Latin enrollment up in Newark, Ohio. Also: how to revive Latin as a spoken language

Friday, September 18, 2009

Here's some more good news from two days ago: enrollment in Latin at a high school called Granville High School in Newark, Ohio (a city very close to the state capital) is up for two years running now. Two years ago 93 students were taking the language, last year it increased a tad to 101, and this year it reached 160, meaning that extra sessions were added to accommodate this. There is no information in the article on whether enrollment has increased throughout the state as well, but it's very likely considering that this has been the case in other locations such as New York, which has seen a 26% increase over the past four years.

That link with the New York numbers also mentions that there is a location in the state close to the capital called Clifton Park, which is the area where the largest concentration of Latin students can be found. In the Shenendehowa Central School District there 420 students are learning Latin, and just looking at this school district alone it would mean that a full 1.15% of the people living there were learning the language. Add to that other school districts and people who had studied the language previously and thus retain a bit of skill in the language, and there may be some opportunity there for proponents of Latin's revival.

The reason for this is given here, on Wikipedia's page on language revitalization. There one can see the eight steps proposed for the revitalization of a language, which must be done in sequential order after the previous steps have been achieved. Steps one to three of this process are as follows:

  1. Acquisition of the language by adults, who in effect act as language apprentices (recommended where most of the remaining speakers of the language are elderly and socially isolated from other speakers of the language).
  2. Create a socially integrated population of active speakers (or users) of the language (at this stage it is usually best to concentrate mainly on the spoken language rather than the written language).
  3. In localities where there are a reasonable number of people habitually using the language, encourage the informal use of the language among people of all age groups and within families and bolster its daily use through the establishment of local neighbourhood institutions in which the language is encouraged, protected and (in certain contexts at least) used exclusively.
Latin has definitely achieved Step 1, or to be more precise, has maintained and strengthened it. It has enough teachers and fluent users around the world that it can be taught and retaught to any that wish to learn it. There is a slight problem there when it comes to modern terminology, but for the most part Latin is good to go, as the translation of many modern books into the language proves. This means that it's time to go on to Step 2.

The most important part about Step 2 is that the spoken language needs to be focused on, rather than the written language. Latin is similar to constructed IALs (International Auxiliary Languages such as Esperanto, Ido and Interlingua) in that most of the action takes place in the written form, because it's extremely difficult to find places to use the language in person, and without this ability to practice a language in its spoken form it's very hard to achieve fluency.

As with the three constructed languages just mentioned, Latin does have gatherings of a few days in length where the language can be practiced, but a language needs an area where it is used in person every day throughout the year, not just a few days. Because of this, Latin revival advocates need to select a location where there is already a relatively high concentration of students and former students (and thus people that are receptive to the idea of reviving the language) and work on building a community there. Let's take Clifton Park as an example.

With Clifton Park one has an area of 48.6 sq mi or 125.8 km2, and at least 420 people who are currently studying the language. Add to that those that have studied it before and we might have about 1000, meaning that within a single sq. kilometre one is likely to find around ten people that are studying or have studied the language, which is not a bad place to start from. Factor in the fact that only a certain percentage of this area will be residential, and this goes up a bit further. In an area like this one could, for example, put up notices in Latin on the street (something like "Gathering at Coffee Shop X on Saturday, coffee is free if you speak Latin") and expect a large number of people to be able to read them.

However, Step 2 is about concentrating on the spoken language and that means there is a crucial obstacle to surmount here: even with the relatively large number of people in this area that know some Latin, it is still very small in comparison to the rest of the population, and there is no way to know when walking down the street whether someone speaks the language or not. Thus, some sort of symbol is required to identify who speaks it (or wants to speak it). A symbol of this sort needs to be fairly prominent but still not too obvious, something like a ring or an amulet. Without this, the use of Latin in the area would remain restricted to planned gatherings, but a living language needs to be used spontaneously, so the symbol is a must. Along with the symbol would be given a small guidebook with some instructions for conversations one might have on the street. Talking about the weather, when's the next bus, where are you going, what have you. Without this it might be difficult for many to strike up a conversation if they have spent most of their time reading ancient texts and not enough time practicing daily phrases.

The next step would be to try to make it easier for others to move to the community. This is actually not too difficult a task, as it can be seen in pretty much every community with a linguistic minority around the world. In Vancouver for example there are plenty of Japanese and Korean newsletters, which have classified sections with people seeking employees, roommates and the like, and this is often the best way to find a roommate in a city like that. The Latin community could do the same thing, with classifieds looking for and offering work, people looking for roommates, selling furniture, advertising get-togethers where friends can be made, and so on. And since Latin was and is to be a bridge language, bringing in people from other linguistic backgrounds is a plus. In a place like New York that means perhaps trying to appeal to French speakers from Quebec or Maine, who use and pronounce Latin in a slightly different way. Spanish and Italian speakers too, of course.

With enough effort at the beginning this would eventually become self-sustaining, because once a community where the language can be used daily is created it would become a site for pilgrimages of sorts, where Latin teachers and students from around the country would make trips to the area in order to practice the language. This would make the area into a prime touristic location, and from this would spring up other potential sources of revenue. Hotels with signs in Latin would receive the tourists, a bookstore or two may spring up (or a larger bookstore may begin offering a Latin section), coffee shops with signs in Latin would get more business from the tourists, and the whole area would begin to change in response to this. Articles would be written about the area, and eventually some tourists from other countries would be sure to stop by there on their trips to New York. Local government would certainly be interested in supporting this as well once the benefits to tourism become obvious, and one could expect to start seeing bilingual signage as can be seen in the image on the right, which is from Wallsend Metro Station in England, itself a tiny tourist destination for Latin students.

If the Latin revivalist movement is to do something like this, however, a perfect location needs to be chosen. There may be better locations than Clifton Park. Any location with 1) a relatively high concentration of Latin speakers, 2) convenient access to other parts of the country (and if possible to Quebec and the rest of Canada to the north), and 3) relatively cheap living costs may be able to serve. Please make recommendations in the comments below if you know of an ideal location in the US where this could be accomplished.

Edit: in order to more fully make the case that Latin is on its way to achieving a momentum whereupon it can be revived as a spoken language, here are some of the posts from here over the past year or so that have catalogued its growth.


R.W. said...

Wow, I had no idea. And Clifton Park is only about 30 minutes driving from my hometown. I (and I'd bet many others in the surrounding areas) never heard about their Latin program though. The high school I went to didn't offer Latin, though, only Spanish and French. We were a small school, though, so our language department didn't really get much in comparison to other "more important" (to the school board, not to me personally) departments.

R. Ward said...

Wow, I had no idea. And Clifton Park is only about 30 minutes driving from my hometown. I (and I'd bet many others in the surrounding areas) never heard about their Latin program though. The high school I went to didn't offer Latin, though, only Spanish and French. We were a small school, though, so our language department didn't really get much in comparison to other "more important" (to the school board, not to me personally) departments.

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