Forward Thinking

Greek and Latin, Yes. Hebrew, No.

By Liam Hoare

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Ancient Greek and Latin, yes. Hebrew, no.

That’s the headline from a new British government proposal that excludes Hebrew from plans to encourage primary school children to learn a second language. The plan, which remains under discussion and would come into effect in September 2014 if implemented, would mandate that pupils aged 7 to 11 learn one of either French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin or ancient Greek, as to “make foreign languages a key part of every child’s education, and to stop the slide in standards and take-up.”

In response to further enquires, a spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) told the Forward: “We want to give young people the skills they need to compete in a global jobs market. This is why we introduced the Foreign Languages Plan, which will ensure that every primary school child has a good grasp of a language by age 11.

“Whilst French, German and Spanish were the modern languages identified by respondents to the consultation as the most popular choices, we have been clear that primary schools will be free to teach any other language.”

The DfE’s consultation document indicates the government hopes the latter is not the case and aims to prevent “any potential proliferation of very low take-up languages, and would focus schools’ attention on a sample of important languages.”

The seven languages the DfE identified reflects this: France, Germany, Italy, and Spain are close neighbours, large trading partners, and members of the European Union; China is projected to become the world’s largest economy before too long; while Latin and ancient Greek are the genesis tongues upon which modern English is constructed, along with French and German.

It is not unreasonable for the government to think about the broader economic picture, particularly at a time when cutbacks are hitting all departments hard including Education. But their consultation reveals a rather pinched and crabbed interpretation of the usefulness of other languages, for surely Hebrew is as critical as ancient Greek in terms of its historic contribution to English and indeed British national culture, in particular in the realms of faith and literature.

Matthew Schmitz highlighted this morning in First Things that John Milton utilised rabbinical texts in writing “Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce”, for example. Moreover, the King James Bible, arguably the national book of England, gave multitudinous phrases to modern English, all of which were translated by committee from the original Hebrew.

In addition, such narrow-mindedness would undercut cultural diversity, and potentially further undermine Jewish education in the U.K. Just as the teaching of Jewish studies in primary schools is currently compromised by a necessary adherence to the national curriculum which directs hours devoted to literary, numeracy, and science, so too would the study of Hebrew — both classical and modern — by squeezed out by a need to learn French, Mandarin, or ancient Greek.

To place curbs the hours devoted to Hebrew in Jewish primary schools would weaken community ties to the canonical texts that bind Jews through the generations, but a failure to grasp the modern tongue would loosen ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews in London, Manchester, and throughout the country.


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