Latin – 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.Email this Post