Acta non verba*

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 1 September 2017

Quidquid agis prudenter agas et respice finem. Whatever you do, do it wisely and consider the end, a famous Latin proverb reminds us.

If only National had more Latin lovers in their ranks (apart from Christopher Finlayson), it could have saved them from last weekend’s education blunder.

At their official campaign launch, National promised every schoolchild a foreign language. It sounded too good to be true – and it was.

On Monday, the Party had to admit that there was only enough funding to pay for one hour of language instruction for 30 weeks of the year.

The announcement was a case of multum clamoris, parum lanae (much clamour, little wool).

What I find disappointing about National’s announcement is that it turns language teaching into an election gimmick. It should not be.

Few things you learn at school are as valuable as language lessons. You will probably forget the binomial theorem, the causes of the Punic Wars and the functions of mitochondria.

But a language learnt will be something that stays with you for the rest of your life. Even if you do not speak it often, it will remain with you. It will have broadened your horizon – and it will have taught you the joys and pains of learning: Ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing comes from nothing.

But you must learn languages properly. And from personal experience I can tell you that if it is just an hour of learning a week, you might as well not bother.

In my own case, I ‘enjoyed’ four weekly hours of Latin for 5½ years from year 5. I then learnt English from year 7, first for four hours a week for four years and then for six hours a week for another two years. I learnt some rudimentary French for just 1½ years of three hours a week, and later taught myself some Italian.

The only thing I regret about my school time is that I did not learn more languages. Unfortunately, I could not continue my French and I did not opt to learn Spanish.

Research shows that children learning languages do better in other subjects. There is some magic happening in children’s brains when they are exposed to foreign sounding phrases.

So by all means, let’s increase our schools’ language teaching capacity. But let’s do it properly.

After all, scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power.

* Action not words

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