By Jason Menard
I think it was Elvis who said it best when he sang, “it’s only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away.” And speaking from personal experience, if my words are any more eloquent, it is directly the result of the Latin training I received at South Secondary School.
Wednesday’s edition of The London Free Press profiled the retirement of Neil Tenney, the Latin teacher at that educational institution. And it also highlighted the fact that this program is the last of its kind in both the Thames Valley District and London Catholic School Boards – and that’s a shame.
Currently I make my living with words. Corporate communications expert by day, freelance columnist, sports writer, and radio fill-in by night, it has been through my abilities with the English language that I’m able to put food on my family’s table. And for that I have to thank my Latin teacher Jean Mayhew – formerly of South Secondary School.
You see, I didn’t learn English in English class. Far from it. I actually learned my English grammar during my time in Latin and French classes at South and, later, Western. It was there I learned about verb tenses, conjugation, and – most importantly – flow.
So while we’d be chuckling through the Cambridge Latin course reading silly stories about thepater Caecillius and his family, we were actually building a foundation upon which our appreciation of language grew. But without that foundation in the future, where will people learn?
I grew up in a time of English courses focusing on reading comprehension. It didn’t matter if you could spell your words or construct a coherent though as long as the general idea was expressed. And that continues, in large part, to this day. My wife and I fight a daily battle with our 12-year-old son about the importance of developing proper language skills, when his argument – justified by solid grades – is that “you get the point.”
I’m not a stickler for grammar. Few people annoy me more than those who absolutely refuse to dangle their participles or split their infinitives. Grammar is fluid and what sounds right is often less jarring and more effective than what the prescriptive grammarians would condone from their ivory linguistic towers. I’ve got no problems with people using “they” in the singular if it sounds better. After all, grammar is designed to let words flow and to allow concepts to be expressed – not to rigidly force everyone to conform to one ideal that may no longer apply.
Life goes on. Things change and we’re inundated with new cultural, technological, and linguistic influences each and every day. If we remain dogmatically chained to our linguistic past, we’ll be ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of the future.
However, one should have a solid foundation upon which the future can be built. Language – and one’s understanding of it – enables people to experience a world of influences that may be limited by lack of comprehension. For me, Latin and French gave me the structure and knowledge that was lacking from my English training, wherein my teachers were more concerned about me understanding what was said than how it was said.
If I can boast any way with words, it’s because of that Latin and French training. Before I became immersed in those language studies, I was the product of my teaching. I understood concepts and could generally express them – but it was far from precise and it was far from proper.
Words are one of the best ways we have to convey feelings, emotions, and experiences. It is one thing to string together a few words to get an idea out there – it’s something much different to use language to allow the reader to experience the idea through the lyric effect of words. And let’s not even start how Latin has aided in my rudimentary understanding of languages like Spanish and Portuguese.
We live in a world where instant messaging and social interactive media has turned conversation into a competitive race. It’s not about saying something properly, it’s about saying it in as few characters as possible. Yet, eventually, those IMers will have to converse with a real person. They’ll have to hand in an assignment – not to mention a resumé — that isn’t peppered with emoticons or LOL’s. The question is where will they find the skills to do so?
I was lucky. I had Ms. Mayhew’s Latin class to steer me on the right course. Little did I know that weekly bingos, annual banquets, and light-hearted learning would have such an impact on my life. But it has, and I’m a better writer — and a better man – for it. Hopefully generations of students at South will continue to have the option to take this class, because its value is immeasurable.
It’s just too bad that no other students in the region will be able to start a day with Ms. Mayhew’s, or any other Latin teacher’s, terrible Latin jokes like semper ubi sub ubi – or always [where] under [where]. It may have been a terrible pun, but it was a fantastic foundation for the future.
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