BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
Reviving a 'dead' language
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News

Children in a Latin lesson
Lorna encourages the children to express themselves in Latin

The children are writing postcards about their favourite things - holidays, sport, food.

But however many times they jot down "wish you were here", their intended recipients never will be.

They have been dead for about 2,000 years.

It sounds macabre, but a primary school in Hackney, east London, is actually trying to keep something alive.

Latin, the ancient language which has long been in decline in state schools, is being taught in the area for the first time that anyone can remember.

The postcards are written as if they are for children living in ancient Rome.

Class organiser Lorna Robinson has even devised special words - such as "pedifolle" for football and "campus lusorius" for playground - for nine and 10-year-olds at Benthal Primary School to use.

'Literacy'

The aim is to introduce the ethnically mixed pupils, who speak up to 30 different languages at home, to Latin, which underpins much of the English vocabulary.

Lorna, who started the classes last September, said: "We want to see if the Latin improves their literacy results. It's a very specific aim.

"We also want to promote interest and opportunities to learn Latin in state schools.

"It will help the children think about language and how it is constructed at an early age. They all ask questions and are making good progress.

"Often, because they are so young, they are able to remember more words than I can."

Lorna Robinson
Some of the children have a lot of behaviour problems. It's challenging but interesting as well
Lorna Robinson

The children have taken part in activities as modern as bingo and making up road signs.

Judging by the rapid raising of hands every time Lorna asks a question, they enjoy the lessons.

Johanna, nine, said: "I think it's really interesting. We've done a lot of fun stuff and it helps me with some words when we're doing literacy.

"My mum is Brazilian and the Latin helps me with my Portuguese."

Humayra, 10, added: "I find it fun and it's different from anything else I've done. I can speak Bengali but it's not very similar to Latin, so it's hard to learn.

"I think Latin helps me most with writing in literacy lessons."

Lorna, who has a PhD from Oxford University, in which she compared the works of Roman poet Ovid with the Latin American magical realist movement, has made it her mission to promote the classics in state schools.

Lifestyle change

Last year she left a teaching job at Wellington College, a public school in Berkshire which charges fees of up to 24,000 a year.

The change of scene is striking.

Lorna, who is being funded by Cambridge University, said: "Some of the children have a lot of behaviour problems. It's challenging but interesting as well.

Filming for BBC drama set in ancient Rome
Modern dramas are reviving interest in Latin and ancient Roman history

"Overall, the children here are really engaged and work very hard.

"Sometimes people have a defeatist attitude to schools in inner-city areas and they criticise new initiatives, but this has been eye-opening.

"It's been working well but it's not sustainable unless the government steps in and expands the plans."

'Work it out'

Lorna added: "I've tried to make the Latin lessons very activity-based.

"It's sort of like being a detective. We start off using words on cards and get them to work out the links with English words.

"Then we do things like play bingo to teach them numbers. Recently we taught the kids imperatives in Latin by designing road signs.

"One of the good things about Latin not being a spoken language is it's more theoretical, meaning kids can look at words and work out what they mean."

The pupils have recently taken part in a drama workshop in Latin, in which former Royal Shakespeare Company actors re-enacted historical stories and myths.

Five primary schools in Hackney will be offering Latin from September, while Lorna is already teaching in Kilburn, in north-west London.

Boris Johnson, the shadow higher education minister who has presented television programmes on the ancient world, is an enthusiastic supporter of the project.

'New and interesting'

Performances in English tests over the next few years will show whether the project is having a concrete effect, but Benthal's young head teacher Tim Hunter-Whitehouse is already full of praise for the effect Latin has had.

He said: "It's given the children something new and interesting. It gives them a historical basis of language.

"It could be seen as a slightly dead subject but it has many uses, especially using terms in subjects like maths and science.

"It's a taster for the children. The curriculum is busy but you have got to be as creative as you can and create as broad a range of experiences as possible."

Dr Robinson is also editing a Latin and Greek magazine called Iris, which is being distributed free to state schools by Cambridge University.

Latin certainly needs a boost. GCSE entries fell from 16,000 in 1988 to 9,900 in 2004.

Asked whether any of Benthal Primary School's pupils will one day follow her and study classics at university, Lorna replied: "That's not the aim of the course. But it would be nice."

This summer, though, could present her sternest challenge.

Lorna has agreed to go to the US to teach Latin in five schools in the Bronx, one of the toughest areas of New York.

She said: "I'm very excited about it but also apprehensive. I've never been to America before, so I'm walking into the unknown. But I suppose it's not the first time."

VOTE RESULTS
Who is responsible for 'wasting millions' on drugs?
Doctors
 29.48% 
Pharmacists
 7.38% 
Patients
 47.02% 
Not sure
 16.12% 
9515 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

SEE ALSO
Anger as exam board drops classics
11 Jun 04 |  Education
Academic recreates naked Olympics
09 Jul 04 |  Education

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific