The Inequity Absurdity

Consider this a double feature hot off yesterday’s Annual Criticism of Latin, or ACL, report. Why another? I was reminded of a toxic idea floating around that the use of cognates is inequitable. This is absurd.


  1. Cognates increase (*increase, not guarantee) the likelihood that students will understand the Latin, especially ones most obvious and familiar in English.
  2. Students with broader English vocab have a higher likelihood of understanding cognates (*higher, not guaranteed), especially the less familiar ones.
  3. Students who don’t have as broad English vocab or who don’t recognize the word in the moment will just see one more Latin word.

This is not inequity.

All students see a Latin word they need meaning established for, and cognates have the potential to make the form-meaning connection stronger. They don’t have the potential to make that connection weaker. We cannot “turn off” our native language, so when there’s a connection we map meaning of a new language onto what we already know (i.e., “bootstrap”). Providing potential paths to bootstrapping is not inequity. Showing a picture of a Latin word is another way to strengthen that bootstrapping process. However, there are often times when certain students misinterpret a picture.

Still, this is not inequity.

What would be inequitable would be requiring all students to identify the picture associated with each word when there are blind students on the room. Absurd. I even read somewhere that withholding cognates will “level the playing field.” Oh, please. Students come into the classroom with all sorts of reading and thinking abilities beyond vocabulary. For example, we as teachers cannot remove a student’s ability to infer (and why would we?!) a skill they developed because their big home was always filled with books and supportive parents. Does that mean our classes are inequitable when certain students guess meaning ahead of classmates? No. That is out of our control. Is reading inherently inequitable because some kids grew up with more books? Absurd.

What would be inequitable would be to require all students to infer at the same level, or only recognizing and callingthe fastest students (n.b. turn ‘n talks then ask for volunteer increases student voice). What would be inequitable would be to require all students to possess the same English vocab in order to succeed in Latin class (e.g., REQUIRE students to provide a cognate’s definition in the exact English). I’m now wondering if the cognate concerns have more to do with testing and grading than reading and comprehending. That would certainly fuck things up for the student. Don’t do that!!!!

Cognate or no, in the end it’s all just Latin. For example, students are gonna see īrātus in a bunch of texts and need to connect that with an English meaning. I give “īrātus = irate (i.e., really angry)” because I’m pretty sure students are less familiar with the former. That doesn’t make it NOT a cognate, or NOT potentially known by someone in the class. Yet for those who don’t know, this is a teachable moment.

Let’s pause here.

What ever happened to Latin being used to make connections and comparisons to English?! These are two of the five Cs in all the standards, right? It’s as if avoiding cognates deliberately avoids doing what we should be doing as teachers. It’s as if the point is to overcomplicate the learning of Latin, perhaps giving it the elite status its reputation has held for centuries.

In fact, we could make the learning process unnecessarily more difficult for students by using the most unrecognizable words possible. News flash: guess who’s more likely to succeed then? The students who have uncanny memory, able to learn words with minimal attention. Cognates at least give students who don’t have that kind of memory a fighting chance among the powerhouse minds that have dominated the Classics for centuries. In fact, the use of the most obvious cognates is one way to get the lowest and slowest English readers in the room to succeed, feeling confident that they can participate alongside classmates whose reading abilities are off the charts. Inequity by using cognates? Please. If anything, the avoidance of cognates denies students the higher likelihood of making a form-meaning connection. A stronger case could be made against withholding this support than could be made for the inequity of providing it.

Therefore, we’re right back to cognate concerns being a matter of preference: gripes over the kind of Latin someone doesn’t want to read. The concerns make it seem like students are getting something that’s not Latin. Please. I just checked a couple of my cognate-heavy beginner books. Cognates comprise 23% and 25% of the first chapters. Since cognates don’t weaken form-meaning connection, a case could be made that a quarter of the chapter’s vocab will increase the likelihood that the other three quarters are understood. Or not, and it’s just all Latin. No drawback.

Just to drive this one home, here’s the same silly inequity absurdity applied to teaching Spanish…

Spanish is known for having A LOT of English cognates. Therefore, English speakers are more likely to understand Spanish compared to native speakers of other languages. The whole Latin cognate concern is like saying the entire process of teaching Spanish to English speakers is inherently inequitable for other non-native English speakers in the room. See? Absurd.

Truth is, the inequity card being played over cognate concerns is a straw man. Don’t fall for it.

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