In today’s post I rambling self-reflect on my history as a language learner. I don’t suppose that has a broad appeal as a topic of interest, but if you already know me, you might find it of interest. I sat down to write this out as part of a kind of “patient history” to diagnose where I’m “at” in this lifelong process.
This was my first exposure to learning languages. In our years 7 & 8 we did 5 languages in rotation: French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. I was good at all of them, except German and that was mainly because (as I distinctly recall), they held a test on adjectives the day I returned from a bout of illness and I simply hadn’t been taught the content we were tested on.
I went on to pursue Japanese in years 9-12 and sitting the exams for the HSC. I think I was a fairly average student at it, but I didn’t have a real sense of language possibilities beyond the classroom.
post high school included some attempt to learn Spanish from some independent course materials. My first purchase of “Teach Yourself Gaelic”, and a bit of Latin from Wheelock’s grammar. None of these led much of anywhere.
In 2002 I took a trip to Guatemala and spent a couple of weeks in 5hrs a day, 5 days a week language instruction. Spanish seemed relatively easy, grammatically, to pick up, and I progressed rapidly. I was only in central America for about 2-3 months, but I learnt enough Spanish to manage daily interactins, and even to start reading ‘Interview with a vampire’ in Spanish. This language ability mostly dissipated once I cam back to Australia, not least because I had nobody, and no reason, to maintain it.
In 2003 I enrolled in a Graduate Diploma of Humanities at the University of New England. the GDH required 8 units at post 100-level, and I had enrolled to study Latin, which meant 2 units at 100 level and then a further 8. UNE, being based in Armidale, was a pioneer in distance ed in Australia, and this was fairly true for Latin. My instructor was the larger-than-life Charles Tesoriero (1973-2005), and instruction took place via course materials that he had prepared, with us mailing in 6 assignments a semester, and longer essays, and exams. In the middle of each semester was a residential intensive, which was optional, but encouraged. It was a real delight, though, to travel up to Armidale and spend 2 weeks with Charles and my fellow students. I proceeded through all the Latin units with Distinctions and High Distinctions. I took a single 2nd year subject in Greek, as well as a prose composition unit with Paul Roche.
In 2001 I took a course of self-directed study towards a Licentiate in Theology, including the equivalent of first-semester Greek. This basically involved me studying Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek on my own, and sitting an exam. I did quite well, though not well enough to read Greek by myself. I was good on nouns, not so good on verbs (probably because Mounce delays them fairly late in his book). In 2003, while studying Latin, I also decided to go to seminary, and started meeting with a pastor at my church to do some Greek.
All of which put me in good stead when I went to seminary in 2004. I was enough ahead of the curve for NT Greek that I breezed through first-year. I learnt vocab through electronic flash cards, brute-forcing my way down very low on the frequency list. I blitzed grammar, and aced exams.
So, between 2004-2006 I was simultaneously taking Latin, Greek, and Hebrew courses. Hebrew I did fine at, but I was never a top student. I perhaps could have been, but I was doing too much. Indeed, I took on an additional external subject in Mandarin at one stage, attempting a full seminary load plus a 75% university load. I passed intro Mandarin, but did not continue.
2006-7: a turning point
In 2006 I finished up by GDH in Latin, and I was pretty deep into my NT studies, and pretty decent at Greek. I had begun listening to the early Latinum podcasts by Evan Millner, and reading and learning from discussions among Latin teachers online like Bob Patrick, John Piazza, Ginny Lindzey. This in turn led me to Ørberg’s Lingua Latina, and a fundamental question – why after 4 years of university Latin, did I still struggle to do anything more than translate with a dictionary in hand, and students of Modern Languages read their literature and discussed it in the target language? I began to read more and more in the area of Second Language Acquisition, and lean more and more towards ‘communicative methods’ (my usual term for what people call a whole range of things).
I became a ‘convert’ to Ørberg and started reading Familia Romana first of all. I likewise explored Randall Buth’s materials, and began trying to boot-strap my way into a better language proficiency.
In 2007, while in my final year of seminary, I also started (in theory) an MA in Classics as U. Sydney. That never became an MA, because a coursework MA there was terribly disorganised at the time. I enrolled in subjects that only existed in the system, only to turn up and be told no such class existed. I ended up taking 4 subjects – a classical Greek course, a historiography course, and 2 more Latin reading subjects, and then exiting with a Graduate Certificate. Not wasted learning, but perhaps not the most efficient use of my time.
During the next four years, my language studies continued relatively informally. I was still doing some formal Latin stuff in the first year at U.Sydney, and I did work on an MTh with a fair amount of Greek involved (Matthew, John, Revelation, and Chrysostom).
Thanks to summer and winter intensive schools, I did short courses in Latin and Greek most years, and had a chance to take some Gaelic in person. This really kicked-off my long dormant interest. I enrolled in online classes with the Atlantic Gaelic Academy, which were 3-hr group classes. Largely grammar-translation driven, but with much more oral participation than I’d have previously. I ended up taking 3 years with them, and it moved me from ‘grammar aware novice’ to ‘intermediate who doesn’t speak enough’. In 2011 I then moved to some private online classes, which weren’t bad but I was less than satisfied with the person who delivered them (he didn’t use a webcam and didn’t sound that engaged with me, and it seemed that he ‘counted’ some of our classes as being done even when cancelled (even when cancelled on his end).
I also had chances to tutor/facilitate Latin, and Greek, in a few small contexts. All in all, though, it was mostly self-directed studies and ongoing learning. I got better at reading, though slowly.
Mongolian adventures! In 2012 I moved (with my wife) to Mongolia. In the first year, I studied 1 to 1 with an experienced Mongolian language teacher, 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week (incidentally, this was also the first year of my PhD enrolment…). Although she had a textbook (written by herself), which a grammatical ‘bent’ (but not ‘grammar-translation’, thank God), the instruction was guided by the teacher, not the book. Actually, there were three instructors in our small school, and we would cycle between them. The head of school spoke decent English, and would start with beginners. The second spoke very basic English, the third barely above none.
So classes became Mongolian-only after about a week, and my fairly extensive knowledge of grammar across languages and basic linguistics helped me figure out a lot of things ‘going on in the background’. I learnt a lot in those classes, and progressed quite well.
In 2013 I started teaching, initially part-time (and still doing part-time language). I taught 2 classes to begin with, one with translator, but the other entirely on my own. Thankfully, I had a few students with excellent English, because I did often need in-class translation. Our class was Greek exegesis, and this made it relatively easier than it could have been – I knew the Greek text well, I had a Mongolian text to refer to, and I acquired the sub-field of ‘Mongolian grammar terms’ fairly extensively. All my exegesis classes were solo-taught, and by the 3rd semester in I felt pretty confident with that.
Moving into teaching, part-time, and then full-time, put me into an immersed environment, and my spoken Mongolian improved strongly. It was, however, pretty tiring operating in a foreign language most of the day. Highlights for my Mongolian were eventually preaching a number of times in Mongolian, and taking a mission trip with a group of students into the countryside.
Meanwhile, I kept on with other languages in various ways. I took another AGA Gaelic class at an advanced level. I started working on a literal translation of Familia Romana into Greek. I discovered the Conversational Koine Institute and did a sequence of 5 courses with Halcomb. Christophe Rico’s Polis book first appeared, and I began to be interested in his work. Where are your Keys came to my attention, and I first trialled that approach with a group of Korean high schoolers (the idea of Korean high schoolers taking a summer trip to Mongolia to practice English remains odd to this very day), and I started work on Patristic Readers.
At the end of 2014 we returned to Australia more permanently, so that I could work on completing my PhD. This led to a few developments in my language learning. I started teaching summer and winter intensive weeks in Koine literature. That gave me a context for teaching texts at a high level and expanding some of my own reading. I started dong Gaelic sessions online (individually, and with a chat group). I also took on a role providing ‘tutor support for tutors’ in a local seminary, helping to provide training support for those who are working with struggling Greek students. I took on a number of jobs as a private tutor, mostly online, teaching Mongolian, Latin, and classical Greek. These have all been useful to me as a teacher, but also in reflecting on pedagogy. One of the things I’ve struggled with is how to do ‘communicative’ methods via webcam. I’ve dabbled in teaching some basic Greek via WAYK, and some Gaelic too.
So here I am at the end of 2017. I’m finally (in my life) looking at the chance to teach an intro Greek class, and get some classroom experience putting communicative approaches into practice. I’m still looking to develop my online-tutoring practices. I want to improve my own reading, and active/communicative abilities in Greek, Latin, and Gaelic (with some interest in improving Mongolian, French, German as well).