`Dead' language is alive and well

Resurgence: Students in Maryland and across the country flock to Latin classes.

March 12, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

When Dawn Mitchell arrived at Dulaney High School in Timonium 11 years ago, she taught French and Latin. There simply weren't enough students to justify Latin alone.

Now, she teaches Latin all day - from the simple vocabulary of Latin 1 to the classical writings of Virgil and Cicero. She sees students choosing Latin as their primary foreign language, not just an add-on to boost their SAT scores. She sees rookie Latin teachers being snapped up by school systems desperate to find a way to fill the demand for what has long been considered a dead language.

"It's experiencing a broader appeal than it has historically," said Martha Abbott, president-elect of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and director of high school instruction for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Tuesday's editions of The Sun incorrectly identified the school where Latin teacher Deirdre Marlowe will be working this fall. She will work at the Calvert School's new middle school.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Latin has always had a place in the curriculum in terms of strengthening students' knowledge about the world because there are so many links to history and mythology and the English language. ... What's happening now is people are realizing there are more engaging ways to teach it."

The number of public high school students taking Latin in the United States reached its peak in the 1930s, but fell into serious decline in the 1960s and early 1970s. Some blamed a Cold War shift to science and math after Russia made early gains in the space race. Others say the '60s were a time of doing your own thing and searching for relevance in curriculum - which in many cases meant abandoning Latin.

But in recent years, Latin has experienced a resurgence.

Increased interest

Enrollments in the United States since 1994 are unavailable - the results of a recent survey are anticipated this spring - but experts in the field say there has been a marked jump in student participation.

The National Latin Exam, a general benchmark test for students, has climbed from 6,000 test-takers in its inaugural year in 1978 to 135,000 expected this year. The National Junior Classical League, membership in which dropped precipitously in the 1970s, has doubled since 1977.

More than 9,000 public school students are enrolled in Latin in Maryland - mostly in the state's larger school systems. They take it in high school, middle school and, in Prince George's County, elementary school. Data on foreign language enrollments haven't been kept in recent years, but Frank Edgerton, who oversees foreign languages for the state, said he has been hearing a lot about a renaissance in teaching and learning Latin.

"I love the etymology that we get and how every time I learn a word in Latin, I think, `so that's where that comes from,'" said Marlowe Boukis, a ninth-grader who takes Latin 4 from Mitchell at Dulaney. Besides, the 14-year-old said, "I wanted to be able to speak to the pope or read the graffiti in Pompeii."

And more would be taking Latin if there were enough teachers to go around, suspects Janet Newberry, a supervisor in Baltimore County's office of world languages.

"People always say, and I think it is probably true, that you can jack up your verbal SAT scores by 100 points if you take two years of Latin," said Deirdre Marlowe, who taught Latin last year at Loch Raven High School and will teach it next year at the new Calvert Hall Middle School. "If you study Latin, you learn how language works, you learn how to approach languages better."

Latin teachers said the language has also been a tool to help struggling readers see how sentences are structured, how words should be spelled, where words come from.

In Baltimore County, Loch Raven Academy and Patapsco High School, for example, are beginning a course next year, "Latin for Academic Success," which is designed to strengthen English vocabulary through Latin.

It also helps that Latin classes go far beyond verb conjugations and declensions. New textbooks introduce students on day one to stories of young people in ancient Rome, learning about their lives and culture while learning the basics of their language - an approach long used in beginning Spanish and French.

Some classes sing songs about Latin; others share videotapes in spoken Latin. One company has translated popular books - like Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, (Quomodo Invidiosulus nomine GRINCHUS Christi natalem Abrogaverit) - into Latin.

"The curriculum was a little stale, and our textbooks and our materials were, frankly, old-fashioned," said Richard LaFleur, classics professor at the University of Georgia. "Not only are you studying dead, white males but dead, white, imperialist, war-mongering, military-type males - not very p.c."

Now, there's a greater focus on culture, society, religion, economics, mythology and more, he said.

"Latin is not taught the way it used to be when I went to school 20,000 years ago," said Jane H. Hall, chair of the National Latin Exam. "Latin is not just grammar translation anymore."

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