Languages of common-sense

June 30, 1995

Nick Tate (THES, May 19) and Richard Gaskin (THES letters, June 16) call for more Latin in schools.

Richard Gaskin offers the best reason for learning Latin, which is to produce scholars capable of reading the textual sources of European culture.

If we are to teach Latin in schools in order to provide a linguistic foundation for the classics in university, as Nick Tate suggests, should we not also teach Chinese and Arabic (living languages!) in schools to provide linguistic foundations for Far Eastern studies and Islamic studies?

The problem is that traditional Latin teaching takes up a great deal of classroom time. When I was at school, a great deal of my time was wasted in learning how to translate English into Latin, and Latin into English. I have never needed either skill.

All that I have ever needed (and all that the majority of scholars need) was the skill to read and understand Latin texts without mental translation.

Learning to read and comprehend a language is the easiest skill for a literate person to acquire and could be taught in the last year or two of high school, especially if the students have been taught Spanish at an earlier stage.

Chinese is the language with the greatest number of speakers, and Spanish is the most widely used language after English. Spain is the most popular holiday destination for the British. Why are these two languages so neglected in British schools?

Following this simple plan would provide the basic competence that Richard Gaskin calls for, and yet not take up too much of the students' time.

Robin Harwood

University of Reading

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