While many learners in Year 9 are having their last taste of French, others are dropping Latin, with enormous regret and often under pressure from parents who prefer modern languages. But why does Latin produce an intense loyalty? It may be a dead language, but it still has the power to excite.
If pupils are following the Cambridge Latin Course, they get a cracking story about Caecilius, his family, the impact of disasters such as the eruption of Vesuvius, death, treachery and violence, as well as tales of everyday life in the Roman Empire. There is also humour; I love the section in Book I when slaves working for the family in Britannia complain about the local weather. Nothing could be more topical. It may not be The Hunger Games, but it is compelling enough for learners to return to pursue the associated grammar and vocabulary.
Contrast this with French and a typical, if somewhat dated, French textbook, Encore Tricolore 3, which is still widely used in schools. At first sight it looks rich and engaging, and the topics cover a raft of everyday subjects. It is full of useful functions, important grammar and the exercises are varied. Each section ends with information on French history and culture.
So what's wrong? Well, if I was in Year 9, I would think it recycled. How many times can you relearn about friends, hobbies and family? Nothing really happens. There is no plot.
I asked a colleague how many people appear in the book: she suggested 25. In fact, there are about 200. How are young learners supposed to get involved when there is no continuity and no characters to engage with for longer than a paragraph?
In case you think I am being unfair to French and Encore Tricolore 3, look at other standard key stage 3 textbooks. Most follow the same formula. Recently, I came across an excellent series of French fiction for young learners at A1 and A2 level (published by Didier and available from Amazon). There was more French to be learned in the page-turning Quinze jours pour reussir than in all the hollow pages of Encore Tricolore 3.
If we want to engage our KS3 learners and encourage them to stay with French (or any other language), we have to provide them with material that will keep them coming back. Latin has succeeded, but will modern languages ever learn the lesson?
Robert Vanderplank is the director of Oxford University Language Centre
Introduce students to Latin literature with laurahoneybee's PowerPoint.
For three presentations to get your Year 9s started, check out adotstarr_97's resources.
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