Latin: A Language Alive and Well

Marie Davis teaches Olivia Stark, left, Mattin Shokoor and Erik Anderson by linking Latin words with motions.
Marie Davis teaches Olivia Stark, left, Mattin Shokoor and Erik Anderson by linking Latin words with motions. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Latin is considered by many to be a dead language, but not by Marie Davis.

Davis, who teaches Latin to children at Daniels Run Elementary School in Fairfax City, is trying to develop students' skills not just in word recognition but in conversation, too.

Because Latin is not commonly spoken anywhere in the world, lessons usually are about everything except conversation.

Students generally memorize verb endings and adjective and noun declensions; translate classic Roman literature; and learn about Roman history. Some students who have trouble learning to speak modern languages -- the hardest element of language learning -- sometimes take Latin instead.

But teachers such as Davis say they are trying to revive Latin -- and that includes conversing in it. They say they are modeling their effort on how Israelis revived the ancient language of Hebrew.

Davis teaches Latin to students in grades 3 through 6 by connecting it to concrete content areas, such as science and math. Students learn to count in Latin and learn Latin adjectives to describe the butterflies they study in science.

"The best approach to language is to apply what you learn," she said, adding that it is also important to integrate language learning with other academic disciplines.

Latin lovers list many reasons to learn the language, whether or not they become conversant in it. They say that students learn about a language and culture common to people throughout the Americas and Europe and that more than 90 percent of two-syllable words in English are derived from Latin. This translates into stronger English skills, which can help on standardized tests, Davis said. And learning Latin helps students learn other languages.

Some educators, however, think teaching Latin is not the best use of time for students. "If the idea is to help with learning another language like Spanish or Russian, why not start with Spanish or Russian?" asked professor Robert M. DeKeyser, the incoming editor of the scientific journal Language Learning.

But more schools are adding Latin classes, the Harry Potter books are sprinkled with Latin words and a Finnish radio station (at ) even broadcasts in Latin.

It is, appropriately, called "Latin Alive!"

-- Valerie Strauss

© 2005 The Washington Post Company