What have the Romans (and the Greeks) ever done for me?
So... it is now time to reflect. Last year I studied for a Latin GCSE, this year I studied Classical Greek. Now I have to decide if I want to carry on with my studies and, if so, in which direction. Essentially, do I want to do A-Level Latin or Greek? But what, as an adult who already teaches English literature, have I learnt? Have I wasted my time (surely no educational process is a waste of time!) or is there some measurable improvement I have made to my English teaching. Perhaps more importantly, has my experience improved me?
I’ve decided to tackle the reflection process in sub-headings. I hope that’s OK with you?
There are all kinds of stats regarding the Latin roots of the English language. The best one I've heard is that 70% of all English words can be traced back to Latin (mostly via French). Compare this to the fact that most people’s active vocabulary is 70% Anglo-Saxon and there is a clear benefit to our English vocabulary when studying Latin and Greek. Usefully, learning the ancient language contextualises the word, which adds a greater depth to understanding the vocabulary, a depth that is more useful than simply learning a word. For example, once you understand the Latin root of the ‘port’ part of import, export, transport, teleport, and portfolio, they all make lots more sense and you find yourself breaking down all kinds of words into their etymological roots. Do not underestimate how much pupils love to be told these ‘coded’ meanings and then, once you haven’t underestimated, don’t underestimate further how great they feel when they work out an etymological root for themselves. So, studying Latin and Greek have clearly helped my vocabulary and, by association, the English vocabulary of the pupils taught English by me.
Grammar is a slippery thing to teach, especially if you were not taught it at school. Teachers [and non-teachers] can often see errors without having the grammatical knowledge to explain what the error is. Latin and Greek grammar (at GCSE level at least) is set in stone. These subjects allow grammatical points to be taught without the influence of context or colloquialisms clouding judgement. Once a learner feels comfortable with Latin/Greek grammar, this knowledge can then be more easily transposed onto English. It is not a simple ‘like for like’, but personally, I now feel much more able to discuss grammar in English since studying Latin/Greek - for example, when discussing active and passive verb tenses or the use of relative clauses.
Poetry and Drama
There are some amazing works of art that are not part of the what we teach in English - Catullus, Ovid, Horace, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sappho and so many more will never be included in the English National Curriculum. These are great writers that need to be read alongside Shakespeare and we do a disservice teaching English to pupils yet never discussing these writers and highlighting their works of art. Plus, I learnt what a chiasmus was from studying Latin poetry, not English verse! Juxtaposition and oxymoron used to be my favourite words (probably because they have an ‘x’ in their terminology), but chiasmus is an X! And I abso-bloomim’-lutely love tmesis! I could bore you with examples of the poetry and the drama and their value - but it’s a discussion that could go on for quite some time. I’m willing to chat about this further if you'd like to get in touch!
This is a subject that English teachers really should love as much as their own. History shapes writing and Classical history is referenced in a plethora of English literature texts. If we, as English teachers, do not know our history then we are at a disadvantage when trying to get under the skin of a text and thus, so are our pupils. Shakespeare loved a Classical historical reference - so we teach Shakespeare better if we know to what he refers. For example, he makes a reference in Macbeth to Tarquinius Superbus. But why? Know the history, know the reference, know the text.
Greek mythology is so prevalent in the English canon that to not know these heroes and villains makes understanding the nuances of a text impossible. There is a reference to Phaeton in Romeo and Juliet which is burning for analysis - but only if you know the myth. Similarly in Hamlet, the death of Priam at the hands of Pyrrhus is a key allusion that can reveal so much to the pupils about characters and their motivations - but if you don’t know its significance, you can't pass on that knowledge.
Here I am not talking about empathy with the Classical world, but with our students - today. By challenging myself to study one of these subjects, I remembered what it felt like to learn again and the kind of pressure an exam places on one's shoulders. I feel that I now understand my pupils better - and thus I teach them better. In fact, I have been able to give them revision advice based on my own practice and as they know I have sat these exams, there is an additional layer of trust. Sitting an exam at this stage of my life (nearly 40) was an empowering and humbling experience.
I know that there are lots of things on this list can be be learnt in other ways e.g. studying a MFL or reading the footnotes better in a text, but for me, no other single subject comes close to ticking all of these boxes, all of the time.
In short - studying Latin and Greek is the best CPD I have ever done. I heartily recommend it and I hope to continue this journey.
Thank you Classics