Communicative Approaches aren’t fast enough?

This is the first in a series of answers to Critiques and Comments to Communicative Approaches to Ancient Languages (which is a mouthful and I won’t repeat it like that. Essentially, I asked people on twitter for some of their best critiques of Communicative-Approaches, and received a number of critiques, but actually more comments and questions. I intend over the coming weeks to provide my own reflective answer on each of them. There’s no particular ordering to my answers, by the way.

@Ludovic47101295 writes:

The one I see the most (merely as a language student fascinated by pedagogy) is that CI isn’t fast enough at getting students to the level needed to pass some external test.  For example preparing for the AP Latin test in the US.
I want to start my answer here just be recognising that many teachers of historical languages (by which I mean Latin, Ancient Greek, and similar ‘classical’ or ‘ancient’ languages) work within systems in which they have little choice about this – they are teaching students who will face those exams, and they necessarily must accomodate the way they teach to those exams. For them, this is a given.
But if we take a step back, we ought to be asking some prior questions: what are we testing? and what are we testing that for? Because if we look at AP Latin, or the GCSE, or other similar end-of-high-school exams, the content of those exams is very revealing. You could boil down the exams to the following types of questions and tasks:
1. Analysing morphology of words
2. Commenting on syntax structures in sentences
3. Translating texts
4. Writing longer comment answers on the contents of ancient texts.
Or, to whit, Grammar, Translation, and Commentary. So, which came first, the testing of Grammar-Translation or the teaching of Grammar-Translation? Students who are going to get tested on G-T need to be prepared for that, but the really prior question should be – what ought to be the outcome of language instruction?
If the answer to that question isn’t “grammar + translation”, then we’re teaching and testing the wrong thing.
And here’s what I would say – that shouldn’t be the primary aimed-at outcome of language instruction. Now, that’s partly a philosophical position about language instruction, but if you think that acquiring a language is meant to be the point, so that students come out of a program with an ability to read, e.g. Latin, as Latin, and understand Latin texts in Latin, without needing to translate, then both the teaching and testing superstructures that exist are misguided.
There’s a fundamental distinction that CI-based approaches adopt, following Krashen, but widely held in a lot of SLA – that there’s a difference between knowledge of a language (an external, content-type knowledge of a language), and acquisition of a language (an internalised, more-skill-like competency in a language). Those two things may be related, or not; they may impact each other, or not, but they are two separate things. Teaching for acquisition but testing for knowledge is bad pedagogy. Teaching and testing for knowledge but expecting acquisition is likewise bad pedagogy.
With all that said, I think the ‘speed’ objection is possibly true in the short term, but false in the long term. That is, if you have a bit of a lead time, and enough instructional time, a communicative approach should produce someone with a better ability in the language, and then you can teach some grammar/knowledge about the language they have already acquired, and the student will end up more than capable of handling the current crop of traditional exams. So I do think that teachers who have students who will face the traditional grammar/translate/comment exams can get away with communicative teaching, if they have a long enough program and are prepared to adapt some of their teaching towards the inevitable gravitational pull of the test. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We made it that way.

8 responses

  1. First, yes. To everything you’ve said here. Next, I wonder how people view the relationship between proficiency and acquisition. Are these jargon heavy words thought about together? I don’t know. I just hear them a lot without much discussion of their intersection. Finally, “ But it doesn’t have to be that way. We made it that way.” I would add to this”…and we allow it to remain that way as long as we don’t force a change.” Thanks for a great post!

    • I might circle around to this question in an upcoming post (of which there are several), but I think of acquisition as a jargon word, yes, to refer to the whole process of gaining language as a mental representation in one’s head, typically coupled with development of output skills. I think of proficiency as something different though – a set of related competencies that involve using a language across various modalities with varying levels of ability, accuracy, speed, success-in-communication. I think there’s definitely room for some more exploration of those concepts and their intersection.

  2. Hi Seumas, thanks for doing these posts. My thoughts here are not really a comment on this particular post, but rather refer to the so-called ‘CI vs. GT’ debate in Ancient Greek in general.

    My background: I have spent the last 35 years collecting languages, and the last 25 teaching English, German, Danish, French, Italian, and Spanish to secondary school pupils and university students in various European countries. I now live and work in the Czech Republic.

    When we teach a modern language, the goal is (almost always) fluency not just in reading, but also in listening, speaking, and writing. As for reading fluency in particular: among modern language teachers, the general consensus is that one’s level in the passive skill of reading CAN, and often will, be ahead of one’s level in the more active skills like speaking and writing, but usually not VERY far ahead. Therefore, even if a student’s goals are very much centred on reading the ‘literature’ of a given language, he or she is encouraged to improve the more ‘active’ skills as much as possible. The notion that one could, for example, become an expert on Goethe without being able to fluently SPEAK and WRITE German would be considered ridiculous if it were ever put forward.

    DIFFERENT KINDS OF STUDENTS. Nearly all of us who teach modern languages use some combination of the ‘communicative/ comprehensible input’ approach and the ‘grammar-translation’ approach, and we can all see that individual pupils and students will progress at different rates according to the methods used.

    ** Extremely intuitive students **. There are a few exceptional students who can quickly absorb a very high proportion of what they hear or read, and who can soon begin to reproduce any language they are exposed to with impressive accuracy, subconsciously extracting the ‘rules’ of the language from that ‘input’. But these people are exceptional (perhaps 10% of my pupils and students?). If I take an entire group of beginning or intermediate learners and give them only CI and always speak to them in the target language, most of them will make very slow progress indeed. This should surprise nobody, since it takes us each something like 8 or 10 years of full immersion to become fluent in our native tongues. Most of my learners will see their progress sped up by timely ‘grammar’ explanations in their own language and structured practice of ‘grammatical’ constructions, as long as the dosage is not too high. None of this is rocket science.

    ** Extremely analytical students **. And yes, there are also a few students with more obviously ‘analytical’ minds who do very well using grammar charts and vocabulary lists, and who can develop phenomenal reading skills without being able to communicate much themselves. These are also rare (again, perhaps 10%?), almost always male, and often very good at chess. These students are not quite as good at reading comprehension as the best of the more communicative students, but they can get pretty close. The great majority of students, however, will make little real progress in any language skills (traditionally divided into reading, writing, listening, and speaking) if their language diet consists mostly of grammar charts, vocabulary lists, and translation, with little or no oral communication in the target language. I say ‘real progress’ because while many students can swot up on grammar rules and vocabulary lists and spit them out on an exam soon afterwards, very few will retain those skills for more than a few days past the exam. None of this is rocket science either, at least to those of us dealing with modern languages.

    Given the spectrum of learning styles I see in my students, I obviously try to teach using a variety of materials and to aim for somewhere in between the two extremes described above.

    ** And now for Ancient Greek **. I began learning Greek AFTER all my other languages and have spent a fair bit of time on it over the last 5 or 6 years. I am part of a small group that meets to speak in Ancient Greek twice a week for a couple of hours. We are all reasonably fluent speakers now and, not surprisingly, we are becoming very fluent readers as well.

    PROBLEMS WITH CURRENT PEDAGOGY. From my viewpoint as an experienced learner and teacher of modern languages and a less experienced learner of Ancient Greek, I offer the following unsolicited observations on some problems I see in the world(s) of Classical Greek and Biblical Greek.

    1. EXTREME METHODOLOGY. With a few notable exceptions, the methodology, teaching materials, and examinations used to teach Ancient Greek are all from one end of the spectrum of methods we have at our disposal in modern language teaching. This kind of extremely analytical language learning, centred on grammar and translation, is good for a few but condemns the majority of students to never really feeling at home in Ancient Greek. This approach is, I think, one of the reasons for the fact that whereas most modern language teachers in Europe are women (and indeed, in my experience women are generally better linguists than men), Classical and Biblical Greek are dominated by men.

    2. POOR READING FLUENCY. The level of reading fluency in Classical and Biblical Greek, among both teachers and students, is low compared to what I am used to seeing with modern languages. This phenomenon has been noted by Mary Beard and others, and while the situation may be a bit better in places like Italy (where Greek is still taught in secondary schools), there is no denying that most of the ‘reading’ being done in Ancient Greek would hardly qualify as such if it were done in a modern language. The current level is consistent, however, with what I would expect from teachers and students working with texts in a modern language which they neither hear nor speak with any frequency.

    3. OVER-ANALYSIS. Just as one would expect in a world where everyone analyses the language but hardly anybody uses it, in Biblical Greek people build entire careers upon the most pointless of theoretical questions. It is difficult for me to convey in words how monumentally stupid the whole Aktionsart/aspect debate looks to speakers of languages that ACTUALLY HAVE VERBAL ASPECT (like Modern Greek or any Slavic language). Let me put it this way: which will give you a better understanding of batting – an hour spent trying to hit a ball with a baseball or cricket bat, or a year in a classroom analysing the physics of that action? And which will give you a better understanding of Greek verbs – spending a week forced to distinguish between and deploy the aorist and continuative (and maybe the perfect as well) several thousand times a day in real life situations, or spending 125 years arguing about verbal aspect in German and English?

    4. AN EXTREMELY NARROW FOCUS. In both Classical and Biblical Greek there is a perverse and damaging obsession with just a few texts, with perhaps 95% of the attention focused on 5% of the corpus. This is, I think, one of the consequences of the inability to read fluently, but it also reinforces that inability. The problem is most acute in Biblical Greek, where almost nobody reads anything but the Greek New Testament itself. If you so love one particular book that you are willing to learn an entire foreign language (and a very difficult one!) in order to read it in the original, then you are probably already very familiar with that book’s contents. What happens, then, if all the vocabulary work, grammar exercises, and reading that you do in your attempt to learn the foreign language are based on passages from that very same book? You will never learn the foreign language well enough to truly engage with the book in its original version because the interference from your previous knowledge will be far too great. In other words, your ‘reading’ will essentially consist of recognising things that you already know from having studied the book in your own language. I have experienced this myself. After teaching myself Biblical Greek and reaching the point where I thought I was comfortably ‘reading’ the gospels, I tried one of Aesop’s fables in Ancient Greek. A revelatory and depressing moment.

    Paradoxically, if your goal in learning Ancient Greek is to read the Greek New Testament, then the Greek New Testament is the very LAST Greek book that you should read. Put it away for several years and learn Koine well enough to fluently read ‘pagan’ history, philosophy, and popular literature. Nobody is going to send you to Gehenna for reading Chariton or Epictetus. Then get comfortable with the Greek of the Septuagint and the non-canonical Jewish writings that circulated in Greek (and there was a veritable mountain of them). Finally, at the end of your journey, when you open the Greek New Testament, not only will you be able to read it fluently enough to genuinely engage with the ideas in it, but you will do so with far less interference from what you know of the New Testament in your own language.

    5. LACK OF HUMILITY IN THE FACE OF THIS DIFFICULT LANGUAGE. Many people in Classics or Biblical Studies are not very realistic or honest about how difficult Ancient Greek is or how much work is required to master it, even using the most effective methods of learning. Ancient Greek is my seventh foreign language (I am more or less fluent in the other six), and I can say without hesitation that it has been more difficult than all of the other six COMBINED (one of which is Czech, a very highly inflected ‘primitive’ Indo-European language. The U.S. Government’s Foreign Service Institute puts Czech into their Category 4 for difficulty, so I have no doubt that Ancient Greek would be a Category 5 language along with Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.)

    And yet some seminaries, if I understand correctly, expect students to simultaneously learn Hebrew and Greek (starting with no prior knowledge of either!), and some universities in the English-speaking world expect their students in Classics to simultaneously learn Latin and Greek. Maybe some of those students are a lot cleverer than me, but I doubt that many can really master any of those three languages in such circumstances. In Biblical Greek, I suspect that many get to the stage where they can confidently recognise Bible verses they already know in English, and maybe also analyse the Greek using grammatical terms, because that is a prominent component of the teaching methods used. But I don’t think that many of them are really fluent in reading Ancient Greek at that point, at least not in the way we talk about fluency in modern languages. (I am sure you know Daniel Street’s legendary 2008 blog post “Greek Professors: Do They Know Greek?”) And yet seminary students are expected, at that stage of their learning, to do ‘exegesis’. This is not very intellectually honest or responsible, to say the least. Things are, I suspect, a wee bit better in Classics departments, if for no other reason than the fact that Latin and Greek are usually given more relative weight there than Greek and Hebrew at seminaries.

    SUGGESTED CHANGES. If I were asked to make changes to the way Ancient Greek is taught (and no, nobody is asking me), I would do the following:

    ** Stop expecting students to learn Greek and Hebrew at the same time, or Greek and Latin **. Greek is way too hard for that. Instead of splitting time between two difficult languages, give all those learning hours one language or the other. If we did that, allowed students at least four years, and used the best teaching methods, then students might stand a chance of achieving fluency in whichever one language they chose.

    ** Bring the methodology for Ancient Greek back towards the middle of the spectrum of what is done in modern languages. ** This means more communication and less grammatical analysis and translation. This would make the language interesting for students of all learning styles, not just the extremely analytically-minded, and it would increase the general level of fluency for everybody (and by this I mean reading fluency, which I presume is the common goal here). Anyone who would, at this point, complain that there are not enough materials available for teaching Ancient Greek communicatively needs to create some, thereby becoming part of the solution rather than the problem. Perhaps a more communicative approach would also lessen interest in purely theoretical academic debates like the one about Actionsart and aspect.

    ** Use a far wider range of ancient texts, and in the case of Classics departments, easier ones. ** For Biblical Greek, this means teaching Koine as a whole, not just the specific (and often odd) kind found in the New Testament. The corpus of surviving texts in Koine is vast, and many of them are interesting and not prohibitively difficult. There are very many non-canonical Jewish and early Christian texts that would make for excellent learning material. And Classics Departments: your emphasis on ‘great works of literature’ is impeding the development of the very fluency needed to appreciate them! Do you REALLY think that a student who speaks not a whit of Ancient Greek is in a position to enjoy the metrical nuances of Aeschylus and Sophocles? Or the rhetorical techniques employed in the long, formal speeches given by the historical figures in Thucydides? What if I, as a modern language teacher, had a group of students learning Spanish who were capable of fighting through Spanish prose with the help of a dictionary but unable to carry on a conversation in the language. Would I give them Lope de Vega’s ‘Fuenteovejuna’ to read and ‘appreciate’? In my case, that would constitute professional malpractice, yet this is what happens in Classics departments all over the world, day in day out.

    There is much work to be done, Seumas, and I salute your efforts. Keep up the good work.

    Adrian Hundhausen

  3. I actually think applying a communicative approach in a university setting is quite feasible, even within the theoretical and methodological approaches of traditional historical language departments. In fact, I think the university setting offers some assets that most high school or other settings do not, particularly homework. The body of beginner Latin literature has grown to the point where its not unreasonable to have enough novel reading or novel audio assignments to fill an entire school year. And on top of that, Orberg’s LLPSI surely aids not only in hitting all of the “grammar points” but also helps keep larger departments vertically and even horizontally aligned. (Not that there aren’t issues with Orberg, of course)

    Secondly, I think this is a perfect example for the ways that The Canon can serve to undermine the learning of historical languages. My Latin 3s this year were able to understand plenty of authentic texts, despite the fact they certainly are not ready for the Aeneid, which, according to AP is a “Third semester college text”. The Gesta Romanorum, Odo of Cheriton’s Narrationes, (heck, we even explored Historia Francorum in Latin 2!) and many other texts in this genre are perfect intermediate texts. They’re short, written in very clear Latin (pedants may complain about the “errors” but even Caesar’s Sacred Pedagogical Text (De Bello Gallico) has “errors” in it that actually enhance comprehensibility!

    And let’s say you really want the students to understand the grammar terminology. Sure, okay, I like philology too. The students are already getting between 30 and 60 minutes of input via reading and listening each night. Ideally, you’re spending the majority of the in-class time on communicative activities (talking about the readings, circling, PQA, Story Asking, Role Playing Games, etc.), which are powerful tools for the highest frequency words (yes, even the ones in historical texts). If, however, you really want to talk about a certain grammatical point (declensions, ablative absolutes, conjugations, etc.) you can use PACE units, which are a communicative approach to grammar. I’d recommend this sparingly and for the things that are genuinely foreign concepts in L1, not just the stuff from chapters 30-40 of Wheelock. Here’s a link to the idea explained . One thing you’ll notice is the way that it still provides tons of input and THEN introduces the grammar. This is basically just a microcosm of the principle where students learn the grammar concepts better once they have acquired language. Some of the best CI teachers I know use these. They’re good stuff.

    Now, let’s talk about what could happen in year 2. This is where I think we’re going to have to ask for some theoretical and methodological compromises from the institution (or, perhaps, our colleagues). Nevertheless! They’re compromises, not overhauls. We need to reevaluate what we call an intermediate language student. My intermediate Greek class in undergrad, for example, was Plato’s Republic and Symposium. I was taking a philosophy class at the same time, and I couldn’t even understand what was going on in English, let alone Greek! I went to a very small school, so that our 200 and 300 seminars were usually the same class. This may explain in large part why we were reading Plato, as the class was serving more advanced students. In situations with larger departments, I would recommend seriously reevaluating which texts are considered “intermediate.”

    Honestly, it’s easier than you think. While, yes, this means Late Antique, Medieval, ecclesiastical, Neo-Latin, and “low” literature should absolutely be considered (because they’re also very interesting and worth study), there are plenty of antique texts, too, that are ripe for study. This, nota bene, does not even preclude poetry, really. My personal recommendations for finding works are:

    1. A strong, driving narrative.
    2. Providing key context when pre-teaching
    3. A manageable cast of characters
    4. A coherent theme for the course (Disease, War, Love and Relationships, Political Relationships) (not temporal, nor author-centric, nor geographic)

    In situations like my Greek class (actually, come to think of it, you should probably do this even for 200 levels too), I would recommend using a tiered or embedded reading structure. Project ARKHAIA has embedded readings for the whole of the AP curriculum, if you want to see what they look like. In my opinion, I think it could afford to scaffold vocabulary a little better, but ARKHAIA gives you a good look at the concept in practice. Andrew Olimpi has some great tiered readings, including a Medieval liturgical drama. Morover, if you’re a really lazy teacher (like I am, proudly) a great assessment activity for your upper-levels in these combined classes, could be writing those tiered readings for you.

    Tiered readings are such a powerful tool. I remember seeing some comments on Seumas’ original tweet about students who took historical languages to read historical texts, which is to say, we don’t have to choose between communicative approaches and getting to texts “on time.”

    Wow this is getting long. Thank you, iced coffee.

    So let’s talk about that other institutional staple: rigid grading and assessment. Here, again, we can absolutely incorporate communicative principles while also maintaining institutional compliance. Now, ideally, we would abolish grading entirely (and the University, of course, but I’ll leave my deluded fantasies behind for this thought exercise). Bob Patrick has written extensively on how he assesses comprehension on reading. The long and short of it is that generally, you should be asking questions in English. Likewise, translation is not right out, but you must adjust what you expect from a translation. You’re not looking for English signifies of Latin grammar, but broad comprehension of what is occurring in the reading (which ends up being a much deeper internalization of the text than simply decoding Latin!). Seumas has written about this particular concept, I think.

    I’d, however, like to warn against “participation” or “community skills” grading, especially at a university level. It’s kind of condescending to grown adults and it can wreak havoc on students’ affective filters. I’d recommend making your curriculum as grades lite as possible and taking advantage of informal assessment through PQA (Personalized Question and Answer) or circling about the text. I also suggest grading for completion. As long as students are doing the work, they’re getting the input. As long as they’re getting the input, they’re acquiring the language as fast as they can. Any limitations therefore are unfair to hold against the student (either natural limitations or your limitations). I have “bad” students who have grades that a traditional class wouldn’t allow them to have due to behavior and attention issues who nevertheless have As in my class. They do the work. They get the input. They understand the readings. Sure, their interpersonal, especially their aural/oral Latin, is lacking, but I think we all agree that our primary concern is literacy.

    When I took Latin in grad school, we had weekly reading comprehension checks. They were, uh, not comprehension checks. They were grammar questions. I know this because I was working full time as a cow mascot while also student teaching while also taking the class, so I neglected to read a few of the poems. I nevertheless answered each question correctly, because I had a grammar textbook and and English translation of the passage at hand. Obviously the question at hand becomes “How do we assess comprehension in a way that demonstrates TL comprehension that can’t be “gamed” with a translation?” and I sympathize with my professor to this end. Asking very specific grammar questions requires a knowledge of Latin grammar, but as this discussion has rightly concluded, that’s not acquisition, let alone comprehension. Lance P has written on this and concluded that if a text is so difficult that a student resorts to translation, the text should be changed or more supports should be added. I’m also sympathetic to this, but I think this answers questions about “grading” more than “assessment,” where the former is a placement or ranking and the latter is about learning a students’ strengths and weaknesses. So, I agree with Lance that if a student is resorting to translation, the grade is moot, but it does not really answer the question as to what is causing the difficulty or where the difficulty is at. Honestly, I kind of just ride the lightning on this. I trust that my students are doing the work outside of my immediate supervision honestly. I moreover think a university setting actually makes this easier, because students are more likely to want to learn the material.

    Nevertheless, here’s a compilation of some of my favorite questions to use. I try my best to move past simple recall and in Latin as much as possible.

    When I started this comment two hours ago, I wanted to universalize it for all historical languages, but I’m looking back and seeing many of my recommendations are Latin-specific. I think Latin among historical languages is unique in that it benefits from a still sizeable number of pre-collegiate teachers that allow for a larger market of teaching materials that allowed Latin to break out of the viscous cycle of traditional methods –> low enrollment –> no market for updated materials –> traditional methods. This doesn’t even touch on the ways that treating historical languages as real languages has led to some really unfortunate products of both scholarship and art (cf Ille Hobbitus, whole clauses being used to express modern words like “refrigerator”). I encourage those of you who know a historical language that is less represented than Latin to make VERY SIMPLE reading materials. Translate a novella, make a tiered reader for your favorite author, learn what the Quaint Quinque, Awesome Octo, and Sweet Sixteen are for your language. The more materials there are, the easier it is to assert a communicative approach in a university.

    Again, I agree with the original post and all of the comments. The paradigm must shift. Failing to treat historical languages as languages has undermined our fields and undeserved our students. I think there is great value in asking people to question the philosophy and methodology of the established curricula and programs. I,however, also think that there is a ton that can be done *within* the constraints of the status quo, and I also think we should address the concerns of traditional departments and professors *and* we can do these things, especially with a little coordination. Because it’s possible and doable and best serves our students.

    (Ceterum autem censeo AP delendum esse.)

    TL;DR: There’s a lot of ways that communicative teachers can answer the time constraint concerns of university-level instructors, without even having to interrupt their pedagogical paradigms. I laid out a potential curriculum map that, though asking for two unobtrusive concessions, allows the traditional university language timeline to remain intact and addresses the objectives that traditional departments have for language students

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