Language shift, Communicative Methods, and community end-goals

Lately I’ve been reading a bit about bilingualism in children, and some academic articles relating to language shift in Gàidhlig. They caused me to also reflect a little about what the broader goals of teaching classical languages, e.g. Latin, Greek, κτλ., via communicative methods are.


It’s not to create a new native-speaking community. And it’s also not because a direct method or natural method ‘replicates’ L1 acquisition as children learn. Granted, some of the early, pre-critical, proponents of Direct Method and Natural Method, spoke in these terms, but neither of those Methods depending upon that assumption, nor do their modern heirs. We aren’t advocating communicative approaches because we think they replicate ‘how a child learns’.

And neither are we trying, then, to create a living language community in which Neo-Latin or Neo-Koine becomes a viable, ongoing linguistic res which picks up from the 1st century and then continues on a new, language-evolutionary arc. No, for the very reason that these languages are primarily studied for the texts preserved in them, the goal of language acquisition of a classical language is to acquire the static form of the language relative to the period of texts studied.

The ideal, from a broad perspective, would be for educated speakers of classical languages, as L2s, to be able to read, function, and discuss, texts in those languages. Much as, say, Latin functioned as an ecclesial and academic lingua franca in medieval Europe. A learned mode of discourse, but still very much an active one.

The reason, then, for continuing to advocate for communicative approaches, is the conviction that this provides the best way of acquiring language in a comprehensive and meaningful manner, allowing L2 acquisition to the point of reading interesting and significant texts without filtering through grammar/translation, but via direct comprehension. That’s the pitch, that’s the claim.

But one more reason for relating this discussion to Language shift may be pertinent. Communicative approaches (generally) rely upon making input comprehensible without resorting to explanation in a 2rd language. One of the weaknesses of grammar-based approaches to classical languages is that students (and masters) are wont to analyse grammar based on a classically-derived grammatical construct of English. This is problematic for at least 3 reasons:

  1. The grammatical analysis that most classical languages students bring to English is based on a once rhetorical, then philological, tradition of analysing English in categories derived primarily from Latin. It is not a nativist linguistic analysis of English and if you take the time to read a descriptive grammar of English written by linguists, you’ll realise there is a considerable gap. Latinate-grammarised-English is a construct, and not always a good one.
  2. While not all students of classical languages are English-dominant, our world is, and certainly academic discourse is. This tends to seeing classical languages through the grid of English, which combined with (1) is misleading. Analyses of Greek texts through Latinate English lenses is distorting, and more distorting than it needs to be.
  3. Forcing minority language students to learn Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or other classical languages, through the medium of a majority language (English or otherwise), by compulsion or simply by availability of resources, continues academic complicity in language shift away from minority languages to majority languages. It does so unnecessarily, if we recognise that these languages could be taught directly. We would serve minority language speakers better if classical languages were available to them directly, rather than via English or other majority languages.
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