For me the great advantage of foreign languages is that they give you a chance to be someone slightly different from who you are in your own language. You become a bit of a Frenchman or a German or an Arab, and that’s very liberating. The reason for this widely remarked on phenomenon in that language to a large extent incorporates culture.

I am reasonably fluent in German, I used to be so in French, but am now rather rusty, and my Arabic is rather weak considering that I spent 10 years in the Middle East. But even a rather limited knowledge of a language gives you an insight into the culture of the people who speak it. This is not always conscious; language, like riding a bicycle or playing the piano, operates at a level below consciousness.

I studied Latin between the ages of 9 and 15, but I got rather little out of it, and eventually was allowed to give it up in my O level year. I can quite see now, however, that if you are interested in Roman society, a knowledge of Latin would give you real insight into the Roman frame of mind. A recent visit to Vindolanda, the Roman fort near Bardon Mill in Northumberland, made me ponder more than ever before, what Roman society was like, and what we might learn about empire from it.


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