Leading article: Parlez-vouz Aramaic? Welcome to the global Babel

Click to follow
There may be a case for teaching dead languages to children as young as seven, if only on the First Principle of Management Consultancy, which is that any change to the working environment increases motivation. Studies have shown that it does not matter what you do to office workers - increase the lighting, lower the lighting, turn the air-conditioning up, turn it down - productivity goes up. If people feel they are the subject of an experiment or the centre of attention, they will perform better.

Thus primary-school children who choose to learn Latin in their lunch- break are bound to do better in all other subjects, improve their concentration and - studies will no doubt show - be subject to lower levels of family breakdown in later life. The results, we can be absolutely sure, would be much the same if children opted to take classes in hieroglyphics, the languages of Middle Earth or the history and record of Manchester United Football Club.

Latin for under-11s, then, is a good idea. But it is not necessarily the best idea. No disrespect to the teachers of Belle Vue primary school, Stourbridge, who should be congratulated on their exciting project, but there are even better things that children could be doing.

However, the classical languages hold such a place in the British mythology of academic excellence that it is worth pausing to consider the peculiar (from L. peculium, private property, itself from pecu, cattle) claims of Latin.

There was a time when, in Europe, the ability to use Latin made someone cosmopolitan. Now, all over the world, it is the ability to use English, the closest we have to a universal language.

There was a time, more recently, when in Britain the ability to use Latin marked one out as a member of a learned community, a community that regarded itself as the extension of, and progression from, Greco-Roman civilisation. Its very uselessness in practical life emphasised its rarification, its intellectual discipline and its role as a form of communion with the past. Now, we see the classical inheritance in a more objective historical perspective, and we see education less as a project for a closed priesthood.

This leaves us a peculiar nation, embarrassed speakers of a casual, misspelt, irregular blend of old German, Norse, Celtic, French, and, of course, Latin - a language which through an extraordinary sequence of happenstances has become the lingua franca (It., Frankish tongue) of the world. We giggle about our incompetence in other people's languages and even wish earnestly we could speak them, while knowing that almost anyone we meet in the world will speak our language better than we can speak theirs.

But the joke is not funny any more. However dominant English becomes, and it is already the language of the Internet and of the European single currency (in which, paradoxically, the UK will not initially take part), to carry on as bumbling linguistic amateurs is both insular and lazy. Surely any attempt to modernise Britain requires a serious attempt to become an outward-looking, cosmopolitan nation, which must include fluency in live European languages?

The official approach is right as far as it goes: a modern language is part of the national curriculum for older children. But the overwhelming emphasis on French, which dates from 1914 (when the teaching of German was suddenly abandoned, for obvious reasons), is a terrible drag on the system. Compared to the disbenefits of compulsory French, voluntary Latin is a great boon.

But the answer, surely, is to expand the choices of modern European languages available to children. A particularly strong case can be made for Spanish. Recent research suggests that pupils make more rapid progress in Spanish than in other languages, and that knowledge of Spanish - like that of Latin - greatly enhances the capacity to read other European languages. Spanish is also, more than French, an international language.

Another strong case can be made for German, a logical language of tedious grammatical regularity which ought to appeal to traditionalists who believe that learning Latin "trains the mind" and instils a strong grasp of grammar. Besides, German is, more than French, the second language of the European Union, especially along its expanding frontier in central and eastern Europe.

Equally, there are arguments for Russian, another highly systematic language with the added intellectual challenge of Cyrillic script for those for whom mere difficulty is a measure of worth. But it is time to let pupils and their parents choose which languages to learn, which is bound to mean French taking its rightful place lower down the rankings.

At least we have a Prime Minister who is both fluent in French and European in outlook who can lead such an adventure with the spirit and attack it needs. It may require some tinkering with the national curriculum - why should Latin or Greek (or Cornish, Aramaic or ancient Hebrew, for that matter) not be acceptable options within a languages strand biased in favour of modern European languages in general, rather than French in particular? But what we Anglophones must do above all is shake off our strange inferiority-superiority complex and plunge into the global Babel with gusto.

Comments