Can you teach a language with no native speakers via ‘immersion’?

A question I was asked recently on twitter.

Yes, but it depends what you mean by ‘immersion’ and what you think the goal is.

I don’t normally use the term ‘immersion’, because that normally, strictly, pertains to a method that involves full-time immersion in a language, so all day, all week. That’s simply not possible long-term, unless we set up little Latin-speaking (or Attic, or etc) villages. I suppose immersion is possible in short term venues like the SALVI Rusticationes

The goal, I would think, is also not to produce a new native speaking community. Though that is theoretically possible. See, the revival of Hebrew as a modern language, and also revival efforts of indigenous languages. But that’s not our goal for historical languages. If we revived a whole community of Latin speakers or Attic speakers, and allowed them to ‘continue on’ as a community and the language evolved, we would miss the point of learning ‘Latin’ or ‘Attic’, or ‘Koine’.

But there’s nothing inherent in Latin, or Koine, or Biblical Hebrew, that means they can’t be learnt as active, communicative languages. There’s nothing inherent in them that means people can’t become competent second-language speakers of these languages.

There’s a pedagogical challenge – how do you get people to this level, if few people are at that level? I think this requires careful research and considered pedagogy. We ought to take due effort to make sure that we are teaching language that is correct, as correct as possible, to what we know of the historical corpus. And we should recognise that teaching Ciceronian Latin, or Demosthenic Greek, or the like, is an artificiality. But it’s an artificiality that we already embrace in other methods anyway, and an artificiality that is desirable to the extent that we want people to read those kinds of texts and discuss those kinds of texts.

In terms of pedagogy, it’s about learning, and then using, those pieces of acquired language confidently and correctly. And perhaps the humility to say, “Well, I don’t know how to say X, Y, Z, let’s research together and get it right.”

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