Latin making modern-day resurgence in high school classes

Published: Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 11:42 p.m.

The dead language lives.

Latin, the language of Ancient Rome and poets such as Virgil, has made a modern-day resurgence in high school classrooms.

The language's rise in popularity was evident Saturday when hundreds of students from five schools participated in a Latin competition at St. Francis High School.

Students dressed as Cleopatra and Marc Antony waited in a hallway for their turn in the speech and costume competition. In the school media center, drawings of Zeus and Poseidon, a bust of Dionysus and a model of an ancient Roman theater were just a few entries in the art show.

An 11-event Olympika included races, the shot put and a catapult event. Teams of students tested their knowledge of the classics and mythology in the quiz bowl event Certamen.

Dressed as Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, St. Francis senior Casey DeHaan, 17, confessed that when he started studying Latin four years ago, it was not to familiarize himself with terms he might run into as a lawyer or doctor. He just didn't want to take Spanish.

"But once we got into it, it was fun," he said.

Melissa Montrowl, 17, a senior at St. Francis and president of the school's Latin club, said part of Latin's draw is the fact that the study stretches beyond just language into literature, history, culture and mythology.

Then, there are the more practical reasons, like Latin helping college-bound students on the verbal section of the SAT.

"That is probably the main reason I took Latin," said Sarah Minnick, 17, a senior at Ocala Forest High.

She estimated about 100 students at that school take Latin.

St. Francis' Catherine Sturgill - the Florida Foreign Language Association's 2008 Latin Teacher of the Year - said 71 students take Latin at that school. That's up from 16 in the school's first year.

Besides helping with the SAT, she said Latin is popular because it helps students understand the terms they'll come across in science, math and other language classes.

"A lot of the words that we use - medical terms - are derived from Latin," said Tommy DePatioe, 16, a St. Francis sophomore who wants to be a doctor.

At Oak Hall School, 84 students are taking Latin this year. David Jackson, the school's Latin teacher, said that's the most he's had in his seven years there.

Jackson said the dead language was never really on life support.

"In education, it's always had a practical use in that 65 percent of the words in English are derived from Latin and 90 percent of the words with more than one syllable are derived from Latin," Jackson said.

He said competitions like the one Saturday also help boost the language's popularity.

Oak Hall eighth-grader Henry Schott,14, was on a Certamen team that finished third at a national competition in Ohio last year. He described the quiz bowl event as being like Jeopardy, "but faster."

"I find it to be really fun - a lot better than Spanish," Schott said of Latin. "I understand English better now that I'm studying Latin."

A New York Times story from last October detailed Latin's popularity surge nationwide.

In each of the last two years, more than 134,000 students across the country took the National Latin Exam, compared to 124,000 in 2003 and 101,000 in 1998.

Over a decade, the number of students taking the Advanced Placement test in Latin nearly doubled to 8,654 in 2007, The New York Times reported.

Students from Cornerstone Academy, St. Francis High, Oak Hall School, Ocala Forest and Leesburg High participated in Saturday's competition.

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