11 October 2008

Is Latin Becoming More Popular with Kids?

This week the New York Times reported that more kids are learning Latin in schools, based on a couple of examples from greater New York and these national statistics:

The number of students in the United States taking the National Latin Exam has risen steadily to more than 134,000 students in each of the past two years, from 124,000 in 2003 and 101,000 in 1998, with large increases in remote parts of the country like New Mexico, Alaska and Vermont. The number of students taking the Advanced Placement test in Latin, meanwhile, has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, to 8,654 in 2007.
As one possible factor behind this trend, the newspaper noted that Latin is the basis for the spells in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. That series appeared in the US in 1998.

However, participation in the National Latin Exam rose steadily from 1977 to 2006, with no notable bump from the Harry Potter books or movies. Likewise, in 2004 the Deseret News reported, "The number of students taking Advanced Placement Latin nationally is nearly double what it was a decade ago" in 1994. So that test's rate of growth didn't accelerate in the Potter period, either.

Furthermore, the number of students taking standardized Latin tests might not actually indicate that the language's popularity is rising at the same rate. Six years ago, CNN noted:
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reports that in 1990, there were 163,923 public high school students--or 1.5 percent--studying Latin. Ten years later, 177,477 public high school students--or 1.3 percent--took the language.
Thus, even though there were more students in Latin classes in 2000 than in 1990, the percentage of all high-school students taking those classes had declined slightly. And that decade overlaps with the periods when more and more students took the NLE and AP tests.

So why the rise in the number of students taking those standardized tests? Well, such tests are what American schooling is all about these days. What's one more exam to smart kids trying to get into top colleges? Indeed, tests are so important to modern American education that one of the most popular arguments for taking Latin now is the promise of doing better on standardized tests of English vocabulary.


AliceB said...

Our local school has a foreign language requirement, and Latin is an option. Kids candidly tell me that one of the reasons to take it is that, unlike French, Spanish, or German, "you don't have to speak it." Enhanced language skills for SATs also gets mentioned.

J. L. Bell said...

Latin--the language for shy students!