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.
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.