On the desire not to speak

Part of my ongoing response to answers to Critiques and Comments to Communicative Approaches to Ancient Languages. See here for parts one, two, three.

What about students who have selected Latin or Greek because they want to take a foreign language that doesn’t require them to speak, or because they don’t want to talk about going to the shops on the bus, or because they want to analyse language in a linguistics-type manner.

I think these objections often come bundled, but really they need to un-bundled into three separate issues with three related but distinct responses.

  1. The desire not to speak
  2. The content of our classes
  3. The nature of our subject

In the rest of this post, I’m primarily going to talk about the first point here. I’ll deal with two and three in the next two posts.

I recognise that, especially in school and college contexts where “foreign” language credits are required, Latin (in particular) can be an attractive option for students who don’t want to be forced to speak.

And, I recognise too that, especially for children and youth, there’s generally an added aversion to speaking. Being forced to speak, being put on the spot to produce L2 content in front of other people, in environments that are performative, evaluative, and often competitive, is a set of affective features that multiply stressors.

Overall I think my response as an advocate of communicative practices, albeit one who does not typically deal with a lot of students uninterested in speaking, is threefold.

Firstly, it’s a structural problem at a larger level that “foreign” language credits are required, and so that students are forced to take a language. Now, I do think there are good reasons to have that problem – i.e. I don’t take issue with the idea that you might have a school/college system that has decided this is a feature of their programs. That said, it certainly creates a problem – students need to take a language, and they don’t want to take (a) certain languages, (b) any language. This is a problem that generally I have avoided by not having this kind of teaching job!

But recognising this is as a problem doesn’t identify a structural solution, nor am I even suggesting there is one. All it means is that students end up taking classes they don’t want to. And, where Latin (or Greek, but usually it’s Latin) is an option, you then particularly get students who take Latin because “it’s a dead language, and so they won’t make me speak it”.

If they rock up to day 1 of Latin, and it’s all spoken, then you have a different problem, but it is a marketing one. That can at least be solved by making it clear that you teach Latin communicatively (easier said than done). But it doesn’t actually get to the problem that I think is worth talking about:

How can communicative language teaching appropriately cater for learners who are not interested in speaking?

To which I want to lay down four foundations:


  • Comprehensible Input is necessary and (probably) sufficient for acquisition;
  • Output is neither necessary nor sufficient.
  • Compelling output doesn’t aid acquisition, and probably hinders it.
  • It’s okay to (partially) privilege reading (and writing).


1. CI drives acquisition. Whatever role you are prepared to grant to explicit instruction of grammar, from some to none, I’m firmly in the position at the primary and overwhelming driver of learners acquiring a mental representation of a language is their exposure to comprehensible messages in the target language (that are interesting and are produced in communicative contexts).

This comes with two corollaries. If INPUT drives acquisition, you don’t need learners to output to drive acquisition. There’s no acquisition based need to force or compel output. Students don’t need to write, let alone talk, to acquire Latin. They do need to read and listen though. They need to read and listen a lot.

This, by the way, is why I don’t mind doing the bulk of talking in my own classes.

Secondly, you can explicitly cater for students with apprehension about speaking by making this explicit and up-front. “In this language class I expect that you will acquire the language by attending to what I write and say and attempting to understand it.” Now, being lost in a sea of immersive incomprehensible language also raises people’s affective filters, so you need to work hard to make sure that it’s comprehensible, but setting the basis as “your job is to pay attention” is a much better foundation.

2. Output takes on a very different role then. Now, I have just said that OUTPUT doesn’t really lead to acquisition, but it can play three other important roles: (i) learners do need to output if they are going to develop output competencies. So, if students want to speak, they need to speak to improve speaking. But that is a distinct, but not discrete, output skill. And it’s still largely driven by the input. (ii) output can lead to input for other learners, (iii) output can also elicit input as other participants output (e.g. conversation!).

If you are specifically interested in catering to people from who output is going to cause stress, then I recommend working on developing output opportunities that can scale for confidence. At the high end is monologue speech with audience observation. Then working down through dialogue options, single Q&A with sentence answers, one word answers, written answers, through to comprehension-only multiple choice responses where the only thing you are checking is that a student comprehends a written text, through written text comprehension of multiple-choice answers. There are probably other ways too, but if you really want to make it possible for learners to acquire without production, it’s possible.

3. As soon as you force learners to output, you are putting them on the spot, and quite frankly most people don’t like that. Especially if it’s (a) public, (b) instantaneous, (c) spoken, (d) people are judging your correctness. So, really, you don’t want to do this to anyone who’s not wanting to do this. It’s why I don’t mind if students tell me before class (or even during class) that they’re just going to listen and observe.

That said, a teacher who is skilled and sensitive should be doing all they can to reduce the affective filter here – they should be encouraging production at a level that allows learners to respond with confidence, celebrating communicative success, facilitating negotiation of meaning when communication doesn’t quite work, and allowing minimal to no space for negative feedback. Explicit error correction doesn’t appear, according to the SLA research I’ve read, to have any concrete and long-term benefits on acquisition or on outputting correct forms. Even recasting does not appear to have strong positive effects.

4. As I’ve said elsewhere now, since most students of Latin and Ancient Greek are primarily interested in reading, that’s our main goal for most classes, even communicative ones. Which means you can still privilege reading in your class, provided reading is being driven by a communicative understanding – we read to understand messages in the target language, we don’t acquire language by analysis of grammar. That means actually a lot more reading, of (usually) a lot easier material, to make sure it’s comprehensible, and to increase the volume of comprehensible input.

It also means, especially for learners who have zero desire to speak, that you could shift your output activities to writing ones. Writing allows two feature that speaking does not – editing and time. You have time to ‘get it right’, and you can edit what you write. So, students who are feeling a strong negative response to speaking for those reasons can be further alleviated.

All this to say, I still think that a communicative language classroom for historical languages is the best way to go, and I would conclude (i) communication done well meliorates many of the factors of “spoken language” that learners find stressful, (ii) it’s possible to design and run communicative learning procedures that minimise, or eliminate, output, if that’s really a pedagogical necessity; (iii) my end goal for a student who came into a Latin class because they wanted to take a language class they didn’t have to speak in, would be to see them internalise Latin well enough to read it without translating, and be able to speak it if they wanted to.

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