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.
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.
Bridge to English
"This program was begun B.C.--Before Computers," says Mandel 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 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.
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."
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.
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!"
'Sense of Deja Vu'
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.