The Independent, 26 June 2012

Last week, on Question Time, Andy Burnham made the latest in a series of digs about what he perceives to be the irrelevance of Latin. Speaking of Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate, he expressed dismay that Gove had ‘found room for Latin and Ancient Hebrew, but not for Engineering or ICT. How,’ he asked, ‘can that be the answer to the challenges we face in the modern world?’

Well, since he asked, I would like to answer that studying Latin, or Ancient Hebrew, leaves you admirably prepared for facing the modern world. I’m not suggesting for a moment that everyone should be forced to study a dead language, and banned from ICT, but I firmly believe that Latin can and should be part of a rounded education. Latin is both useful and beautiful: two things that are in short supply for many of us.

It is useful, because any study of any language is useful. Even if it’s a dead one and the only person who can speak it is the pope (and his pronunciation is shocking). Learning another language makes you think differently about your own: it makes you analyse the role each word plays in a sentence. It also introduces you to the idea that some cultures are so different from your own that there are words which are literally untranslatable.

Latin will help you learn piles of other languages that have similar vocabulary or grammar or both. And it will give you excellent spelling and grammar in your first language (as will Ancient Greek), which is not a small thing: evidence shows we are more likely to get our credit cards out when a website is free from typos. The more spelling mistakes we see, the more we begin to suspect the site is dodgy. So wouldn’t it be most useful to learn ICT and Latin, and then you might set up a brilliant website which fills its potential users with confidence?

Choosing to learn Latin reveals something about a person. To Andy Burnham, it apparently reveals that a person is a toff, as though it is somehow Latin’s fault that Boris Johnson studied it. But to potential employers, it seems to reveal something else: when Durham Uni surveyed its 2009/10 Classics graduates, 90% of them were in employment or further study, doing jobs as varied as shop manager, parliamentary researcher and Royal Marine.

And quite aside from how useful Latin is in the jobs market, it is also good for your soul. Reading poetry isn’t the preserve of flouncy girls in long dresses. Read Catullus when you’re 15, and you’ll realise that you aren’t the first person to burn, unrequited, for a cruel lover. And since he didn’t die of it, you might realise that you won’t either. On the way, you’ll learn more about empathy and passion than you ever have, just in a few short lines. Another modern life challenge covered.

A sad day for tortoise fans as Lonesome George, the last Pinta giant tortoise in the world, has died. Oddly, I find that the total extinction of Lonesome George’s subspecies seems less sad to me than the previous status quo, when there was just one remnant of it, carving out his final years with only different species of tortoise for company. I realise I am anthropomorphising a tortoise, but in my defence, he was called Lonesome George, which makes it difficult to avoid.

As if the whole thing didn’t have the air of a slow-burn tragedy already, George’s body was found by the man who has been his keeper for the past 40 years. I feel like there is a buddy movie crying out to be made about this. Not a very fast-paced one, I admit, but failing that, The Ballad of Lonesome George would make an excellent country song.