I’m responding to recent twitter Discourse kicked off by @CarolusCarman about whether the push for CI means that we are in favour of sub-par content, and whether it’s okay that the classics world has a bunch of people running around who aren’t truly ‘proficient’ teaching or producing content. This post is a slightly longer-form attempt from me to cover some of the issues.
First, it’s super important, I would say, that we understand that CI is a theoretical concept about how Language is acquired. That learners acquire language by being exposed to comprehensible input. That’s a piece of SLA theory that, in a broad form, is very widely accepted. It’s not a method of teaching.
But a lot of people (and I’m probably guilty of this), talk about CI methods. If we want to be more correct we say “CI based methods”, because what we really mean is “methods of teaching based on an understanding of CI and with an aim of providing learners with lots of exposure to CI”. *How* that is done can vary a lot.
When we talk about the quality of language in CI resources, I think we have in mind 3 variables.
1 Is it correct?
- Is it “good”?
- Is it complex?
Those three are related but definitely not the same. I think all CI advocates think that input ought to be ‘correct’, by which I mean “recognised as possible and grammatical utterances”. Nobody thinks that ungrammatical Latin or Greek ought to be fed to students as a principle. That said, we need to return to this point later.
The second criterion is much more nebulous. In Latin, people often talk about Latinitas, with a sense of “is this idiomatic Latin that reflects idealised utterances of idealised speakers who have a flavour of Latin“. Latinitas is very hard to judge well, because huge reams of Latin writing through the centuries could be judged as Bad-Latinitas. I do think, however, that we can speak of “more Latinish” and “more Greekish” ways of expressing things, and that this generally is a quality to be striven for. But a lot of the time this is deployed as gate-keeping, elitism, and “if its not Ciceronian, don’t bother me.”
The third criterion is complexity, and here’s where I want to talk about proficiency scales and the like. I think a lot of learners, especially those with a few languages, polyglot interests, etc., have an unhealthy interest in thinks like CEFR and ACTFL proficiency scales, and C2 etc.. Most people do not normally talk, write, or operate at the “C2” level, because most daily language use does not involve highly technical, abstract, complex, or academic language. Nor do CI resources need to have that complexity – by the time most learners are approaching material of that complexity, they don’t need scaled materials anyway. So producers of content for learners do not themselves need to be C2 speakers. That is a myth and a harmful one.
In fact, if we look at global language teaching, there are vast numbers of people teaching other people languages who are not C2. Who are B1, B2, C1, gosh even A2. Would it be better if every single one of those people were a more competent language user? Sure, yep, absolutely. Is it essential? No.
Because you can produce correct and idiomatic language even if your language is limited. For example, take Benjamin Kantor’s first Hebrew Immersion video, in which you learn phrases for “Hello”, “Name”, “What’s your name?” “My name is…” etc.. A person who carefully pays attention to that video, and then uses those phrases in Hebrew correctly, is speaking correct and idiomatic biblical Hebrew. They might know nothing beyond that, but that is high-quality, beginner-level CI content. Would it be great if person A teaching person B knew more than that? Absolutely. Is it necessary if all they are teaching is that tiny set of material? No.
So, now let’s talk about the quality of “CI material” on the Latin market. This has been a perennial debate. Especially around the quality of Latin in the Latin novellas. Let me say that I think almost everybody can agree that some of the novellas contain Latin that is not good ‘Latinitas’, and some of the novellas contain Latin that is unidiomatic or even ungrammatical. That is a real shame. I suspect if you asked 95% of those authors if that’s what they wanted, they would say no.
Personally, I think anyone producing material, especially more permanent resources, has an obligation to seek out external editing. Either beforehand through careful proofing and feedback from others, or in an open-source format (which is what I do – I am happy to release material in draft format and get comments from anybody on the fly, and edit my own work). Latin and Greek teachers tend to be much better at finding others’ faults than at avoiding their own.
The more ephemeral the content, the more forgivable the mistakes. If you’re in a conversation and mis-speak, no one should stop you and correct you. Or even care. Every speaker of every language, even native ones, sometimes has the wrong thing come out of their mouth. Accept that as a fact and move on, because error correction doesn’t help.
Now, specifically the point has been raised about the general proficiency of “CI based teachers” in Latin and Greek, in comparison to modern languages. I think there are several no-brainer points to be made here. Absolutely teachers of modern languages tend, on the whole, to be more competent language users. Why? Simple. It’s much easier to get more competent in a modern language because there exists the opportunity to interact with communities of contemporary speakers, and there is likely a wealth of audio, visual, and print materials. Even for quite a few lesser languages. The more minoritised a language is, the harder this is, but it is still often true. Move to another country for a couple of years, take some classes, interact with speakers, and you can achieve a pretty surprising high level of competency relatively ‘quickly’, because you are investing hours and hours and hours in CI.
You cannot generally do that for Latin and Greek. Yes, opportunities exist, but they are far and few between. Perhaps the most significant option is Vivarium Novum, and Polis Institute. The former, which is held up by many as this shining light – well, let’s be clear that full-time year-long options there are sexist and ageist – you need to be a young male; as well as be willing to abide by their particularist vision of secular classical western humanism. You don’t need to agree to it, but it shapes their community values.
I want to circle back around to some specific points that CarolusCarman has made, some of them with a bit of attitude to them.
- Do we really believe that C2 proficiency is necessary to teach accurate and correct Latin/Greek?
Honestly, I don’t. Plenty of people in the world right now are learning English from non-native teachers who aren’t C2, and they are learning English. They’re not even going to speak to native English speakers, they’re going to speak to other L2-speakers of English. Plenty of school teachers in the US are teaching languages right now that they are not C2 in. This phenomenon isn’t going away. Yes, it sometimes creates problems. It’s a problem that many teachers of Gaeilge in Irish schools are not even remotely competent speakers of Gaeilge. But, but – you don’t need to be C2 to teach accurate and correct and idiomatic language. That’s just untrue. A person who is B1, B2 can teach a beginner language that is accurate, correct, grammatical, idiomatic. Would it be better if every teacher were more proficient than they currently are? Yes. That’s just a different question though.
- Is that in any way pragmatic?
I don’t think it’s at all practical to think that everyone who isn’t C2 should just shut up shop, and not bother until they are C2. Carolus’ presumed solution is that anyone who wants to teach packs themself off to Europe and learns from a true master until they can guarantee they are C2. I think that’s idealistic, elitist, and not even remotely practical. Plenty of teachers right now have graduated from programs, are already employed teaching, have neither the means, nor the time, nor the possiblity to just go off to Europe and study for immersion Greek for 3 years. What are they meant to do? Give up teaching and find another job and forget all about Greek? Where will that leave Greek teaching and learning as a field? Should they give up CI as a principle and just stick to grammar/translation as a methodology because they aren’t perfect speakers? That too is wrong-headed – we know G/T is a flawed method of teaching, so even if you were less than competent as a speaker you would still want to use methods based on CI. The genuine solution to this difficulty is to create as many opportunities and as much (good) material as possible, to help everyone get a little bit better. It’s not to idealise ‘masters’ of the language who live in Europe.
- Is the problem that more teachers know about CI than know their language well?
This is thinking about the problem the wrong way. What would be the solution if the problem were this – less teachers knowing about CI? Isn’t that just absurd? Rather, let’s put it this way – more teachers should be better informed by SLA theory and put best practices in language teaching into their own practices, and all teachers should be looking to improve their own language abilities.
- Should someone who isn’t C2 dare to (i) teach, (ii) produce publicly available ‘content’, (iii) represent themselves as knowing the language?
I don’t think people who aren’t C2 should proclaim that they are. I also don’t think courses should promise to teach people to a C2 level (because I’m pretty dubious any course out there is doing that, despite the advertising I’ve seen from some European institutions). But I do think the idea that you just need to shut up unless you’re C2, and not teach/write/video/promote is also a form of elitist nonsense. People ought to teach what they know. They also should feel free to produce content, especially if they’re committed to improving the quality of their own content. A mismatched adjective/noun agreement probably isn’t going to kill anyone, let alone ruin their long-term language acquisition.
Let me say, towards closing, that some of @CarolusCarman’s comments seem to suggest that content makers are in it for the money. I honestly find that offensive. (A) almost all content makers are doing it for the love of it, because that’s what drives most creative-content fields, (B) the money to be made from content creation is pretty minimal. Sure, it varies, but no-one is raking in $$$ and living fancy lives of this. Plenty of the novella writers don’t make back their production costs. Of course, there’s a spectrum, but if someone wanted to get into Latin content production to make it rich, they need an appointment with a career’s advisor. It’s a terrible way to make money. (C) it’s not wrong to make money anyway! Let’s not buy into a false discourse that says you have to do it for the love of it otherwise you’re not pure. These people are putting time and effort into producing content, and they’re brave enough to put it out there, knowing that classics-folk have an unhealthy bent towards being nit-picky, critical, pedantic, and elitist. Just scroll through the comments on any Latin/Greek video, novella, or tweet, to see this at work. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about quality, but most of the comments of correction that I see in the public sphere are not well-intentioned, otherwise they would have been made privately. If you feel the need to comment publicly and correct someone’s Latin or Greek, ask yourself why – 100% it’s about you and not about them.
If there’s a plea here, it’s just this: how about we all strive towards improving our own language, teach within our abilities, create and promote better and better content, and show kindness to ourselves and each others when we, and our language output, isn’t perfect.
I’ve only followed a bit of this discussion on Twitter and was hoping to see a well articulated debunking of the whole C2 business. I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve posted. The discussion did make me think about the state of Latin and Greek teaching over here in SE Europe where I live. Latin is still a regular school subject in high schools in most countries of the region, but it’s done in an outdated way which boils down to doing grammar drills and a bit of elementary reading. There’s *zero* expectation of developing any speaking, writing or listening skills; those simply do not exist in the curriculum (the legacy of the “dead languages” discourse). The same was largely the case during my university studies at a typical traditional Central European university. G/T was the norm – and in hindsight, I’m now astonished that none of us questioned it at the time. (I suppose it’s true to say we didn’t know any better.) I don’t think anything has changed in the intervening twenty years since I graduated, which is to say that 99% of the currently employed Latin teachers are wholly unqualified for the job under the C2 criteria, as they are nowhere near that level – and that includes university-level teaching staff, I’m quite certain. And you’re made a good point: the same is often true for teachers of modern languages, let alone Latin & Greek.
However, as much as I bemoan some of its deficiencies now, I still wouldn’t say that G/T is a flawed method. I think it does quite well what it’s supposed to do within the parameters of traditional curriculum, and I actually happened to enjoy that approach at the time. (The focus, concentration, analytical thinking it requires… There’s something to be said about that. Also, to me, as an extreme introvert, G/T felt like a soothing balm, as weird as that sounds.) It’s the expected outcomes / goals / targets that should be discussed, since the choice of methodology ultimately depends on them. Would a student who wants to be able to read the Greek New Testament benefit much from conversation classes in Attic Greek? Why would a scholar of medieval epistolography be expected to order a pizza in perfectly fluent Latin? (Never mind who from.) I realise that’s how and why, in spite of occasional attempts at reform, educational systems circle back to G/T when it comes to teaching classical languages, at least round here; there’s been no change in the desired outcome that would warrant a substantial reform of the curriculum.
Having switched to teaching EFL years ago, I’d love to do nothing but discuss 19th century English poetry with my students, but some of them need (and *want*) only B1/B2-level business English that they need for office work. I could be elitist about it and either refuse to work with those clients, or insist on a syllabus that wouldn’t cater to their needs (the latter is a mistake I was prone to making at the beginning of my career). So, not only are the C2 Latin & Greek fantasies elitist, there’s something awfully totalitarian about them. In their absurd maximalism, they actually take the learners and their needs completely out of the equation. When teaching is concerned, that’s the gravest sin of them all.
Excellent post, Seumas! We need more CI, not less, and should accept that mistakes are part of the process, both for teacher and learner. We don’t (shouldn’t) expect perfection when learning/teaching modern languages, as you so eloquently pointed out. We should strive for excellence, but be humble enough to recognize we will fall short of it at times.
Ben Kantor has some excellent aids on his site. I hope to sample them in time. Do you have a link to the Hebrew immersion videos you referenced? I checked his Koine Greek site and didn’t see one there. Perhaps he has a separate site for Hebrew?
Pax tibi, ειρηνη σοι, שלום לך!
There’s a hyperlink to it (now) in the post.
Great, thanks for the link to Ben Kantor’s Hebrew video. I also found that he does have a separate website for his Biblical Hebrew materials (which also branches out to Biblical Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Akkadian), https://biblicalhebrew.com/. Great stuff. Looking forward to exploring it and his companion Koine Greek site, KoineGreek.com.
This is written not as a line-by-line response to Seumas’ excellent piece above. Really, it’s the bigger explanation of where I’m coming from that Twitter’s platform just doesn’t allow for. I don’t write it as the end-all-be-all of the conversation, certainly. I hope it continues, and I think the interactions — even and especially the strong and snarky disagreements — have been fruitful to the whole. I say this later, but I’ll just flag here, too, that I apologize when my snark went too far.
Let me start with three anecdotes from some of my language-learning experiences.
When I was learning Latin, I was in a class where the students were reading the Cupid & Psyche passage of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. The class took place 99% in Latin. We would come in, the professor would ask someone to read the first sentence from our assigned passage, the student would read it, and the professor would say, “good. Are there any questions? What happened in this sentence?” The method was incredibly simple, and yet the process of reading and putting in other words over and over again meant that we had to know what was going on in the text, from a grammatical to a high, rhetorical and content level. That was known as the hardest class. The Latin was gruelingly tricky. The professor would chuckle and say that after this class, anything else you read in Latin will be easy (he was right). From the pedagogical perspective, one couldn’t help but admire the professor. He never had the air of one showing off his knowledge, but it was incontestable that he not only loved Latin. It had seeped, after many years, into his bones. I was delighted and honored to help run conventicula with him for a few years.
Another anecdote. Elsewhere geographically in my path of study, at a different program, I was taking greek courses on the Cappadocian fathers. The reading’s were not easy. The Cappadocians love a rhetorical flourish and complex structure and very technical terms. In contrast to my Latin professor, this professor couldn’t speak Greek if someone threatened to burn his rare collection of Chinese poetry in front of his eyes. This class was grammar-translation out the wazoo. We weren’t asked to read in the original Greek. Just the English trans., thank you. And yet, for all that, the professor was not only charitable, funny, and qwerky. He was also — and I know this beggars belief — incredibly fluent in Greek. All these terms are getting rather technical, so I ask patience from the SLA folk. What I mean is, this professor knew the Greek in and out, with incredible care for nuance of syntax and word-choice. For nearly every word, he could tell you — and often did tell us — a philological history of its use across other authors and genres. He was aware of puns, figures of speech, and, obviously, grammar. It didn’t matter if we read from our assigned passage, or if he was randomly reminded of some other passage or author that he would take down from the shelf. He would read — no English translation to hand— with ease and care. As I described him to a friend, he’s fluent. He’s just a mute.
Third anecdote. While learning Kthobonoyo (a form of spoken, classical Syriac), I’ve run into professors, instructors, monks, and scholars who are all indisputably, unequivocally, hands-down Native-Speakers fluent in Syriac. There are several reasons why this is possible, and the context of spoken Kthobonoyo are complex, and for the sake of space I’ll just say that Kthobonoyo is what Ancient Greek and Latin communities dream of when they’re on shrooms and their vision passes from this world into the next. There are parents who speak it to their kids; kids who speak it to their parish priest, priests who deliver homilies to an understanding audience; I’ve seen bishops switch from speaking Arabic to speaking Kthobonoyo (!!!) in order to get a point across. One professor and I were speaking Kthobonoyo, and he was speaking way too quickly for me to keep up, and he would use these high-level idioms, and he would ask me these intricate questions — everything you don’t do according to CI principles. And I would reply to him in Kthobonoyo, “Please, you gotta slow down, I’m still learning the language. I want to be able to speak like you, but could we start with simpler things?” But since I was able to speak at all in Kthobonoyo (unlike the other students who only had a grammatical understanding of the language), he thought I must be able to speak just as well as he can, and went on talking like to me like I was his son.
(I’ve had many experiences in-between, too. I’ve had conversations with people in languages where I knew they were thinking in English, not Latin, for instance. I’ve had classes in Greek where I knew I had better comprehension of the Greek than the professor, who was looking at a Greek-English translation to get by. And so on.)
What each of these anecdotes have in common is the level of mastery of the teacher. We can speak poetically about the mastery of anything as a life-long goal that’s unattainable until we die — I think there’s something obviously true in that sense of the term.
There’s another sense of mastery, however, and here I’m going to ask that the SLA folk grant me some leeway in the terminology so that we can all get a basic sense of things. When you look at the three anecdotes, what they share is not a pedagogical method; they don’t even share their relationship to the language (some are native and some aren’t; some just read). And yet, they all possess a near complete grasp of the wide complexity of the language (at a morphological and lexical level). In other words, they are lazy-chair-with-a-cool-drink comfortable with the grammar, including all the weird things that most students never encounter; and they are monk-memorizing-the-full-psalter-and-maybe-the-NT familiar with the dictionary.
Or, in the vein of you-know-it-when-you-see-it definitions, here’s another way of thinking of mastery: You’re friend who teaches second year Latin or Greek at the Vivarium is sick, and he’s asked you to take his place until he gets better, and you go to teach there, and instead of mercilessly eating you alive the students trust you with their souls.
Mastery and pedagogy interact with each other, certainly. My Greek Professor, for instance, who has never spoken Greek, never has to worry about producing Greek, and so he never has to ask himself about the proper way to compose any number of sentence structures in Greek. He’s a mute-master. Such masters exist everywhere — and of necessity when the language pronunciation is truly unknown to us, like Ugaritic, or when the corpus of writings is extremely limited, like Old South Arabian, the masters of those languages are mute of brute necessity. And certain kinds of pedagogical methods require a greater, more flexible exercise of mastery. A Latin master who has never produced a single sentence in Latin may have a panic-attack if asked to, precisely because of his mastery. He is so aware of the variety and nuanced involved in producing anything in Latin, and he will want to get it right. The Latin rests inflexibly in his head like etchings in a stone, not like a quill posed over parchment.
However, one of the main points here is that mastery of a language and pedagogy can come apart. The possession of one does not say anything as to the possession of the other.
And from my vantage point, the recent evolution in pedagogical method has not clearly and indisputably correlated with a recent explosion in mastery. If anything, the flexibility of thought required by the pedagogy (and in some cases, its fittingness to the way that humans learn) has actually produced the illusion that mastery has developed along with it.
It should be obvious that there is certainly no necessary connection between mastery (as I’m using the term here) and pedagogy, precisely because I can use the Best Pedagogy Eva™ to teach students something I completely made up. If someone with truly malicious intent wanted to introduce chaos into the Latin community, they could use CI, for instance, to teach students the present, passive participle in Latin (something which does not exist), and those students — thanks to the power of the pedagogical method — would have a better grasp of this false Latin than would students learning pure Latin through the most gore-your-eyes-out-with-a-spoon painful grammatical-method. What makes for better learning, in other words, does not mean what is learned will also be better. In fact, inasmuch as better pedagogy allows for greater affinity between the learner and the language, it is actually the case that the imprecisions of understanding and the corrupting influences of outside languages will have an outsized effect on the learner. When it comes with the greater and better pedagogies, the instructor must handle with even greater care, and hold himself to an even more scrupulous standard.
In sum, the ineffectiveness of the grammar-forward approach actually mitigates the errors the instructor might make, and the effectiveness of CI & co. raises the stakes — and, I think, requirements — for the instructor.
It’s this disharmony between pedagogy and mastery that strikes me nowadays. Unlike the previous generation of teachers — who showed a primary desire to obtain mastery —, what I see is a lot of advertising and huzzah’s over particular pedagogical methods (which blow grammar-translation out of the water, sure) but not a enormous concern for the mastery as the pre-requisite for the careful use of those methods.
What sometimes is claimed at this point in the conversation is something like “hey, we’re all still learning,” or, “Hey, I haven’t really mastered the language till I die.” And I think it would be hubristic and silly for people to start calling themselves masters (no hipster ever calls himself a hipster, right?). What also tends to be said (certainly not all the time) is also something like, “hey, I just don’t have the time or situation where I could achieve such a level of mastery, because I’m already teaching the language or [insert some other totally understandable reason].”
Really, it’s not that achievable-mastery is unachievable in general. We all know the examples from the previous generation, about whom questions of mastery never occur to us precisely because they have so clearly achieved it. Rather, achievable-mastery is just not achievable for me, right now, because I gotta make money today (and I will learn to recite poetry in Esperanto before I teach through some grammar-forward method required to get a job in most classics programs, assuming I have the credentials to apply, and they hire me, and, and etc.).
Here’s a thought experiment (and you have to put your best Greco-Roman-Tragedy hat on for this one): What if the re-discovery of better methods of teaching languages arrived, but, for many people, too early. What if there’s been a mis-alignment in the stars, if you like, between when many people found better methods of teaching and when they were ready to use them? Is this a possible account of the discontinuity between the enthusiasm among younger instructors and the cringing of the old ones (and yes, they cringe)? And is this tragedy all the more antique by the pressures and tensions that material necessity lay upon many great souls and good-hearted instructors who need to make a living, are too old to apply for the University of Kentucky or the Vivarium, yet still desire something better for their students, a future of language learning that they believe in? Are we at the same place as Aeneas, building a home too early, seduced by the promise and wealth of Carthage?
It would be absurd here to wet the tip of one’s quill and begin to name of the heroes and zeroes, and I do sincerely apologize for crossing that line. Actually, I do role my eyes at particular instructors, but — and I apologize and recant from having done this in public — those issues are what the demigods and furies of Twitter want me to write about, but my hearth and my books teach me another path. (They don’t overrule duels and such, to be clear, but, you know, nothing so vulgar as a Tweet).