Students bring a dead language to life


Tony Morse

In a hands-on activity, freshmen Claire LeDuc and Claire Folkins write curse tablets in Latin 2 . After learning about how Romans used wax tablets to write curses on gravestones of people who wronged them, the class tried to replicate them. “It taught me more in depth about how people used to live back in Rome,” LeDuc said.

Reading the works of classical authors like Cicero and translating, Latin students focus on bringing back Roman history. Labeled as “dead” and thought of as ancient or a language of the past, Latin teacher Tom Herpel works to keep it alive.

“I chose Latin because at the time I was studying for the spelling bee so I already had a bunch of Latin roots down,” senior Gokul Venkatachalam said. “I thought if it could help me in any way I would take it. It wasn’t super useful but that’s okay, I still enjoyed it in middle school.”

While Latin is vocally dead because modern populations do not speak the language, it still has value.

“Vatican City, the Pope and the priest actually speak Latin to one other. [It is] the official language of the Pope, and he makes all of his news conferences in Latin,” Herpel said. “It is a language that can be spoken if you so desire.”

Academically, the language is focused on being able to read it, write it and learning about Roman history, Roman culture and how that influences modern society.

“I’m not particularly concerned with the application of the language itself. I think people can take Spanish, German [or] French, and what I’ve seen is that they usually don’t even retain their language after two years. I guess any language in high school is functionally a dead language if you’re not going to use it,” Venkatachalam said. “In comparison, Latin offers a lot of interesting perspectives because you do a lot of culture studies, you study history and you examine the classics. It’s really interesting [when] you’re learning a language so old that you are translating the works of people who died so long ago and you’re learning how the times were through what they’re saying.”

People think history is stationary and that it’s not changing, but the more that we find, the more that we learn. It changes our perspectives and our outlooks on the people that use this language and lived at that time.”

— Latin teacher Tom Herpel

Herpel believes that Latin is not dead and should be learned and investigated.

“If you think about it, doctors, they don’t study cadavers because they’re dead? People that work on car engines, they don’t look at those because they might be dead or not working? We learn a lot about things that don’t happen to be as movement oriented. You just need to look at it from a different perspective, and I think Latin is the exact same way.”

Latin students also get to work with artifacts from Ancient Rome.

“Mr. Herpel has done a lot of great things,” Venkatachalam said. “As a Latin 5 student, since we’ve mastered a lot of the language, we get to do a lot of hands-on stuff. We translate the works of ancient authors, we’ve been translating the works of Augustus right now. And then we create these themes [and] we watched a movie to talk about how language influences thought.”

Latin 3 students handled, washed and investigated Ancient Roman coins. They worked with a group called Ancient Coins for Education that gives students coins from the 400s.

“People think history is stationary and that it’s not changing, but the more that we find, the more that we learn. It changes our perspectives and our outlooks on the people that use this language and lived at that time,” Herpel said. “The textbook is almost alive, in the fact that it changes over time.”

They were able to see  Roman armor used by soldiers.

“Understanding the big picture is something that’s really important and you need a multifaceted way of studying that and Latin is one of those facets,” Venkatachalam said.

Along with the actual language, Latin students learn about how people used it in their natural setting and can also use skills from the language in their daily life.

“I think [the] bigger picture that people don’t recognize is the way that Latin is structured. It’s a very problem-solving, mathematical language and it helps all skill acquisition. This means it’s going to help you learn how to memorize, it’s going to help you learn how to organize, it’s going to help you learn how to decipher [and] be able to problem-solve. The skills that you learn in Latin will help you wherever you go,” Herpel said.