Why study the Classics? Part 1: Language Learning

This is a question which seems to cause a lot of vexation for academics, especially in an era of funding cutbacks and attacks on the discipline from all sides. Despite coming close to the end of a BA in Literae Humaniores, I still am not sure if I could formulate a coherent answer to this question. I’m hoping here to discuss some of the common arguments put forward, as well as some of their pitfalls.

“Latin helps you learn other languages”

This is a common justification for the teaching of Latin and Greek, particularly at school level. It is true that a knowledge of Latin offers some help in the acquisition of other Romance languages, especially because Latin is still largely taught using the grammar-translation method, which means learners will often gain a fairly comprehensive overview of the various grammatical structures of Latin and a familiarity with concepts like a case system, parts of speech, types of clauses, and so on. Latin vocabulary also turns up in most European languages.

However, there are problems here. The grammar-translation method has a number of serious pedagogical pitfalls, namely the failure to generate spontaneous creative output in the target language. Despite having studied Latin to degree level at an “elite” university, obtaining first-class marks in some of my Latin papers, I still struggle with composition – moreover, verse composition is well beyond my abilities. This is true for many classics students.

Although I strongly value my Latin, it is not really because of any help it has offered me in learning other languages. Learning Latin to an advanced level is a huge time sink, with continually diminishing rewards. There is a definite pleasure in being able to pick up a Latin edition of Cicero and simply read it. However, had I hoped to achieve the same with Goethe or Moliere, I’m not sure the time put into Latin would have been a wise investment. School pupils have limited teaching time and they are under increasing pressures with regard to examination and coursework loads.  We might ask why a pupil should be forced to memorize amo, amas, amat, when they could simply be getting on with learning a modern language of their choice?

I also think some questions have to be asked about the effectiveness of the grammar-translation method for all learner groups. Although efforts have been made to modernize Classical language teaching, through, for example, the Cambridge Latin Course,  Latin is still often only offered to high-performing students in state schools, with others often explicitly excluded, or otherwise intimidated away from it. Meanwhile, private and public schools in the UK tend to stick with traditional methods. This often leaves a huge linguistic knowledge gap between university students who have been privately educated and those educated in the state sector: classical language teaching at university often does not anticipate students who have been taught via a method designed to suit a wider range of ability groups. This disparity is most pronounced in the prose composition papers at Oxford, where students who went to private school score significantly better than those who were state educated.

Moreover, focus on Latin language learning to the exclusion of wider aspects of the field, even the wider aspects of the literature studied in GCSE and A level courses, can be detrimental. School pupils are generally still expected to go through their texts and identify rhetorical figures of speech which can then be produced in list format in the final exam. What is the point of knowing that Cicero is using litotes in such and such a place, if the student lacks a broader knowledge of why Cicero is attacking Catiline to begin with?Classics is an interdisciplinary field. Although the Classical Civilization GCSE and A level go some way to try to reflect this, there is a sense that teaching in schools can become narrow to the point of myopia.

The point of learning Latin is to read Latin literature, and to engage broadly with Ancient Roman culture and history. This is a valuable exercise regardless of whether a student ends up with an A* or C at the end, and whether he or she goes on to study Classics, Classical Archaeology or Ancient History, or something else completely. My view is that school courses in classical subjects should reflect that, and be accessible to a wide range of students. Arguments about any benefits it offers to those seeking to learn French or Spanish are a distraction.


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