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How about teaching Latin in primary schools?

Yes - you read correctly. This is the ludicrous proposition being supported by Ian Hislop, Colin Dexter and others.  It never ceases to amaze me how people who have a passing acquaintance with state education pontificate about it.

Oh, and by the way, if you don't agree with me, here's my reasoning:

1.  It would take time away from more useful subjects such as modern languages;
2.  You can learn grammar from modern languages just as well. French has inflections, conjugates verbs, adjective agreements etc. If you want to have fun learning grammar and translating, French does the job fine and it is contemporary;
3.  Only the brightest pupils would really like it or cope with it.

I am not persuaded by the old argument that learning Latin helps you learn French. Why not just learn French?

Here's the Sunday Express piece:

"OXFORD dons, teachers and a host of celebrity writers are calling for Latin to be taught in primary schools again.
Education ministers have confirmed they will drop Labour’s controversial primary curriculum which included ending the teaching of history, English and geography as separate subjects.
Now the campaign Allow Latin for Language Learners, backed by Private Eye editor and Have I Got News For You panellist Ian Hislop, wants Latin to be a choice alongside Spanish, French and German at primary level.
Inspector Morse author Colin Dexter, a driving force behind the campaign, said: “We are asking for the easiest possible thing in the world, simply that as part of the primary curriculum, Schools Minister Mr Gove take out the word ‘modern’ in the rules stating that schools must teach a foreign language. Everyone, including him, will appreciate that to learn Latin brings with it far better syntax and grammar than any of the modern languages. Anyone who had the good fortune to be taught Latin should say: ‘Look here, it helped me enormously when I wanted to take on other modern languages.’ ”
Dr Sheila Lawlor, director of Politeia, The Forum for Social and Economic Thinking, said: “In the US, they did a study where whole states taught Latin to children of totally mixed backgrounds.
“It improved all their scores across the board, their use of voc­abulary, communication in English, and they were even better at maths after 36 months of Latin tuition.
“The improvements are irrespective of social class and cultural backgrounds.”
Latin classes, run by the Iris Project, are being tried out in a selection of primary schools in Hackney, east London, and proving very popular. Schools Minister Nick Gibb said there was no veto on teaching Latin in primary schools: “Latin is an important subject and is valuable for supporting pupils’ learning of modern languages. It can provide a very useful basis for study across a range of disciplines." 

By the way, I did learn Latin at school.


  1. I agree entirely with you that learning Latin does not necessarily help you learn French, or any other language, for that matter. I think that learning Latin did give me a very clear idea of grammatical structure and terminology but that you are quite right in saying that this could be gained in a more useful - and relevant - way by learning French. To me, what would be of far more use for MFL - and does not seem to be happening rigorously enough - would be for primary pupils to be taught to recognise the grammatical functions of words in their own language to the degree that this skill is transferable to learning an MFL. A few may know that a verb is a 'doing word' but not enough can identify a verb in English, let alone make the cross over into French... I can see the benefit in learning about grammar patterns via Latin, but agree that only the brightest would be able to access and enjoy this, and the same can certainly be achieved via French, or indeed, English. Esther

  2. Salut, Esther! I thought that the National Curriculum literacy housr were meant, among other things, to teach kids about parts of speech. In my experience Y7 pupils come along knowing very little about grammatical terms.

    However, I'm not sure I agree that such knowledge is very important. It is part of our general cultural knowledge, it helps you describe language, but I don't see how it helps hugely with second language learning. I mention grammatical terms quite often, as and when they are needed, but my gut feeling has always been that learning about grammar per se is a bit dull for children and does little to help them write.

    To suggest an imperfect analogy, I could explain the theory of good cricket strokes to a child, but they would only become a good batsman by practising. Was that a really awful analogy?!

  3. Salut Steve!
    Yes, I see your point, and no, not an awful analogy! I think that as it is my first year teaching (successfully passed, by the way! :)) I still draw very much on my own experiences as a language learner, which were hugely facilitated by a working knowledge of grammar. I still find it difficult to get my head around somebody NOT finding this interesting but you're right in saying that kids find it dull and I probably need to extend my repertoire of creative strategies for creating proficient language learners without relying too much on a 'traditional' grammar-based approach.

    Any ideas?!

    PS I also think that good dictionary skills are pivotal and find these lacking as well - do you??

  4. I think we have to understand what it means to "teach grammar". I was educated during my PGCE in London to believe in the idea that grammatical rules are internalised by careful selection and grading of language, regular practice, supported by some explanation when needed.

    The writer on second language learning Stephen Krashen believed that the only thing which produces comprehension and fluency is "comprehensible input". He thought that explicit teaching of rules only allows learners to "monitor" and "edit" what they are saying, but does not contribute at all to grammatical competence (i.e. internalised grammatical knowledge). This is an extreme view, but I know what he means. So, comprehensible input means releasing language with visual aids, gesture, cognates, explanation in the traget language and so on. Graded question-answer practice should help.

    Practice like this only works if kids are engaged and that's the challenge!

    And on that bombshell...!

  5. Oh, and on dictionary skills: for dictionary these days read online dictionary or translator. Sure, some training is useful with dictionaries, so there may be a case for dedicated exrcises.

  6. ah yes, the joys of Google Translate! ;)

    Wordreference is a great one though, love that site!


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