Teachers seek to revive Latin at Czech schools

Latin once used to be the cornerstone of classical education. Until the middle of the 20th century, some knowledge of the language was a prerequisite for any career in the academia, and Latin was taught at every grammar school. But the numbers of students taking up the language has dropped by a half over the past decade. That’s why a group of Latin teachers launched a campaign to revive the teaching of Latin at Czech schools.

Ursus and Davus are not carrying the bags, the bags are carried by Syro and Leandro, reads a student in a morning class of Latin at the grammar school Voděradská in Prague. It is one of several grammar schools, or gymnasiums, in the capital that offer extra-curricular Latin courses to their students. One of the students in the classroom is Petra Blahutová who explains her motivation.

“I would like to go study at a university. I like foreign languages, and I think that Latin is interesting.”

She is in her final at the grammar school just like her friend Eva Svobodová who says Latin is in fact close to Czech.

“I would like to study psychology, and Latin is just a hobby for me. But I’m interested in foreign cultures, and Latin has a structure that is in fact similar to our language.”

In the Czech Republic, there are now around 7,500 students taking Latin courses, about half compared to a decade ago. The dwindling number of students interested in Latin now made a group of teachers take action. They wrote a memorandum to the Education Ministry, asking the authorities to introduce Latin as an optional subject at the state school-leaving exams. Jakub Žytek, who teaches at the Arabská grammar school in Prague, is a leading member of the Association of Teachers of Classical Languages.

“The Czech Republic sinks lower and lower in the international student assessment rankings in reading comprehension. I’m not sure I can prove a direct relation between this and the numbers of students who study Latin. But I can tell that nowadays they tend to understand the texts less. I’d say Latin gives students a linguistic perspective.”

Yet there are some secondary schools where Latin is taught quaque die – every day. For students at the Archbishop’s Grammar School in Prague, the language of the ancient Romans is a compulsory subject, and some of them even take optional courses of another extinct language – classical Greek.

This class is considerably smaller. The three students say they are motivated by pure interest in the language itself rather than any practical use. Their teacher, also the school’s headmaster, is Richard Mašek. He says some of his students would take the school-leaving tests in Latin if it were made available.

“I welcome the idea. At our school, some students take Latin as part of our own school-leaving exams. If Latin became part of the state exams, I’m sure some of our pupils would certainly take it.”

Officials at the Education Ministry have not completely shunned the idea of introducing Latin as an optional part of the state school- leaving tests. They said the ministry would now assess the significance of Latin for secondary education but warned the addition would require extra funds which the ministry might not have any time soon.

Each Sunday, participants will be able to vote in our new series Hit of the Century, covering 100 years of music in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. (More)