Getting from sea level to the summit of Sagarmatha

This started as a long twitter thread about something else, but I’ve split it into at least two posts (that might be ironic).


First, let me suggest one (among many) analogies for language learning – climbing a slope to the top of a mountain. In our case, the mountain summit is generally ‘reading high level literary texts’, so the mountain is quite high.


Imagine, then, that you run an English program for English as a second language learners. And your incoming students tell you that their goal is to read, and write critically about, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Johnson, Austen, Twain, Yeats, Eliot, and so on. And really, we should never underestimate exactly how big a challenge that is – in training readers of classical languages to reach classical literature, we’re going from zero to Shakespeare. I stuck Beowulf in the list there because it probably neatly approximates the place of Homer – still the same language, but chronologically and chronolectically different.


So the mountain is steep. And I take it that what we are trying to do is lower the gradient of the slop as much as possible, to make the incline as close to flat as possible. That means in vocabulary, but also other features of language, syntax, morphology, etc etc.. Sequencing vocabulary appears as one of the most easily quantifiable issues, but it is certainly not the only one.


And we want to avoid two problems: too steep a slope, and ‘steps’ instead of a slope, especially steep steps, which are jumps between difficulty that a learner can’t navigate. That’s what, in my view, a good course of input-oriented materials does – it flattens out that curve as much as humanly possible, and provides whatever other helps and adaptations it can, to help learners ascend as easily as possible.


In doing so, ‘flattening the gradient’ also achieves something else – it improves accessibility. Because learning Latin or Ancient Greek or other historical languages isn’t inherently more difficult than other languages (because in the end they are but languages). However, if you structure your teaching around some other principle, e.g. “well, we have to cover all the grammar in two semesters and if you make it you make it, but most don’t. So we’re going to weed out the weak” (the boot camp mentality, where Latin is only learnt by the mentally adept, or the academically enduring), the outcome will always be a high percentage of failure. Why? because you started the treadmill on an incline of 15 and told everyone it couldn’t be set lower.


No doubt someone might say, “well, sure, we can flatten the gradient to almost 0, but then it’s going to take forever to get to the summit.” Honestly, I think that’s a false problem. Yes, theoretically, we could have so much possible reading material, that gets harder and/or more complex at such an achingly slow pace, that it takes too long. But anyone capable of making bigger steps/leaps/whatever, can. Imagine that our mountain path circles the mountain. Nothing is going to stop more capable learners from running up the lower slopes. Or from climbing directly from one spot up to the parallel path on the next rotation round.

So, as much as possible, I’m trying to flatten the gradient as close to 0 as reasonably possible, without holding any learners back, but more importantly not leaving any behindWith the end goal that we all get as high as possible (ultimate language proficiency attainment level), and as fit as possible (ability to continue on at that level for a sustained period of time).

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