Is it worth learning Latin?

In Monty Pyhton’s Life of Brian a hapless Brian is caught graffitiing ‘Romans Go Home’ and subjected to an impromptu lesson in the finer points of Latin grammar by a burly centurion played by John Cleese:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbI-fDzUJXI[/youtube]

Apart from being very funny, ‘Romans go Home’ very nicely illustrates what Latin meant to the grammar-educated Monty Python boys: complicated and brutal. Indeed, Latin lessons since the 1960s have largely faded away in UK schools but there now seems to be somewhat of a resurgence.

One person who is a keen Latin enthusiast appears to be Toby Young.

toby young

The writer and journo is hoping to include it in the curriculum for his new free schoool in West London where it will be included in Key Stage 3 (age 11 – 14).

Why would Toby be championing a dead language like Latin? We couldn’t find the answer to this at the school website but a quick google search revealed many pages willing to do so.

One such page was at about.com and written by someone called N.S.Gill (“a Latinist and freelance writer with a longtime focus on the classical world”).

Entitled ‘Why Study Latin?’, Gill lists several reasons why Latin should be on every school’s menu. As seemingly emblematic of all people who extol the virtues of Latin, we thought we’d go through them one-by-one and see how they hold up.

1. Latin Grammar is the Best Grounding for Education

Oh dear. Big statement. No proof. Just sounds good. Apparently, Dorothy Sayers of the National Review says it’s a good thing because it “cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent.” Who is she? Also, like ads for hair products just throwing out a number like that is pretty meaningless. And where is the research on that one? If anyone has any references please let us know.

2. Latin Helps With English Grammar

…yes, but so does any language. You can either draw out the similarities between other Indo-European languages and Engish or focus on the differences between them. Saying that, you could also choose to do this with Sino-Tibetan languages or any other set of non-IndoEuropean languages. In short, it doesn’t matter what language is used as long as the similarities and differences are drawn out.

It is also not true that “while neither the language nor grammar of English derives from Latin, many of our grammatical rules do.” Latin has given English lexical not grammatical content, with roughly a third of words having Latin roots. It would make more sense to study not Latin grammar but German grammar from which the overwhelming majority of English grammar is derived.

3. Latin Makes You More Careful in English

Does it? Where’s the research on that? “In Latin you have more to worry about than whether a plural pronoun refers to a singular noun (as in the politically correct – grammatically incorrect: each student has their own workbook). In Latin there are 7 cases with which not only pronouns, but adjectives — not to mention verbs — must agree. Learning such rules makes the student careful in English.” But surely learning Chinese would prove as much of a challenge and engender the learning characteristics desired.

“But more important is the fact that traditional study of Latin starts out with a grammatical framework…. As American students begin Latin, they become acquainted with the “Latin grammar” system, which they can indirectly transfer to their work in English. What it gives them is a standardized set of terms in which to describe words in relations to other words in sentences, and it is this grammatical awareness which makes their English writing good.” Again, why not a living language like Chinese or German instead?

4. Latin Helps You Maximize SAT scores

Really? It may ‘sell’ Latin programs but is it true. Where’s the study refs? Only 30% of words have Latin roots. That may be a large chunk but there are still 70% to get one’s head round. Math scores also increase? Yeah, right.

5. Latin Increases Accuracy

A Professor Emeritus William Harris is cited as saying that this is so but does it really foster ‘close and careful reading’ more than any other language? Refs please.

6. The Study of Latin Enhances Vocabulary

“Latin is a great source language for English vocabulary”, we are told. But so is English. Why not just study English to improve your vocabulary where 100% of the words are important and not 30% as in Latin?

As the late Emeritus Professor William Harris explains, there may be ‘certain benefits’ but as he also admits this applies to Greek too: “Greek along with Latin is the basis for virtually all English scientific terms” so why favour Latin over Greek? That doesn’t make sense.

7. The Study of Latin Introduces Logic

…yet isn’t Greek the language of philosophy? So, again, why not study Greek instead.

8. People Do Think Differently & Latin can help your children realize not everyone thinks the way they do

Yep, perhaps but why Latin. You could easily learn any of the other thousands of the world’s languages to gain this insight.

9. Prestige

And here we have it. Latin is about kudos and keeping up with the Jones’. It’s a status symbol and a mark of social difference. It is of course no coincidence that fee-paying schools are more likely to teach classical languages than non-fee-paying.

10. Help with phonics

Surely learning English sounds is best for that.

11. Learning Latin is Fun

Yes, maybe, but so is SCUBA diving and our Toby isn’t going to have that on the curriculum now is he.

There is then no reason per se why Latin should be studied over any other langauge. Indeed, learning either of the two main world languages (Spanish and Chinese), or German, makes much more sense.

Watching the Python sketch also it is clear that learning the Latin language was/is a tortuous and demoralising experience. Is it this kind of ‘schooling’ that advocates of Latin like Mr. Young are really after?

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