The importance of the beginner-level language teacher

Yesterday I tweeted a quote from the preface to Günther Zuntz’s monstrous “A Course in Classical and Post-Classical Greek”. It’s only monstrous because of its size. Zuntz leaves no stone unturned, not even the tiny crushed ones that were what was left of your ego before you started Greek. Also, the two volumes in the English edition are enough to start weight-training as well as break the bank at current prices.

Anyway, Zuntz writes, “Rather than being for the spare hours of a novice, teaching Elementary Greek is a demanding task for a conscientious professor; as difficult as it is important.”

I think this is dead right. There’s a tendency to think of the introductory levels of language instruction as something that can be palmed-off to the less advanced. And, in one limited sense, that is true – you only need enough Latin/Greek/whatever to teach those knowing less than you do. However, this is short-sighted.

Assuming, as is most common these days, that your students arrive at a tertiary level without their requisite languages, their first language teacher has a vital role. They are responsible for introducing them to the language, and so their task involves two essential elements. Firstly, students must learn to love the language enough to learn it. Our whole appreciation and attitude towards a language is bound up tightly with the person who teaches it, their approach to teaching, the ambiance of the classroom. Introductory Latin, Elementary Greek, these are the gateways for Classics students. They will almost always have larger numbers than any intermediate or advanced courses, because you will only drop numbers from your beginning enrolment. Any hope of seeing good retention of students depends upon students actually enjoying their first-year language course.

Secondly, how well they learn language in that first year is critical to their success. Any deficiencies in their acquisition in the first year will be felt throughout the rest of the program. One simply cannot go on to the reading of texts without the language ability to handle those texts. This is the cause of Zuntz’s comment – he goes on to say that a one-off bad lecture on Paul or Plato won’t do that much harm, but failure to learn the language of Paul or Plato will do much harm.

This is why the choice of the first-year teacher is so important. It should not necessarily be the most junior person, because that person may well lack the depth of language to teach it effectively. Neither should it be the most lauded researcher, for language acquisition is not necessarily aided by research in fields that depend upon language. Indeed, even being a specialist in, say, Greek linguistics, is no guarantee of solid pedagogy for the beginners’ class.

No, I contend that the teacher of the elementary levels of a language ought to be someone passionate and committed to applying the best practices and latest research in second language acquisition, and bringing that to bear on the classroom experience. You want someone who wants to teach first year Latin, and who zealously pursues the best methods to do so. Whatever else is in their portfolio, archaic religion, Attic politics, post-Augustan poetry, they need to be someone who is hell-bent on seeing beginner students thrive and acquire the language as best as possible.

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