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Latin is alive and well at Utah schools

Published: Monday, Aug. 30 2004 11:49 a.m. MDT

BYU professor Roger Macfarlane listens in on a Latin class at Provo High School. He says Latin is making a comeback in public schools.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

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PROVO — Lillian Zarndt is no ordinary high school teacher. First off, there are the pink heels with rhinestone buckles. Then there's the music of Bach playing in the background as she introduces herself, and this funny rule about no textbooks until her students earn them.

And finally, there's the subject she teaches: Latin.

The dead language, right?

Wrong, says Zarndt.

"This language is so powerful and inspiring," she tells her students at Provo High on Friday, their first day. "You will have synapses shooting off in your brain you never had; you will have insights and 'ah-has' you never had."

Long considered stuffy, irrelevant and tedious, Latin is making a comeback. The number of students taking Advanced Placement Latin nationally is nearly double what it was a decade ago, and in Utah, 10 high schools now teach Latin. Two of those schools — Provo High and Vernal's Uintah High — introduced Latin this year.

"Latin is one of those things that fell away in public schools, but now it's coming back," said Roger Macfarlane, a Latin professor at Brigham Young University and a member of the Classical Association for the Middle West and South (CAMWS), an organization that tries to reintroduce Latin to high schools. "The pendulum is swinging back."

At the turn of the century, 44 percent of U.S. students took Latin, largely because it was the official language of the Catholic Church. By 1962, the Vatican had agreed to allow churches to use native languages, and the number of American students studying Latin had dropped to just 7 percent.

Educators say there are two reasons for its resurgence: It seems to help students score higher on tests, and new teaching methods have made the language easier to learn and apply to other subjects.

In 1997, students taking Latin scored a mean of 647 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test verbal exam, compared with the national average of 505, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Jeremy Demmitt, a Provo High senior in Zarndt's class, said he hopes Latin helps him prepare for college and a career as a lawyer.

On his first day in class, Demmitt worked on a Latin crossword puzzle, studied a map of Rome and marveled at the number of English words with Latin roots.

"The real reason Latin is coming back is that the old style of teaching Latin has been pushed aside," said Ginny Lindzey, chair for the CAMWS Committee for the Promotion of Latin. "The old way of teaching grammar the first two years, the emphasis on math and using some intricate code to put sentences together, those days are gone because only the nerds survived.".

Instead of memorizing lines from Virgil's Aeneid, for example, students can now read Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" in Latin. Other Latin teachers mix in lessons on Greek and Roman government. Some have students build Roman tombs out of clay, while others encourage students to talk about current events in Latin.

"We read stories about Romans with soap opera type characters, in their own words. We read what they wrote about life, love, politics and depression," said Lindzey, a junior high school Latin teacher in Austin, Texas. "It's thrilling."

Some 60 percent of English words come from Latin, which is why educators like Lindzey say it helps students with vocabulary. Latin also has a simple, consistent and logical grammatical structure, which makes it useful in helping students learn to read or understand English grammar, which is much more complex.

"We can't say that all English words are based on Latin or Greek, but a whole lot of them are," Macfarlane said. "If you can understand how Latin works, you're way ahead in understanding how English and other languages work."

At Uintah High School in Vernal the Latin class filled up so fast the school had to open a second section.

The class was the idea of former deputy Uintah County attorney Wes Baden, who has volunteered to teach it for free.

"I don't think Latin would be coming to Uintah High School if we didn't have someone volunteering to teach it," said Principal A.J. Pease. "We're so tight with money, I don't know if we even would have considered it."

Costs are the greatest challenge those who promote Latin face, Lindzey said. Her organization tries to recruit new Latin teachers each year.

"Right now, everybody's budget is tight, and they don't have enough Latin teachers," she said. "When a Latin teacher retires, they're hard to replace."

If Latin doesn't help students improve test scores after a few years, it will most likely be cut, Pease said.

Like Baden, Zarndt volunteered to teach Latin this year. Zarndt, Provo High's German teacher, grew up studying Latin and Greek as a student in Switzerland, where she learned that both languages presented what she calls a "world view."

The Romans were conquerors, she said, while the Greeks were creators. These philosophies are reflected in their languages. By studying Latin, she told her students on their first day, they would learn to see the world in new ways.

"I'm so glad you're investing in yourself and giving yourself this gift," she said. "You will discover constellations in your spirits you didn't know were there."


E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com

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