For A Supposedly Dead Language, Latin Continues To Attract Students
If you saw 1,600 teenagers gathered for a week in the summer on a college campus, you might expect that they were participating in a camp or touring the college. But celebrating a dead language? That probably wouldn't be your first guess. Sure enough, middle and high schoolers from 31 states spent a week in July at the 54th annual National Junior Classical League (NJCL) convention, proving that Latin is still very much alive.
The NJCL, founded in 1936 as the youth division of the American Classical League, boasts over 50,000 members across the U.S., Canada and Australia. Many of these young classical scholars participate in the NJCL's main event, its national convention each summer. This year's convention took place at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Pennsylvania's delegation consisted of 10 students, all from Upper Dublin High School. Rachel Applebaum, a graduate of Upper Dublin, attended as a member of the Senior Classical League, the college affiliate of JCL. Mary Jane Koons, the Upper Dublin Latin teacher, chaperoned the students.
Participants at the convention competed in arts, sports, academics, and a classical game show known as Certamen (Latin for "contest"). But although the delegates willingly, even enthusiastically, took challenging tests each day during the summer, the convention was not filled with nerds or centered on competition. Dances, bowling, karaoke, swimming and other social activities each night allowed JCLers to make friends from all 31 states that sent delegates.
"Thousands of people from across the country unite because they love Latin and they're enthusiastic about it," attendee Amy Gallop explained. "There are so many different kinds of people, and they're all so nice and so happy to be there. It's really refreshing to see that in high school students."
Uproarious daily spirit competitions featured themes such as "JCeLvis: The Eighth King of Rome" and "It's a Hard Knoxville Life." Each state delegation wore thematic costumes and screamed cheers until they lost their voices, hoping to win silly spirit prizes such as Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans and Transformers masks.
When they were not competing, cheering or socializing, JCLers could attend a multitude of colloquia, lectures on topics varying from ancient Roman families to college admissions to web design, taught by distinguished teachers and professors, as well as high-school-age members of the NJCL board. Delegates also brought non-perishable food to donate to a food bank in Knoxville.
John Weiss described the convention as "an opportunity to socialize, an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to experience, an opportunity to grow."
Koons has been teaching for 28 years, 22 of them in Upper Dublin. When she arrived in 1984, she reinstated the district's Latin program, but the class was offered only in the high school, although other languages began in middle school. Naturally, students who had begun study of a language already did not want to start over when they reached high school, and few students signed up to take Latin. After several years, the district threatened to cut the program. Koons and her devoted students attended a school board meeting dressed in togas and persuaded the school board not only to keep the Latin program but to start teaching Latin in eighth grade with the other languages. In 1993, Koons brought her first group of students to the PAJCL state convention, and in 1998, she began chaperoning Pennsylvania delegations to the national convention.
"I've always found it amazing that there are 1,500 students and everyone feels like part of it," she commented. "No one is sitting in the dorms. They're competitive yet social and so enthusiastic and spirited. There's a nice camaraderie."
Some state delegations consisted of more than 200 students (Texas always sends a huge contingent), but despite their small numbers, Pennsylvania's 10 delegates came home with many awards: first place state digital scrapbook (created by PAJCL '06-'07 historian Joanna Linzer of the Ellis School), first place skit (performed by Rachel Kachnycz and Chauncey Smith), second place state newsletter (edited by Kristin Gottron of North Hills Senior High School) and third place in spirit. Upper Dublin's scrapbook, created by Victoria Miller and Grace Stockbauer, won fourth place, and UDHS was also awarded 12th place in the national publicity contest, thanks to Weinstein's work compiling the entry.
The NJCL, NSCL, National Latin Honor Society, and the National Latin Exam all award scholarships to high-achieving participants, especially those planning to take Latin or Greek in college and those planning to become teachers of classics, a position with many openings nowadays.
Latin is, indeed, on the rise again. Though enrollment may never reach the levels that existed back in 1900, when over 50 percent of all American public high school students took Latin, the ancient language is experiencing a revival. In the anti-elitist educational climate of the 1970s, enrollment fell to just 150,000. But by 2000, it rebounded to over 177,000 students. In 2006, 8,177 students took an advanced placement Latin exam, nearly doubling the 4,142 who had taken it in 1995.
"Harry Potter" and "Green Eggs and Ham" have been translated into Latin. Movies and TV specials set in ancient Rome are increasingly popular, and the Finnish national radio station even broadcasts in a weekly news report in Latin. The Latin version of Wikipedia contains over 14,000 articles written entirely in this so-called dead language.
Students cite enhanced English vocabulary and grammar skills, fascination with Roman history and mythology and higher SAT scores as reasons for choosing Latin. A 1997 report by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages found that Latin students' average verbal SAT score was 647, far higher than the national average of 505. And with approximately 65 percent of English words coming from Latin roots, students' vocabularies are certainly increased by a knowledge of Latin.
"I find myself reading a book and being confused about a word, and then I'll look closer and realize that I know it because of Latin. ... It's the best feeling ever," said Gallop.
"It's an excellent background for any person," said Koons. "You see how languages work. It involves a discipline you don't get in many subjects. You learn to pay attention to detail because you have to get every noun and verb ending correct."
Koons claims that she finds a multitude of ways to show her students that Latin is relevant in the modern world. "I try to show them whenever I come across anything related to Latin in science, literature, or history. No matter where I go or what I read, I'm always on the lookout for things that relate to the classics."
Weiss added: "I'd recommend Latin to anyone with an interest in history, an interest in culture, an interest in government, an interest in architecture, an interest in literature, an interest in languages dead or alive - French, English, Spanish, Portuguese - everything comes from Latin."