In a recent interview for a permanent version of my own job, I was asked how I would publicise Latin in three neat benefits to students or parents. The benefits of learning Latin is manifold and, if one stands out for me (or an interested students), then that will benefit; for this reason I always find it bizarre to have to shape such answers into a tricolon (an ascending one in an interview will be beyond me).
It is the training of logic that lit up the headmaster’s office, lifted above the intercultural learning and linguistic ability. I reasoned that the teaching of Latin is often similar to Maths – the teacher goes through and example of the rule in question by talking through it, asking for a student to talk through it, and the students are set them off to practise that language point until they master it (if you are a practitioner of the “mastery” philosophy of education). In a truly inductive method, the initial element of considering the Latin at hand gives potential for the student to attempt decoding the language. And we know that the Maths paper will test more than one mathematical point, and so a piece of Latin text will include more than one type of grammar.
The context of mathematics is that each topic should explain a bit more about the world and/or be applicable in certain situations; and so any text of Latin is a story and, from a linguistic point of view, any individual words or grammars are traditions themselves, echoing through the history of languages.
On the point of logic, the panel sitting opposite me was suitably impressed in that they have not considered Latin in this regard. And I stressed that, for each student, their reason of taking up Latin may be different. Indeed, for myself, I have always enjoyed cracking a code – the sense of satisfaction when you get it right is immense. Much of the Latin to be cracked is challenging. Furthermore, my Latin teacher in school studied Latin, Classical Civilisation and Maths for his A-Level exams. Nor did I always find the literature of Virgil and Ovid easy to get my head around as my head is buried in translation. In many cases, those who remember Latin lessons in school fondly seem to remember the structure of the language rather than the texts and culture to which the language allows accessed. However comfortable we might be with that, to underestimate the draw off logic and challenge in Latin is to underestimate a key draw for Latinists and linguists at large.
Indeed, when expanding in the benefits of Latin to other foreign languages that the school teach, I remark that the words and grammar are similar. When considering the relations of words between languages, it seems to be easier spot the patterns from Latin. It is the skill of translating texts that Latin learning focuses on, rather than the speaking, listening, reading or writing when learning modern foreign languages. I suggest that the focus on the written form allow for easier comparison across subject, though with little basis. I certainly did point out, however, that pupils are drawn to Latin because they do not have to complete an oral exam!
If the panel were to ask me how I would draw on the link between Latin and Maths to inform my teaching, I would have suggested that I should do more research on the topic. I would also consider other ways of applying mathematical activities in Latin lessons. In a cover lesson for maths I once had worksheets where students colour in different shapes in order to form a picture: the colour that one needs depends on whether the number was another form of the same fraction. Imagine doing that with tenses or cases! Any other suggestion is always welcomed.
In any event, there were no more questions. My job was soon secured for time eternal.