Anything But Dead: Latin Is Making a comeback
BY Ray Finocchiaro
February 29-March 6, 2004 Issue | Posted 2/29/04 at 1:00 PM
WILMINGTON, Del. — For a supposedly dead language, Latin is alive and well at some Catholic schools in the Wilmington, Del., Diocese.
Although it was abandoned by most public schools in the past 40 years or so, many students and teachers say studying Latin has many benefits.
“I like that it's an ancient language that has a lot to do with the culture,” said Thomas Bounds, a sophomore at Salesianum School in Wilmington.
Bounds, who takes Latin II, said his Latin class, with 13 students, is smaller than most of his classes, which gives it a more personal atmosphere. He also said the language has helped him with vocabulary, English grammar and his SAT scores.
At Ursuline Academy, also in Wilmington, Latin is mandatory for sixth-graders. In the seventh and eighth grades, students can choose Latin, French or Spanish.
“This year Latin was the most highly sought-after choice,” said Robin Chambers, Ursuline's curriculum director. Ursuline has added a year of Latin study each fall since introducing the course three years ago.
She thinks the renewed interest stems from the students’ desires to do well on standardized tests, noting that “there is a pretty established correlation between Latin studies and success with English vocabulary.”
Ursuline sophomore Colleen Hayes has found another advantage to knowing Latin. Hayes, who wants to be a physical therapist, volunteers at a local hospital and not only sees a lot of medical terms with Latin roots, but she also understands them.
Studying Latin can have particular benefits for Catholics.
“What Hebrew is to the Jews, Latin is to the Church,” said Tracy Lee Simmons, author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (ISI Books, 2002).
Latin is the language used when passing along Catholic doctrine. Encyclicals are always released in Latin first, Simmons noted.
“Anyone who knows Latin holds one of the many the keys to understanding the thinking of the Church,” he said. “Latin is also a repository of beauty. No language, however expressive, can quite replace it.”
Simmons said he's noticed more and more schools teaching Latin and “saving it from extinction at the last minute.”
Studying Latin in Catholic schools all but disappeared after the Second Vatican Council for a variety of reasons — it was considered a “dead language” not only because it wasn't commonly spoken anymore but also because with council changes it was seen by many as no longer needed.
“People associated it with the ‘old Church,’ and they wanted to be up-to-date, so the sooner it was gone, the better,” Simmons said.
Another reason was that it was difficult to learn and didn't have the immediate payoff that mathematics or reading had.
“Intelligent people forgot the formative and cultural purposes of Latin,” Simmons said. “It gives us first-class intellectual citizenship in Western civilization, and that's no small thing.”
How young is too young to start students in the study of Latin? Ideally, Simmons said, students should start early on — before age 10 if possible.
“Latin helps train the mind in the ways of clear and accurate expression and encourages a taste for etymology, without which one cannot master any language,” he said. Whenever one can find a good teacher, in or out of school, would be when to start learning Latin, he added.
When the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales opened Nativity Preparatory School in Wilmington last fall, they decided to offer Latin to the middle-school students.
The school, which enrolls boys from low-income families, is tuition-free and committed to having small classes. Nativity has a total enrollment of 15 students, divided between a fifth and a sixth grade.
The school's nine sixth-graders, taught by volunteer Joe Andrews, take three Latin classes a week and also put out a weekly one-page Latin newspaper.
“I let them write whatever they want,” Andrews told The Dialog, newspaper of the Wilmington Diocese.
Andrews has been a Latin devotee since taking the language at Salesianum School. His class is comprised of eight black students and one Hispanic student.
“When they started, they were speaking inner-city slang,” he said, but now they find the Latin derivative of a word each day and also give him what they call a “ghetto word” of the day.
He said the students also “love tormenting the fifth-graders in Latin.”
That good-natured tormenting carried over with Father John Fisher, Salesianum's principal and an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, who teaches first-year Latin at his school and tutors the Nativity Prep students one night a week.
He said the Nativity Prep students “insult me in Latin” but added with a smile, “At least they're using it.”
They also ask him questions and introduce themselves in Latin, something his high-school students don't even do.
The priest admits he was a bit skeptical when the Nativity program began, wondering how well the students would take to Latin.
“But they're doing a phenomenal job,” he said. “The kids have a tremendous facility for Latin.”
He also thinks Latin still has its place in modern-day life not only for the tremendous discipline involved in studying it but also for the way the root words tie into so many other subjects.
“I'm at the point where I hear things and I just keep thinking of the Latin roots of everything. My ideal world would be just to teach five Latin classes and not be principal,” he said.
He described his own 48-minute class for first-year Latin students as “tremendous fun.”
“The way we do it,” he added, “it's anything but dead.”
(Register staff contributed to this story.)
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