There’s often a tension in education between the traditional and the progressive. But when the traditional hauls us back 2000 years, we really do need to worry. So, whenever I hear ‘Latin’ recommended in curricular discussions, I want to reach for my pedagogic gun, as it’s invariably subliminal snobbery. The perfect example is the toady Toby Young, who wants Latin to be a compulsory subject in all secondary schools. Yes, a D-list celebrity, who’s made a living from writing about being feckless and hapless, wants us all to listen to his petty, inner-city, London, middle class concerns about the quality of schools in his area. His solution – learn Latin!
Now you have to have some pretty convincing argument to put Latin into your core curriculum, so here goes? I’ll be a devil and advocate.
1. Helps you learn other languages
Sorry, it doesn’t. The metastudy Research and the teaching of English by Sherwin, found that “the study of Latin does not necessarily increase the ability to learn another language… No consistent experimental evidence in support of this contention was found.” The argument runs along these lines, that the Romance languages have Latin roots, so knowing Latin helps one learn French, Spanish and Italian. Now there may be some marginal advantage to knowing Latin before you learn these languages, but only if your Latin is very extensive, and you do Latin before you try the other languages. Why scratch your ear by going over the top of your head? Learners have limited time and that time is clearly better spent on the target language itself. You don’t have to go out with the grandmother to help you understand your wife. This argument is simply a non-sequitur.
2. Cognitive skills
One could argue that Latin teaches one to think. But what does that mean? If it’s true of Latin it’s true of any language, so why not learn one that is at least useful? What special cognitive skill(s) does dead Latin confer over dozens of other living languages or dozens of other analytic subjects for that matter? Stephen Pinker, Harvard’s world renowned expert in psycholinguistics backs this up in The Language Instinct, “Latin declensional paradigms are not the best way to convey the inherent beauty of grammar”. He recommends computer programming and universal grammar on the grounds that they are “about living minds and not dead tongues”. reductio ad absurdum
3. Latin language mavens
Pinker also has a go at the Latin language mavens who want to pointlessly foist Latinate rules of grammar into English. As Pinker explains, this snobbery took root in 18th century London, when Latin was used as a mark of social class (still true today) and Latin grammar rules were crudely pasted into books on English grammar, for example, ‘don’t split infinitives’ and ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’. Latin simply doesn’t allow you to split an infinitive and to stupidly insist that it’s wrong in English, is as ad hoc as making us wear togas.
4. Latin is misleading
It can be argued that learning Latin grammar is simply misleading as there is no real transfer to the target languages, certainly not English, and similarly in modern Romance languages. Latin has seven (six for some) cases, five declensions in nouns and doesn’t have articles. Far from being useful it’s positively misleading. And in terms of vocabulary, one would be far better spending one’s time studying etymology, rather than only one root language.
5. Waste of time
Of course, the cardinal argument against learning Latin is the fact that there’s only so many hours in a day for learning and there’s dozens of other subjects that should take precedence. We have to make choices in learning and this one is irrational. So as we’ve seen, there’s no real argument for learning a dead language on the basis of utility (unless one wants to become an ancient history scholar) as no one speaks the damn thing. tempus fugit
6. Lingua franca of the world - English
Learning a language, to a reasonable level of competence, is as difficult a learning task as one can imagine. This is made all the more difficult in the UK by the fact that English has become the world’s unofficial, and in some fields official, lingua franca. The vast majority of children who take a second language in the UK fail to achieve any real level of competence because it has to be taught in classrooms with no contextual opportunities for practice. Many therefore argue that the global reach of English has greatly reduced the need to learn another language, let alone a dead one!
7. Romance is dead
And why this obsession with learning romance languages over say, German or Mandarin? You are far more likely to hear Punjabi, Bengali or Urdu (the top three minority languages spoken in the UK). I suspect that there’s more than a whiff of snobbery in our selection of languages at school? “Mum - I’m dropping French and taking Urdu”. “You’re what!”
8. Illusion of utility
A GCSE in Latin barely enables you to decipher a few Roman inscriptions and numbers. It will certainly not allow you to interpret the works of Seneca and Cicero. Even at A-level you’d have to be exceptional to get as much from these texts, as you’d get from a good translation.
9. Why not Greek?
Wouldn’t you prefer the riches of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Socratic Dialogues and works of Aristotle; a far richer literary and philosophical tradition that the Roman? If so, learn Greek. Our literary, philosophical and political traditions have far more to do with Greek texts than Latin. Graecum est; non legitur
The benefits of a ‘classical education’, they say. But is there anything more annoying than those who drop in Latin phrases and confuse erudition with pomposity? I saw that hideous snob Rees Mogg do precisely this on a documentary on class recently and it made me wretch. Enoch Powell was the last politician who felt the need to pepper his speeches with this nonsense. Latin remains the cold, dead language of exclusivity and exclusion. It’s a peacock’s tail, the luxury of being able to ignore utility for superfluous acquisition of a useless and purely academic exercise. It says, subliminally, to hell with vocational subjects, I’m not ‘trade’. The dirty truth of the matter is that Latin has long been used as a marketing device by largely private schools to advertise their posh pedigree and attract parents of a conservative bent to cough up the fees. quid pro quo