Idnan, Samraj and the teaching of languages in a multi-racial city

John Claughton · A few days ago I was talking to Idnan, a former pupil of my old school, King Edward’s School, Birmingham. Although, twenty years ago, he became the first Muslim Head of School, he had a disappointing academic career: since he was not bright enough to study Latin and Greek at A level, he had to do Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Further Maths and then go to Cambridge University to read Medicine. These days, he is aware of his intellectual limitations, so that he wanted to talk about the use of the genitive case. I managed to explain it to him in a way that even he understood, I think, because he went on to tell me that, in Arabic, the genitive is ‘used for the second noun of a construct phrase to denote possession’. He added that the genitive is also used with all prepositions.

Of course, that enabled me to extend his education by saying that, whereas in Latin lots of prepositions take the ablative case, in Greek, where there is no ablative case, it’s the genitive which does a lot of the work with prepositions. I then mentioned that Latin and Greek had considerable similarities to the Indo-European languages of India and he said, sadly thirty years too late: ‘It’s so fascinating. I’ve never thought about cases in Urdu – it’s so familiar.’

And then I realised that it wasn’t Idnan that was stupid. I was the stupid one. Not only was I a boy at King Edward’s, but I was also the head and, for the last decade of my career, I taught, sadly and badly, the Cambridge Latin Course to Year 7 classes which had a substantial majority of South Asian boys. And, never, ever, did I ask them about cases in their own familial languages. My only defence is that I always did say that Punjab means ‘[The land of] the five (cf. Greek pente) waters (cf. aqua)’ and in many of our entrance interviews we did talk about the patterns of Indo-European languages. But that still won’t do.

Of course, the conversation got more interesting when the scientist dropped out and two other former King Edward’s pupils, who are linguists, joined in. One of them is obviously cleverer than Idnan because he is about to go to Oxford to read Classics. He also speaks Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi and is learning classical Persian. Did any of us know that when he was at school. His email contribution was to comment that, for reasons of conquest and cultural expansion, some rather peculiar features in Arabic grammar somehow make their way into Farsi, a tongue completely unrelated to Arabic. He added that Hindi and Urdu have three/four cases whereas Sanskrit has a ‘terrifying set of eight cases’ – nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, instrumental, locative, and the vocative, in case you’re interested. The other King Edward’s alumnus took us back to where we started, the genitive case, but this time in Farsi. There things are a bit different: in Latin and English it’s the possessor word that changes: cena canis (genitive), the dog’s (genitive) dinner, whereas in Farsi the letter that means ‘of’ – an ‘e’ – is added to the thing possessed: arbâb-e halghehâ means ‘the lord-of the rings’ – to nod to another linguistic scholar from King Edward’s.

Well, that passed the time – it would have passed anyway. But this dialogue is not just self-indulgence. In the city of Birmingham, there are many junior schools where 80% of the pupils are categorised as ‘English as an Additional Language’ (EAL). That must mean that all of those children are fluent in another language. Only this week, I saw a piece about Water Mill Junior School in Selly Oak where 31 different languages are spoken, and that would not be unusual in Birmingham and other towns and cities. And yet we persist in teaching those children French or Spanish or, if they come to King Edward’s School, Latin without allowing them to bring with them their rich and diverse linguistic experience. Could Idnan teach us something after all?

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