Friday, July 30, 2010

Why Study Ancient Greek?

Whenever a budget cut rumor starts flying, people in the humanities division walk around with their hearts thumping nervously.

No need to get into details or the politics of it all, as that's not exactly the point, but if your world involves -- even indirectly -- this kind of thing, you know what I'm talking about.

Have the studies of ancient languages become irrelevant?

Just a few moments ago, a link to the Telegraph story on ancient Greek being taught in state primary schools in England was being circulated on Twitter (Thanks, RayBeckerman!). And I can't tell you how much joy that little piece of good news has brought to my weary, cynical heart. In fact, if I wasn't busy licking a melting ice cream cone to keep it from dripping on the computer keyboard, I -- no kidding -- might have even been moved to tears.

Why ancient Greek?

Well, it doesn't have to be Greek. It could be Latin. It could even be ancient Chinese. But starting off with the basics of the Classical languages is especially beneficial to those who seek to master the English language, the lingua franca of our time. And as we know, fluency in English is not the same as mastery of the English grammar.

I've said this over and over and over to people who are learning a foreign language for the first time. Your first foreign language, be it ancient or contemporary, is going to be the most difficult. This is because when you learn a new language for the first time, you're learning two things simultaneously: the language itself (vocabulary, orthography, pronunciation, etc.) and the method of learning languages (conjugation, parts of speech, verbs, verbal patterns, declensions, etc.).

The good news is that while the former will always be new or somewhat new to you every time you study a new language, the latter remains largely the same. Once you've acquired that knowledge, it will stay with you and see you through for the rest of your life. It helps build a solid foundation which supports all future linguistic endeavors. It works across the different language families.

A separate, more detailed blog post may be needed for me to explain more fully why I support the inclusion of classical studies in primary education. For now let me rejoice on behalf of those in England and express my condolences to those who aren't that unfortunate.