Diana Hinds talks to Barbara Bell about the importance of Latin in primary schools.
Barbara Bell has taught Latin and Greek (and some English) in independent secondary schools for more than 20 years. But the idea for a new book introducing Latin to primary school children struck her forcefully one day when teaching Latin to a class of 11-year-olds.
"I asked them to find the verb in the sentence, and a sea of blank faces looked back at me; only three of them, it turned out, had any idea," she remembers.
"I became more and more convinced of the difficulty of starting language-learning at secondary level without the basic grammatical tools -tools that I had had whenstarting secondary school".
She conceived the notion of an elementary Latin course for seven to 11-year-olds that would teach them some good solid grammar alongside a little basic Latin, as well as tie in with key stage 2 history work on the Romans.
Letters from parents and teachers that she received while executive secretary of the Joint Association of Classics Teachers asking for a simple introduction to Latin for younger children, strengthened her case. So did national concern, expressed by John Major and later by David Blunkett, about our poor record for foreign language learning. A taste of Latin at primary level, she believes, could provide a springboard for language learning later.
Minimus: Starting out in Latin, cheerfully illustrated by Helen Forte, is the first Latin course to be aimed at primary children intended for use in state as well as prep schools. (Prep schools, up to now, have generally adapted Latin materials for older pupils.) The course centres on a real Roman family who lived at Vindolanda, near Hadrian's Wall, in the First Century AD. Their home is being excavated (a marvellous school trip opportunity for those close enough), and Minimus uses archaeological evidence from Roman writing tablets left at Vindolanda as the basis for events in the story, such as Lepidina's birthday invitation.
The course book comprises a mix of stories, myths, cultural information, and simple exercises in basic Latin grammar and Latin word derivations, with cartoon-type illustrations, archaeological photographs, and frequent appearances of Minimus the mouse and Vibrissa the cat (a sort of Roman Tom and Jerry).
Of the 10 prep schools and 10 state primaries to have trialled the material last year, the prep schools moved through it more quickly and systematically, while the state schools introduced it often in lunch-time or after-school Latin clubs; one headteacher was so pleased with the results that Minimus is going on to the curriculum this term. In an evaluation of the project by the University of the West of England, 80 per cent of children said Minimus had been "fun" certainly not the traditional view of the subject.
As to who should teach it, only one teacher involved in the trial had no prior knowledge of Latin but reported that the course had been a success, despite her anxieties over pronunciation. Barbara Bell hopes an audio-tape will be made available to help. A fund has also been set up with support from businesses to help schools buy Minimus.
Barbara Bell says she has encountered some opposition to her project, along the lines - so familiar to classicists - that Latin is a dead language, irrelevant to the modern world, and only suited to the brightest. "But Minimus has already shown that Latin, approached in this way, is accessible to children of all abilities, including one eight-year-old who had only recently learnt to read," she argues.
Some children have enjoyed Minimus so much that they are already asking for more, and the problem, particularly for state schools, could be in providing follow-up. "Schools will just have to see what they can do", says Barbara Bell. "People who want to learn Latin usually find a way of doing it."