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New Life for 'Dead' Language at La Serna High : Students Go Latin, Helped by Computers

May 12, 1985|MARK LOWE | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — At a high school here a teacher is combining a language almost as old as civilization itself--and one written off as dead--with the symbol of the technological revolution of the 20th Century.

Every Thursday and Friday morning, a group of 20 Latin students at La Serna High School in Whittier meets in a special classroom to learn the language of the ancient Romans with the help of personal computers.

On a recent Thursday, students from the four levels of Latin classes were playing "Latin Hangman" on the computers. The object of the game is to translate classical proverbs without making so many mistakes that the computer hangs a "man" in the corner of the terminal screen.

Suddenly a cry went up in the room. "I got it!" one student shouted. The teacher, Kay Burkhart, and the rest of the class momentarily turned around at the outburst. Things then returned to normal.

"I think there is something to learning Latin, the old language, the dead language. I think it's interesting to use the computer to teach it," Burkhart said in an interview. Her students, she said, "really do get involved. They want to try to find the answers and that helps their Latin as they do it.

Renewed Interest

These students are part of a growing group throughout the United States who, educators say, are eager to learn Latin, a subject that as recently as 1970 was being dropped from high school and college curriculums for lack of interest.

Burkhart's students, however, seem interested, and Burkhart believes the computers help keep them interested as well as increase their motivation to learn.

A computer buff, Burkhart decided to incorporate the electronic machines into her Latin class. She developed exercises using existing Apple IIe programs, modifying them for Latin. One program allows students to translate Latin classics on the computer; another matches Latin roots with up to 30 English words based on that root.

Although Burkhart's faith in computers is strong, one critic--John Underwood, professor of Spanish and linguistics at Mills College in Oakland and author of a book on the use of computers in language classes--disputes the effectiveness of the types of programs she and other foreign language teachers use.

Most computer programs for language are mechanical and "not very innovative," Underwood said, "so what's being done with computers in language is seen as a step backward." Such programs also don't take full advantage of the computer, he said.

He criticized language games like Hangman for not stressing communication--which teaches students to think in a foreign language--and for only letting students recite word forms and sentence structure: "We don't recite paradigms when we talk to people."

Should 'Talk' With Computer

An ideal foreign language program, Underwood said, would allow a student to actually "talk" with the computer. The computer would ask questions and pick out key words in the student's answers to help it ask further questions. It also would correct the student's use of foreign words.

Burkhart defended the current use of computers. Hangman, she said, "gives students an exercise in thinking in that language." And because a computer essay-writing program allows students to edit their writing immediately, "they can really see the different ways to translate a sentence."

But she agreed that a communication program would be ideal, noting one program called The Linguist is "moving in that direction."

Underwood acknowledged that such programs are still in the future. He said that though he is skeptical today, he is optimistic that communication programs will surface.

"It's not typical," he said. "It's not what you see, but you will."

Latin is making a comeback in secondary schools after a 25-year decline, educators say.

At La Serna, the only school in the Whittier Union High School District to offer Latin, 55 students now study Latin. For fall, 40 students have signed up for the beginning Latin class alone.

Helps With Vocabulary

One of those enrolled is Kathleen Ball, 15, who said she is taking Latin because she believes it will be a "plus for college."

"I'm learning a lot of English," Ball said. "Latin roots help me with vocabulary and the SAT." And Burkhart teaches a "fun class," she added.

"I was on this intellectual trip," said another student, Dan Gardea, 16, "and Latin is the language for scholars."

Gardea said he plans to major in languages in college. He has already taken the Scholastic Aptitude Test--the standardized college entrance exam--and knowing Latin, he said, helped increase his score on the verbal part of the test.

Burkhart, who also teaches English at La Serna, took up Latin in college after discovering an interest in classics and translating. For a long time afterward, though, she could not teach Latin because few schools offered it.

"But finally some farsighted individuals decided to bring it back." She has taught Latin for 10 years at various local schools and colleges.

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