Return to classics points to future
A combined schools' musical was staged in Sydney last month. It had a cast of 60 teenagers, a romantic story, colourful costumes, delightful characters and magical stage effects. More than 1000 people saw it and loved it.
No, it wasn't High School Musical 100. It was Cupid and Psyche, adapted from a second-century Latin novel by Apuleius, with one scene borrowed from Aristophanes' fifth-century BC comedy The Frogs. All dialogue and lyrics were in Latin or Ancient Greek, with English surtitles projected for the audience.
There could be no stronger demonstration of the enduring enthusiasm for classical languages among students today. Latin is far from dead in NSW.
Old-school romance ... Emily Baird and Grant Kynaston in Cupid and Psyche. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Every year nearly 200 13-year-olds, representing about 15 schools, attend a weekend camp where they play Lotto in Latin, paint T-shirts with Latin sayings and impersonate gladiators, soldiers and mythical characters.
The annual camp has been held since 1976 and is booked out every time.
Older students can take part in worldwide events, such as CICERO, a UNESCO- linked competition in Latin translation and cultural knowledge, exchanging greetings in Latin on Skype with fellow students in France, Italy, Tunisia, Britain and Spain.
At Baulkham Hills High School, Latin is now the most popular language, even though it was introduced only a few years ago to a school with no entrenched classical tradition and a multi-ethnic student body.
So what attracts so many of our brightest young people to challenge themselves in this peculiar way? You can't use Latin to buy a train ticket or order a meal.
While your Classical Greek will enable you to read street signs and even news headlines in Athens, you will get peculiar looks if you try to speak it in shops.
If you want to learn a language, why spend your time on ancient languages no longer in everyday use?
The answer to this question is not simple and changes as the student progresses and matures. Beginners are often drawn in by an interest in mythology (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, etc) or a fascination with ancient history or archaeology.
Modern Latin textbooks cater to these interests very successfully.
Then the study of vocabulary is strongly linked with expanding their word-power in English: students love "big words" and often comment that they learn a lot of "English" in their Latin lessons.
They are intrigued by the fact that the English language gained sophistication by adopting words from Latin and Greek. While hand and house are good old Anglo-Saxon words, manicure and domestic are from their Latin equivalents, and chiropractor and economics are from the Greek.
There is scope for a lot of discussion in the fact that commonwealth is Anglo-Saxon, republic is Latin and democracy, politics and monarchy are Greek.
You may not believe this, but some people really like grammar. By learning the grammar of another language, you learn that there are different ways of thinking. English speakers are prisoners of word-order rules: "The boy loves the girl" is not at all the same as "The girl loves the boy".
In Latin or Greek, the noun has an ending to show who loves whom, and you can then move the words around in a different order to indicate intensity, surprise or contrast.
Of course, you have to memorise the noun-endings and the adjective-endings and the verb-endings. "Rote learning!" cry our opponents. "So boring and mindless!" No, not boring, if you sing and dance to the chant. Not mindless either, as it frees you to read without the crutch of consulting the book all the time.
Once you get on to more complex Greek or Latin sentences, you experience a new way of painting with words. You begin by absorbing the context, spotting the main actors, filling in the details of place, time, attendant circumstances, motives, provisos and intentions, and only then finding out what they actually did.
It's like watching a scene develop on stage as characters and settings are progressively lit up into a tableau that finally comes to life.
Apart from English, classical languages are the only subjects which focus on the study of great literature.
The books you get to read by the last year of high school are the best of their kind. (Over the centuries, the mediocre stuff just got lost.) Epic, history, tragedy, comedy, satire, oratory and philosophy - all yours to analyse, discuss and enjoy, not second-hand, but in the very words of the composer, speaking to you in 21st century Australia, to you, their cultural descendant.
All right, it's not for everyone. But for many intellectually curious teenagers, the ancient world is a fascinating place, and when you travel to a new place, it helps to know the language.
The new Australian Curriculum makes the value of classical languages explicit: "A bridge between the contemporary world and the civilisations of antiquity" (ACARA, 2011: Languages: section 25). These subjects are our heritage. It should be possible to learn them without attending a selective high school or a posh independent school but, at present, that's where you will find them.
Dr Emily Matters is head of classics at Pymble Ladies' College.