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Latin is foundation for language, faith

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Every year a fierce battle breaks out in Jenifer Scott’s fourth-grade Latin classroom at St. Veronica School in Chantilly. Barbarians launch crumpled paper projectiles at their Roman classmates who advance behind a wall of interlocking folders forming what is known as the Roman testudo or tortoise formation. It’s not a class gone wild but a fun interactive lesson on Roman military strategy. 

For the past 13 years, Scott has used popular activities such as this to bring Latin to life for a new generation of students. She has second-graders taking restaurant orders in Latin, sixth-graders building Roman villas and seventh-graders reading the original Latin of the more than 900-year-old Bayeux Tapestry.

“Latin is not dead. It is timeless." Jenifer Scott

“Latin is not dead. It is timeless,” said Scott, who starts off every year teaching her students about “Mama Latina” and her five “language babies”: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.

While all four of the diocesan high schools offer Latin, St. Veronica School is one of only five schools to offer the language this year at the elementary and middle school level, according to the Catholic Schools Office. St. Rita School in Alexandria, Our Lady of Hope School in Potomac Falls, St. Agnes School in Arlington and St. William of York School in Stafford are the others. Latin is mandatory at St. Veronica, Our Lady of Hope and St. William of York Schools in grades first through eight, while it is only mandatory at St. Rita School for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. St. Agnes School seventh- and eighth-graders have the option of taking either Latin or Spanish. 

With a growing Spanish-speaking population, many parents see Spanish as more useful.  Latin teachers such as Scott, believe Latin still has a lot to offer, and they’re not worried about their students being unprepared. In fact, Scott says her students have an easier time transitioning to Spanish or French in high school thanks to the language foundation they receive in Latin. 

Knowing Latin also helps with early English reading comprehension. More than 60 percent of English words have Latin roots.

 “I think we see a number a benefits with the younger students in terms of word decoding,” said Kendra Turchiarolo, director of admissions at St. Veronica School. “You see that in our standardized test scores, particularly when you are dealing with the younger students.”

While Latin is a very complex language to learn, most Latin teachers will tell you the class covers more than conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary.

 “It is amazing to see the amount of history it opens up to you, and to see the impact of the Romans on our society,” said Michael Schierer, Latin teacher at Our Lady of Hope School.

Schierer has 216 Latin students from first- through eighth-grade. For the younger classes, he focuses on simple vocabulary and uses sing-song techniques to help them memorize. 

“The younger they are it is a lot easier because it is new and exciting,” said Schierer. “This is one of the only times they know something their parents don’t, and we tell them to go home and teach their parents.” 

As the students advance, Schierer uses the Cambridge Latin Course, which leads them through activities by following a family in Pompeii. The students connect with the characters as they read and also learn about ancient Roman architecture, philosophy and government. 

As the work becomes more challenging in seventh-and eighth-grade, Schierer tries to encourage the students by showing them what they can do with the language in the future. 

“Many medical and law terms are in Latin, and the CIA and FBI like to hire Latin majors,” said Schierer.

St. William of York School recognizes Latin’s critical thinking and communication benefits. Principal Frank Nicely, who helped start the school’s Latin program three years ago, is very happy with the results and the support from the parents and students.

“They find a lot of gratification in their ability to think and analyze,” said Nicely. “We believe Latin is one of the greatest tools to train kids in critical thinking.”

The school devotes a page on their website to explaining the benefits of Latin with quotes from Pope St. John XXIII who called Latin, “a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech.”   

Ty Rallens, an engineer and manager at Hewlett-Packard, is quoted on the site saying that Latin is still very practical in today’s technology industry.

“Ninety percent of my daily work at HP utilizes classical training in Latin, logic, literature and history,” said Rallens at the Center for Independent Research on Classical Education Institute 2015 conference.

“If you can engage with Latin conjugations and declensions, indicatives and subjunctives, conditionals and participles, then you’re going to be much more comfortable dealing with Java or C++.”

In addition to Latin’s academic benefits, many teachers, administrators and parents believe Latin helps students understand what it means to be a Roman Catholic. Some of the first things the schools teach the younger students are prayers and hymns in Latin. Eventually, the students move up to more age-appropriate exercises, such as translating the Latin Vulgate, a late fourth century Latin Bible written by St. Jerome.

“It does make us stand out from other schools,” said Scott. “We are a Roman Catholic school and I think the history of the church, Latin and Roman are so intertwined. As the saying goes, ‘if you don’t study the past you will forever be a child.’ It is very important for us to teach them.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017