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Is Learning Latin Pointless?

I have to admit – and this is something of a mea culpa – that I did learn Latin in school.
Strategies for Developing an Achievement Culture in Your Year GroupI remember the teacher in question getting very irate over the waggish schoolboys who dared to question whether there was any point learning a dead language.

When you’re young of course it just seems a bit of a laugh, but now with the benefit of age and experience you see that time at school as an incredibly precious opportunity. Was it wasted by learning Latin?

Apart from Boris Johnson (and perhaps that says it all) there are very few advocates of learning the subject. The agenda seems to have shifted much more around to the economic benefits of learning.

Advocates will say that learning Latin is a mental workout that grows your brain – but then surely that is true of Maths or Science or for that matter any subject.

They may also say that Latin is at the root of so many European languages that it is essential – but in which case why not just learn French? You would have the same benefit, and a language you can speak.

They may say that Latin opens you up to the world’s greatest literature. That may be true, but even at degree level you’ve probably got the average linguistic ability an 8 year old Roman would have. You’re not going to be appreciating literature in Latin any more than in translation – probably until you reach undergraduate level.

Which then brings us to the final point. What if you enjoy it? Shouldn’t we be allowed to learn things just because we enjoy them? Or must everything contribute to the deficit reduction targets. And what about the people who take the more vocationally orientated academic subjects, and then move on to become travel agents, or taxi drivers, or lawyers. Truth be told there are very few people studying science today who will actually become scientists – so why not study what you love?

That’s of course a controversial viewpoint, and from a personal perspective, even though I did enjoy it at the time I wish I’d taken a different course now.

It’s at that tricky intersection of learning to live and living to learn. What do you think? Time for a referendum?

2 responses to “Is Learning Latin Pointless?”

  1. Avatar Mike Yule says:

    I agree there are lots of reasons to learn Latin, not least because it can be deeply enjoyable as a pursuit in itself. And that should be sufficient…let alone the connections taht can be made to our history, understanding where some of our roots lie.
    Less convincing is the (often tacit) argument by some that it reveals about the learner that s/he is “properly educated”. It serves as a kind of pernicious shorthand: Learnt Latin = proper, didn’t learn Latin = not properly educated. That is an unfortunate construction I think and we should discard it fast!

  2. I did Latin O level, one of 3 people in my year where we had an 11 form intake. It was a pet subject of the head and no coincidence, perhaps, that the three of us were all offspring of clergymen.
    I found it hard and no contextual reference or relevance to my life, however, there were, and still are benefits to me.
    * My grammar was improved which helped my French and English language grades and understanding.
    * My vocabulary is greatly improved and my ability to discern the meaning in unfamiliar words is improved as I can de-code many of them more easily, especially scientific terms.
    * I can answer questions on Egg Heads I might not otherwise have been able to!

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Tom Hesmondhalgh

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