A dead language

For the first time in ages, I’m not teaching Year 7 (‘first year’) Latin this year. Not deliberately – through the vagaries of the timetable.
I love teaching students when they first meet Latin; they are normally scared of it just before they start it, and find it surprisingly enjoyable (a parent at a conference a couple of years ago said to me “I can’t understand it – he actually seems to ENJOY it…”)

This reaction from parents normally stems from either their own negative experiences at school as children or a prejudice against it as elitist because they went to a school which didn’t offer it, and the children from the school down the road that did offer it all seemed a bit uppity. It’s almost always entirely justified, and it’s nice that when their children do seem to enjoy it, they quickly become some of its best advocates.

Right at the start, however, children often come into Latin with prejudices which have rubbed off from the odd remark here and there from friends and parents, and I always enjoy challenging these prejudices. The best way of doing this is by letting the subject, its stories, people and language do the talking. It really is genuinely a fascinating subject, let’s be honest.

A few years ago, however, when I asked children in one of their first lessons to write down 10 things they know about Latin, one precocious, not to say overconfident boy put his hand up when I gave them the opportunity to read out their favourite things about the subject, and said “It’s a dead language, sir, and all the people who spoke it are dead.”

In my memory, he had a smug smirk on his face, but memories are strange things. Anyway, I smiled, as the class started to giggle and shift restlessly in their seats, and I tried to think of what to say. My first instinct was to say something about how it’s not really dead – we’re speaking bits of it all the time, and it’s really useful, and it trains your mind, and… sound rather desperate…!

Suddenly it came to me, and I said, to the class and the particular child’s surprise, “Yes, you’re right, they are all dead.” Again, my memory is not necessarily reliable, but it recalls the boy being somewhat wrongfooted. I continued, “But isn’t that a great opportunity? How boring to spend your time just learning about people who are alive. Living people speak languages like English, French and Spanish, and that’s great. But wouldn’t it be brilliant to be able to talk to dead people? I mean, not just people who have recently died, but people who lived in a completely different world? It’s like talking to aliens. And if you concentrate well in your Latin lessons, that is just what you can do. You can talk to dead people.”

My memory is clearly overdoing it now, because I’m sure I wasn’t quite as coherent as that, and in fact, I seem to recall the class breaking into a spontaneous round of applause, and I think it is very unlikely that that really happened. Nevertheless, I have come back to that idea several times, not just in explaining the value of the subject to others, but in reinvigorating my own love for it when work gets on top of me!

I love talking to dead people. And to Year 7s.

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3 thoughts on “A dead language

  1. Your love for Latin shines through. Every time I hear ‘Dead Language’ I am reminded of Peter Jones’ observation on Latin and Greek – ‘They are not dead languages. Merely immortal. They just aren’t spoken anymore. They are no more dead languages as Shakespeare or Chaucer is dead literature’.

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  2. Excellent blog post! Excellent! Classics is not impractical and talking to dead people is quite a practical and interesting feature of Classics. It trains you to empathise with different cultures (one different in time) which indeed informs greatly our own culture.
    But then, these dead people also seem to highlights some facts of life on this Earth that those after cannot seem to put it as eloquently. So isn’t it great to talk to the dead about it? Like a journey to the underworld…

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