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 answer.
Genius or no, Ingram's student had a tool to help him make intelligent guesses about the meanings of words he had never before 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.
For more than 13 years, fourth- through 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," Mandel said of the project, which was first tried in 1974-75.
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 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."
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.
"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 Latin words that they have 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).
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 said. Moreover, Spanish speakers have the edge on English-only students because Latin is so like Spanish in structure, said 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."
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 said. 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.
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 said, the Latin-based vocabulary her students learn "opens a window to the whole world."
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 said. The gain was at least a month for every month of study, he said.
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 a recent class, students learned that the word muscle is derived from the Latin word for mouse ( mus ) because the Romans thought that 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).
Even Cicero would have been proud.