Spoken Latin: A modern remedy for the nation’s age-old reading problems?

LUGUVALIUM, Pa.

There are some basic things to figure out before you agree to join a group of people who all speak a foreign language. Like how to say hello and how to tell them what your name is. A little online research reveals any number of e-phrasebooks to help you navigate those niceties in languages from Arabic to Zapotec.

So, iPhone in hand, you open a door and introduce yourself. “Salve,” you whisper to the first person you see. Emboldened, you speak up: “Nomen mihi est Francisca.” But then, before you can conjugate a deponent verb, a man sitting at a table begins discussing the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. In Latin.

Fluent (that’s from fluere, “to flow”) Latin.

Mellifluous Latin, even. Latin that flows like honey, mel.

“Stupefacta sum,” you mumble.

But that reaction, it turns out, is totally last century. Many forward-thinking educators, including several in Washington, are advocating “active Latin” — learning to converse in Latin, singing Latin songs and playing Latin games with students, and even designing immersion Latin curricula. They think kids should not only be able to read a dead language but also order lunch in it — including kids who are struggling to compose a grammatical sentence in English. Claudia Bezaka, world languages program coordinator for D.C. Public Schools, thinks Latin could “be a game changer, in terms of the literacy of the students.” Bezaka, who believes in integrating classical with contemporary language teaching, calls Latin “the great equalizer,” a tongue that children from diverse backgrounds can tackle on equal footing, ab initio. From the word go.

Think about that: taking an ancient language associated with the academic elite and reviving it as a remedy for the nation’s reading problems.

Richard Trogisch, principal of the School Without Walls in Northwest, has picked up Bezaka’s philosophy and run with it. Trogisch knows all the old arguments for learning Latin — that it helps with logical thinking, getting a better grasp of English grammar and vocabulary, conquering the SATs (and doing well in spelling bees).

Having seen its benefits in Europe and in other American schools, Trogisch made Latin a requirement for every one of the 310 kids — including special ed students — from pre-K through eighth grade at his Title I school. Last year, he hired two instructors to teach those children spoken Latin. (As Bezaka points out, you can’t teach preliterate children a purely written language, anyway. Bene dictum!)

“The kids in the preschool love Latin,” says Trogisch, and “react more positively than to Spanish,” which was taught before.

Four-year-old Theo Roy is one of the School Without Walls’s young cognoscenti of the classics. He knows that the lightning bolts in Washington’s summer skies come from the god Jupiter and has tips on how to outsmart a Gorgon (use a mirror). He tells his father, Chris Sondreal, the Latin words for farm animals like porcus and vacca (a clue to the critical role that cows played in the development of vaccines).

There are similar Latin language movements afoot in schools around Baltimore and in New York, Bezaka says.

“Stupefactissima sum.”


Teachers Paul Perrot and Jennifer Larson study Latin in Carlisle, Pa. Perrot teaches at Potomac Falls High School in Loudoun County, Va. (Tony Moore/Dickinson College)

It all goes a long way toward explaining why 35 people, several of them teachers from Washington and Virginia, are paying $300 to spend a week at Latin camp here at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. (or Luguvalium to this crowd, who use the Roman moniker for the British city of the same name). It explains why they have all signed a contract to speak only Latin all week. Why a similar camp about twice the size in Lexington, Ky., was oversubscribed this year. And why Justin Prinzbach, 27, one of the School Without Walls elementary teachers, is so hard to reach:

He has been at a retreat, known as Rusticatio Virginiana, at the Claymont Mansion in West Virginia, from which he sends an e-mail explaining he has spent a week “speaking nothing but Latin and going without any correspondence with family and friends to protect” what he calls “my ‘Latinity.’ ” During a recent tornado watch, Prinzbach says, the entire Claymont Latin-speaking community decamped to the mansion’s basement, where they rode out the storm together singing “A Pirate’s Life” in Latin. (“Io, ho, io, ho, vita piratica!”)

Ecce! On this, their first morning together, the Luguvalium Latin campers are gathering around to introduce themselves. They’re an oddly normal-looking group of men and women ranging in age from 17 (that’s Max, a rising senior at Arlington’s H-B Woodlawn) to, shall we say, senescent (from senex, “old man,” which probably isn’t too offensive to this crowd, since the Romans accorded their elders such respect).

The campers describe how they enjoy the simple pleasures of life. They like to cook (coquere), to garden (laborare in horto) and to sing (cantare). Among them, they have numerous dogs (canes) and several hens (gallinas). At least one is a beekeeper (apiarius); one grows broccoli (brassicam Italicam); and another grows maize (a noun that sends some scholars scrambling for their dictionaries, which shouldn’t be surprising, as corn’s ancient roots lie in the Americas, not Rome).

You can’t help wondering whether they really live such enviably simple, rustic lives or whether it’s just too hard to describe the drudgery of modern existence in Ciceronian prose. Think of all the neologisms needed to describe the innovations of our era, as well as the hours devoted to answering e-mail, the sweaty summer afternoons spent sitting in commuter traffic on an SUV’s leatherette seats, the telephone calls to the dishwasher repair worker, the battles to get kids to turn off their video games. ...

Not that Terence Tunberg, the professor from the University of Kentucky who runs this camp (as well as the one in Lexington), would have any more trouble with that than he would describing what’s for lunch (caro gallinacea panicello obvoluta and ius ex brassica Italica). Tunberg says he speaks Latin as easily as English “and not rarely more easily” — a construction that surely proves his point.


Terence Tunberg, a professor of The University of Kentucky, speaks Latin as easily as he does English. (Brian Connors Manke/The University of Kentucky)

In the college cafeteria, the classicists mingle briefly with campers from the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth before tucking into their chicken wrap sandwiches and broccoli soup. As they eat, talk turns to existential issues.

Like, Why They Are Here.

They’ve signed away their rights to speak English because they believe in some version of the Bezaka-Trogisch philosophy: Speaking Latin will make them better Latin teachers, able to appeal to a wider group of students with a variety of learning styles; kids who learn to speak Latin will internalize the structure rather than seeing its syntax as a code to be deciphered.

And what’s the big deal anyway about the grammar method, which is only about 200 years old, asks Micah Willard, Latin teacher and athletic director at Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Va. (Remember, these are people who measure time in millennia, not minutes.)

Once you view Latin as the key to understanding both English and the history of Western civilization, as Jan McGlennon, who teaches at Wilson High in the District, puts it, you begin to think we should all speak Latin all the time.

Until you realize that not everyone has bought into this particular pedagogical (that’s Greek, btw) modus operandi (and that, of course, is Latin). Back in Washington, Bill Clausen, head of the classics department at Washington Latin Public Charter School, attributes the success of the active Latin movement to several charismatic gurus (oops, slipping into Sanskrit now) like Tunberg. So while Clausen agrees that speaking Latin puts an extra arrow in a teacher’s quiver, he’s not convinced that teaching students to speak should be the ultimate goal, unless “you’re signing up to be the pope’s Latinist.”

Their movement, the active Latinists acknowledge, is small but “robust.” (That’s from robur, meaning “hard timber,” “strength” or “a kind of oak.” See how addictive the derivation game becomes?)

And their movement is growing, the Latin campers insist. Paul Perrot, who teaches at Potomac Falls High School, says that in Loudoun County, for example, schools have continued to offer Latin as the population expands.

Making teaching Latin a growth industry!

“If you are looking for a Latin job, one of the biggest questions now is, ‘Are you speaking it?’ ” Prinzbach says. “Four years ago, when I applied for a job, they didn’t even ask me.”

With 60 percent of English derived from Latin, the language echoes throughout our lives, emphasize two high school Latin teachers, Jane Brinley, from the School Without Walls, and Nora Kelley, Max’s mom, who has come from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington.

As if on cue, a counselor from the Hopkins camp, eager to make sure a morning lesson is remembered, leans across a lunch table, and calls out to a student.

And this is what he says, verbatim:

“Iterate,” he begins. “And reiterate,” he says again. At the risk of flogging an equum mortuum, that’s from iterare, the Latin verb for “to repeat.”

Frances Stead Sellers is a staff writer for the Magazine.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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Frances Stead Sellers is senior writer at The Washington Post magazine. She joined the magazine in 2014 after spending two years as the editor of the daily Style section, with a focus on profiles, personalities, arts and ideas.
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