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Latin and Ancient Greek as Foreign Languages in School – A Strategy of Distinction for the Upper Social Classes?


Prof. Dr. Jürgen Gerhards (Freie Universität Berlin)

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Kohler (Universität Potsdam)


Tim Sawert (Universität Potsdam / FU Berlin)

Research Questions

Although Latin and ancient Greek are no longer spoken languages and learning them is of no direct use for the communication between people from different linguistic backgrounds, the proportion of pupils which decide to learn these languages in school increased in Germany over time.

In the research project we investigate why pupils and their parents decide against the alleged rationale logic of learning a modern language (Spanish, French) in a continuously globalizing world and for acquiring competences in languages of no communicative use (Latin, ancient Greek).

Based on Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and a rational action model an explanation for the phenomenon is developed and the derived hypotheses are tested empirically. Here, the main focus is on the relevance of processes of distinction, exclusion and pretension. The central assumption is that the distribution of the different crucial motives in the decision-making process varies depending on the socio-economic background. This leads to differences in the foreign language profile selected: The classes which are privileged with cultural capital want to realize gains through distinction and exclusion. The members of the middle classes copy the practices of the privileged classes but incorporate these practices into their own logic, which oriented more strongly towards an orientation of utilization: Consequently they decide for Latin in order to realize positive transfer effects for example.

Detailed description of the project (only in German)

Empirical Implementation

To separate the different motives and their effect on the decision for a foreign language profile, at selected schools two different surveys will be conducted during the project:

  • In a first survey, parents of children which are in the last grade of elementary school and which have to decide for a secondary school will be interviewed. Within the scope of this survey, it will be measured whether and to what extent the higher social selectivity of secondary schools with a humanist profile is a motivational factor for visiting those schools and the often associated need to choose Latin and/or ancient Greek.
  • In the second survey, parents of children who are at secondary schools, where their children can freely decide between different foreign language profiles, will be interviewed. If different preferences in the lifestyle, which are associated with the socio-economic background are relevant for the decision for a classical language, being from a family which is highly endowed with cultural capital should increase the tendency to decide for Latin and ancient Greek.


The project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).


Gerhards, Jürgen, Ulrich Kohler & Tim Sawert. 2021. Educational Expansion, Social Class, and Choosing Latin as a Strategy of Distinction. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, vol. 50, no. 5, pp. 306-321.

Gerhards, Jürgen, Tim Sawert & Ulrich Kohler. 2020. Des Kaisers alte Kleider. Fiktion und Wirklichkeit des Nutzens von Lateinkenntnissen. SchulVerwaltung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Fachzeitschrift für Schulentwicklung und Schulmanagement 31: 28-29.

Stellungnahme zu der Kritik der Altphilologen an der Latein-Studie
Jürgen Gerhards, Tim Sawert, Ulrich Kohler: Fakten statt Unterstellungen: Eine Antwort auf die Replik "Fiktionalität in der Wissenschaft - Analyse einer Studie"

Gerhards, Jürgen, Tim Sawert & Ulrich Kohler. 2019. Des Kaisers alte Kleider: Fiktion und Wirklichkeit des Nutzens von Lateinkenntnissen. Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 71(2): 309-326.

Sawert, Tim (2018): Das schulische Fremdsprachenprofil als soziale Segregationslinie. Historische Entstehung und gegenwärtige Relevanz der schulischen Fremdsprachenwahl als horizontal differenzierende Bildungsentscheidung. Berliner Journal für Soziologie 3/4.

Sawert, Tim (2018): Latente Mechanismen sozialer Hierarchisierung. Die Wahl alter Sprachen als Reproduktionsmechanismus des Bildungsbürgertums. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.