Saturday, November 8, 2008

Amo, Amas, Amat; Contemno, Contemnas, Contemnat; Minnesota schools giving Latin language new life

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Sentence by sentence, Kate Underwood dissected a letter between Cicero and Atticus of ancient Rome.

With each word, the 12th-grader translated Latin into English. It was the latest assignment for her advanced Latin class at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights.

"People don't understand why you would take Latin, because it is a dead language," said Underwood, 18, who attends Convent of the Visitation School and takes Latin at St. Thomas.

Her response: Latin literature is classic.

Students across the country are resurrecting the so-called dying language as a way to improve their vocabulary, grades and standardized test scores.

Long favored by exclusive East Coast schools, Latin has become a popular addition at schools nationwide. The ancient language is being taught as early as third grade in public, charter and private metro-area schools, and enrollment is growing.

Enrollment in Minnesota Latin classes rose 65 percent between the 2000-01 and 2006-07 school years, according to a state Department of Education survey. It was one of the fastest-growing languages to study in the state.

"I'm intrigued by the modern resurgence of Latin," said Brian Bloomfield, director of curriculum and instruction at Nova Classical Academy, a St. Paul charter school.

The K-12 public school with 406 students begins Latin classes in third grade. School officials believe Latin is one reason the school has a 300-student waiting list.

"Everyone is really excited about it," Bloomfield said.

Third-graders start by learning Latin verb tenses, which they pick up in chants and songs. They also find similarities in Latin and English nouns, such as manus, which means hand. Teachers explain how manus led to English words like manual.

"(Students) get a kick out of it," Bloomfield said.

St. Paul's Central High School also offers two Latin classes, beginning and advanced, with an average of 25 students in each, Latin teacher Craig Wolke said.

St. Thomas Academy, a private all-boys Roman Catholic high school, experienced a 47 percent increase in Latin enrollment three years ago, said teacher Mitch Taraschi. At that time, class numbers jumped from 67 students in the 2004-05 school year to 99 the following year.

Since then, enrollment has remained steady at 87 pupils for about six Latin classes.

Students often choose Latin as a foreign language because their parents encourage it, because Latin can help them in careers like medicine or law or because college admissions processes tend to favor it, Taraschi said. Knowledge of the language can give medical and law students an edge, because both professions deal in Latin terms.

Most remember it as a bland, academically snooty subject, but Latin class has changed since the 1960s.

Teachers and students speak Latin in class more than before. And teachers now incorporate tales of Roman civilization and history into their lessons, said Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, based in Alexandria, Va.

During a recent class, Taraschi started an eighth-grade beginners' class by chanting the "Lord's Prayer" in Latin—required learning by the end of the semester. The prayer is a favorite for grandparents at family dinners, Taraschi said.

The students then took turns translating the story of the Trojan Horse, from the Latin poet Virgil's epic, "The Aeneid."

Eighth-grader Joseph Weichert, 13, said learning the language has helped him with English vocabulary. He hopes Latin also will help with standardized tests.

An estimated 60 percent of English vocabulary derives from Latin, Abbott said.

Latin students tend to have better analytical and grammar skills. They also find it easier to learn other romance languages such as Spanish and French.

That's another reason Underwood was attracted to the language.

"It's a basis of so many other languages I want to go into," said Underwood, who plans to major in French and Italian in college. "They cross a lot." Pioneer Press


Colleen McCullough, an Australian writer who first achieved fame with her book, The Thorn Birds back in the 70s, has written a very popular series of novels based on Roman history, from the days of the Republic, through Julius Caesar and his immediate successors. They really bring ancient Roman history to life. I would recommend that any history geek or Latin student dash down to the public library and check one out. You won't regret it. Easy and enjoyable reading.

The First Man in Rome; (1990); The Grass Crown (1991); Fortune's Favorites (1993); Caesar's Women (1996); Caesar (1997); The October Horse (2002); and Antony and Cleopatra (2007)


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