On the desire not to speak (about particular things)

This is a follow-on from ‘on the desire not to speak’, and a continuation of the longer ‘objections’ series. See here for parts one, two, three, and four. And today I want to talk about those whose objection to communicative methods is, paraphrasing Jeremy J. Swist, I don’t want to talk about daily trivia, I want to discuss literature. I’ve got four points on this.

You can talk about anything via a communicate approach. That is, the communicative method does not determine the content of your communication. There’s no reason that a communicative class has to spend its time in practicing how to order lattes in Latin, or asking the way to the bathroom in Ancient Greek. That’s a feature of a subset of modern language instructional material designed to give basic conversational competency to beginners, especially those who might travel abroad, and because those are situations those learners might face and want to have the language for. You are never going to be faced with those situations in Latin or Ancient Greek (unless you deliberately sign yourself up for an immersion event).

A class should talk about things its students want to learn. The method and practice of communicative teaching is about working in the language to make sure learners receive comprehensible messages, which should be interesting to the learners, because interest makes us pay attention and engage. So if you have a class full of people interested in reading ancient texts, the content of the communicative classes should orient itself to those texts. If you have a class full of people interested in discussing medieval philosophy, or South American botany, or contemporary geo-politics in South-East Asia, your classes should work to make that possible.

Language competency is domain specific. It is important to realise that while language structures (e.g. syntax) tend to be broad, competency, especially in vocabulary, is domain specific. To give an example, when I learnt Mongolian I had a real need (teaching) and interest is learning to speak about grammar and linguistics in Mongolian. So I became very familiar with that domain, and could talk about grammar in Mongolian. On the other hand, I didn’t do that much shopping for vegetables, and my competency to talk about various foods was very underdeveloped. The same is true in Latin and Ancient Greek – what you make the content of communication will also be the primary areas you develop vocabulary competency in.

A teacher should be broadly competent. I would say, then, that a teacher ought to be working on a broader competency than just talking about one field. When we talk about higher ‘levels’ of language proficiency, it does involve an ability to talk about a variety of topics. And as a teacher you ought to be shaping your communication to the learners you have, not the learners you think you should have. That requires breadth in order to be flexible. So, for teachers, I don’t think learning how to order lattes is as optional as it definitely is for students. I call this the latte test, by the way. Sure, there is no real reason to order a latte in Latin, but you should probably be able to.

2 responses

  1. I don’t want to be too harsh here, but isn’t

    1. Worrying about how to keep people who don’t want to communicate happy in a language class

    just like

    2. Worrying about how to keep people who don’t want to do equations happy in a maths class ?

    Communicating is the whole point of a language, like calculating is the whole point of maths. If you don’t want to do ANY of it, you shouldn’t be in the class. If you are forced to do a language, too bad, that’s just like we people who like to communicate (but don’t like to calculate) were forced to do years and years of maths. Call me mad, but I don’t think that making your language class a refuge for those who don’t like to communicate (like maybe some Latin classes are now?) is really going to keep your enrollment numbers up in the long run.

    Adrian Hundhausen

    • Well, I prefer to have opportunities for students to speak and write, but I don’t believe in forcing output, simply encouraging it. I wrote this post because I recognise that this is a concern/point that some people have in some teaching contexts, and I think it can be addressed to greater or lesser degrees. Some people do end up in Latin classes who don’t want to speak, and it’s worth considering how to appropriately accommodate them. I don’t think that’s the same as designing your Latin class from egg to apple to avoid all possibility of speaking – that is something that I think would miss the point.