The Ministry of Education's suggestion to scrap Latin from NCEA seemed to have been based on the presumption that Latin is a dead language or that fewer students are taking it.
That presumption is wrong for three reasons.
It took my Latin teacher less than 30 seconds to convince me to take Latin: "you are doing your mental gym". In our modern society of multiculturalism, speaking just our own language doesn't give the brain the workout it needs.
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Latin is highly inflected with challenging grammar rules, meaning that almost every word is potentially modified based on tense, gender, number and mood. Therefore, the first reason is simple: we learn Latin because it is difficult and requires hard brainwork, hence
enabling us to stay mentally alert and healthy.
Psychologists at the University of Cleveland in Ohio found that those who are bilingual outperform monolinguals on tasks with deeper understandings. Bilinguals or multilinguals managed the information methodically which allows them to obtain better results. This is because a different language offers brains challenges and without a challenge, your brain becomes lazy.
There is an old Slovakian expression: "Every language learned is another life lived." Latin stands out, cultivating detailed analysis and attention and gives you the mental workout the way other languages may not.
Secondly, Latin has not died. Rather, it was reborn and reshaped into French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian – the five most spoken Romance languages. About 90 per cent of the vocabulary in these languages come from Latin and those languages are actually forms of Latin that have evolved over the centuries. Conveniently, the official Vatican City website uses Latin, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and English. It is almost a living testimony.
The study of Latin is considered one of the cornerstones of the humanities and a fundamental element of a rounded education. Latin grants students a deeper understanding of great literature and art. Great works of art and monuments in the Western societies are ipso facto, frequently graced with Latin.
Famous literature such as The Aeneid by Vergil (regarded as the most important literary works of all time) and Metamorphoses by Ovid (who holds a firm place as one of the most respected poets) are still relevant in today's society. Needless to say, the Metamorphoses is remembered for its influence on Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and many other great names.
Today, Latin is still used in many technical fields, medical terminology, law and the classification of species.
Finally, I don't have the numbers of how many students are, or not, taking Latin in New Zealand. I don't need that number because the logic is simple: should the MoE drop Latin, no students will take it. But the trouble with this manoeuvre is that it failed to look at the matter in the long-term. It is a short-sighted policy.
That reminds us of the recent debate about Radio NZ's proposal to scrap Concert FM. RNZ, too, based its rationale on the wrong presumption that young people do not listen to classical music. As a teenager who happens to love and play classical music, I say strongly that young people are just as diverse as any group. Classical music has already been marginalised. If there is no such platform or no easy access for young people – just in the case of teaching Latin at school – then we don't have listeners of classical music, let alone performers of the future.
A global education report showed an overall decline in New Zealand's level of numeracy, literacy and science since 2009 – equating to a loss of about three-quarters of a year's worth of a student's schooling against 2009 results.
This is shocking and may explain that the MoE's proposal is well-intentioned and aimed at raising the minimum NCEA benchmark for reading, writing and mathematics. However, to achieve the goals it should help students climb higher rather than lowering the standard.
Both proposals from RNZ and MoE have, to a certain extent, sent shivers down our spine. It may be purely coincidental that twice in a row that young people like myself have to speak up to defend the teaching of Latin or classical music. It is good though that they have taken steps in engaging with the relevant communities as part of public consultation.
Latin, like classical music, will never become extinct. I only hope they won't become the endangered.
• Yolanda Huo is a Year 13 student in an Auckland-based college.