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Monday, November 22, 2010 

Stupid ideas and short posts.

1. No one has ever started smoking as a result of being drawn to the packets cigarettes come in. There are innumerable reasons as to why some start smoking and others don't, especially now that it's so relatively frowned upon: peer pressure, being friends with others who do, having brothers and sisters or parents that do, simply falling into it through trying it and enjoying it, some of which, conversely, can also mitigate against others starting. There is an argument for only allowing cigarettes to be sold in plain packets on the basis that some brands of cancer sticks are more highly regarded than others, and that by forcing them to be sold in the same basic packaging you're reducing the attractiveness on those grounds, yet that's not the one which is being made by the health secretary and the usual "we know what's best for you" suspects.

Instead, this is essentially another policy based on the premise of the state stigmatising the practice even further than it already is, without of course putting them in a banned substance category and so cut off a lucrative revenue stream. It's also ineffective as increasingly those who smoke have pack holders (or tins, especially among those who roll their own) that cover the unpleasant and graphic warning messages, which have themselves failed for these even more drastic measures to be mooted. It also ignores somewhat how basic but clear and bold designs can be the best: the government seems to have recognised this in that they're thinking of grey or brown plain packs rather than plain white ones, which are gloomy colours, although doubtless if there's a way for the manufacturers to get round such rules they will. They could have gone further and decided upon snot green or dull yellow as the pack colour, so perhaps smokers should be grateful for small mercies.

2. One of my regrets from my school years (along with a whole lot of often more pressing others) is that I didn't pay anywhere near enough attention during my German lessons, although French would probably have been a better option had I not decided to be "different" when the choice was given between the two. It's only later and increasingly now, driven by the internet, that it's become apparent how useful and valuable having even just a basic knowledge of a second language is. Most children not unreasonably take the view thanks to our relatively insular modern culture, not to mention Anglo-American arrogance that we don't need to learn anything other than English as everyone now either learns or speaks it. Also terribly unhelpful (this might have since changed) is that unlike other European nations we don't start learning a foreign language or at least anywhere near properly until around Year 6, whereas they start almost as soon as they start learning their native tongue. Unless I'm wrong it's also now completely optional whether or not you continue with a second language once you reach 14, which means the vast majority abandon it and so even more will end up with the same regrets as I now have.

It's therefore rather bemusing to learn of the Classics for All campaign, which has the on the surface laudable aim of of wanting every student to have the option to learn either Latin or Greek. There is, it should be apparent, nothing wrong with offering the choice. It's more that there seems to be something almost deranged in reducing even further the chances of most learning a living second language, as such a campaign almost certainly does, at least by general state school timetable standards. The argument goes that through learning Latin you don't just learn a "dead" language but also the entire gamut of ancient culture, and with it comes the key, as Boris Johnson states, to a "phenomenal and unsurpassed treasury of literature and history and philosophy". I don't doubt that it can be an enormously useful discipline - the problem is more that unless you're a far more diligent student than I was, and know what really is good for you when you're far more enamoured with almost everything other than learning, you'll reject not just Latin but other languages entirely, which really would be a disaster.

(What was meant to be a short post has turned into a 711 word one. It's also not clear whether mine are the stupid ideas or not. And perhaps I should learn English properly before I bemoan my knowledge of German. Ho-hum.)

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Classical Latin is *hard*. I did Latin A Level, and studied it as a kind of ungraded minor option at university, and my level of competency with actual written Latin is still "just about able to work it out as long as there's a dictionary nearby".

For comparison, I did German to O Level - my mother had persuaded me to choose German rather than Spanish (which my friend was doing), on the grounds that if I became fluent in German I could read Marx Freud Nietzsche ect ect in the original. I hated it and scraped a C. My level of competency in written German now is "just about able to work it out as long as there's a dictionary nearby".

On the other hand, I can read French, Spanish and Italian, and I trace at least two of those directly back to all that Latin. If they were proposing to put 11-year-olds on compulsory Latin, not for the literature or the wonders of the ancient world but purely so as to prepare them for learning Romance languages later on, that would make a certain kind of sense. But there's not much chance of that, whatever Gove says about the importance of arts & humanities subjects.

Captcha is 'boustros', which seems appropriate in a Fast Show kind of way.

I have, over the years, attempted to learn German, Spanish, French, German again, and Latin. Of them all, I remember enough German to get by only because I learned it when I was a child, because my mother is German and spoke it to me all the time, and I spent several years living in Germany as a child.

The simple fact is that unless one learns the language at a very young age, or uses the language on a frequent basis, one will forget it. Non-English speakers remember their English because they use it all the time, because English is ubiquitous. Ordinary Americans stand no chance, as they have essentially no contact with cultures that speak no English.

The British have a better opportunity, separated from the rest of Europe by a mere 20 miles or so, but are condemned to ignorance because of the ceaseless flood of shi -- er, popular culture from across the ocean in the other direction. If instead we were bombarded by French, German, Italian, and whathaveyou television and film, we would be in much better shape.

I suppose we were bombarded by the Germans at one point not too long ago, but it didn't stick.

It would be interesting to know just how schools in Europe structure their lessons so that English is taught along with everything else from a young age as it is, and whether we have anything to learn in that regard. I do suspect however that even if we did, it'd still be overwhelmed by the disregard most of the mainstream media has for anything which isn't either American or English.

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