knowledge of a related language may help improve spelling. A common complaint of English is that the spelling (and pronunciation) rules are very inconsistent. This inconsistency diminishes (but does not completely disappear!) when you group words by origin. Words from French, Latin, Greek and Germanic roots via Old English and Middle English have much more consistency internally than they do in common
  • Research has been done that suggests that being bilingual can improve some aspects of brain function: University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language - The “bilingual advantage”: Does learning a second language improve working memory?

On the other hand words often change in spelling, pronunciation and meaning over time or at the point of assimilation from another language. This causes the phenomenon of false friends between languages in two ways:

  1. The meanings of words that were originally the same have diverged although their forms remain the same or similar
  2. Two unrelated words have coincidentally become the same or similar in spelling, pronunciation or both. E.g. "blesser" in French means "to wound".

Does knowledge of more of the AL of the LIQ, always improve fluency in LIQ? Any research on this?

Knowledge of language Y will not help fluency in language X. Only more experience in language X will help because all languages are different, and the differences are dynamic and unpredictable. Any research? I don't know but probably not. Reading more in the target language is one way to increase fluency, as long as the written language is not substantially different from the spoken language, e.g. Norwegian Bokmål ("book tongue") vs. Nynorsk ("new Norwegian") and contemporary (spoken) Sinhala vs. formal (classic) Sinhala. You will probably increase your vocabulary by reading older books (even from as little as 50 years ago) as some words can go out of fashion yet still be widely and clearly understood.

Will a dual Francophone Germanophone Classics scholar know more about English, than just a Francophone Classicist?

Someone who has studied Germanic and Italic languages should know more about the history and evolution of English than someone who has just studied Italic languages, for example that children, oxen and brethren have all formed their plurals from a regular Germanic plural suffix -en, rather than just being considered weird exceptions to the general Modern English rule of adding -s. They should know more etymologies, etc. It is important that they study the history, not just the contemporary languages.


In conclusion, is studying another language beneficial to your native language(s) or an antecedent language beneficial to one of its descendants? It depends on the individual, but on the whole I would say yes. When you study related languages you will find more similarities than when studying unrelated languages. You may end up learning more from the differences than the similarities, but you will surely learn something!

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  • Good answer! I think I agree with all your points. My answer was really about the very narrow question of whether learning vocabulary items from a parent language will somehow help you become more fluent, which I still say is a definite no. – curiousdannii Apr 13 '15 at 13:28
  • Thanks @curiousdannii! I was trying to get to the heart of what I believe the OP was asking. I perceived the main question to be the headline about enriching (or in my words being of benefit) rather than the question in the body about fluency. I certainly took on your comments about that particular aspect! – CJ Dennis Apr 13 '15 at 14:11
  • Great point about reading older books. You can likely increase your English fluency by reading 19th century stories such as Little Women or Tom Sawyer, as English has undergone few changes since then (helped in no small part due to such massive pop culture publications), but Shakespeare, not so much. Shakespeare will enhance your English vocabulary and grammar, certainly, but not your day-to-day fluency as the language is just different enough that you can't simply walk around on the street today and expect to talk like that. – Robert Columbia Oct 23 '17 at 3:36
  • Also, great point about a second language reintroducing you to words in your native language. Studying Spanish has led me to revisit such uncommon but valid English words as devolve, hypothecation, amity, grippe, and oculist, whose Spanish equivalents/cognates (devolver, hipoteca, amistad, gripa, and oculista) are very commonly used. – Robert Columbia Oct 23 '17 at 3:47
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I think it would not help at all, and could potentially harm your understanding of your primary language. This is because languages are always changing.

If you tried to improve your primary language vocabulary through learning one of those ancestral languages you would very frequently be tricked by these phenomena:

  • false friends: words that look similar but are entirely unrelated
  • false/folk etymology: often many etymologies we think we know are actually wrong
  • the etymological fallacy: even if you manage to correctly identify the correct etymologies, that will tell you nothing about what the word currently means

It doesn't matter what proportion of the time you'll hit one of these problems - to ensure that you aren't you'll need to check a good English dictionary every single time. So it won't end up helping you any more than just checking a good English dictionary to start with would help! Learn other languages, but do so for their own sake, not to pretend it will help your English.

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    I disagree. I am learning French, Dutch and German at the moment and often get insights into English words I already know well. E.g. responsible is verantwortlich in German. It contains the word answer: Antwort. To be responsible is to be answerable and a response is an answer! I had never thought about it like that until I encountered the German word! – CJ Dennis Apr 12 '15 at 1:31
  • @CJDennis +1. Thanks for your feedback. I value variety in opinions! I also find helpful other languages, namely for English and French, but I'm glad that the answer above stressed some linguistic traps. – AYX.CLDR Apr 12 '15 at 3:54
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    @LawArea51Proposal-Commit Absolutely! You have to always be mindful of pitfalls, but once you are I think other languages (e.g. PIE, especially the Germanic and Italic families for English) can be very helpful! The points mentioned above are the worst case scenario! The opposite is often true too! – CJ Dennis Apr 12 '15 at 4:01
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    @curiousdannii Again, I have to disagree with you. If you know ten words that come from a single root, knowing how that root got its meaning helps you with all ten. You don't have to look up each word individually! A lot of words use common prefixes and suffixes so a partially atomic understanding helps with the language as a whole. I agree that you can't use knowledge of another language without external references but I disagree that it will lead you astray more often than to be useful. As you study both languages you become more discerning. – CJ Dennis Apr 12 '15 at 4:16
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – CJ Dennis Apr 12 '15 at 5:08
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The answer to this is generally no. Particularly not when it comes to fluency. Unless you have some sort of an impairment, you already have enough fluency in your first language. Learning French or Latin will do nothing to improve it hinder it. However, learning Latin and/or French may increase your familiarity with the cultural and linguistic underpinnings of much of writing in English over the last several hundred years. So, you may in effect become a more fluent reader. It may also help you understanding distinctions that are hidden in modern English orthography - therefore, you may become a more accurate (and perhaps by extension fluent) speller.

However, this does not apply across the board. Learning old Germanic or even older varieties of English will not help you at all with any of the above. As won't learning old Church Slavonic to help you improve your Polish. English is quite a unique case here because language contact has played such a profound role for so long and in so many ways. While language contact has formed all known languages to some extent, I find it hard to imagine learning the source languages would be any use whatsoever in the way I outlined above in any other case of contact-induced change.

Also, I cannot stress enough, how marginal any potential improvements would be from learning Latin or French on your English. If you are concerned with your fluency, vocabulary or spelling in English, you would be far better served by learning more of those, rather than trying to fix the problem through another language.

But if you already know the other language (at least in part), you can certainly benefit from drawing on that knowledge. I found knowing English useful when learning French vocabulary and I've also come across a textbook of French from the 1930s based on knowledge of Latin. My (albeit rudimentary) knowledge of Latin has definitely been useful for dealing with English words of Latin origin. But this also comes with the danger of following the patterns of the original language be it with false friends, literally translated idioms or syntactic patterns. I would compare such knowledge to being the occasional useful stepping stone on the muddy journey through language learning but not anything resembling a stone walkway.

You also mention knowledge about language such as that by scholars. Every scholar of English should know enough about French, Latin or Old English to understand their impact on the current form, but unless they study historical developments of English, they only need to know about it rather than have any detailed knowledge of either of the source languages.

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My answer to the "is there any research" question is "who knows?": you can wait and see if anyone refers to a scientific study, but I suspect that no such study exists. The answer to the question whether knowledge of some other relevant language always improves fluency of the target language is "no". Outside of mathematical physics, most questions with "always" in them have the answer "no". In this case, the reason is simply that the psychology of second language learning is extremely idiosyncratic, so even strong tendencies can be falsified.

You should start with questions like, "Does learning Latin help in learning {Portuguese, French, Romanian}", or (distinctly) "Does learning Arabic help in learning {Swahili, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu}". In the first case, you would be asking whether learning an actual antecedent language helps in learning the LIQ. Neither Latin or Greek are actual antecedents of English, and the influence of those languages is like the influence of Arabic on Swahili. German and Dutch are also not ancestral languages: only Middle English and Old English are ancestral languages of English. If you invent a very open-ended definition of "ancestral" language where French or Norwegian are ancestral languages since English does contain some words of actual (modern) French and Norwegian (e.g. milieu, lutefisk), then most world languages would be "ancestral languages". An "ancestral language" would be an actual historically antecedent state of the LIQ, ergo one no longer spoken.

There is no denying that knowledge of Arabic can help knowledge of Swahili, Turkish etc. in a minor fashion, but this is a many-way street -- knowledge of one helps acquisition of any other (contact-style) relative, to some minor extent. My knowledge of Arabic has been improved a tad, by learning Swahili -- I can Arabicize words that I learned initially in Swahili, and can make fair guesses about what the Arabic word will be, even though in fact those words went from Arabic to Swahili and not the reverse.

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  • xkcd - Purity – CJ Dennis Apr 13 '15 at 9:42
  • Thanks. As per your advice, I have removed 'always' from my OP, which I erred foolishly in using. – AYX.CLDR May 2 '15 at 18:24

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