Diana Hinds on why learning about a 'dead' language brings English to life. Illustrations by Ali Pellat.
The resurgence of interest in the study of English grammar in primary schools, as enshrined in the national literacy strategy, has had a surprising offshoot: a growing enthusiasm for teaching Latin to primary pupils.
Latin has barely appeared in state primary schools during the past 50 years or more and has no status whatsoever within the national curriculum.
The Latin now beginning to take root in primary classrooms, however, is entirely different from that taught in the past. It is no longer the precursor to long years of arduous study, but is a taster - something fun and novel - which will add depth and colour to key stage 2 history projects, as well as helping to build firm foundations for the study of English grammar.
Peter Jones, spokesman for the National Co-ordinating Committee for Classics and a former classics lecturer, says: "Latin is a fantastic meta-language. If you wanted to invent a language to demonstrate how languages work, you would invent something like Latin. Very clear and precise, it draws your attention to the technicalities of language in a way no other language quite does. It generates meaning, not only through word order (as in English), but also through word endings. This forces you to think about word function - for instance - on a simple level, and about subjects, verbs, and objects. It is easier to do this in a language which is alien."
Barbara Bell is the author of Minimus: Starting Out in Latin (Cambridge University Press) which, since September 1999, has sold a staggering 20,000 copies, and is being taught in at least 800 independent and state primary schools. Improving English grammar was her starting point in writing the Latin course, after teaching 11-year-olds who had no idea what a verb was. Minimus is designed to teach seven to 10-year-olds about parts of speech, and to extend their vocabularies by exploring word derivations (around half of modern English words were taken from Latin, at various stages).
At the same time, Minimus gives them an enjoyable first taste of Latin - not overloaded with conjugations, declensions or vocabulary lists, but enhanced by forays into Roman history. The course is rich in stories and ideas for cross-curricular work in art, drama, English, history and geography.
Pam Macklin, who has been using Minimus with 10-year-old pupils at Warminster prep school in Wiltshire since the project pilot, says that it has taken "two or three years for us to see that it does feed through into their English. There is a general improvement in their understanding of parts of speech, so that they can structure their sentences coherently and make best use of the vocabulary that they have."
Many Latin teachers at prep schools prefer to use their own materials (Peter Rabbit or Petrus Cuniculus is a favourite with some, or the Latin renditions of the theme tune from the television programme Neighbours), or to follow more traditional Latin courses with a heavier grammar component.
Latin need not be reserved for the brightest children. Bob Bass, head of classics at Orwell Park prep school in Ipswich, and classics co-ordinator for the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, says Latin has plenty to offer lower-ability children, as well as those with special needs or dyslexia.
"The fact that Latin falls into predictable patterns and that the pronunciation has no traps, means that less able children can make good progress, and whatever they learn is thoroughly learned. It is also good basic memory training for all children."
Barbara Bell has designed Minimus on the basis that "some Latin is better than no Latin". Despite the language's omission from the national curriculum, the Government has agreed to fund a one-year key stage 3 Latin course on the Internet, devised by the publishers of the Cambridge Latin Course and Granada. From September 2001, older pupils may, after all, get the chance to continue with, or to begin, their Latin studies.
For more details about Minimus contact Barbara Bell: bmbellmini@ aol.com. Useful websites: www.minimus-etc.co.uk; www.vindolanda.com.
HOW GOOD IS YOUR LATIN?
1. On what day would you expect to sing "felix dies tibi sit"?
2. Why might a modern teacher be surprised by the two meanings of the word ludus?
3. Translate the Hogwarts school motto (essential for maintaining your street-cred with the young): drago dormiens numquam titillandus.
4. When would you instruct your pupils: festina lente?
5. Explain the Latin pun tandem, in relation to bicycles.
6. Which Roman author said: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero? What did he mean?
1. Someone's birthday.
2. Ludus means school and game.
3. A sleeping dragon ought never to be tickled.
4. When you wanted more haste and less speed (literal translation: make haste slowly).
5. Tandem literally means, at length.
6. Horace. He meant: seize the day, giving no thought for tomorrow.
LATIN LOVERS: THREE ENTHUSIASTS SPEAK OUT
1. Dawn Perry is head at Roseacre junior school, a beacon school in Maidstone, Kent, where Latin is taught in the literacy hour and in lunchtime and afternoon clubs.
"Our Year 3 children, who are studying the Romans as part of the national curriculum, learn Latin with A-level students from a local public school. Year 6 children do it with sixth-formers from the grammar school. The children love it - so many want to do it that it's hard to fit them all in.
"Latin has a lot of relevance to English grammar. It's just another way of getting children to think things through. It helps with word derivations, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, changing ends of words for agreement - all things we have to do in the literacy strategy. It is also helps with their vocabulary.
"We like to find as many ways as possible of teaching the children and Latin is an added thing that makes learning interesting. We've had a Roman pageant and a play, and dressed up as Romans in a fete. Learning some of the language gives a bit more depth to the children's historical work."
2. Caroline Lawrence teaches Latin to 10-year-olds at the Dolphin school, an independent primary in Battersea, south London. Her first novel for nine to 11-year-olds, The Thieves of Ostia (to be published by Dolphin in September, pound;6.99), the first in a series of six "Roman mysteries", is a whodunit set in Rome in AD79.
"My whole approach to teaching Latin is to make it as much fun as I can. I hope that The Thieves of Ostia will make children want to know more about the ancient world. In it, I try to give an impression of what it would have been like to have been alive then - with frescoes on the walls around you; going to the baths; people owning slaves. You don't need to know any Latin to read it. The Latin I teach is essentially a taster, to introduce children to the grammar. I think the only way to really learn English grammar is to study another language, because it enables you to stand back. Latin is so logical that you can dissect it and take it to bits.
"The book we use is So You Really Want to Learn Latin by Nick Oulton (Galore Park, Books 1 and 2 each pound;11.99; Book 3 pound;12.99; Answerbook for Book 1 pound;9.99). It is pure grammar, but in the cleverest way I have seen. The children - who are very mixed-ability - get a real buzz out of translating a sentence and learning the grammar."
3. Nancy-Jane Rucker, who studied Greek at university, recently volunteered to teach Minimus: Starting Out in Latin to a group of seven to nine-year-olds at her children's primary school, St Barnabas, in Oxford. She attended a training day (run by Minimus author, Barbara Bell) and has a weekly lunchtime Latin class of 12.
"One of the reasons I wanted to teach Minimus is that I wanted to give children greater access to classical culture. It can bring them so much in terms of history, art, drama, literature - and I had been struck by how enthusiastic they had been studying the Greeks in the national curriculum.
"Minimus is very attractive - it introduces children to the idea that a different language is interesting and fun. It's like a code to them - a secret language. With Latin there is an archaeological clue-finding element and they think they are being quite clever - they find it fascinating when you show them where a word comes from.
"You can show them how the language works much more easily in Latin than in English, so it is a useful mirror for the literacy strategy. We have done a lot on word derivations. Anything that enriches their vocabulary is important, anything that makes them think words are exciting things."