Los Alamos High School students Karen Mei and Yoda Shimada are members of an elite academic group. They are among the 1 percent of students worldwide who passed the National Latin Exam with a perfect score.
Even among Los Alamos High School's high-achieving students, the feat is not a small one. Christie Marcotte, the school's Latin teacher, said only two other students in the past 13 years have answered every question on the test correctly. "It's pretty amazing that we had two in one year," she said.
Although the study of Latin declined drastically in the 1960s and early 1970s, Latin enrollment has been growing in the last decade, dramatically in some places and some grades.
The number of students taking the National Latin Exam, the largest Latin test in the world, grew from 6,000 students in 1977 to 135,000 this year, said Diane Thomas, National Latin Exam office administrator.
Karen and Yoda said they not only find Latin relevant, but also fun. Karen, 17, said she decided to study Latin because it is the root of all Western languages and she thought it would be fun. The language hasn't disappointed her, she said.
"It's interesting in all aspects," Karen said. That's because it includes the study of history and myths like Jason and the Argonauts, which tells the tale of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, she said.
Karen said she will probably study literature after high school and might also take some journalism classes.
Yoda, 15, said he has enjoyed translating Latin texts in class. His favorite is a Latin version of The Odyssey, which details the wanderings of Odysseus after the Trojan War. Parts of The Odyssey were in his textbook, he said, and his freshman class translated about 20 pages of the story.
Shimada said he is leaning toward the study of medicine when he graduates from high school and believes his background in Latin will help him understand medical terms.
Marcotte said some people say they don't have an interest in studying Latin because it is a "dead" language, meaning no one speaks it anymore. But she begs to differ.
"I tell them that about 60 percent of what comes out of your mouth is Latin," Marcotte said. English and all the romance languages like French and Spanish are based on Latin, she said.
Studies have also shown that taking Latin gives students a 10 to 20 percent advantage on standardized tests like the SAT because studying the language improves students' vocabulary, Marcotte said.
Both Karen and Yoda agreed. Karen said her understanding of English grammar has definitely improved since taking the class. "The Romans were crazy about grammar," she said. "They had about a gazillion tenses."
Yoda said he does better on his English vocabulary tests because he now knows the Latin roots of English words.
Marcotte said about two-thirds of her students took the National Latin Exam this year, which translates to about 40 students. Students take the exam at the school, and a guidance counselor usually administers it, she said.
According to Marcotte, students in the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Niger Republic, Poland, Switzerland and Zimbabwe took the test this year.
"It's the National Latin Exam," Marcotte said, "but some say it should be called the International Latin Exam."
The National Latin Exam committee is based at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. To learn more about the exam, go to http://www.nle.org.