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A Comeback for Latin

November 13, 2012

"Because it's been a language of scholars and old things, it's got a mystique and romance to it," says Rachel Currie, one of many Australian students breathing new life into the dead language of Latin.

At the University of Western Australia, where Currie is taking a double major in biomedical science, introductory Latin this year has 129 students, an increase of 150 percent. Currie prizes Latin as a kind of master key of language that unlocks scientific terminology and opens up insights into English grammar as well as Romance tongues for travel in Europe.

But sheer fun can't be overlooked, and the textbook Lingua Latina, with its Roman family saga, helps teachers deliver. "Marcus beats up his sister, one of the uncles joins the army -- it's exactly like a Roman soap opera," Currie says.

A new liberal arts-style curriculum at UWA has helped languages generally, says Yasmin Haskell, who holds the Cassamarca Foundation chair in Latin humanism. Students must take "breadth" courses outside their home faculty. As a result, Latin reaches beyond the language nerds. Students from the sciences narrowly outnumber those from the arts.

At least in Western Australia, the caricature of school Latin -- a legion of declensions to be learned by rote -- is not an obstacle. If anything, Haskell says, Latin has a positive aura. Harry Potter's spells have lent the language a little magic.

In New South Wales, the Classical Association and the University of Sydney have clubbed together in the hope that state schools can share in the Latin revival. A class of 20 Year-5 pupils at Randwick has sampled Latin this year.

"We have to start small and show some results," says Richard Miles, a senior lecturer in the University of Sydney's classics department. "Latin teaches grammar, it teaches rigor, it gives access to a world which we're still absolutely fascinated with."

Beginners' Latin at Sydney had 78 students this year, about 20 percent more than in 2010, but the really big numbers are in ancient history. "You've got 250 to 300 people doing Roman history in first year," Miles says. "You don't get that anywhere else in the world -- Roman stuff is really massively strong in Australia."

Ron Ridley, president of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies, says: "It's certainly true that classics is making a comeback. Many schools have reintroduced Latin, as well as Greek."

Next year the University of Melbourne will add Latin and ancient Greek to its already garrulous diploma of languages, a useful course for would-be teachers. In private schools, the story is told of pupils who take up Latin once they realize they cannot compete in Mandarin with fellow pupils who speak that language at home.

Yet, as with any pair of languages, there are many points of connection for any point of competition. In June this year, the Beijing Foreign Studies University opened Latinitas Sinica -- a Centre for Latin Language and Culture in China.

 

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