You’ll get it wrong – misrepresenting authentic language in communicative teaching

Yet another part of our series on objections to communicative methods

One objection that you sometimes hear to more communicative methods is that those who are using historical languages productively will ‘get it wrong’ and thus be creating unrepresentative/incorrect language data for learners. This is another in my And especially that this is self-reinforcing – incorrect language features are used by incomplete learners, and create a hybrid monster that is “communicative historical language X” which actively harms people learning “historical language X” (feel free to substitute in your Latin, ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew, etc., as needed).

My response to this kind of objection is threefold: Yes, it is a danger; the benefit far outweighs the danger; teachers have a duty.

Firstly, I think there is a genuine danger here though I think it’s vastly over-represented by people who do make this objection. Speakers of Latin and ancient Greek are almost all incomplete learners. Some of us are more incomplete than others! And so mistakes are made. And sometimes mistakes are made and perpetuated, within the speaking community, in a way that makes me cringe.

However, no one I know is incognisant of this danger, no one cavalier, no one thinks it something to just shrug off. Perhaps there are people with that attitude, I don’t know. Our goal, almost always, is to pursue a representation of the language in our communication that reflects and approaches the patterns of the literature corpus we are interested in. That’s the norming norm for our situation.

The benefit of communicative approaches, and particularly in terms of actively speaking and conversing and writing in these languages far outweighs the danger of bad representation. If you think the danger is, “oh, a learner will think that XYZ is standard but it’s not”, what exactly damage is that going to cause? They’re unlikely to go and misread some text that does have the standard feature. They’re no more likely, when it comes to biblical studies for instance, to get things wrong than the woefully less complete and accurate representation of the language that a non-communicative student of equal attainment has. Essentially, someone who speaks Latin is still far and away going to end up a better reader of Latin, even if their speech perpetuates some non-standard features.

Thirdly, teachers have a duty. This goes back to the norming norm – insofar as we are aiming to reflect a particular corpus (e.g. classical Latin. historically broad Latin. Koine Greek. Classical Athenian Greek. Greek across 2000 years. that corpus can be narrower or broader), our language communicatively should aim to reflect that. Which means in terms of self-monitoring and editing and particular production of learning materials, I do think teachers have an obligation to be checking and correcting their own materials to those standards of the corpus. It’s why I’m always interested in the answer of, “who uses this structure?”, “is this attested?”, “attested where and by who?”.

In sum, we ought to strive to reflect an accurate representation of the language as we find it in our literatures, while not letting this paralyse us from actively using the language, which is a paramount way by which we improve our individual acquisition of that very same representation of the language.

5 responses

  1. Learning modern languages communicatively also entails the same risk of mistakes–and the same potential rewards! Yet almost all teachers of modern languages use these methods. Not all of them are native speakers either. But the good ones constantly work at improving, and help their students do the same. At least, those students who wish to improve. I think your points re ancient language learning this way are well taken.

    • But in modern languages you have the possibility of native speaker interaction and ongoing norming of speech patterns against contemporary speakers and literature. I think that gap ought to be acknowledged and not minimised.

      • Of course that gap is there, and needs to be recognized. But, as you say, the rewards outweigh the risks.

  2. I have three comments (that I think you would agree with) and a question. Sorry, it grew, so I’ve added subheadings.

    ‘Speak like you’re playing a video game’
    I feel like I have to be open to getting things wrong so that I can one day get them right. And I work on the basis that the sting of the correction will help me remember it. This obviously works best where the person correcting is correct, so yes, teachers have a particular duty. But hey, εἴ τις ἐν λόγῳ οὐ πταίει, οὗτος τέλειος ἀνήρ.

    ‘The wisdom of crowds’
    Communication is hardly a domain for heroic individuals. The really egregious mistakes, the ‘only Seumas ever says that’ kind, might get averaged away in a group setting. If group communication was the majority of input, then you’d get follow-the-leader, group-think, in-jokes and so on. But the in-group dialect might still be better than each person’s instance. And more and better input would improve it.

    ‘The solution to pollution is dilution’
    My understanding of acquisition by comprehensible input is that my brain can be trusted to reproduce the patterns it is exposed to, and therefore the key, for students and for self-correcting teachers, is to expose ourselves to plenty of authentic (i.e. original-corpus) comprehensible input (and the problem is *how* to get authentic and comprehensible). How much the communicative approach *facilitates* reading texts, rather than *standing in for* reading texts, seems an important question. Even so, if we’re talking in “semi-good” Greek around our reading of “good” Greek, over time both our reading and our talking should improve in a virtuous spiral.

    An actual question
    What difference does it make that we largely have ‘writing patterns’ rather than ‘speech patterns’? It bugs me that the NT corpus, at least, has a lot more story-telling and letter-writing than conversation. It’s not too hard for me to notice where Shakespeare switches from high-register poetry to prose, but I know I can’t do that in Greek. Should teaching and practice materials be aiming to ‘oralise’ original corpus literature? Or can we ignore the differences – is it more analogous to LXX Greek, which has more of certain constructions than is usual, but which was nonetheless understandable as Greek?

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