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Would Latin boost Failing English Literacy?

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, will not have missed the news from the latest OECD study that England’s 16 to 24-year-olds are falling behind their Asian and European counterparts and have scored amongst the lowest results in literacy and numeracy. It is precisely such low achievement that the new national curriculum aims to tackle. Indeed, the inclusion of Latin as a National Curriculum language at primary level will go some way to tackle poor literacy, since learning Latin improves standards in native and other languages. It is therefore bizarre that the national curriculum option for Latin is withdrawn, when pupils reach the secondary stage.

Education officials explain that pupils should not leave school unable to speak any modern language apart from their mother tongue. They imply the aim is a practical one: pupils need to be equipped with a living language if they are to converse for business or pleasure with other nationalities in languages such as French, Spanish, German or Italian.

Are they right?

English is now an international language. It is taught well and widely abroad. Those whose jobs bring them into contact with foreigners will in most parts of the world usually speak and understand English. Indeed the expectation is that English will be used as the lingua franca where people with different native languages converse (even when few of them speak English as a mother tongue). Of course, in order fully to take part in the life of another country, to make friends or set up a business there, one must speak the language. But for these purposes one needs to speak, understand, read and write it properly – and a GCSE or an A-level in a modern language by no means equips pupils to do so.

Learning a foreign language at school is, none the less, valuable for Anglophones for other reasons. First, it introduces them to a new range of literature and culture. Second, their understanding of language in general is greatly increased by having the perspective of a second language opened to them. Third, the rudimentary knowledge they acquire at school can form the basis for a thorough study of the language, should they wish to make it.

All these goals are better served by studying Latin than by learning almost any modern language. The literature and culture of Latin is rich, varied and fundamental to our civilization, especially when they are not restricted, as often, to a few centuries of ancient Rome, but are seen to stretch from antiquity to the end of the seventeenth century. The proper, traditional study of Latin, based on learning the grammar and becoming skilled in writing as well as reading it, teaches far more about the mechanisms of language than learning most living languages. And a Latinist has a head-start in learning other languages, not only when they derive from Latin (as French, Italian, Spanish and others do), but also, because of the grounding in building up grammatical knowledge, even where they are entirely unrelated.

Mr Gove should therefore show that he is thoroughly familiar with the constraints and demands of today’s world by including Latin as a National Curriculum language for secondary schools.

*Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge.
Latin for Language Lovers by David Butterfield, Stephen Anderson, Katherine Radice and Dominic Sullivan is published by Politeia.

Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in Cambridge. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction (2016). For Politeia he has written Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities (2018), co-published with New Direction, and Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) co-authored with Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and Dominic Sullivan.

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