In Praise of Learning Languages

Increasingly languages are pushed to the back of the curriculum in favour of maths and the sciences. My daughter was recently invited to drop French so she could work extra hard on her maths. The thing is, she likes languages; specifically she’s quite good at grammar.


Nevile Gwynne, educationalist and author of Gwynne’s Latin, makes some interesting points on the usefulness of studying Latin grammar: it is, he says, a practical subject that trains the mind and encourages rigour of thought. In his controversial article, “Modernising is the Last Thing Our Schools Need” (Daily Telegraph, January 16 2016), he describes a trial:


“Back in the 1980s, an experiment was conducted in various parts of America with a view to trying to improve the education of the most deprived children. It was done most methodically in Indianapolis. There, 400 11-year-olds were divided into two groups. Two hundred were taught the usual subjects – English, mathematics, history, geography and so on. The other 200 spent less time on those ordinary subjects and did daily Latin instead. Astonishingly, to anyone unaware of what learning Latin routinely does to the learner, those who did the Latin ended up much better in all the other subjects, including maths and science, than the first group. Not merely a little better; much better, and this despite their having had significantly less time to spend on those other subjects.”


Other theorists agree with Gwynne on the role of good old-fashioned grammar in the classroom. Ed Clarke in his Spectator article “Children Love to Learn Grammar” (12 March 2016), says:


“Most of my students are enthralled by Latin’s intricacy, its peculiarities and the puzzle-solving of translation.”


Learning languages – and this includes French, Spanish et al – is not just a question of good manners – though goodness knows, in today’s computerised world where we connect with other countries every day, that is a welcome by-product. When taught grammatically and methodically, language learning also helps develop disciplined thinking which, in the end, benefits all academic subjects.