Epistola ad Praeconum Latinum (editum a Arcadio Avellano), scripta missaque a Albin Putzker, 1895

Amicus noster, in pipiatione nuper hoc misit, atque hic quoque ponendum esse dixit.

Here’s a wonderful letter from Albin Putzker, in 1895. plus ça changeplus c’est la même chose. You can see the original in situ. The footnotes, nisi fallor, are Arcadius Avellanus offering his own thoughts.


Univ. of Cal, Berkeley, Oct., 7th, 1895.


Your last “Praeco” was particularly good. How can one read with feeling and emotion Latin master-pieces and Latin poetry, if one has not that instinctive knowledge of the language which comes alone from the power of speaking it?–If you read through translations, the best element is lost[1].–The claim that the study languages for the “mental training” is all talk; it is not true[2].–We study languages chiefly to realize, to feel the beauties of the great thoughts, as put by the best minds; in that should the training consist[3].–Let us have life, not more dissection of corpses; living language for living thought. –Of course, mere conversation as such no body advocates. If teachers could speak Latin, the objection would not be made[4], and the teaching would assume a different character; routine would make room for living interest. –Would that we had the right kind of simple, interesting, strictly progressive reading material for the lower schools, such as we have in German and in French[5]. There is much room for improvement in this respect, and a great Latinist could render great service on these lines. – Your article on poor Ulrichs was read by me with deep sympathy; I should like to learn much more about him. Could you not rite more about his life?[6]

With the best wishes for your success,

I am, most truly,

Albin Putzker



[1]Praeterea, versiones prostant pro 50 libellis.

[2] Bene mones; est mendacium.

[3] Veritas aurea. Quod, per Deos Immortales posset esse absurdius, quam Tullium Hratiumque de ablativis, de “hidden quantities,” de radicibus Sanscriticis, aliisque vercordiis disserendo profanare & desecrare? Classicos sic polluens est quasi sus in hortum elegantissimum irreptus, qui flores devorat, rubos conculcat, gramen depascit, atque proboscides cuncta susque-deque vertit ac convellit.

[4] Sane, minime gentium! O si scirent, quam diverse arguerent!

[5] Habebimus in Tusculo!

[6] Faciemus proxime.

Everything wrong with focus on forms

I recently had occasion to complete a (modern) language placement test. The test was composed of 20 sections, each asking me to manipulate given sentences and change the forms to other ones (e.g. the equivalents of present to past, one structure to another, and so on). It wasn’t an overly taxing test, though it did take a bit of time, but in terms of assessing my language ability, I would rate the test itself a fail.

Firstly, because I didn’t need to understand the messages in the text in order to manipulate them. Indeed, there was vocab in there that I didn’t recognise. But whether I could or couldn’t understand the texts, was irrelevant to the task, which was transform structure to structure. That only required an explicit grasp of particular grammatical forms.

Secondly, there’s no guarantee I can reproduce this level of grammatical correctness in speech. In fact, I know that when I speak I am producing all sorts of errors in these forms. I would like to ‘fix’ that, but I doubt that explicit instruction in grammar will help that because I explicitly know all this grammar. “You should know this by now”; “we’ve been over this grammar X times, why are you still saying it wrong”; “You can explain this grammar, why can’t you produce it in speech?” – these are all things (some) teachers say, and they are all predicated on wrong beliefs.

like explicit grammar. I love learning about linguistics. I think there’s a small, but non-zero place for it in language education contexts. But I’m pretty convinced that manipulation of forms does not lead to acquisition – not to communicative ability but also not even to real-time correct use of forms.

Vocabulary learning

Lately I’ve been reading, among other things, Joe Barcroft’s Vocabulary in Languge Teaching, one of the e-modules in the Routledge E-Modules on Contemporary Language Teaching. And it’s been helpful in thinking through some issues about vocabulary acquisition.

Like many, I studied quite a few historical languages in a very traditional mode. And, I excelled at it – I walked out of 2hr Greek exams in 20 minutes, used space repetition to memorise New Testament vocabulary down to 3 occurrences, and other such feats. But, I also came to think that this approach is basically non-productive of acquisition, and a huge mis-investment of time. By the time I came to study Mongolian, I rarely if ever spent any time explicitly learning glosses for Mongolian words.

And partly that’s due to a shift in how I conceived of lexical items. “Vocabulary” does not mean learning that ἄνθρωπος means “man” or “person” or “human being”. In fact, it doesn’t mean any of those things. Those are, at best, sometimes-appropriate translations of ἄνθρωπος. (And so, when I mark essays, I regularly correct students for mistaking ‘translation’ for ‘meaning’).

Rather, lexical items exist in our mental lexicon as items with a whole set of associated data. We have a core meaning for most of these terms, e.g. table tends to mean “piece of furniture with flat top surface and one or more legs, useful for putting things on”; but we also store alternative, derivative, metaphorical, extended meanings; e.g. table as, say, a set of figures in columns and rows. We also store collocations and phrases, table talk, turn the tables, etc.. And we store things like arguments, i.e. that put requires an agent, patient, location. And we store relations between words, including synonyms, antonyms, homonyms (a different kind of relationship, but one very necessary for puns!) near-synonyms and how the differ, etc.. And we store connotations, and so on…

And this is why giving students a list of words and one or two key glosses, not only is incredibly boring and dull, but is misleading about the nature of vocabulary learning. It suggests that learning vocabulary is simply about mapping a 1 to X set of correspondences between L2 words and L1 words. That, itself, is false. It may be a useful starting point (though I think this is debatable), but to the extent that it reinforces this “laundry list of glosses” notion of what vocabulary is, it misleads students (and to the extent this myth persists among teachers, demonstrates their misledness).

How then do and should we learn vocabulary? Well, unsurprisingly we learn it by input. Repeated exposure to meaning-bearing instances of the novel lexical items, in communicative contexts. The more, the better. And, in fact, this is how you solidify not just a ‘core gloss’, but the variety of meanings, nuances, connotations, collocation, proverbial sayings, etc..

To return to my impetus for his post, Barcroft, he distinguishes between three components of vocabulary (form, meaning, mapping; that is “what the word sounds like, what it means, and the connection”) and suggests that various activities prioritise each of these components, i.e. attention “processing resources” can be devoted more to form, to meaning, or to mapping, but at the detriment of the other two components. I think this is where two of his modules most interesting points (to me) occurred: (1) that using multiple talkers to repeat input of novel items (keeping other values constant), saw increases of 38-64% in target word learning. That’s quite an effect size! (2) that word copying, i.e. copying the target words, actually has a detrimental effect on L2 word form learning.

Barcroft himself articulates (in a separate 2012 book, and briefly in this module), an Input-Based Incremental approach.  Which, I’d largely endorse. It’s core is promoting frequent, and repeated, input of novel words in meaning bearing comprehensible input. Limiting output, especially in the early stages, and promoting L2-specific meanings and usage over time.

I confess, in my own learning I have become very laissez-faire about vocabulary acquisition. I just figure that more input over time means more exposure to vocabulary, and I’ll learn whatever is frequent and relevant. Which is true, but it’s an entirely incidental and haphazard approach. I myself could be more intentional in structuring my own studies, and in lesson planning.

But, at the end of the day, the one thing I would want everyone to go away with, is that “vocabulary” never equals “rote learning a set of L1 correspondences”. It’s anything but that.



What if traditional ‘language’ courses came with a disclaimer?


The course you are enrolling in is a traditional language course. Almost nothing we do this semester will contribute to language acquisition. This course is focused on language as an artefact, and so we will be discussing grammar, analysing syntax, memorising morphology, rote-learning vocabulary associations with our L1, and translating sentences back and forth as a form of practice, with no attention to the communicative meaning or purpose of those sentences (if they had any).

We will definitely not be using language to communicate, develop any communicative ability, learn to read effectively, to understand or communicate in our target language. In fact, less than 5% of what we do in the course will be useful if that is your hope, and the ability of the other 95% of our explicit teaching to contribute to you acquiring the language is slim to none.

The memorised explicit knowledge you can expect to gain in this course will primarily be useful in taking tests on explicit knowledge, taking further courses of the same kind, or vaguely pursuing linguistics somewhere down the track. Otherwise it will be quickly forgotten.

Between two types of translation

I’ve said in the past that it’s just a bit wild to give beginning students translation as a task to do, because translation is a high-order skill, not a low-order one. In this post, I want to explore two different types of translation practice, and how they sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Firstly, there’s translation to convey meaning. I haven’t really found a satisfactory label for what I mean here. But let me explain. Suppose you’re a fully proficient bilingual, say in English and Portuguese. And you work professionally as a translator (written texts) or interpreter (real-time spoken communication). Translation in this case is about conveying messages that occur in one of these languages, in the other (source > target), as accurately as possible (and, if in real time, with speed). It involves a high degree of language proficiency, and cultural and domain-specific knowledge.

Even if one of these languages is an L2, and adult-acquired language, and not an L1, a native-acquired language, it’s still a very demanding process. And the level of language proficiency, and both general cultural and domain specific knowledge required to translate well, is high. It’s one reason translators tend to only operate into their L1s (i.e. with an L2 source but an L1 target, not so much vice versa).

Translation of this sort relies upon the translator understanding the source text as is, in the language, and so depends upon a very well developed representation of that language in their mind.

Secondly, there’s “translating to comprehend”. This is what goes on in historical language classes. You get presented with a text, you apply your external knowledge of grammar, and your external knowledge of vocabulary, and you output a translation in your L1. You didn’t understand the text when it was presented in the L2, it was beyond your linguistic competency to process and understand that message. Translation in this case is an external, extrinsic process where you conduct a grammatical, or linguistic, analysis, to produce an L1 version, and thus render the original L2 message comprehensible to you.

That’s not just orders of magnitude different, it’s arguably a different category of process going on. And that’s why I don’t consider that second process, “translating to get meaning”, to be a form of reading. If that’s what you’re primarily doing, you’re not reading, you’re operating on texts beyond your linguistic competency. Which, is not the end of the world. Especially if you’re in a traditional-type program. Just remember that the process of creating a translation of a text is actually a mechanical process that renders input, comprehensible. And you are going to need a lot of comprehensible input if you are going to actually acquire that language, not just learn about it (and learn to practice grammar/translation as an externalised skill).

Why I (will) ditch the textbook next time

Right now I’m heading into week 11 of a 12 week semester teaching a Greek 1 class Koine. I’ve found it frustrating, mainly because I’m frustrated with myself. And as I reflect on that, I decided that if I’m given the opportunity to teach this again, it will be sans text-book.

To understand why I would now ditch the textbook, you need to understand a few things. Firstly, I’ve taught this module as available to students either (a) in person in the classroom, (b) online-live (video conference) and (c) online delayed (recorded delivery). Honestly, this is a taxing way to teach in general, but it also locked me into certain practices that I think contributed to my frustration – the recording format bound me to a desk and to using slides throughout.

(If I taught this again, I would make it in-person only. I think one could learn from recorded delivery of sessions, but not if that binds me to a desk and slideshow)

Secondly, the combination of the textbook’s pacing and approach, and a set of various ‘expectations’ about what Koine Greek is and how it should be taught, has pushed the stream of my class faster than I would like, faster than my students can acquire, and created an environment that’s more about learning than acquisition, and so in conflict with my own fundamental principles of teaching.

Thirdly, consistent reading and learning in the field of SLA basically convinced me that a textbook, even a good one, dictates the classroom content in a way that isn’t going to optimally produce acquisition. Even though I somewhat resist it, I can still perceive that my students aren’t fully onboard with what I set out trying to do, and the textbook tends to encourage them towards grammar.

Ditching the textbook, I think, would give me a certain freedom. A freedom from various expectations that are working against language acquisition. A freedom to start the class with, “We’re going to acquire Ancient Greek through comprehensible input, and this is how this works” and then follow that with 12 weeks of in-target-language conversation/communication, and come out the other side with genuine acquisition.

If, as the SLA field suggests to me, language is so complex, abstract, and implicit, such that explicit knowledge cannot become implicit, and if I’m committed to providing input such that implicit acquisition can take place, then the textbook has to go. Because at present the textbook is dictating my class, and it’s proven to be a bad master. Perhaps more skilled teachers than I could reverse that, but I strongly suspect that I would do better to say goodbye to it.

Time: one reason why seminaries won’t (ever) embrace language acquisition

The problem with an acquisition-based program in a seminary setting is time.

A standard, seminary-type language course represents a 2-semester sequence in which students get drilled through a traditional grammar explanation of the language, with some practice on translating Greek passages to English, and are expected by the end of those 2 semesters to be able to translate easier portions of Greek into English, and explain the grammar of those texts (Mark, John, being likely candidates). Then you let them loose on upper level exegesis courses with the expectation that they’ll manage to translate more difficult texts in the NT corpus, because if you know a finite-grammar, you can translate finite-texts.

I’m critical of this for various reasons, which are not new here: acquisition vs. knowledge, the linguistic validity of a grammar course divorced from modern linguistics, and questions about ultimate attainment and ongoing utility. In my view, if this is really the approach one wishes to take, you should offer a 1 semester course in “The linguistics of NT Koine Greek” and cram it all in there – because if you’re teaching content, you can just teach content. You can stop pretending that this equips students to read the New Testament in Greek in any proficiency-based sense.

But, I do acknowledge that there is a very significant hurdle for adopting a acquisition-driven Comprehensible-Input-based approach. And that is time. The driving determiner of how far a student will get, disregarding learner internal constraint, is basically time. Well, quality and quantity of input. Assuming we can provide quality input, then it becomes a quantity question.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of the episodes of “Tea with BVP”, a second-language acquisition radio-show/podcast that ran for 3 years. There’s a lot of good content on it, and a lot of pointers to other things. As part of my follow-up, I have been reading “Setting Evidence-Based Language Goals”  (Foreign Language Annals 49 3 (2016):434-454) by Goertler, Kraemer, and Schenker, which examines target benchmarks for the German program at MSU (where Bill VanPatten also is, and which runs on CI-based principles).

The study looked undertook a review of and after review, the benchmarks (using the ACTFL proficiency guidelines) were revised to (after years of college study):

  1. Intermediate Low
  2. Intermediate Mid
  3. Intermediate High
  4. Advanced Low

Correlations with CEFR are difficult, but AL comes out as somewhere between B1 and B2, with IM at A2, and IH at B1. Table 2 of their study also presented different sets of  ‘hours’ recommendation for different levels. MSU classes mean that students receive:

Year Hours Cumulative
1 100  
2 100 200
3 150 350
4 150 500


The study reviewed previous benchmarks and outcomes, and then determined the current outcomes of current MSU students.

If you break down the hours in class by semester, that’s 50 hours a semester, raising to 75 in 3rd and 4th year. About 3-4 hours contact across a 12-14 week semester, up to 6 in the upper levels.

No seminary is going to run this. No seminary is going to run a 4hr a week, 4 year Greek program. Not unless they radically change their outlook on language acquisition and goals. Which is basically why I suspect that acquisition of Greek is not going to get very far in seminaries.

It also continues to highlight the problematic nature of 4 contact hours, across a standard semester. You just can’t get a student, ab initio, to very high levels of proficiency in a 4 year course. Which isn’t just a problem for biblical languages programs, it’s a problem for classics courses that want ab initio students reading high-level literature.

There’s only one solution to this: more hours. More hours of comprehensible input. The hours estimate for Advanced Low at MSU was 500 + study abroad. The (probably less reliable) hours estimates of Liskin-Gasparo for Advanced Mid is 720, A-High and Superior is 1320. I don’t think, based on the modern languages data, that you can really get college students beyond Int-High with a few reaching Adv-Low, within a 4-year sequence, and to achieve that in a classical languages program is going to require a committed, and skilled, teaching-team.

I can only imagine 4 solutions at the programmatic level:

  • you teach based on CI-principles at the high school level, allowing you to get 4-600 hours in before your students even reach college.
  • you raise the contact hours for language majors and make it an all-consuming degree (i.e., nothing but language, ‘content’ courses in the upper years taught in language, and no electives, and turn ‘expected’ hours into contact ones. or else you provide enough reading and audio material that all the ‘expected’ hours can be spent on input).
  • you push expectations of higher level proficiencies into the grad-schools.
  • you push for 1-2 week intensives to supplement term-teaching.