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Latin far from dead language at Colorado school

Estne lungua Latina mortua?

Is the Latin language dead?

Teacher Joy Collins gives a resounding “Minime vero!” That’s “No way! for all you nonstudents of Latin.

In fact, Collins and three other instructors teach Latin to more than 325 junior high and high school students at The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. (TCA).

Some might be surprised that Latin still is around, let alone growing in popularity — which it is. After all, it has been often referred to as a “dead language” because it’s not widely spoken and because of educational emphasis on the study of widely spoken languages such as Spanish and even Mandarin.

But there is a revival nationwide. It is particularly emphasized in charter schools, and those with a strong classical curriculum are most likely to include it.

Colorado Springs has some of the largest Latin programs in the state, notes Barbara Hill, editor of the Directory of Colorado Classicists.

“Latin is here to stay,” says Hill, who coordinated the Latin program at the University of Colorado-Boulder for years before retirement.

Latin was spoken in ancient Rome around 753 BC, later waned and then was revived during the Renaissance. Until the 20th century, most college students studied Latin.

Today, it is rarely spoken except by clergy, including for the Catholic liturgy. But in recent years, a revival of spoken Latin has begun in a few schools.

Robust study

There are at least 67 Latin programs in Colorado Springs, Hill notes, including six at the elementary level; 10 in middle schools; 26 in high schools; and 25 at the college level.

Both the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Colorado College have strong programs. Among others, The Classical Academy and Thomas MacLaren School each have three instructors who teach Latin, and there are full programs at Liberty and Doherty High Schools.

Teri McNeil, world language facilitator for Colorado Springs School District 11, notes that while it offers Latin in two high schools, budget cuts and smaller teaching staffs have cut into such classes.

“We have leaned more to modern languages, which are more in demand.” The district considered offering it at Wasson High School, but since it would be only one class officials knew it would be difficult to find a teacher. She added that at the elementary level, Latin is not a state-funded program, but three schools offer it as an elective: Steele, Freedom and Midland.

Teachers note that it grounds kids in many subjects, such as politics, architecture and history.

Mary France, a Liberty High School teacher in Academy School District 20, has about 140 students in four classes, plus she teaches at UCCS.

Students who study Latin say it is not only rigorous, but lots of fun, and that drives the enrollment.

“We have had huge amounts of support and we are filled up and turning students away,” France notes.

There are some very good reasons to study Latin. Educators say that, far more than other languages, it develops critical thinkers because of its complexity.

“It forces students to pay a lot of attention to detail,” says Bleys Kueck, a TCA Latin teacher.

Hill notes that Latin helps students directly in reading and comprehension of complicated English prose and poetry.

“In many ways it helps students learn how to slow down, analyze and evaluate the meaning of words, the placement of words in sentences, and the content,” she says.

Better SAT scores

Students nationwide who studied Latin scored 177 points higher on their SAT college entrance exams than all other students. They bested Spanish-language students by 117 points.

Collins notes, “It pays off big time. Students tell us after the tests that they were able to decipher words because they recognized the Latin.” In fact, about 80 percent of the vocabulary in modern languages such as English, French, Spanish and Italian have roots in Latin. So if a student studies Latin, those other classes become easier, Collins explains.

It also can sharpen students’ understanding of such subjects as science, law and English literature.

France of Liberty High School notes, though, that it’s mostly a language to be read. And what a reading list: Cicero, Cassiodorus, Boethius, anyone?

Evan Willis, a senior at The Classical Academy who takes advanced-placement Latin, says it even seeps into Harry Potter’s spells. And the character Albus Dumbledore? His first name is Latin for white or albino.

A lot of other popular kids’ books have been translated into Latin to spur interest, such as Dr. Seuss, Winnie the Pooh and even “Walter Canis Inflatus,” which for parents’ sake alone, sounds more elegant than “Walter the Farting Dog.” TCA has a Latin requirement where junior high students must pass classical foundations or take Latin 1 in high school. In junior high, students have projects that can include food or skits or artwork inspired by Latin passages.

One student took scenes from the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” and translated it into Latin. One girl translated “Where the Wild things Are” and placed the Latin phrases on flaps over the English in the book.

“She will never forget that and we won’t, either,” Collins said.

By senior year, some are reading the epic poem Aeneid by Virgil.

Teaching Latin can be challenging.

“Some students love every minute of it. Others struggle,” Kueck notes.

France says difficulties arise because many students today haven’t had to memorize or study as much as the language demands.

She notes that at least a half-million English words have Latin or Greek roots. But Latin is very different from English in structure.

“It’s like a Roman military column organized with certain words that can be applied across concepts,” France says.

“I try to simplify it with crazy and wild phonetic devices. For example, we use the phrase ‘We Eat Maniacs’ to help them with conjugation.” Even one letter or a single breathing mark can make a difference in what a word means. It can be spelled the same, but if pronounced differently it will mean something else, France says.

In English, word order is usually subject, verb, object. In Latin, word order doesn’t matter; the position is determined by the word ending.

Collins says that it takes getting used to, but the structure was a boon to many of the ancient poets.

“They could paint a word picture or put direct objects first to emphasize the object. Such as ‘Her I love.’” Most people don’t even know when they are using Latin. For example, the abbreviations etc., i.e. and e.g.

Latin comes alive in the classroom because those who teach it incorporate a wealth of other knowledge from mythology, philosophy and music.

“It provides grounding in where our society comes from. So much of our political outlook, art, history, architecture has Latin and Roman influence,” Kueck says.

For students, that is part of lure and the fun. In Collins’ classroom, there are posters of Rome and Greece on the walls, and charts of mythological heroes.

Students who want to go to the restroom must ask in Latin.

Lydia Foster, a junior, notes that Latin can be difficult.

“But it helps with English vocabulary. I saw a lot of that on my ACT and SAT tests.” She gets a kick out of the way the language is put together.

“It sounds like Yoda (Star Wars) talking,” she laughs.

Mariah Isaac says she loved it when they were singing a song in Latin in choir, and she and some other Latin students were able to tell the teacher what it meant.

Willis, the TCA senior, thinks it is cool that the word Republic means “the people’s thing” or “the people’s stuff.” Willis is a member of the Colorado Junior Classical League, an organization for students that holds classics days and conventions where there are seminars, academic tests, drama, athletics and games all focused on the lore of ancient Greece and Rome. There is also a national organization.

Willis plans to continue his classics studies in college and wants to someday be a philosophy professor. He plans a double major in physics and philosophy, and a minor in Latin classics.

“Latin will be very useful because lots of philosophy vocabulary is borrowed from Latin,” he says. For example, he explains that John Locke’s “tabula rasa” is Latin, meaning humans are born blank slates.

Kueck, listening to Willis, says: “It’s awesome to see what these kids know.”

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