Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lucia Mandarin and Latin

Remember John Key proclaiming that more NZ pupils are learning Mandarin than Latin? Well, this whole push for Mandarin seems to be occurring in Britain as well, causing a push-back from those of us who believe that Latin is far more important. The latest article to highlight why learning Latin is essential for English language speakers digs up a study that shows how children's English skills increase after a year of learning Latin.

For chapter and verse on this, I recommend a 1979 paper by an educationalist called Nancy Mavrogenes that appeared in the academic journal Phi Delta Kappan. Summarising one influential American study carried out in the state of Iowa, she writes:

“In 1971, more than 4,000 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade pupils of all backgrounds and abilities received 15 to 20 minutes of daily Latin instruction. The performance of the fifth-grade Latin pupils on the vocabulary test of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was one full year higher than the performance of control pupils who had not studied Latin. Both the Latin group and the control group had been matched for similar backgrounds and abilities.”

This is not surprising. Fifty percent of English words are of Latin origin. If you know what the Latin root word means, you are more likely to figure out what various English words derived from that root word are as well.

Interestingly, Mavrogenes found that children from poor backgrounds particularly benefit from studying Latin. For a child with limited cultural reference points, becoming acquainted with Roman life and mythology opens up “new symbolic worlds”, enabling him or her “to grow as a personality, to live a richer life”. In addition, spoken Latin emphasises clear pronunciation, particularly of the endings of words, a useful corrective for many children born in inner cities. Finally, for children who have reading problems, Latin provides “experience in careful silent reading of the words that follow a consistent phonetic pattern”.

Latin should be a primary language in NZ, so that we know our own culture and language first, before we try to understand other cultures and languages, such as China and Mandarin.  That's what John Key doesn't understand.
Unlike other languages, Latin isn’t just about conjugating verbs. It includes a crash course in ancient history and cosmology. “Latin is the maths of the Humanities,” says Llewelyn Morgan, “But Latin also has something that mathematics does not and that is the history and mythology of the ancient world. Latin is maths with goddesses, gladiators and flying horses, or flying children.”
Yet, Latin is considered dreary and old and boring.  We need a revival!
No doubt some people will persist in questioning the usefulness of Latin. For these skeptics I have a two-word answer: Mark Zuckerberg. The 26-year-old founder of Facebook studied Classics at Phillips Exeter Academy and listed Latin as one of the languages he spoke on his Harvard application. So keen is he on the subject, he once quoted lines from the Aeneid during a Facebook product conference and now regards Latin as one of the keys to his success. Just how successful is he? According to Forbes magazine, he’s worth $6.9 billion. If that isn’t a useful skill, I don’t know what is.
Beats Scott Adams, Dilbert creator, who thinks entrepreneurship should be taught in universities.

Related link: Forget Mandarin. Latin is the key to success ~ The Spectator Blog

1 comment(s):

Andrei said...

Three generations ago what marked a man as being educated was that he was conversant in both Latin and Greek.

Two generations ago there was a language requirement (usually a paper in Latin or modern European Language, or less commonly Greek) for an undergraduate degree regardless of the major to be awarded.

When I went to secondary school, Latin was common and Greek was offered, I was one of three who took Greek in the fifth form. We were the last class to do it, I'm not sure if Greek is offered for NCEA or not. Perhaps these subjects have been bundled into "Classics" who knows.

The point is these are our cultural treasures and to minimize this aspect of our heritage is probably deliberate, to replace them with other things.

Anyway in our age you can earn a PHD in snowboarding which is very cultural I'm sure

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