Latin lovers learn together

A language often regarded as dead is being brought back to life in a small, but very successful, club. Jackie Cosh reports

Twelve-year-old Mateusz Dluzniewski is Polish. But today he is teaching me some Latin. "At the end of your name you put `us' for a boy and `a' for a girl. So I would say, `Mateuszus sum,'" he laughs.

This afternoon there are just four pupils for the weekly Latin lesson at Auchinairn Primary, although usually there are one or two more. But the small number allows for more discussions.

On being told that "porcus" is the Latin for "pig", they all notice the connection. Like many Latin words, it is easy to guess. "Why take the `c' and change it to a `k'?" wonders 11-year-old Adam Stockman. Headteacher Garry Graham reminds them that they talked about how years ago people couldn't read or write and how this had an impact on language. There then follows a discussion on the most commonly- spoken languages around the world.

The Latin club has only been going a few months, but in that time the children have learnt many words, as well as picking up much of the grammar, such as how to tell if a word is singular or plural even if you don't know its meaning.

Thanks to a bursary from All Hallows College, the children use the Minimus material, a set of teaching resources aimed at the young. Minimus the mouse takes them through a programme in which they follow a family who lived at Vindolanda in 100 AD. A combination of listening to the language being spoken on the CD, backed up by reading the workbooks and then playing word games means that children develop a good all-round knowledge of the language.

Having studied O-grade Latin himself, Mr Graham should be a few steps ahead of the children. However, he does admit to having forgotten much of it, and considers himself to be "relearning".

Twelve-year-old Rae Miller has only been in the class for a few weeks. The group performed Three Little Pigs in Latin in front of the school and Rae was so impressed that she asked to join. "I liked languages and wanted to study another one," she says.

Today that love of languages is helping her guess words she doesn't know. When Mr Graham gives them all words to translate into English, Rae hits a problem with "amicus". Eventually, she remembers the words "amigos" and "ami" from Spanish and French and she guesses correctly that the word means friend.

Guessing is certainly not frowned on. In fact, Mr Graham encourages the pupils to study each word and to try and guess the meaning from related words. When Adam guesses "house" as the meaning of "habitat", Mr Graham tells him he is close. The word actually means "lives", so it's where a person or creature lives. When they look at "ludus" meaning "game", Mr Graham points out that we have a game in English called "Ludo".

It is easy to see how Latin could benefit other subjects, in particular other languages. The children are constantly relating the words to similar ones in English and French.

"Can you see how the French, English and Spanish are all beginning to have similarities?" he asks the children.

One game involves the pupils being given two cards - "est" and "sunt". Mr Graham holds up a sentence in Latin, which he reads out. The children have to hold up the correct card to answer whether the sentence is singular (est) or plural (sunt).

With such a small group, the classes are very informal and the children feel confident enough to chat about the words and other topics which come up.

"The Latin classes have helped me work with the more able children to expand their vocabulary," says Mr Graham, "and the lessons are put into historical context for the children. We use it to talk about so many things, and they love working in small groups."

Although they have only been studying the language for a few months, the school has noticed it having a positive impact. Mr Graham says: "One boy who was a reluctant reader and writer now embraces language. He is now an avid reader and writer and his family has commented on this.

"Mateusz, who is Polish, has an inherent ability with languages and we do grasp that and talk about the Polish language. Chloe's writing has improved. When she is writing, she will see if she is using the best word, and will maybe now use other words. She now uses a thesaurus more," he says.

"Sometimes it is just good to spend extra time with the clever kids. Parents love it and the pupils enjoy it. Parents value it."

These few months have been a bit of a test run - and one which has been very successful. Having a small group has obviously helped, with the children having plenty of opportunities to talk about words and their derivatives.

"The core skills we teach help in other areas such as history and culture," says Mr Graham. "Also, some children may not be comfortable or articulate, but with a new language they are all starting as new, so they don't feel threatened. I would like the class to evolve and to be not just for the more able. But I wouldn't have more than eight."

To those who question the benefit of learning Latin, Mr Graham says: "People say it is a dead language, but it is not. It is fundamental to our own language."

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