These days, as I am thinking about languages, some memories of myself at school have resurfaced inside my head. One in particular is actually at the root of this blog post. I was entering the second year of what we call in France le collège (which should not be mixed up with the American College). In other words, I was a 7th grade pupil in what would be Middle school here. The first day of any pupil of my grade, at that time, is basically animated by this so-feared question:
The teacher: “Who is going to take Latin this year?”
It can sound like a simple and innocent question. But it is NOT. And although our elders had warned us many times, we were still petrified by it. Even today, I wouldn’t be lying if I said that some of us are still traumatized and have regular nightmares about the choice of this elective. Let me explain a little more:
- According to teachers, Latin is fun to learn and is offered to pupils in order to discover the roots of the roman languages; and thus, the origins of French. According to students, Latin was a waste of time and a direct pathway to depression and suicide in middle school.
- According to teachers, taking Latin was a “wonderful” opportunity for students to better their skills in French vocabulary and avoid grammatical mistakes. According to students, checking “Latin” on the sacrosanct form was tantamount to sign your own death warrant.
- According to teachers, Latin made you smarter and brighter than the other students, it made you a “young detective of French language”, it made you a cool teenager, a leader! According to students, and in real life, Latin just made you a busier student, it made you a nerd, a highbrow, and the kind of person at whom the other pupils would throw paper pellets.
- According to teachers again, choosing Latin was a “choice for life” because it is “useful in everyday life and will help you forever” (this is basically the translation of what was written on the chalkboard this day. It goes to show how obsessed they were with that). According to students, Latin was the second biggest lie adults had ever come up with (the first one being Santa Claus).
I probably sound pretty experienced, and indeed, I unfortunately am. The first months in my Latin class were dedicated to Latin mythology and ancient civilization. I cannot even count the number of presentation I had to do about Gods and Goddesses and heroes and magical creatures, and how society was organized in the Latin societies… This had two main effects: first, it made pupils happy because it was fun to do; second, it gave them easy good grades (because pasting pictures on a presentation poster and reading a summary from Wikipedia are not the most difficult things to do.). But under those misleading appearances was actually hidden a real war strategy. Just like propaganda during the Nazi era, teachers wanted us to THINK that Latin was fun, to get us involve to the full. They wanted to turn the terrified little students into nice and docile pupils. And once our guard was completely lowered, the trap started to close on ourselves. It was too late. Followed three years of wandering in hell, forcing us to deal with malicious and cruel grammar, crazy syntax, and repellent vocabulary. Just like the Germans, we had our own dictators: Marcus Tullius Cicero was the worst of them.
In the end, Latin didn’t teach me anything useful. The only thing that I barely remember is the 1st declination, and I still don’t know how it will help me with my life. However, I found my own reference language that helps me understand French:
To me, English is somehow easier than French and more logical because of the way the words are built. Some of them work by mixing two meaningful units like “a bookshelf” or “a chalkboard”. This does not exist in French because our vocabulary is an adaptation of Gaulish and Latin, and to understand the meaning of our words, dividing them into units might help but is not enough and far less logical than in English. A “handbook” for example is called in French un manuel. The English word is logical and its etymology makes perfect sense. In French, I had no clue why, one day, someone decided for some reason to call it un manuel, it sounded very random to me. I tried to decompose it and I realize that “manu” is the Latin word for “main” (hand in French). But I have no idea what the other part of the word means. But the only thing that I notice is that, as I am learning more and more English words, I make the link between the two languages, and that helps me analyze them. In spite of finding the meaning of French words through Latin, I found it easier to find it through English. But that’s a very personal choice, and I guess that someone that has a great knowledge of Italian or Spanish would use it instead of Latin.
It is actually very hard to take a step back from your own language. You are born learning it almost unconsciously, without asking any questions about it, just because it was the way it was. We are not taught the how and the why. But when you learn a new language, you suddenly have this ability to see things from a completely new perspective and the words begin to make sense to you because you have this unique chance to compare them between others. And, sometimes, thanks to that, you can even discover more about your native language. I had this chance thanks to English, and I highly recommend to anyone who wants to have a new approach of their mother tongue to learn a new language.