Michael Gove has the laudable goal of closing the gap between state and private schools. His latest suggestion is that state school students have compulsory Latin lessons. However, I am not sure that this is fully thought through. Latin is, certainly, part of our world’s history, shaping modern languages and places. For me, there are perhaps four main reasons for learning a language; communication, culture, cognitive benefits and employability.
Firstly, there is the practical aspect of language – communication. If you learn Spanish, you can speak to 387 million native speakers, more than double the number of native English speakers. Mandarin speakers alone comprise 935 million people. It is egotistical, to say the least, to assume or expect that all people we meet should speak English. Learning a language opens your world to other cultures. Perhaps equally important, it opens you to the realisation that, privileged as many English speakers are, we are not the centre of the universe, either collectively or individually. Although Latin has influenced many European languages, it does not really directly help you communicate.
Secondly, you might learn a language as an integral part of a culture, like Irish, Welsh or Manx. In Ireland, for example, every school student must learn Irish up to the age of 18, learning the poetry, prose and mythology associated with the Irish language and culture. Irish words are part of everyday speech in Ireland, even where the first language is English and the oft-parodied syntax of the Irish speaker is influenced by the different syntax of the Irish language. So, I can appreciate the argument for learning a language as part of a culture. Certainly, Latin speakers have had a major effect on European culture, but I would argue that it is not strictly necessary to learn Latin to understand any European culture. If we are arguing on the basis of the influence on English and on English culture, I would suggest that German, French or even Scandinavian languages have at least equal relevance.
Thirdly, there is the argument that learning a language can potentially support cognitive development. Beyond the ability to speak another language, several studies have observed gains in memory, problem solving, multitasking and a reduced incidence of dementia in bilingual children (Adesope et al., 2010). These are all gains to be pursued. However, Latin is not a spoken language and it is unsure to what extent these gains would be observed in a second language that is not spoken. I think that in this area too, a modern foreign language might be a more beneficial option.
Finally, you might want to learn a language to boost your employability or potential university choices. Being able to speak a language other than English makes you more able to go to university or work in another country. Now, apart from studying theology in the Vatican City, more current languages would be more helpful if you want to study or work abroad. Mr. Gove also argues that it makes you more likely to be attend top notch British universities such as Oxford or Cambridge. Latin will unarguably boost your chances of getting onto a Classics degree. However, I do not suggest that I have conducted a rigorous survey in this area, but I have studied at Cambridge for three years and I don’t think that there is a higher percentage of Latin learners than in other universities.
I am not suggesting that Latin or Ancient Greek should never be taught or learnt, or dismissing their value. Not only have these languages shaped the modern world, but some of the most amazing poetry, prose, philosophy and sciences have been developed in these languages. Think of Aristotle, Horace, Virgil, Plato, Socrates, Catallus, Homer and so many more. The classics were traditionally the mark of a good education, with some reason. However, we should not remain so wedded to tradition that we forget the reasons for learning. As John Dewey famously observed, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow” (1944, p. 167).
Consider Keats, who, unlike many of the celebrated thinkers of his day, was not classically educated. He was the son of an ostler and wrote the poem, read below, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer describing his emotions on reading the translated Iliad and Odyssey. I think it is my favourite poem because of the joy of learning and discovery communicated within the fourteen lines. It also shows us that Latin and Ancient Greek are not compulsory for enjoying the fruits of those cultures. Classical languages are interesting and rich sources of culture, but not the be all and end all of learning in the state or independent sector.
Adesope O. O., Lavin T., Thompson, T. & Ungerleider C. (2010). “A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism”. Review of Educational Research 80 (2): 207–245.
Dewey, J. (1944) Democracy and education. New York: The Macmillan Company.