That exposure is growing in the secular world as well. The American Classical League/National Junior Classical League (ACL/NJCL) gave the first National Latin Exam to 7,000 students in 1978. In 2016, 154,000 sat for it, and the numbers keep climbing, with the largest growth coming from home-schooling families.
Designed to encourage the study of Latin and give students a sense of accomplishment, the Exam presents 40 questions at seven different levels of study from first-year students to those studying at the highest levels. Questions include not just grammar and vocabulary, but also mythology, English derivatives, and classical life, history and geography. The NLE awards gold and silver medals for excellence, and has given out $1 million in student loans over the years.
Some students are drawn to Latin to get an edge on the SATs, since there’s evidence it helps improve scores, but most are drawn to culture and the way Latin aids in understanding the very roots of language. Sixty percent of English, as well as huge portions of many other languages, is derived from Latin, so understanding Latin provides a solid foundation for future language study. Linda Montross, Co-Chair, ACL/NJCL National Latin Exam, adds that “students who study Latin are better writers, speakers, thinkers.”
At Thomas More College, students must take Latin or Greek for the first two years. The college’s chief Latinist, Fred Frasier, says it does more than just help with English composition. “As the students undergo the liberal arts curriculum, they encounter texts that move them deeply, but which are translated from Latin into English, or they develop an appreciation for Latin as a sacred language in the Roman Catholic Liturgy. In both of these cases, they realize that by knowing Latin they can deepen their sense of a text or of the liturgy. I regularly witness Latin strengthening the spiritual life of the students at Mass and in their private devotions. During Mass, especially a sung Mass, students participate more fully when they understand the Latin responses that they are making.”
Since Latin is a “dead” (that is, unchanging and largely unspoken) language, the focus is on reading rather than speaking. As Kristie Joyce points out, that means teachers “focus more on myth and stories. In my experience, students would much rather read ancient myths and stories and make connections to our world today, than learn how to introduce themselves and go to a cafe as they do in the ‘living’ language classes.”
Charlotte, a high school freshman and first year gold medalist, chose to study Latin “because of how beneficial it will be when trying to decipher seemingly gibberish words on standardized tests. Also, as a history nerd I like preserving old things, so it feels nice to contribute to keeping such an ancient language alive. I enjoy Latin for the interesting culture that comes with it, and the passages and letters written over a thousand years ago that I can now translate and understand. It opens a window into history.”
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Is Latin Still Relevant?]
Thomas L. McDonald was a C-student in Latin, but at least his daughter is a gold medalist in the NLE.