Latin lives, or how to get your kids interested in a 2,000-year-old language


Stephanie Kurtz has heard about the benefits of taking Latin:

You'll score higher on the SAT exam. It will help you understand scientific terms. You'll be transported to a different time and place.

The 17-year-old senior at North Hagerstown High School says her four semesters of Latin may have helped on the SAT exam. They might help in her college science courses - she's considering a medical career. But she knows that the last part of Latin's claim to fame is true.

As her teacher, Joseph Scheer, talked about Ancient Greece and Rome, Stephanie felt like she was there.

"He made it much more interesting than I thought history could be," Stephanie says.

Latin students can't hop on a plane to practice their craft in another country. Latin is not taught as a spoken language.


"Rather than taking you to another place, it takes you to another time," says Kathryn Argetsinger, who teaches Latin and Roman history at the University of Rochester. "It gives a feeling of being able to listen to people who lived so long ago.

"The core reason to take Latin - like taking violin - is that it opens up a whole world of treasures, literature, classics."

About 30 years ago, Latin enrollments dropped, partly due to a push for relevance in education, says Judith P. Hallett, chair of the classics department at the University of Maryland, College Park. Also around this time, the Catholic Church began using English instead of Latin for mass.

And while there was a decline in Latin enrollment in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been a steady increase in the last 10 years, says Larry D. Steinly, supervisor of ESOL and foreign language for Washington County Public Schools.

There are a half-million Latin students in America's schools and colleges, both public and private, with some of the largest growth in the elementary and middle school levels, according to Richard A. LaFleur, Franklin Professor of Classics at the University of Georgia.

"Teachers are now focusing more on the rich multicultural civilization of the entire ancient Mediterranean world - not just on politicians and generals like Cicero and Caesar, though we don't ignore them of course - but on the daily lives of persons at all levels of society in the ancient world, rich and poor, men and women, children and slaves," LaFleur, author of "Latin for the 21st Century: From Concept to Classroom," said in an e-mail.

So how do students apply what they've learned? What's the relevance of this so-called "dead language" in today's society?

Well, for one, students who learn to translate Latin can form their own opinions about an author's intent, Argetsinger says.

"Whenever you're reading the English translation, you're reading someone's translation. If you want to make interpretive decisions, you have to read the original," Argetsinger says.

Stephanie says she enjoyed reading the works of Virgil, Catallus and Ovid in Latin.

"It was really interesting to translate. One moment when it clicked, you knew what that sentence meant," Stephanie says.

Because English is heavily dependent on Latin - 60 to 70 percent of English is derived from Latin - Latin students typically have a more sophisticated vocabulary, Hallett says.

Another advantage of Latin is that it trains the brain, says Dr. Erika Karres, author of "Make Your Kids Smarter." It requires mental discipline to dissect sentence patterns and parts of speech.

Latin requires a student to focus on what makes up a word, says Karres, assistant professor of education at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

It's best to start Latin instruction in elementary or middle school when there's a growth spurt in the development of verbal skills and vocabulary, Hallett says. But older students can do well, she says.

Latin is offered at several high schools in Washington County through on-site teaching and interactive television. It's also part of an introduction to language class offered at Boonsboro Middle School, Steinly says.

"I believe it would not be inappropriate to start at lower grade levels," Steinly says.

He says it's possible that Latin could be part of a magnet school partial immersion program on the elementary level, but he predicts that, if given the option, Spanish would be preferred by parents.

Simon Barber, a resident of Keedysville who began studying Latin when he was 10, is teaching it to his 8-year-old daughter.

A person who knows Latin can pick up grammar for an entirely different language and understand what is going on, said Barber, who has a classics degree from Kings College in Cambridge, England.

The Latin student knows about cases, conjugations, relative pronouns, conditional clauses, et cetera ... and also will know what et cetera means, Barber notes.

Et cetera, according to Webster, is from Latin and means "and others of the same kind."

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

The Herald-Mail Articles