Audio Slideshow: Latin Has Declined, but It’s Not Dead Yet

Tuesday, April 16, 2013
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The Mountain School is looking for a new Latin teacher for next year.

Every semester, 40 or so high school juniors from around the country trek to Vershire for a term in the woods. And of every new crop of students, five or six want to take Latin.

“I think we expected, ultimately, to see Latin study slowly drop off,” said Lauren Agrella-Sevilla, director of studies at The Mountain School. But demand remains unchanged.

As foreign language education has declined in recent years, Latin has struggled to hold onto its place in the classroom. Where it is still taught, Latin is often viewed as a subject solely for the college bound, a view that some teachers feel is not only wrong-headed, but an example of how education is broken.

“There’s a cultural prejudice about Latin, that it’s for the smart kids. I hate that,” said Dean Barker, who has taught Latin at Kearsarge Regional High School in North Sutton, N.H., since 2007, and before that taught for six years at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden. By “smart,” Barker meant students who are destined for college thanks to parental expectations and status.

But Latin rewards students who are willing to work hard, and, Barker said, “kids that work hard are all over the socio-economic scale.”

When Barker started at Kearsarge, there were 50 to 60 students taking Latin. This year, 100 are attending Barker’s classes, which include Advanced Placement Latin.

Partly because it is a dead language, Latin offers something that Spanish and French, the most commonly taught foreign languages, don’t: A language to analyze. Latin is unchanging and rewards the sort of rote learning that has fallen out of fashion, Barker said.

“My own feeling about teaching languages is that it’s nice to have different languages that appeal to different parts of the brain,” he added.

While 60 percent of English words trace their roots to Latin, the rudiments of the ancient language are much different. Latin nouns, for example, fall into five different declensions. To write or translate Latin, a student has to understand the six grammatical cases that are applied to and change the form of the nouns. For example, a noun in the nominative case is generally the subject of a sentence, while the accusative case corresponds to the direct object.

While Latin was once widely taught, it has been on the decline for a century. It has been influenced by a wide range of cultural movements, from the Roman Catholic Church’s adoption of vernacular languages for Mass in the mid-1960s to the more recent standardized testing required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The percentage of high schools with foreign language programs that offered Latin fell from 20 percent in 1997 to 13 percent in 2008, according to the most recent report from the Center for Applied Linguistics. The same study shows that foreign language study declined nationwide, and that there’s a substantial gap in foreign language learning between public and private schools.

Now, most of the students steered toward Latin are on the college track. Nearly every private school in the area offers it, including Kimball Union Academy, Crossroads Academy and Cardigan Mountain School. But only a handful of public schools do so, among them the high schools in Hanover, Lebanon, Woodstock and Woodsville, as well as Kearsarge.

Educators who either teach Latin or work at schools where it’s taught said that studying Latin develops habits of mind and language skills like no other subject.

“We just think it’s foundational,” said Jean Behnke, head of Crossroads Academy, the private K-8 school in Lyme.

Studying Latin, teachers said, builds the vocabulary required to excel on the verbal Scholastic Aptitude Test and signals to college admissions officers a certain seriousness of scholarly intent.

But it has other benefits that could apply more broadly. It reinforces English grammar skills, or as Tom LaFleur, a Latin teacher at Lebanon High School said, it teaches the grammar that English classes don’t.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that grammar is no longer taught in public schools,” LaFleur said.

Latin also provides a link to a 2,000-year-old culture, one that established the first republican government and produced great art, writing and architecture. Latin is still a pervasive presence in American life.

“Pick up a coin,” Behnke said. “It’s on the back of the U.S. coins.” (“E pluribus unum” means “From many, one.”)

More importantly, Behnke added, studying Latin pushes back against the shorter attention spans students develop from using computers.

“We’re finding it’s harder to teach Latin now than it was 10 years ago,” Behnke said. “I think that kids now are being trained by technology to flip from one thing to another. ... I don’t think that trains you to think deeply.” Latin requires steady concentration and effort, a deep dive, Behnke called it.

The current economy and the current educational policy environment have been hostile to Latin. “I have to prove my worth,” said Barker.

Parents aren’t always persuaded that Latin is a subject their children should study, LaFleur said.

“If you can’t make a strong case that this is something an employer is going to be looking for, it’s going to be a hard thing to sell,” said LaFleur, who has around 35 students in his Latin classes.

With so much riding on annual standardized tests, schools have emphasized reading and math, at times to the detriment of foreign languages. Roughly a third of public schools with language programs reported that foreign language instruction had been affected by No Child Left Behind’s requirements, the Center for Applied Linguistics report states.

So as The Mountain School looks for a new Latin teacher, the current teacher, Reggie Johnson, emailed to say, “The study of Latin helps to order the mind. That is to say, it disciplines the mind by forcing it to pay attention to details relentlessly. Latin exercises the memory while engaging the imagination — a powerful connection for learning and mind-shaping.”

The Latin teachers, particularly those at public schools, hope to bring more students into the fold.

“I think that what it offers is something that all of our students could benefit from,” LaFleur said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at, or 603-727-3219.

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