`Dead' languages alive and well at Thurmont school

Catoctin High is unique in Maryland, offering Latin and ancient Greek

November 16, 2005|By MARI PERRY | MARI PERRY,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

THURMONT -- Don't tell students at Catoctin High School that ancient Greek is a dead language.

The kids in Frederick Brainerd's ancient Greek class use it in their instant messaging.

And don't tell them Latin is dead, either.

"The pope speaks it, too, and he's not dead," said Luke Baseley, a junior at the high school. "So Latin is not dead."

Catoctin High might be the only public high school in Maryland to teach both languages. Although Latin is taught elsewhere in Frederick County and widely throughout the state - including in Howard County - ancient Greek is taught only at Catoctin, where 28 students are enrolled for Brainerd's class next semester.

Students at Catoctin said they study Latin and ancient Greek for a number of reasons, from an interest in history to a desire to boost their vocabulary skills for the SATs. But all agreed it was an important and wise choice.

Freshman Lindsay Puvel said she chose to take Latin because "it's the basis for every other language." She also plans to take ancient Greek after completing the required Latin classes.

"You feel smart taking Latin or Greek" because they aren't languages most people study, she said. "It's an elite group to be in."

Brainerd's students are more like students of 100 years ago than their peers today.

In 1905, more than half of American high-schoolers studied Latin, compared with 1.3 percent in 2000, according to the most recent American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages study.

Brainerd's students get more than just a grade in his class. They have fun using the Greek alphabet as secret code in writing instant messages and leaving notes on the chalkboard. There are academic benefits, as well.

"Seventy to 80 percent of English words are derived from Greek and Latin," said Brainerd, who teaches both languages. "A lot of [my] students recognize the value of Latin and Greek roots in English."

Brainerd majored in Latin and ancient Greek at Maine's Bowdoin College, and he later earned a master's degree in education from Tufts University outside Boston. He has been a teacher in Frederick County for 16 years.

In a state where the most frequently taught languages are Spanish and French, recent estimates show that almost half of Maryland high school students are studying no foreign language, at a time when many educators regard it as increasingly important.

Brainerd said the study of foreign language, particularly Latin and ancient Greek, helps students in classes and on tests required for graduation.

"We can really get nitpicky about grammar," Brainerd said. "But it gives students a great advantage on high-stakes testing."

Ken Getzandanner, a senior, agreed: "I learned more about grammar in [Latin] class than in English class."

Students at Catoctin perform better than their peers statewide on the Maryland High School Assessments, which students starting with the class of 2009 must pass to graduate.

More than 67 percent of Catoctin students who took the sophomore English assessment exam last year passed, compared with about 58 percent of students statewide, according to figures released last week by the State Department of Education.

Brainerd wrote the ancient Greek curriculum in response to student interest. Catoctin has offered ancient Greek every other semester for eight years.

Montgomery County has the most foreign language offerings among public school systems in the state, but no ancient Greek. Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Russian, Spanish and Spanish for Spanish-speakers are taught in Montgomery's high schools.

And Montgomery, along with Carroll, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Prince George's counties, teaches American Sign Language, although none offer it for foreign language credit.

The study of dead languages Latin and ancient Greek is striking amid the technology that permeates the students' lives.

Fifteen of the 24 Maryland school systems offer Latin at the high school level.

According to the Linguistic Society of America, Latin and ancient Greek are considered dead because they are no longer spoken as a first language in the forms found in ancient texts.

Ancient Greek slowly evolved into modern Greek in a process to the way Latin evolved into modern-day Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian and other languages, according to the society.

More than 7,900 students in Maryland studied Latin in the 2004-2005 school year, according to unofficial state estimates.

As of Oct. 14 in Montgomery County, 1,483 high school students were enrolled in Latin classes, said Judith Klimpl, foreign language supervisor for the school system. Frederick County, with a school system about one-fourth the size of Montgomery County's, has 1,189 students in its high school Latin program, according to Susan Helm Murphy, foreign language curriculum specialist for the system.

Brainerd's students said the main reason they study the classic languages is their teacher.

"I wouldn't have gone so far in Latin if Mr. Brainerd hadn't been the teacher," Getzandanner said.

Students do more than just read and write in his classics classes. They also learn about the ancient cultures through art projects and other hands-on activities. Next semester, Brainerd and his students plan to make a model of Mount Vesuvius, and with help from the Earth systems science research class, they will create a volcanic explosion and bury Pompeii.

Mari Perry writes for Capital News Service.

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