It is undoubtedly a good thing that Latin and Ancient Greek are included in the list of subjects eligible for EBacc performance measure. No matter that students must now do a Modern Foreign Language (MFL) subject for GCSE – they can choose Latin!
Why Latin? A student might think: “well there’s no point learning Spanish and Chinese because they all speak English and I have no plans to go to Germany. Besides, I don’t need to speak Latin – Latin doesn’t need to be spoken! #winning #YOLO”
The fact that Latin and Ancient Greek is placed amongst the Modern Foreign Language block is not unsurprising as such. As a student I remember filling out NUS online survey to get my NUS Extra card – the tag line was “Demand extra!” and I was always tempted to demand they put Classics onto a list of subjects that student-members might study. The list have never included Classics and I was always torn between languages and history. Looking at university departments (and even school faculties) I have also observed that Classics is mostly tagged alongside ancient history, sometimes with humanities and sometimes with languages.
Of course, ancient languages as GCSE subjects are different in nature to university courses in Classics. Though the point is debatable, I would still argue that ancient languages at GCSE level focuses on obtaining the foundations of the ancient languages. That is to say that students are learning the language but not quite applying it a great deal to any original product by the speakers and writers of those language and using it as a medium for analysis.
Should it be part of the MFL group? The teaching and learning of ancient languages are fundamentally different. The Chinese (and perhaps we do too) like to consider learning a new language through five sub-categories of reading, writing, listening, speaking and translating. For learners of modern language it is quite clear that the first four skills will have to be practised, with the fifth being an inevitable by-product (though in reality this will depending on the didactic methods). For the ancient languages the emphasis is on translation – though if Lingua Latina per se illustrata is used, then perhaps it appeals more to the reading aspect. Even the Cambridge Latin Course, with a more inductive approach in its heart and a healthy amount of comprehension questions, will require translation skills to be practised.
No language courses will be complete without an understanding of the culture and here, too, the content varies. Yet in reality, the amount of exposure students have towards culture varies so much from teacher to teacher, school to school that it may be difficult to compare. I will also confess that I do not have enough data to make it comprehensive.
In any case, the ancient languages are now, for Department of Education’s intents and purposes, part of this larger MFL family and category. Is it the right decision? To me, it is certainly the most pragmatic way of fitting it into the category. The danger is that the benefit of including the ancient languages within this category is diminished because schools and senior leaders who might be tempted to introduce the subjects into their curriculum, lured as they may be by their EBacc status, are not immediately aware that the two ancient languages are included. It’s not obvious that two allegedly dead languages are “Modern Foriegn Language”, after all.
So why doesn’t the Department of Education just call it “Languages”? Or perhaps “Ancient and Modern Foreign Languages (AMFL)”? You could just about pronounce the last suggestions through its initialism.