New York: Dead Language That ’s Very Much Alive

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Oct 7 19:28:23 UTC 2008


October 7, 2008
A Dead Language That's Very Much Alive

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — The Latin class at Isaac E. Young Middle School
here was reading a story the other day with a familiar ring: Boy
annoys girl, girl scolds boy. Only in this version, the characters
were named Sextus and Cornelia, and they argued in Latin.
"I can relate, but what the heck are they saying?" said Xavier Peña, a
sixth grader who started studying Latin in September.
Enrollment in Latin classes here in this Westchester County suburb has
increased by nearly one-third since 2006, to 187 of the district's
10,500 students, and the two middle schools in town are starting an
ancient-cultures club in which students will explore the lives of
Romans, Greeks and others.

The resurgence of a language once rejected as outdated and irrelevant
is reflected across the country as Latin is embraced by a new
generation of students like Xavier who seek to increase SAT scores or
stand out from their friends, or simply harbor a fascination for the
ancient language after reading Harry Potter's Latin-based chanting
spells. The number of students in the United States taking the
National Latin Exam has risen steadily to more than 134,000 students
in each of the past two years, from 124,000 in 2003 and 101,000 in
1998, with large increases in remote parts of the country like New
Mexico, Alaska and Vermont. The number of students taking the Advanced
Placement test in Latin, meanwhile, has nearly doubled over the past
10 years, to 8,654 in 2007. While Spanish and French still dominate
student schedules — and Chinese and Arabic are trendier choices —
Latin has quietly flourished in many high-performing suburbs, like New
Rochelle, where Latin's virtues are sung by superintendents and
principals who took it in their day. In neighboring Pelham, the
2,750-student district just hired a second full-time Latin teacher
after a four-year search, learning that scarce Latin teachers have
become more sought-after than ever.

On Long Island, the Jericho district is offering an Advanced Placement
course in Latin for the first time this year after its Latin
enrollment rose to 120 students, a 35 percent increase since 2002. In
nearby Great Neck, 36 fifth graders signed up last year for before-
and after-school Latin classes that were started by a 2008 graduate
who has moved on to study classics at Stanford (that student's brother
and a friend will continue to lead the Latin classes this year). Latin
is also thriving in New York City, where it is currently taught in
about three dozen schools , including Brooklyn Latin, a high school in
East Williamsburg that started in 2006. Four years of Latin, and two
of Spanish, are required at the new high school, where Latin phrases
adorn the walls and words like discipuli (students), magistri
(teachers) and latrina (bathroom) are sprinkled into everyday

"It's the language of scholars and educated people," said Jason
Griffiths, headmaster of Brooklyn Latin. "It's the language of people
who are successful. I think it's a draw, and that's certainly what we
sell." Adam D. Blistein, executive director of the American
Philological Association at the University of Pennsylvania, which
represents more than 3,000 members, including classics professors and
Latin teachers, said that more high schools were recognizing the
benefits of Latin. It builds vocabulary and grammar for higher SAT
scores, appeals to college admissions officers as a sign of
critical-thinking skills and fosters true intellectual passion, he

"Goethe is better in German, Flaubert is better in French and Virgil
is better in Latin," Dr. Blistein said. "If you stick with it, the
lollipop comes at the end when you get to read the original. In many
cases, it's what whets their appetite." Latin was once required at
many public and parochial schools, but fell into disfavor during the
1960s when students rebelled against traditional classroom teachings
and even the Roman Catholic Church moved away from Latin as the
official language of Mass. Interest in Latin was revived somewhat in
the 1970s and began picking up in the 1980s with the back-to-basics
movement in many schools, according to Latin scholars, but really took
off in the last few years as a language long seen as a stodgy ivory
tower secret infiltrated popular culture.

Harry Potter books use Latin words for names and spells, and at least
two have been translated into Latin ("Harrius Potter et Philosophi
Lapis"), as have several by Dr. Seuss ("Cattus Petasatus"). Movies
like "Gladiator" and "Troy" have also lent glamour to the ancient
world. "Sometimes you need to know Latin to understand that part,"
said Adrian McCullough, 10, a sixth grader in New Rochelle who plans
to reread the Harry Potter books now that he is learning Latin.

Marty Abbott, education director of the American Council on the
Teaching of Foreign Languages, said it was possible that Latin would
edge out German as the third most popular language taught in schools,
behind Spanish and French, when the preliminary results of an
enrollment survey are released next year. In the last survey, covering
enrollment in 2000, Latin placed fourth. "In people's minds, it's
coming back," she said. "But it's always been there. It's just that we
continue to see interest in it."

Ms. Abbott, a former Latin teacher, said that today's Latin classes
appeal to more students because they have evolved from "dry grammar
and tortuous translations" to livelier lessons that focus on culture,
history and the daily life of the Romans. In addition, she said, Latin
teachers and students have promoted the language outside the classroom
through clubs, poetry competitions and mock chariot races. In
Scarsdale, N.Y., where Latin enrollment rose by 14 percent to 80 this
year, the high school sponsors a Roman banquet on the Ides of March
during which students come wearing tunics and wreaths in their hair.
Seniors serve bread, olives, roasted chicken and grapes to younger
students, and all of them break bread with their hands. Dr. Marion
Polsky, the Latin teacher, said that former students still send her
postcards written in Latin and that at least three have gone on to
become Latin teachers.

Here in New Rochelle, the district introduced a Latin class for sixth
graders last year and is now adding a second Latin class for seventh
graders. Richard Organisciak, the superintendent, said the district
had spent $273,000 since 2006 to promote foreign languages including
Latin. Last month, the district also started a dual-language
English-Italian kindergarten and a Greek class at the high school; it
is considering offering Chinese next fall.

The high school principal, Don Conetta, said he had encouraged more
students to study Latin, though he acknowledged that he was hardly "a
stellar student" himself in Latin and came to appreciate its value
only later in life. "If my Latin teachers could hear me now," he said.
"I took three years in high school, and four semesters in college, and
I can't remember the first line of Cicero's orations."
Students like Ciera Gardner, a sophomore, started Latin three years
ago with two friends who have since dropped out because of the
workload. But Ciera, an aspiring actress, said that she had persisted
because Latin would look good on her college applications and that in
the meantime, it had already helped her decipher unfamiliar words
while reading scripts. "It's different," she said. "Everyone says 'I
take Spanish' or 'I take Italian,' but it's cool to say 'I take
Latin.' "

Max Gordon, another sophomore, said that he had learned more about
grammar in Latin class than in English class. And he occasionally
debates the finer points of grammar with his mother, Kit Fitzgerald, a
video artist who studied Latin, while washing dishes after dinner. "In
some ways, it's really frustrating," he said. "I'll hear someone say
something that isn't grammatically correct and I'll cringe."

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