Dead But Still Kicking
12 December 2007
Guardian Unlimited reports this week that Latin is making a comeback in British education - in both London and Oxfordshire it's being introduced to primary schools.
Clearly a Latin lover in the most academic of senses, the writer of the article, Charlotte Higgins, is enthusiastic. And so, naturally, are the proponents of the scheme. It's going to "help children get to grips with English", allow access to medical and legal terminology, and improve "language and general learning skills". It also "has the advantage of sidestepping all that business of ordering a beer or reserving a hotel room. Instead you delve right down to the bones of the language, understanding it at a deep, structural level that is both immensely rewarding for its own sake and very useful when that understanding is applied to any other language".
Oh come on. There are certainly arguments for offering Latin as an option in schools - but at primary level, when there is so much else to do? None of the arguments stand up - what exactly is it that they're supposed to learn about English or language learning in general by studying Latin rather than another language (or English itself for that matter)? Nothing I would argue. You want them to understand about nominatives, accusatives and genitives ? Study German. You want them to understand about person and verb agreement? Study Italian. You want kids to get really interested in language learning? Presenting them with a language which they'll never be able to use to say hello to anyone is not, in my opinion, the best way to do it.
I studied Latin at school and went on to study classics in my first year at university - so I am in no way a Latin hater. But to claim for it the utilitarian values that Higgins asserts is absurd. If I thoroughly enjoyed reading Latin classics and studying the history of the period, there's nothing special about it. I've enjoyed the literature and history of every language I've ever studied. And if I now know a bit of medical terminology it's not because I learnt it from my Latin lessons. Half of it's Greek anyway.
Why exactly Higgins believes that the amount of Latin which could be learnt in primary school is going to reach the objectives she states is not clear. Even at GCSE level, the amount of a language students have really mastered is pitifully small. And understandably so. True mastery of a language involves a lot of time and effort, and the chance to interact with native speakers - to order a few beers as Ms Higgins would put it.
Higgins seems stupified at the fact that in 1968 one of the demands made by demonstrating students was for the abolition of Latin as a compulsory language. As someone who lives in a country where students still have to study Latin for four or five hours a week up to the age of eighteen, I'm in full agreement. Latin should be there - as an option. But leave it for those who enjoy it and want to learn it. It won't teach you anything which you couldn't learn in other, far more useful ways.
Have you seen the articles in the November edition of Language Learning News ?