The value of language teaching

For the preservation of the ancient languages

by Thibault Mercuzot, Delphine le Corfec and Patrick Beugnet – France

The desire to weaken the classical languages is not new. It links those who believe in it to recognise the relic of an elitist system with those who preach practice-oriented teaching. To look good, they all present themselves as modern and heirs to the Enlightenment. The rejection of Latin and Greek is a confession: in the school system, classical languages are the only languages taught without hope that students will ever speak them. They in no way allow you to orientate yourself in an unknown city. They remain the relic of a time when learning a language was based on the literature which had been created by it. You learned Greek to read Plato and Latin to read Cicero, German to read Goethe, Italian to read Dante, Spanish to read Cervantès or English to read Shakespeare. Nowadays the demands are different. It is a noble undertaking to give young people access to other cultures by enabling them to learn modern languages. However, it is a betrayal to limit language teaching, including of one’s own, to the desire to communicate better. The curricula no longer mention authors: Racine, Molière and Victor Hugo are a thing of the past.

To teach our own language only to offer “access to the labour market” is an absurd idea. The obstinacy with which one undermines the learning of spelling and grammar certainly does not facilitate the young people’s entrance into working life; it causes suffering and exclusion. The young person’s development and personal way remains completely hidden to the persons responsible for human resources when they receive his letter of application mutilated due to a lack of language skills ...

The National Ministry of Education wants to format students so that they are prepared to “work in the world”, as announced in the French curriculum. Everything must be immediately applicable. Instead of teaching logic, they prefer to teach a programming language that will soon become obsolete and “deader” than Latin. Instead of imparting solid foundations that allow connections to be established between the knowledge learned, one prefers to build on soft interdisciplinarity that raises “necessary questions for the education of the citizen”. The esteemed Voltaire did not take lessons in religion, but he sweated over Latin translations from which he drew his irony. Good education must not only distribute tools, but the student must learn to forge them. This is a long and tedious task: it forces the student to recognise his ignorance and the teacher to teach his subject carefully. But let us admit it: It is less tedious for everyone involved to wait passively until the “learners” become “knowledgeable persons” and deign to ask their questions.

In this context, the classical languages are an ideal training. They teach the constant accuracy and precision of the terms that make it possible to think correctly. The mathematician Laurent Lafforgue, winner of the Fields Medal in 2002, never fails to emphasise how much he owes to simultaneous training in grammar and Latin. For high school students, Latin will soon be the only remaining way to discover the grammar rules from which one wants to spare them nowadays in order to make the French course more interactive. Thus, Latin and Greek can remedy the students’ shortcomings in their own language.

We are by no means interested in reducing the classical languages to the love of rules. Nor is it a question of demanding, following the example of Claudel’s grammarians, “that the new should exactly resemble the old”. We believe that literature is an important vehicle of change. The richness of interpretations of the great works will never be exhausted. Being much more complex than “good feelings” or “useful books”, literature opens up the possibility of getting to know a world that is not lopsided. Literary texts help to conceive the world in an ingenious and differentiated way. The active reading of the “classics” gives the one who takes the trouble to decipher them the courage to recognise new things and to help traditions come back to life. It also enables us to grasp the radical novelty of certain contemporary works. Unfortunately, “reading” has become an intransitive verb. It is no longer a matter of working on literary works, but of reading a lot, as if understanding depended on the mass of binge-red information.

Now, however, danger threatens: despite their millennial freshness, the texts of antiquity are very fragile things in the hands of those who no longer read them. Herodotus tells the story of a group of soldiers who – worried by an oracle – decided to kill an adjoining king’s offspring. They went to the mother, originating in their town; she handed the baby to them because she thought they were coming to admire him. The men had agreed that the first to hold the child in his hands should smash it to the ground. But then something unexpected happened: the child smiled. It was handed from hand to hand until the last barbarian, touched as much as the others by this human trait, gave it back to the mother.

We would like a similar reaction for our language lessons. 

Source: © “Le Figaro” from 4 May 2015

(Translation Current Concerns)