Thank God for Latin

The first foreign language I learned was Latin. It wasn’t for geeks then. Rather for those girls in the top two forms of the first year. They always denied we were streamed – and this was a grammar school – but we knew we were. Spanish was the first language for the others, deemed to be easier. Well Latin wasn’t unfamiliar as it was the vernacular in Mass. Whatever the criticisms of ‘celebrating’ in a language that few understood, one of its benefits was in becoming immersed in the rhythms of language. Which I believe helped me to cope with my own language. Not much effort was made to make study easy. It was all done by rote. Homework consisted of learning conjugations of verbs and vast amounts of text. Amo, amas, amat… and so on. I can’t have hated it that much as I did Latin at A level. I think I liked the teacher, a kindly Sister Magdalene. Kindly but on the ball. When my friend and I handed in English translations of Virgil and Catullus that we’d come across in Manchester Central Library she spotted it right away. How dumb we must have been. Now you could get them from the Internet. I can still quote chunks of Virgil, related to Phyrrus going into battle over the hill with his troops. Those hours of practice, boring at the time, must have worked. Useful, eh? Yes.

Latin is coming in handy as I desperately brush up Italian for our sojourn to Italy this summer. I can’t survive for 6 weeks on ‘un vino tinto, per favore’. So I am digesting a grammar books as well as two phrase books. I do what I did at school. Read it aloud. Then over and over again. Then test myself by covering up the Italian. I thought that a season of ‘Montelbano’ on tv might do the trick. But they speak too fast and it’s Sicilian Italian anyway. My pronunciation is probably bad. I have to remember to stress the second syllable from the end. Except there are exceptions. There are always exceptions! My Latin does help though. Some of the words are the same. And the grammar too. I should be able to get by. More than that. I can read Latin inscriptions on buildings and in churches. I can read menus and tourist information. I might even be able to converse with an old Italian about Phyrrus…

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