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The number of students in the US taking the National Latin Exam has risen steadily to more than 134,000 students in each of the past two years. Interestingly, large increases are even seen in remoter areas like New Mexico, Alaska and Vermont.
The number of students taking the Advanced Placement test in Latin has nearly doubled over the past ten years. Although Spanish and French still dominate, and Chinese and Arabic are trendier, Latin is quietly flourishing.
The resurgence of a language once rejected as outdated and irrelevant is attributable to a new generation of students who seek to increase SAT scores, stand out from their friends, or simply harbor a fascination for it after reading Harry Potter’s Latin-based chanting spells, says Winnie Hu in an article in the New York Times.
Enrollment in the suburb of New Rochelle has increased to 187. The two middle schools in town are starting an ancient-cultures club in which students will explore the lives of Romans, Greeks and other ancient people.
In New York City, Latin is thriving. It is currently taught in three dozen schools, including Brooklyn Latin, a high school in East Williamsburg that started in 2006. Four years of Latin are required, as well as two years of Spanish. Latin phrases adorn the walls, and words like discipuli (students), magistri (teachers) and latrina (bathroom) are part of everyday conversation.
“It’s the language of scholars and educated people,” says 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 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, says that more high schools are recognizing the benefits of Latin. It builds vocabulary and grammar for higher SAT scoores, appeals to college admissions officers as a sign of critical-thinking skills and fosters true intellectual passion, he feels.
“Goethe is better in German, Flaubert is better in French and Virgil is better in Latin,” says Dr Blistein. “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 apetite.”
Once upon a time, Latin was required at many public and parochial schools. It fell into disfavor in the 1960s when students rebelled against traditional classroom teachings and even rhe Roman Catholic Church abandoned the use of Latin as the official language of the Mass.
Interest was somewhat revived in the 1970s and began picking up in the 1980s with the back-to-basics movement in many schools. But it has really taken off in the last few years as an ivory tower secret that has infiltrated popular culture.
The 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” as well as the series “Rome” have also lent glamour to ancient subjects.
Marty Abbott, education director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says it is possible that Latin might edge out German as the third most popular language taught in schools, behind Spanish and French.
Abbott is a former Latin teacher, and says 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 says, Latin teachers and students themselves have promoted the language outside the classroom through clubs, poetry competitions and mock chariot races.
In Scarsdale, NY, where Latin enrollment rose by 14 percent this year, the high school sponsors a Roman banquet on the Ides of March, during which students wear tunics and wreaths in their hair. Seniors serve bread, olives, roasted chicken and grapes to younger students, as they all break bread with their fingers.
The Latin teacher, Marion Polsky, says she still receives postcards in Latin from former students, and that at least three have gone on to become Latin teachers.
Ciera Gardner, a sophomore at New Rochelle (and an aspiring actress), started Latin three years ago, and while two friends have dropped away she persists, because Latin will look good on her college applications and — in the meantime — it has already helped her decipher unfamiliar words in scripts. “It’s different,” she says. “Everyone says ‘I take Spanish’ or ‘I take Italian,’ but it’s cool to say ‘I take Latin.’ ”
And Max Gordon, also a sophomore, says he has learned more about grammar in Latin class than he ever did in English classes. He occasionally debates the finer points of grammar with his mother, a video artist who studied Latin.
“In some ways it’s really frustrating,” he says. “I’ll hear someone say something that isn’t grammatically correct and I’ll cringe.”
sole source: article by Winnie Hu in the NY Times on 10/7/08. www.nytimes.com
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