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Classical Languages Rising From Dead in U.S. Schools : Education: With one eye on vocabulary and the other on SAT exams, high school students show new interest in Greek and Latin.

November 05, 1992|APRIL GAVIN | GREENWICH TIMES

GREENWICH, Conn. — It was 6:47 a.m.--almost an hour before classes begin at Greenwich High School--and 19 bleary-eyed students were settling down to watch Elinor Carr write in ancient Greek on the blackboard.

"Everyone's nice and quiet this morning," said Carr, her back to the students as she put the vocabulary words on the board. "Are we awake yet?"

"No," someone grumbled.

The weekly class is an independent study, offered outside the school's normal curriculum, of the alpha and omega of Greek as it was written and spoken in the 5th Century BC.

The fact that students are willing to get to school an hour early for a class that is not required is a testament to a renewed interest in the classics being shown by students, language teachers say.

Another sign of this classical revival is size of Nancy-Anne Fitzgibbons' Latin I class, where 24 students ranging from freshmen to seniors are learning what many consider a "dead" language.

Only a few years ago, class sizes were half that, said Gail Montgomery, the head of the foreign language department at the high school.

"I think Latin went through a real dip and then resurged," Montgomery said. "This is the biggest Latin I class in a very, very long time."

The trend in Greenwich is a reflection of what is happening nationally, according to Geri Dutra, administrative secretary of the Junior Classical League, an Oxford, Ohio-based organization that promotes the study of the language and culture of Greece and Rome.

Interest in the 56-year-old organization has almost doubled to 54,000 students in the last 14 years, Dutra said.

"There's just been a lot of new interest in a very old language," she said.

The belief that learning Latin will help students understand English better and lead to higher Scholastic Aptitude Test scores is the hook that draw many students to the language, Fitzgibbons said.

But it is a love for Latin that keeps them there, she said.

"I make my students detectives," she said. "They are able to take words apart. Those who learn Latin start to love English, start to love French, start to love other languages more because they are based on Latin."

Students in the two classes gave reasons ranging from the SATs to boredom with Romance languages as their reason for turning to the classics.

"I didn't want to take French or Spanish," said Ted Weihman, 16, a junior at the high school who has studied Latin and Greek. "I figured Latin helps a lot with your vocabulary."

Weihman and another junior, Brooks Detchon, also 16, are taking Latin III this year and starting Carr's Greek class. Detchon said that he does not expect Greek to be difficult and that the only strange part would be learning a new alphabet.

That alphabet often scares students away from studying Greek, Carr said. Ancient Greek is a language where the letter "v" is pronounced like an "n," and what looks like an upside-down "y" is pronounced as "l." Never mind "theta," the letter that looks like a zero with a line through the middle.

Even those with a knowledge of modern Greek find the ancient version of the language challenging said senior Constantina Skeadas, 16, who went to a Greek-language school as a child.

"It is really different," she said. "I'm going to Greece for spring break next year, and I know that I'm going to wind up speaking to people there in ancient Greek. I'm going to forget how to speak regular Greek."

Skeadas said it was Carr's obvious love for the culture, history and language of Greece that persuaded her to start learning the language.

At the end of the class, Carr points on a map to the section near Athens where the fictional main character of the students' textbook, a farmer named Dicaeopolis, lived during the 5th Century BC.

"This was a very important time," she said. "Democracy, trial by jury, a political system with three parts on which we based our system, drama, theater--all of it started in the 5th Century BC, when Dicaeopolis was farming."

Compared with the early-morning quiet of Carr's class, the fast-paced action of Fitzgibbons' Latin I seems like a free-for-all. Boys who look--and act--like stereotypical class clowns literally jump out of their seats to decline a noun or offer a translation.

Fitzgibbons stresses the relationship between Latin and English, often asking students to come up with an English word based on its Latin ancestor. \o7 Deport\f7 comes from \o7 depotare\f7 , or \o7 to carry down,\f7 and \o7 exportare\f7 , or \o7 to carry out,\f7 gives us the English word \o7 export\f7 .

She had them a little stumped, however, when she tried to get an English word out of \o7 commovere\f7 , the Latin for \o7 to move with.\f7 So she tried to give them a hint.

"When you come into this class, you make a lot of noise, you come in with a lot of . . ." she said, waiting for them to fill out the sentence.

"Zest!" yelled one student.

"Well, yes, that's true, but I was looking for \o7 commotion\f7 ," she said.

Rebecca Brown, a 15-year-old junior, said it was the hope that Latin would help her SAT scores that piqued her interest in the language. She also had studied Spanish for four years and wanted to try something new.

"It really isn't 'dead' at all," she said. "It's a really interesting language."

Jennifer Bourne, a 17-year-old senior in Fitzgibbons' Latin III class, said it was a love of classics that drew her to Latin, not the other way around. She said she was excited because she now knew enough of the language to start reading Caesar's "Gallic Wars."

"I mean you can read it now, but this is in the original, and you translate it for yourself," said Bourne, who was one of about 1,000 students to receive a gold medal in the National Latin Exam last year. "That gives you a lot of power."

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