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The long shadow of Latin

© ImageSourceLatin – that supposedly ‘dead’ language that refuses to lie down – continues to cast its long, murky shadow over popular conceptions of English, as is evident from recent posts and comments in this blog, and elsewhere. Some commentators seem to believe that English is a sort of debased, degenerate form of Latin, or at least that ignorance of Latin severely compromises people’s ability to use English competently. And some such comments come from people who you’d think would know better – it was seriously suggested in the correspondence column of The Linguist (the journal of the Chartered Institute of Linguists) a few years ago, for example, that a thorough grounding in Latin is an essential prerequisite for an ability to speak and write English correctly.

The new National Curriculum for England (i.e. not other parts of the UK) requires pupils to reach “high standards of practical communication using both the written and the spoken languages” in one of seven languages by the end of Key Stage 2 (ages 7 to 11). Before you read on, you might like to pause and guess what those seven languages are.

Right, I’ll tell you. Four of them are French, German, Italian and Spanish – no surprises there. The next is Mandarin, a rather more imaginative and forward-looking choice.

So that leaves two, and they are … wait for it … Latin and Ancient Greek.

Latin? Ancient Greek? In preparation for school trips to Ancient Greece and Rome by time machine, maybe? No, the motivation is that “Latin and ancient Greek give a good grounding in grammar, syntax and vocabulary of a number of modern languages, including English.” (Notice that the authors of this document missed out the definite article before the word grammar – Latin wouldn’t have helped them with that, though Greek might!).

So here, yet again, the absurd idea is propagated that learning classical languages will help people – in this case poor innocent children from the age of seven – to speak and write English properly.

A recent survey of 700 English primary schools (reported in the latest issue of The Linguist, pp14-15) found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that none were actually offering Ancient Greek; some were offering Latin, but not through all four years.

Another interesting finding was that the most common length of time devoted to languages was 30 minutes per week, which doesn’t really augur very well for children achieving “high standards of practical communication.” (If they learn Latin or Ancient Greek, of course, there’s also the question of who they’re going to communicate with.) Overall, the report identifies a considerable need for teacher training, support and guidance, and for continuity and collaboration between primary and secondary schools.

So, is this latest initiative likely to have a positive effect on what is a pretty abysmal national record of teaching and learning foreign languages? It’d be nice to think so, but I wouldn’t be prepared to put much money on it.

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Jonathan Marks


  • Part of this strange list emerges from the existence of a national curriculum – one of the major mistakes of the 1980s. The curriculum forces different interest groups to fight for space on a kind of centralised platform, hence lists like this.

    As for ancient languages – I wouldn’t say they are needed to speak and write modern English ‘properly’, but that they _are_ needed to understand how people wrote in English 200, 300, 400, and 500 years ago. Most students don’t need them in strict utilitarian terms, but that doesn’t mean the classics should be treated as therefore worth removing altogether. Nor scaling back in steps each decade, which amounts to much the same.

    It’s a worthwhile goal to preserve the machinery for teaching a small number of new classics teachers in each generation. That’s better than rolling our eyes at the whole subject, thereby gradually cutting ourselves off from the (very interesting) past altogether. We’re already increasingly like the Americans, for many of whom the 1970s now qualifies as part of the 17th century.

  • Latin was my favourite subject at school and although you may argue it has little or no practical application I feel enriched by having looked through the eyes of an ancient culture. Very much of what I learned in school is of practical use today so it seems unfair to target one particular subject.

    I translated a first hand account of the eruption of mount Vesuvius, read Caesar’s account of his war, learned love poems (that still work on my girlfriend today when translated), and was exposed to ideas that were frankly lacking in the English literature we were forced to read. I read about nobility and human frailty. I read about social situations that provide me with context to our modern world. I may not require Latin to be able to speak English properly, but it does provide me with concepts worth expressing in English.

    So even though it may be of no practical value, I am very glad to have had the opportunity to read it. And if the author can claim to remember every detail of his maths and science syllabus from school they why not argue for these subjects to be removed on the basis of not being directly useful?

  • Thanks, Mark.
    If you want to understand how people wrote in English 200, 300, 400, and 500 years ago, you don’t need to know classical languages; you only need to know the norms that prevailed in the writing of English 200, 300, 400, and 500 years ago, regardless of how those norms were derived.
    You say that classics shouldn’t be treated as worth removing altogether, but for the vast majority of pupils in Britain they already have been removed, a long time ago. The question now is whether they should be re-introduced and, if so, how and at what stage.
    If you want classics to be taught, you need to ensure that you’ve got teachers who are competent to teach them, yes, but introducing Latin from age 7, in preference to a modern language, probably isn’t the best way to achieve this.

  • Thanks, Andy.
    I didn’t say that Latin is of “no practical application”. (And nor, by the way, do I think the purpose of going to school is only to learn things with an obvious practical application, and nor would I expect to be able to remember everything I was taught at school, in any subject.)
    Of course we are enriched by learning other languages and by learning about other cultures. Personally, I’d like to see a much less compartmentalised curriculum in which classical languages could be introduced in conjunction with elements of history and geography, with options for those who get interested in the languages to study them more deeply.
    It’s great that those Latin love poems work on your girlfriend – but only when translated, and if the translations are published, they’re available to everybody; they’re a poor reflection of the originals, no doubt, but no one can learn all the languages under the sun.
    The stated purpose of introducing another language from age 7 is for children to reach “high standards of practical communication” within four years. From this point of view, Latin and Ancient Greek are indefensible choices. How will children reach those high standards, and what use will it be to them even if they do? Who will they communicate with? But it seems that the real purpose is actually something quite different: to give a “good grounding” in modern languages, “including English”. This is equally indefensible. Latin won’t help English-speaking children to learn their own language; it’ll only be a hindrance.

  • Dear Jonathan,
    thanks for taking the trouble to reply! The line that the aim of introducing a language at age 7 is to achieve practical fluency is of course an artefact of the national syllabus mistake, since the stated aim need not be the only aim, but in any case research evidence weighs against the value of teaching children a foreign language at such a young age unless fairly heavy immersion is available. You’re probably aware of the famous longitudinal study of 17,000 British schoolchildren that found that at age 15 students beginning French aged 11 were better in French than those who had begun French at age 8.

    So it is probably a waste of time and money to teach any language from age 7 if it is to be for only a couple of hours a week, however strongly the “they soak it up like a sponge at that age” misconception is believed by lay people outside linguistics. So I agree with most of what you say completely.

    However I cannot agree with your opening line <>.

    That was English written by people who self-consciously modelled themselves on Latin, French, and also later on Greek writers, and whose cultural references overlapped with those of speakers and readers of Classical languages heavily. Even as recently as Milton in the 1650s, we are reading the verse of someone whose day job was corresponding in Latin with officials in other European governments.

  • The software here snipped out my quote of your text.

    Of course I was quoting your sentence

    “If you want to understand how people wrote in English 200, 300, 400, and 500 years ago, you don’t need to know classical languages; you only need to know the norms that prevailed in the writing of English 200, 300, 400, and 500 years ago, regardless of how those norms were derived.”

  • Mark, I take your point about linguistic modelling and cultural referencing in English writing, though I’d still say that although you need to understand the linguistic norms and expectations, you don’t necessarily need to know the languages they were derived from, and although you need to understand the cultural references, you can access them via translation(s). If this wasn’t the case, English texts from past centuries would be a closed book to most would be-readers. (Perhaps you think they are, in fact!)

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