Life begins again with a dead language

8th August 1997 at 01:00
At the age of 60, I have embarked on the study of Latin, no doubt a foolhardy venture and one destined to failure. The decision was not made on the spur of the moment. Rather it came from a long sense of deprivation, indeed almost from a feeling of inferiority.

Somehow I had missed out by not studying the learned, if dead language. What prompted me to take action was the publication, in book form, of a series of newspaper lessons devised by Peter Jones of Newcastle University.

Another reason was the fact that both my wife and daughter have a smattering of Latin and regularly indulge in one-up-womanship in reminding me of my ignorance. Some vague noises of encouragement were made when I announced my decision, but I suspect they held to W C Field's dictum: "If at first you don't succeed. Quit."

In the case of my wife this is somewhat rich since I taught her how to make instant coffee, a basic level of culinary art which she has long since abandoned.

Jones makes no secret of the fact that learning Latin is hard work. This was confirmed by two friends who had studied the language to a fairly advanced level at school. The disclosure of my decision was greeted with a long series of quotations, declensions and dog Latin rhymes written on the lunch-table napkins and declaimed with ever noisier enthusiasm and quaffings. It only added to my sense of inadequacy, and the showing off clearly disturbed the group of ladies at the next table.

One of my companions, who was no doubt very bright at school but made insufferable by an Oxford education, cannot resist the perpetual need to demonstrate his linguistic skills. I refrained from reminding him of the occasion when he was caught out in claiming to speak Romanian. His interlocutor happened to be a professor from Bucharest.

Jones in his little book makes out a very good case that Julius Caesar pronounced the "v" as a "w". Hence "Waynee, weedee, weekee", who as Jones points out, sound like three characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was disputed dogmatically but without evidence by my companions who suggested that Caesar would have sounded like Signor Andreotti.

My previous attempts to learn languages have not been total failures. Rather, I resist success but I have tended none the less to ignore the advice of W C Fields. In the Provencal village which I frequently visit I can hold a conversation with the locals, despite the mockery of my Oxfordian friend who pounces on wrong genders.

It is now almost 50 years since I started school French. I was reminded of this the other day when rereading the 1947 report of the Advisory Council on Education in Scotland. Two members of the council were distinguished classical scholars, William Hamilton Fyfe, principal of Aberdeen University, and Sir James Robertson, rector of Aberdeen Grammar School. A model of clear, concise English, the report is quite specific on the teaching of languages.

By the end of the Second World War the classics no longer held sway. Members of the council were against the widespread teaching of Latin but saw its value for those pupils who had the ability to profit from it. Selection was the order of the day. Only those youngsters with an IQ of 108 and above would profit from the study of Latin. Even then it should be limited to about a third in that category.

Greek was less popular but the authors of the report felt that it had considerable advantage over Latin, especially in the "availability of reading material of moderate difficulty and superlative quality".

Modern language teaching immediately after the war was dominated by a large number of pupils studying French, a very limited number German and a smaller contingent Spanish. Other languages went virtually untaught. The council felt that every secondary school in a Gaelic-speaking area should have a qualified teacher of the tongue, which should not be compulsory but should have parity with other modern languages.

The report recognises that pupils starting secondary already able to speak Gaelic would profit from further study but those with no previous knowledge would find it a most difficult language to acquire. The authors pull no punches: Gaelic is harder than most other languages and has a low utility value.

Just as the Cold War was getting under way, the 1947 report boldly states: "We recommend that every encouragement be given to the study of Russian at this stage. What was impossible with ordinary pupils of 12 or 13 because of the difficulty of the language becomes very easy with selected boys and girls of 16 or more."

Fifty years later little has changed. Apart from a brief spell in the 1960s, Russian has failed to take off in most Scottish schools. For its part Gaelic has had a resurgence and is extremely popular at beginner level.

However, the number of students pursuing Gaelic at a higher level is extremely low. The 1947 report stated categorically that for beginners "to reach even the Lower Standard in the Senior Leaving Certificate would mean five years of very hard work, except for the most gifted".

As a lowland Scot, Gaelic holds no appeal to me but I welcome the fact that there are more opportunities to study it at all ages. But for me Russian and Gaelic have to give place among hard languages to Latin. Like many a classics pupil of the past, however, my books offer not only a translation but a personal application of the tag "festina lente".

Henry Cowper is a former senior counsellor at the Open University in Scotland.

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