Lingua Latina est bona, o infantes*

*Translated, that means Latin is good for you, kids
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Echinus cantat (the hedgehog sings), balaena natat (the whale swims), vacca super lunam saltat (the cow jumps over the moon) and seven-year-olds learn Latin.

Yesterday eight-year-olds from St Albans Primary School, Harlow, who have been studying Latin for a year, were put through their classical paces for a conference of language experts in London.

In a demonstration lesson, Jean Cross, their teacher, gave them an envelope full of Latin sentences which they had to match to pictures to tell the story of the little whale who lost her mother.

"Can anyone tell me why balaena parva lacrimat?" asked Miss Cross.

"She's crying because she's lost her mother," said someone.

"Does it say she's lost her mother?" asked Miss Cross.

"It says she can't see her mother."

"What word do you know in English that has some of the word videt in it?" asked Miss Cross.

"Video." "And what does video mean?"

The children introduced themselves one by one. "Alice sum, Naomi sum ..." Everyone in turn said: "In Harlow habito."

Then they had to use an adjective about themselves. "Parva sum," said one of the boys.

Why is that not quite right? Miss Cross asked. "Because you have to be a girl to call yourself parva," said a girl.

Thomas Beckett, one of the group, said Latin was his favourite lesson. "You don't have to write a lot. You can draw a picture and write a bit under it." Naomi Rowe added: "Sometimes it's difficult but it's fun when Miss Cross comes in. We play games and things."

Miss Cross, who has just become deputy head of a primary school in Cornwall, teaches mainly through games and stories. "Latin helps them not to be daunted by long words and to be brave about words they don't understand," she explained. Moreen Healy, the head of St Albans, said children of all abilities had responded to the Latin lessons with delight.

"It has a great spin-off in their English. Some of the children who were really struggling with English have had their interest aroused. The problem is resources."

Latin at St Albans has stopped since Miss Cross's departure.

The conference, organised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, is discussing whether primary-school children should learn modern languages. Lobbyists for Latin argue that early knowledge of the language provides a foundation for many other languages and improves children's grasp of English grammar and vocabulary.

Latin has been declining in schools for more than 30 years. This year there were 12,174 candidates for Latin GCSE, compared to more than 41,000 in 1970. Around 85 per cent of candidates at both GCSE and A-level are in independent schools.

Classicists argue that the decline began in 1960, when Oxbridge dropped Latin as a requirement for all entrants. Other universities also abandoned it as a requirement for those wanting to read English or modern languages.

The national curriculum, introduced in 1988, did not make Latin compulsory.