Why learn Latin?

While researching something else entirely, I happened upon an article from 2013 on the Times Literary Supplement website entitled “Does Latin have a future?” by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/does-latin-have-a-future/). The article basically reports on a debate held at the British Museum in London to discuss whether Latin should (continue to) be taught in schools in Britain and elsewhere. As a former student of school Latin myself, I was interested to read the arguments for and against.

I could probably Google how many schools still teach Latin in the UK and other countries, but I’m not really interested in the exact figures. It’s obviously far fewer than it used to be. Nowadays, in the UK at least, Latin is undoubtedly seen as an elitist subject and conjures up images of traditional public schools (what we quaintly call “public schools” in Britain are actually exclusive private ones) and their upper-class pupils. This is a hangover from the fact that, until the late 18th century, Latin was the language of academia throughout Europe. That meant that if you wanted to go to university, you had to be able to read and write Latin as all university study was conducted in it. And, of course, for many centuries universities were largely the preserve of the wealthy few, hence Latin’s elitist image.

What struck me when I read Mary Beard’s article and a blog post she references called “10 reasons NOT to teach Latin” by Donald Clark (http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com.br/2011/02/10-reasons-not-to-learn-latin.html) is that the arguments put forward by both sides of the debate kind of miss the point. The pro-Latin camp argue that learning Latin helps you to learn other languages, especially the modern Romance languages, as well as teaching you about the origin of at least 60% of English vocabulary (if you include the large number of words of Latin origin that came into English through Old French during the Norman period). One of the counterarguments to this is, well, if you’re interested in learning one of the modern Romance languages, why bother going to the trouble of studying Latin first, especially as it is more difficult grammatically and the precious hours of school teaching time required could be more usefully spent on a modern language? And, as native speakers, do we really need to know the origin of English vocabulary to be able to understand it and use it correctly? I think not.

In my opinion, learning Latin does help you to learn other languages, but only inasmuch as you are studying a language that is different from your own, and compared with English at least, Latin is considerably different grammatically speaking. The experience teaches you that different languages work in different ways, express things in different ways, use different strategies to express the same ideas. Ultimately, it teaches you that language is relative, that English (or whatever your mother tongue may be) is no better as a vehicle of communication than other languages and that your own way of thinking about things, which is conditioned by having to do so within the confines of what your mother tongue allows, is not the only possible one.

In my experience as a teacher, one of the most difficult things to grasp for new language learners who have had no exposure to foreign languages before is precisely the fact that different languages often say the same things in (completely) different ways. I remember as a teenager trying to teach my parents a bit of German, which I was enthusiastically studying at the time. When I told them that “How are you?” in German is Wie geht’s? (literally “How goes it?”) they asked me which word meant “how”, which “are” and which “you”. I explained the literal meaning and they kind of accepted it but looked puzzled. When we moved onto “there are three words for “the”, der, die and das, because nouns can be masculine, feminine or neuter” they looked even more puzzled. As I started to explain that in German you have to say the equivalent of “This is my suitcase. HE is heavy” because the word for suitcase is masculine, I could see by their faces it was a lost cause. And German is pretty close to English, linguistically speaking. Imagine if we’d been learning Japanese or Arabic!

I say “we” because although I’ve always had a passion for languages and seem to have a flair for them, it also took me a good while to realize that things don’t have to be said in the same way as in English, that languages don’t have to work in the same way as English. I was lucky enough to have Latin, French, German and Ancient Greek at school, so I can’t give the credit to Latin alone, but my point is that learning Latin has a value simply by virtue of the fact that it is a “foreign” language.

Of course, predictably, the anti-Latin lobby bang on that Latin is useless and a waste of time because it’s a dead language. The fact that it’s a dead language is clearly irrefutable, but the best part of Mary Beard’s article (and what inspired me to write this post) is her own apparently facetious contribution to the debate: “[I said] that for me the fact that it was a dead language was a huge plus point: you didn’t have to learn to ask for a pizza in it.”

I think that observation is nothing short of brilliant, and not at all facetious. The whole point about learning Latin – and what makes it special – is precisely the fact that it is a dead language and you don’t have to learn to speak it or understand it being spoken. This effectively does away with all those annoying dialogues, speaking practice exercises and communicative tasks, leaving you with just the language as an object of study in itself. To use Saussure’s terminology, it’s a study of langue, not parole. Yes, ok, you learn to read it and usually to write it too, but those are really just ways of testing whether you have understood the grammatical principles of the language. The object of the exercise is not to learn a foreign language, or indeed Latin itself really, but to learn about language, something you can only do by being forced to step out of your own for a minute.  Plus the fact that, unlike living languages, Latin is not constantly evolving and shifting the goalposts.

So if the point of learning a dead language is that it’s a way of learning about language without having to worry about oral communication, why not Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew or Akkadian? Practical reasons, really: in the relatively small number of teaching hours available in the average school curriculum, Latin is undoubtedly the most accessible dead language. And if you are going to study a dead language at school, it does make more sense to tackle one that has played a central role in your country’s history and academic tradition, as well as contributing massively to your own language.

As for myself, I went through the British school system at a time when it was not fashionable to teach grammar in English Language class. I don’t resent that, because what we did instead was learn to express ourselves in writing by writing – essays, stories, poems, book reports, letters, all kinds of different texts. So most of what I know about grammar, including all the nomenclature, I learnt in Latin class. That’s something I feel very grateful for, but probably only because I went on to work with languages. I realize that, for anyone who is not a linguist at heart, having to learn Latin is as tedious and apparently pointless as maths, physics, chemistry, geography and history were to me. In later life, I recognize that there was some benefit to studying the basics of maths whenever I have to do anything mathematical, just as I would hope a once reluctant Latin student might acknowledge its value if one day called upon to do something linguistic (e.g. learn a foreign language for work or leisure).

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