English is not a Dead Language

Video: Agricola… Agricolae…. Agricolarum…. Footage of the Latin classroom in Dead Poet’s Society. Every time I see this, I can hear myself melodically intoning, “Be… is/am/are… being… been…” to dozens of classrooms across Yamagata (oh, what have I done!?)


Latin died with the decline of the Roman Empire. During the Renaissance, Latin was briefly resurrected, and, as a consequence, it became a required course of study in most universities up until the 1900s.

This was good news for scholars. But bad news for any person who had to endure the grueling task of memorizing thousands of obscure words and jumping into the bramble bush of Latin verb stems. It’s no surprise, then, that Latin class often serves as the stereotype of the impossible language class.In fact, a lot of the mistakes made in teaching this language to hundreds of thousands of students are what give language classrooms a bad rap.

From this course of study, we of course inherited the infamous “grammar-translation method,” whereby students are required to study arcane grammar rules and long lists of vocabulary so that they are able to create create word-for-word translations of any text. It guaranteed snappy explanations for busy teachers, but was loaded with pitfalls and shortcomings.

The problem? Essentially, taught nothing but grammar, reading and translation, many people threw in the towel early on. And as for those crazy savants who actually succeeded in mastering byzantine mechanics of the language? Well, they could read and write as well — but they couldn’t actually speak Latin.

It’s funny that I mention it because, hey! this sounds a lot like Japan! If one looks at a lot of Japanese English classes, anyway, you’d think you had somehow traveled back to the 1850s and you were standing in a Latin course at Cambridge University. There’s the teacher at the front of the room, pacing back and forth in their comfortable suit and sweater vest as the students repeat words from an endless list. The books full of arcane grammatical descriptions are there, too. And so is the sea of ghostly faces in the audience, staring, gasping, wondering how they are ever gonna make it out of this next English class alive…

I think it’s high time we ought to wake everybody up and say for once, “Hey! It’s not the 1850s anymore!!  You don’t have to study English like Latin or ancient Greek! Why? Because there are over a billion English speakers out there and English isn’t a dead language!!”