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Helps in Learning of English : Latin Comes to Life in Classrooms

Times Staff Writer

Teacher Rebecca Ingram remembers the look on the fourth-grader’s face when she told him, yes, the word fratricide has something to do with insecticide.

The child told the San Fernando Valley teacher what insecticide means. “Killing the insect,” he said.

“Does fratricide mean ‘killing the brother’?” the boy then asked, wide-eyed, horrified but also thrilled that he had figured out the right answer.

Genius or no, Ingram’s student had a tool to help him make intelligent guesses about the meanings of words he had never encountered. That tool is Latin, a dead language, some say, but a living, and eminently practical, tongue to thousands of children in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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For more than 13 years, fourth- to seventh-graders in 50 area public schools have been studying the language of Caesar and Cicero. E. Jules Mandel, co-director of the district’s program of Latin in the elementary schools, does not know exactly how many students have completed the course. “This program was begun BC--Before Computers,” says Mandel of the project, which was first tried in 1974-75.

Bridge to English

The aim of the Language Transfer Program, as it is officially known, is not to create classical scholars but to enhance the students’ mastery of English. The program has proved especially successful with Spanish-speaking youngsters, who find Latin remarkably like their native language. They also find that Latin serves as a bridge to English: Children who take the course leap ahead of their peers in vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Unlike an earlier program in inner-city schools in Philadelphia, the Los Angeles program employs mostly regular classroom teachers, not special Latin teachers.

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Some teachers who have never studied Latin before are initially intimidated at the prospect of quizzing a class full of discipuli in the language of the Romans. But, according to Mandel, any motivated teacher can learn enough Latin in an intensive 2-day workshop to teach the course.

“Some of our very best teachers have no background in Latin,” Mandel says. “Some who did have the background were determined to teach Latin.”

Designed for fourth- to seventh-graders, the program begins with lessons about the family life of Roman children Julia and Marcus--"Dick and Jane in ancient Rome,” Mandel calls them. A second level is based on classical mythology. Daily lessons are about 20 minutes long and consist of Latin conversations, playlets, songs and games, including a bingo-like game called Vinco, Latin for “I win.”

Practice Lessons

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During their training, teachers listen to the Latin lessons on tape and then practice speaking the Latin just as their students will. Teachers are also given a step-by-step written guide for the course and pictures of common Roman objects and other visual aids to show their students. “The teacher doesn’t have to sit up nights planning the lesson,” said Ingram, who teaches at Dyer Street Elementary School in Sylmar.

Anne Schrecengost teaches the Latin Transfer Program to her predominantly Latino sixth-graders at Gulf Avenue Elementary School in Wilmington.

Quis est? she asks, holding up a picture of the Roman god Neptune.

Neptunus est! her students reply.

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Quis est Neptunus? she presses.

Neptunus est rex maris! they answer, triumphantly identifying Neptune as the “king of the sea.”

Instead of formally studying grammar and memorizing the declension of the Latin word for sea, the students learn that maris means of the sea. There is no talk of the ablative absolute or any of the other arcane wonders of academic Latin in these classes. The point is to allow the children to leap nimbly from Latin to English and Spanish and back again.

After the students discuss the Roman gods, they make lists of Spanish and English words derived from the Latin words they’ve learned. Ceres, the Latin goddess of grain, is the mother of both the English and Spanish words, cereal. The Latin word for god, deus, leads them to the Spanish deificacion (deification) and the English deity and deify (“John Kennedy was virtually deified after his death,” Schrecengost tells them). As one child observes, “I’ve learned words in here I’ve never even heard before!”

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According to Mandel, Latin gives the Spanish-speaking student “almost a sense of deja vu.” Ninety percent of Spanish words are derived from Latin, he says. Moreover, Spanish speakers have the edge on English-only students because Latin is so like Spanish in structure, says program co-director Albert R. Baca, a Cal State Northridge professor of classics who trains the program’s teachers. As Baca explains, the Latin Marcus se vestit is very like the Spanish Marco se viste but not at all like the English Marcus dresses himself.

Speaking Out

Baca says that teachers tell him that Spanish-speaking students who are virtually silent during English-language lessons will often speak out when the class switches to Latin. Such classroom successes help students to feel good about themselves and to succeed in school, most educators believe. Teachers like Schrecengost also invite their Spanish speakers to serve as expert advisers to the class on the pronunciation of Spanish words.

Latin seems to help many different kinds of students. Baca says he routinely uses it to help his CSUN students improve their vocabularies. Eilish Gaston teaches the program to young children--fourth- and fifth-graders at Middleton Street Elementary School, Huntington Park, where Spanish is usually the language of the home and Latin is almost as popular as physical education and art.

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“They know I don’t speak it fluently, and they don’t speak it fluently, so we are both learning it together,” says Gaston says. “They think that’s great.”

Brian Litwak teaches the course to a group of highly gifted fifth- and sixth-graders at Brentwood Unified Science Magnet School. “I’m not giving them real authentic pronunciation sometimes, but that’s not the purpose of the program,” the teacher says. Litwak’s pupils are quick to name English words derived from Latin: calyx , the Latin word for cup , gives rise to chalice; ubi , the Latin word for where , to ubiquitous, and tres, the Latin word for three, produces everything from triplets to Triceratops.

Student Jeremy Goldstone, 11, says he likes the program because “we get to stump our bus driver with trivia in Latin.” The course has made classmate Jason Sloan, 10, aware of the evolution of language. “It’s like the history of the words,” Jason observes. According to Mandel, thinking about language and discovering that language is constantly changing are two important consequences of the course.

Many of the Latin-derived words in English are for abstract concepts. As a result, Ingram says, the Latin-based vocabulary her students learn “opens a window to the whole world.”

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No one knows how many children are studying Latin in the nation’s elementary schools. “No one keeps the numbers,” says Richard A. La Fleur, chairman of the classics department at the University of Georgia and past president of the American Classical League, the national organization of teachers of Greek and Latin. “All that I can say is that the numbers are increasing. There’s no question about that.”

Some of the benefits of studying Latin have been clearly documented, Mandel and others say. Early in the Los Angeles project, students took the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Latin students consistently scored higher in English vocabulary and reading comprehension than those without Latin. The more Latin the youngsters had, the more they sprinted ahead, Mandel says. The gain was at least one month for every month of study.

Certainly a great deal of learning goes on when Richard Le Maire teaches the program to his sixth-graders at Alexandria Avenue Elementary School downtown. A former high school Latin teacher, Le Maire manages to cram a liberal education into a single Latin lesson.

During one recent class, students learned that the word muscle is derived from the Latin word for mouse (mus) because the Romans thought a muscle looked like a mouse running under the skin. They discovered that the great orator Cicero was so nicknamed because of his acne. Cicer is the Latin word for chickpea, thus, a pimple. Drawing on what he had learned before, a student correctly answered that someone getting married would have the ring slipped on his or her annulary finger (from the Latin anulus or ring).

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Even Cicero would be proud.


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