The ancient language of poets, priests and philosophers isn't dead to Matthew Welch.
Welch, a senior at Jordan High School and president of the school's Latin Club, knows many of his peers opt to take Spanish or French as a way to meet their language requirements. But while future employers may look favorably upon a student fluent in Spanish, Welch said he wouldn't trade his four years of Latin for a different "more relevant" language.
"Everyone says, 'Latin is a dead language, you'll never use it,' " Welch said. "But it's still relevant, even though it's not that useful in speaking. It allows you to get an appreciation for literature and an appreciation from where our language today comes from. It's ended up being a great experience for me."
Although Spanish continues to thrive as the dominant language taught in Triangle high schools, Latin isn't going away without a fight. With small but steady enrollments, Latin courses attract top students who hope studying the language also will help them learn about history, art, theater, law and medicine -- and boost their verbal SAT scores.
On the recent National Latin Exam, taken by 145,000 students across the United States, 67 out of the 77 students enrolled in Jordan's Latin courses achieved awards. At Chapel Hill High School, 66 out of 89 students earned awards.
And North Carolina's Junior Classical League, made up of high school seniors and juniors, continues to grow, with a count of 32 school chapters and 1,451 members in February. One local Latin teacher, Peggie Murray from Orange High School in Hillsborough, is the co-chairwoman of the statewide Junior Classical League and plays a large role in convincing area Latin students to attend conferences and conventions.
Barbara Johnson, the Latin teacher at Jordan High School for the past five years, said there are numerous benefits to enrolling in a Latin course, and the earlier, the better.
"Students become so much more aware of their own language by taking Latin," said Johnson, Jordan's Latin teacher. "In English, you have so many derivatives that come from Latin. Two years of basic Latin can prep you for a much higher understanding of English, and for any other Romance language."
But Johnson doesn't teach her Latin class in the same way as a traditional Romance language. No Jordan students are fluent in Latin, and there's no conversational dialogue spoken between students. Instead, the focus is on reading comprehension, vocabulary and translating legendary texts such as Vergil's Aeneid, which describes the origins of the Roman culture.
Also, about 50 percent of class time is spent on Roman history, culture and mythology -- not on conjugating verbs or interpreting poems. The focus on Roman history is one reason why Jacob Bowden, now a senior at Jordan, signed up for Latin as a student at Githens Middle School.
"In sixth grade, I was fascinated with ancient history and mythology, and I had a knack for languages as well," Bowden said. "When you start taking Latin, you realize that seeing an original text as it was written, and not translated, is pretty powerful."
Still, Latin's popularity in public schools doesn't come close to approaching that of Spanish.
"Spanish is overpowering here," Johnson admitted, adding that the school's language department is trying to hire another Spanish teacher for next year to meet increased demand. "But I strongly feel that Latin is the basic language that helps if students want to learn Spanish, French or Italian. There's so much academic discipline that's involved in memorizing words and learning rhetorical devices and syntax that can help in any language."
Spanish also thrives at Northern High School, which enrolls about 55 students in three levels of Latin this year, compared with 475 Spanish students and 70 French students, said Latin teacher Hugh Maxwell.
Although their numbers may be small, Latin students retain at least one advantage over the classmates taking Spanish -- their language choice appears more unique when applying to college.
"It's less common to see somebody who's taking an AP Vergil course their senior year, so certainly that might help a student's high school transcript stand out," said Steve Farmer, the director of admissions at UNC Chapel Hill. "But it doesn't mean a student taking it will be admitted at all costs. Language studies, period, look good to us. We don't play favorites. Latin is great, but no more great than if a student takes French, Spanish or Chinese."
Farmer said admissions officials pay attention to students with an affinity for language.
"It's really important to us that students be able to read, write and think in a language besides their own," he said. "When high school students do that at an early stage in their academic lives, we think it's wonderful."
Numbers to rise?
One of Durham's most recent high school reforms -- a move to a block schedule in time for the upcoming school year -- could lead to more students having room in their schedules to sign up for languages like Latin. At Northern, Maxwell said the school's Latin enrollment has been slowly rising through the years, with more students signing up for Advanced Placement classes in particular.
Next year, when Durham high schools adopt a block schedule, students will take eight classes throughout the course of a full year, instead of the current six classes. Maxwell said he's confident more students will sign up for Latin, in that they have two additional electives to choose from. To meet that demand, Northern plans to offer six levels of Latin next year and two different Advanced Placement courses, Vergil's Aeneid and Ovid/Catullus, in alternating years, Maxwell said.
"More kids can take more Latin, and it's theoretically possible for a student to take up to eight different semesters of Latin," Maxwell said, in praising the block schedule. "We are all very optimistic about how this will help the future of our program, and all looking forward to it."