Forget Mandarin. Latin is the key to success | The Spectator
On the face of it, encouraging children to learn Latin doesn’t seem like the solution to our current skills crisis. Why waste valuable curriculum time on a dead language when children could be learning one that’s actually spoken? The prominence of Latin in public schools is a manifestation of the gentleman amateur tradition whereby esoteric subjects are preferred to anything that’s of any practical use. Surely, that’s one of the causes of the crisis in the first place?
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find plenty of evidence that this particular dead language is precisely what today’s young people need if they’re going to excel in the contemporary world.
Let’s start with Latin’s reputation as an elitist subject. While it’s true that 70 percent of independent schools offer Latin compared with only 16 per cent of state schools, that’s hardly a reason not to teach it more widely. According to the OECD, our private schools are the best in the world, whereas our state schools are ranked on average 23rd.
No doubt part of this attainment gap is attributable to the fact that the average private school child has advantages that the average state school child does not. But it may also be due to the differences in the curriculums that are typically taught in state and private schools.
Hard as it may be to believe, one of the things that gives privately-educated children the edge is their knowledge of Latin. I don’t just mean in the obvious senses – their grasp of basic grammar and syntax, their understanding of the ways in which our world is underpinned by the classical world, their ability to read Latin inscriptions. I mean there is actually a substantial body of evidence that children who study Latin outperform their peers when it comes to reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as higher order thinking such as computation, concepts and problem solving.
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.”