σπεῦδε βραδέως (can you fast track language learning?)

One of the critiques I (πολλάκις; ἐνίοτε;) encounter about a living language methodology is that it’s slow. That it doesn’t get us directly to reading texts (the main interest of most historical language students), That it is inefficient (why do I need to learn the word for ‘butcheress’ if it only appears in LXX 1 Kings 8.13).

I want to mount something of a defence here, though a gentle one.

  1. You can only go so fast
  2. It’s basically sheer hours, not sheer speed, that charts your progress
  3. Where are you trying to get to?

 

You can only go so fast

Right, so given that you have X hours in class, or X hours studying, there’s only a finite mount of material you can cover. If that’s English description of Syriac (all my arguments are applicable to most historical languages, so let’s mix it up today!), then your actual exposure to Syriac ‘input’ is going to be very, very limited. It that’s Syriac input, you’re only going to be able to comprehend very, very simple messages at the start, because you basically don’t know enough to understand anything more.

So: grammar-based curriculum: you can proceed through grammar faster, but you’re ability and time spend exposed to L2 input is severely limited, and your speed at translating that material is going to be slow. Let alone ‘reading’.

Communication-based method: you will proceed through ‘grammar’ or ‘vocab’ much slower, but your input should be much, much higher. So your ability to understand Syriac in language will be stronger, earlier, faster, but still limited (albeit by a different factor).

And nothing much is really going to speed these things up. Sure, you can teach all the grammar up front, and do nothing in Syriac, but then all you’ve done is present a bunch of information – charts and explanations about how Syriac works, but you haven’t learnt Syriac, and in fact you haven’t even read much Syriac (if any), and so it’s after all that grammar that you have to go away and do that work of actually learning the language.

(this is actually how most Grammar/Translation courses really work: learn a description of the language, and only then do you really go out and try to learn the language. If we want to do that, I think we could do it better by explicitly saying that’s what we’re doing: “Hello students, welcome to introduction to Syriac grammar. Over the next X weeks, we’re going to provide an external, English-based description of how Syriac language works. Then next semester you can start learning Syriac.

This is also, let me say, what happens if you try and go faster than people can understand in a in-language approach. If you start outstripping students’ comprehensible levels, you have no choice but to either (a) start explaining all the language they can’t understand, and/or (b) ignore them and present language that is beyond them and so of decreasing-to-zero comprehensibility.

It’s basically sheer hours, not sheer speed, that charts your progress

What’s attractive about the above is that you can get a student, or a cohort, to the end of the year (or other arbitrary unit of time) and say, “Great, we’ve covered all of Syriac!”

Except you haven’t. That’s a lie, isn’t it? Hence the title of my post, you’ve rushed through grammar but you haven’t developed any proficiency in understanding messages in Syriac.

Based on the reading in SLA theory I’ve done, hours are a better measure of progress than most other things. Sure, learners have a bit of fluctuation, but if the main determinant is comprehensible input, and there’s not really a way to speed up certain acquisition processes, then it’s simply hours that provides a fair estimate of how far along you are. This seems to be backed up by what, for instance the kinds of hours-estimates you see for CEFR based standards.

Want to ‘go faster’? It’s not method that’s the issue, it’s time spent in the language with messages you understand. You can go faster, if you can spend more time day after day.

Where are you trying to get to?

I do get a little defensive on this point. I recognise that most historical languages students don’t want to learn to order a latte in Syriac. But, at the same time, the ability to do so is not irrelevant. Sure, learning how to say “latte” is one piece of extra information that won’t help you read the Peshitta, for instance, but it’s also not a huge burden. Rather, what does it say about us that most students couldn’t, without a great deal of difficulty, string together a sentence to ask for a basic, modern food item. (Don’t @ me about how lattes are neither basic nor food).

So I, like most teachers and students, want students to end up with an ability to read target language texts with understanding. In my ideal world, CEFR B2, or ACTFL Intermediate-High or Advanced-Low is a reasonable benchmark to aim students towards. Sure, they’re not ‘fluent’ (which is itself a super-difficult term to pin down, but I tend to peg ‘fluent’ to C2), but they’re going to be able to read most texts with minimal aids, and understand them, and have a fundamental conversation about those texts – maybe not at the same B2 level, since we’re text/reading focused, but I’d want to see students sustain a conversation about a text they can read at B2, at B1.

And, if you can get to B2, you ought to be able to ‘add on’ enough explicit grammar, in the L2 but also in your L1, to ‘talk grammar’ about a text. Again, in my ideal world L1 discussion of L2 grammar would be hived off into a separate component of any course, and delayed somewhat to help students not get sucked into a mentality of “okay, here’s an L2 message, let’s analyse its grammar while using L1”)

B2 seems, to me, also a high but reasonable standard to say, “okay, you should be able to sustain this level and improve it outside an educational facility, primarily by reading more”. A2 isn’t enough for that, B1 is borderline. We all know, though, that plenty of grammar-translation graduates reach great heights of analysis, but lose most of their language in a few short years post-college.

If hour estimates are correct, then it’s a full 800 of “teacher-led” hours to get to B2. That’s a really big ask. It requires reconceiving the length of a course of language instruction, the dynamics of the required hours, and a whole range of issues.

And yet, even to get students to A2 is going to take 200 hours or so. That’s still a lot of hours. You can’t take a month long evening course and expect to be fluent in Syriac. You might be able to explicitly learn the linguistic features of Syriac in English in a month, but that is an entirely different thing.

And so, if you’ve put up with me this far:

  • Stop trying to cram everything in. It doesn’t work and it’s not effective, unless you redefine efficacy to mean cramming.
  • Drastically raise your idea of the hours you’re going to have to commit to a language to get truly ‘decent’ at it (let alone ‘master’)
  • Drastically reduce (some of you!) how soon you’ll be able to do more than the basics.
  • Don’t lose heart – language acquisition isn’t that much about talent or aptitude (maybe not at all, I think), but persistence and time-invested.
  • You don’t get to throw out a communicative method as irrelevant or ‘doesn’t work’ until you’ve put in a good 600 hours thanks. Then come back and tell me how it doesn’t work.

3 responses

  1. If a man just had an hour a day to learn/upkeep his Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, would you suggest 20 min a piece each day, or one day an hour in Latin, the next day an hour in Greek, the third day an hour in Hebrew, and then repeat the cycle? In light of your post here, I recognize that this regimen will take years to do much good, but it’s all I can manage to set aside for languages for the foreseeable future.

    Like

    • It depends a bit on whether you’ve made some headway and are now looking to gradually build on the foundation, or whether there’s a whole lot of new learning being done.

      Either of these two options is possible, though 20/day has the advantage of daily practice. A third option, I would suggest would be to do 2 languages for 30mins each, and cycle through the 3 languages (so that it’s always “one language’s day off”).

      Regularly daily time spent with a language will do quite some good, and you might surprise yourself at the results.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the reply and your suggestion. I’ve had a year’s worth of instruction in both Greek and Hebrew and am trying to go it alone on the Latin, so I think I’ll make Latin a daily thing for a while and alternate days with the other two. Thanks again, and take care.

        Liked by 1 person

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