WAYK observations at Rusticatio

Long-term sufferers of my blog know of my strong interest in Where Are Your Keys and all its applications. I knew that Evan had had a good deal of involvement with our American Latinist friends for a period, and was interested to see how this manifested at Rusticatio.

Here’s a short index of Techniques that were either taught explicitly or evidenced in other ways. With comments from me on how they were used/introduced.

Accent adjustment. This was briefly explained early on, and primarily used by our leaders for a couple of specific adjustments. They would sometimes use it on each other to tweak what someone said. Occasionally, Nancy would slip into ecclesiastical pronunciation, and it could be used to bring her back! And then it was sometimes used to indicate to a participant the need to tweak their pronunciation

Again. Iterum. Incredibly useful. Didn’t catch something, need it again? Iterum is the technique you need. Ubiquitous and with wide up-tak.

Backwards build-up (Rassias). So, I wonder if this didn’t come into WAYK from Nancy, because I know Nancy started off herself in spoken Latin with a lot of Rassias. We did Rassias type stuff in a large group, with Nancy modelling question/answer and then using substitution patterns and drawing on participants. She would very often build a sentence backwards for us. This TQ was never formally discussed.

Full & Full-check. Sat? These were explained early on, up front, explicitly. And that, I think, is tremendously helpful in teaching participants to be aware of their own affective filters and status, and measure both themselves and others for ‘full’.

Full sentences. Another one that wasn’t explained, but certainly in the all-in sessions Nancy would generally model and expect full sentences.

How fascinating. Mirabile! This, like Full, was taught explicitly, early, and modeled by leaders well. I think it’s a hard one to ‘catch on’ to using because people find that although it does dispel awkwardness, it also takes a bit of intentional awkwardness to embrace it.

Let it go. Mitte difficiliora. Probably the third of the main techniques taught explicitly and early. I didn’t see it in use a lot, but it came out from time to time as need.

Mumble. Taught semi-explicitly, but not quite as a technique per se.

Set-up. Explained, but not often utilised and not well reinforced. I feel like that to have seen this in use would have required a bit more explanation of how to do Set-Up and how effective it can be in language hunting/teaching.

Slower. Lentius. Similar in some ways to ‘Again’, and about the same in terms of implementation and uptake.

 

I didn’t notice any other TQs in use, though I did notice some subtle WAYK sign usage at times (and, scilicet, signs are themselves a technique, though each sign is not itself a technique). For example, at one point Annula said sed (‘but’) complemented with the sign for it, but without knowing that that was the sign, you could easily miss it.

Overall, I appreciated the presence and utility of WAYK at Rusticatio and it’s helped reinforce the value of it to me.

 

Apud Rusticationem Australianam Primam (et Optimam)

I’ve just returned from the first Rusticatio Australiana, where I have spent the week speaking Latin and nothing but. In this post I am going to give part-narration, part-reflection on the week just gone (look for another post in the coming weeks though!)

Firstly, what’s a Rusticatio? Rusticationes began some 20 years ago as the brain-child of Nancy Llewellyn, as a week-long ‘camp’, ‘retreat’, ‘intensive’ in a somewhat rural environment, where participants could learn to speak Latin as a living language. For which we are all grateful. They have been occurring, and multiplying, across the United States for the last 20 years, and going from strength to strength. (There are similar things in Europe, for those that live there, though not associated with SALVI).

This was the first Rusticatio held in Australia. Our good sir, Anthony Gibbins, who had participated in not a few over in America, and is the author of Legonium, began to dream of holding one in Australia and over the past couple of years that has gone from dream to reality.

So, the week itself. We arrived at a lovely retreat centre in the Kangaroo Valley (not that far for me, as a Sydneysider and being from Wollongong, gratias ad Deo), on the Monday around midday. The site was quite a comfortable one, with plenty of cabins (casulae) to house us all (nisi fallor, 30 participes, 6 magistri/aeque).

The initial meet & greet, and lunch (which I hadn’t expected, and so was doubly grateful for), was primarily in English. Having spent the drive down listening to some Latin podcasts, I was ready to Latinize, but I definitely appreciate that not everyone wants to turn up and immediately be confronted with Latin only!

After some introductions by our leaders and general advice/counsel/information about the week to follow (including incredibly important tips on self-care, “full”, etc..), we held a ceremony and pledged to only talk Latin for the rest of the week (with a few, minor, exceptions).

The Latin-only aspect seems a crucial factor here to me. A language like Latin means that, in most (not all!) contexts, participants would always find it easier to converse in another language (e.g., their native tongue). This is a way to force a communicative necessity to use Latin, by creating that necessity by consensual, and somewhat formalised, compact. Adherence was extremely high, and it creates also the kind of condition, that I’ve experienced by reality not be agreement, where you simply have to either work your way around a communication impasse, or just give up.

Each day consisted of a fairly regular schedule, with variation. A good balance of sessions and breaks, busy but not packed, and with some flexibility. Sessions included ‘all-in’ oral exercises and games, readings and discussions in smaller groups, some targeted vocabulary sessions, and working on a drama together (performed with great gusto and laughter on our penultimate day). Overall, the combination of naturalistic learning outside classes, with various types of directed learning in them, and group-bonding dynamics, created a robust experience and lead almost everyone (I dare say, I obviously cannot speak for all), to move along in their Latin speaking ability. And indeed, for many Australians and our New Zealander attendees, this was their first experience of speaking Latin at all.

There were some aspects of exercises that, strictly speaking, I’d disagree with from a theoretical perspective (as I understand the research); namely oral repetition of forms. But, based on my own anecdata, there just is something about getting the mouth moving, elevata voce, that pertains to developing speaking, not merely listening, proficiency.

The Americans that came out to kick-start this in Australia were, frankly, marvellous. Industrious, good-spirited, indefatigable, kind, experienced, and prodigious in their Latin.

Our evenings were also filled with various more-optional activities, including pelliculae, ludi, a concert (some fantastic Beatles’ songs performed in Latin). On the last evening there was campfire singing and, ut credo, an episode of Quomodo Dicitur with Jason, which pro dolor I was absent from.

So, indeed, let me say a little bit about D&D in Latin (I plan to write a whole separate post on this). A few of us had discussed the idea of this via email beforehand, and committed ourselves to making it happen. Being in different ‘groups’ meant our first planned session time wouldn’t work, since our Game Master was on kitchen duty. eheu. Still, we made some characters. And this was quite useful, since of our 4 players, 2 had never played D&D before at all. This meant that the only time left to us was our penultimate night. (Hence, I didn’t make it to podcast-recording). It was a good experience and I have a lot to reflect on from that.

It had been a desire of mine to get to a Rusticatio or similar for many years, but the distance and costs off getting to America or elsewhere have always been ridiculous. It basically means doubling or tripling the cost, and adding 4 days of travel. So this was an opportunity long desired, and not to be missed. In no way did it disappoint.

On top of that, so much of my own impetus for interest in Second Language Acquisition, and especially for Greek, came out of listening to US Latin teachers. I don’t teach that much Latin week to week, if at all. But I have done more than some speaking before. Nonetheless, this really gave me a huge confidence boost. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself more competent than I’d perhaps perceived, and the cumulative effect of a tantum latine environment, and the snowball effect of day after day, meant that by the end I was really ‘buzzing’. Indeed, so much so that when English was ‘permitted’ after our final closing ceremony, I found it difficult to transition back to English. I’ve had that experience before, with say Mongolian, and even Gaelic at times. That’s a great sign for me personally. (I know that for others, they were incredibly relieved to speak English again! And, of course, people hit ‘full’ at different rates, on different days, and not just from language input. That’s one reason why ‘full’ and ‘full-checks’ are such an important technique! Self-care but also interpersonal care, because language is about community).

I can’t say enough good things about Rusticatio Australiana. It was a dream come true, exceeded practically everyone’s expectations, and I think it will go down as not only a huge success, but the start of more and more, here down under. Vivat Lingua Latina!

 

(and, I dream of the day this might be done for Greek, but that’s for another day…)

Epistola ad Praeconem Latinum (editum a Arcadio Avellano), scripta missaque a Albin Putzker, 1895

Amicus noster, in pipiatione nuper hoc misit, atque hic quoque ponendum esse dixit.

Here’s a wonderful letter from Albin Putzker, in 1895. plus ça changeplus c’est la même chose. You can see the original in situ. The footnotes, nisi fallor, are Arcadius Avellanus offering his own thoughts.

 

Univ. of Cal, Berkeley, Oct., 7th, 1895.

 

Your last “Praeco” was particularly good. How can one read with feeling and emotion Latin master-pieces and Latin poetry, if one has not that instinctive knowledge of the language which comes alone from the power of speaking it?–If you read through translations, the best element is lost[1].–The claim that the study languages for the “mental training” is all talk; it is not true[2].–We study languages chiefly to realize, to feel the beauties of the great thoughts, as put by the best minds; in that should the training consist[3].–Let us have life, not more dissection of corpses; living language for living thought. –Of course, mere conversation as such no body advocates. If teachers could speak Latin, the objection would not be made[4], and the teaching would assume a different character; routine would make room for living interest. –Would that we had the right kind of simple, interesting, strictly progressive reading material for the lower schools, such as we have in German and in French[5]. There is much room for improvement in this respect, and a great Latinist could render great service on these lines. – Your article on poor Ulrichs was read by me with deep sympathy; I should like to learn much more about him. Could you not rite more about his life?[6]

With the best wishes for your success,

I am, most truly,

Albin Putzker

 

 

[1]Praeterea, versiones prostant pro 50 libellis.

[2] Bene mones; est mendacium.

[3] Veritas aurea. Quod, per Deos Immortales posset esse absurdius, quam Tullium Hratiumque de ablativis, de “hidden quantities,” de radicibus Sanscriticis, aliisque vercordiis disserendo profanare & desecrare? Classicos sic polluens est quasi sus in hortum elegantissimum irreptus, qui flores devorat, rubos conculcat, gramen depascit, atque proboscides cuncta susque-deque vertit ac convellit.

[4] Sane, minime gentium! O si scirent, quam diverse arguerent!

[5] Habebimus in Tusculo!

[6] Faciemus proxime.

Everything wrong with focus on forms

I recently had occasion to complete a (modern) language placement test. The test was composed of 20 sections, each asking me to manipulate given sentences and change the forms to other ones (e.g. the equivalents of present to past, one structure to another, and so on). It wasn’t an overly taxing test, though it did take a bit of time, but in terms of assessing my language ability, I would rate the test itself a fail.

Firstly, because I didn’t need to understand the messages in the text in order to manipulate them. Indeed, there was vocab in there that I didn’t recognise. But whether I could or couldn’t understand the texts, was irrelevant to the task, which was transform structure to structure. That only required an explicit grasp of particular grammatical forms.

Secondly, there’s no guarantee I can reproduce this level of grammatical correctness in speech. In fact, I know that when I speak I am producing all sorts of errors in these forms. I would like to ‘fix’ that, but I doubt that explicit instruction in grammar will help that because I explicitly know all this grammar. “You should know this by now”; “we’ve been over this grammar X times, why are you still saying it wrong”; “You can explain this grammar, why can’t you produce it in speech?” – these are all things (some) teachers say, and they are all predicated on wrong beliefs.

like explicit grammar. I love learning about linguistics. I think there’s a small, but non-zero place for it in language education contexts. But I’m pretty convinced that manipulation of forms does not lead to acquisition – not to communicative ability but also not even to real-time correct use of forms.

Vocabulary learning

Lately I’ve been reading, among other things, Joe Barcroft’s Vocabulary in Languge Teaching, one of the e-modules in the Routledge E-Modules on Contemporary Language Teaching. And it’s been helpful in thinking through some issues about vocabulary acquisition.

Like many, I studied quite a few historical languages in a very traditional mode. And, I excelled at it – I walked out of 2hr Greek exams in 20 minutes, used space repetition to memorise New Testament vocabulary down to 3 occurrences, and other such feats. But, I also came to think that this approach is basically non-productive of acquisition, and a huge mis-investment of time. By the time I came to study Mongolian, I rarely if ever spent any time explicitly learning glosses for Mongolian words.

And partly that’s due to a shift in how I conceived of lexical items. “Vocabulary” does not mean learning that ἄνθρωπος means “man” or “person” or “human being”. In fact, it doesn’t mean any of those things. Those are, at best, sometimes-appropriate translations of ἄνθρωπος. (And so, when I mark essays, I regularly correct students for mistaking ‘translation’ for ‘meaning’).

Rather, lexical items exist in our mental lexicon as items with a whole set of associated data. We have a core meaning for most of these terms, e.g. table tends to mean “piece of furniture with flat top surface and one or more legs, useful for putting things on”; but we also store alternative, derivative, metaphorical, extended meanings; e.g. table as, say, a set of figures in columns and rows. We also store collocations and phrases, table talk, turn the tables, etc.. And we store things like arguments, i.e. that put requires an agent, patient, location. And we store relations between words, including synonyms, antonyms, homonyms (a different kind of relationship, but one very necessary for puns!) near-synonyms and how the differ, etc.. And we store connotations, and so on…

And this is why giving students a list of words and one or two key glosses, not only is incredibly boring and dull, but is misleading about the nature of vocabulary learning. It suggests that learning vocabulary is simply about mapping a 1 to X set of correspondences between L2 words and L1 words. That, itself, is false. It may be a useful starting point (though I think this is debatable), but to the extent that it reinforces this “laundry list of glosses” notion of what vocabulary is, it misleads students (and to the extent this myth persists among teachers, demonstrates their misledness).

How then do and should we learn vocabulary? Well, unsurprisingly we learn it by input. Repeated exposure to meaning-bearing instances of the novel lexical items, in communicative contexts. The more, the better. And, in fact, this is how you solidify not just a ‘core gloss’, but the variety of meanings, nuances, connotations, collocation, proverbial sayings, etc..

To return to my impetus for his post, Barcroft, he distinguishes between three components of vocabulary (form, meaning, mapping; that is “what the word sounds like, what it means, and the connection”) and suggests that various activities prioritise each of these components, i.e. attention “processing resources” can be devoted more to form, to meaning, or to mapping, but at the detriment of the other two components. I think this is where two of his modules most interesting points (to me) occurred: (1) that using multiple talkers to repeat input of novel items (keeping other values constant), saw increases of 38-64% in target word learning. That’s quite an effect size! (2) that word copying, i.e. copying the target words, actually has a detrimental effect on L2 word form learning.

Barcroft himself articulates (in a separate 2012 book, and briefly in this module), an Input-Based Incremental approach.  Which, I’d largely endorse. It’s core is promoting frequent, and repeated, input of novel words in meaning bearing comprehensible input. Limiting output, especially in the early stages, and promoting L2-specific meanings and usage over time.

I confess, in my own learning I have become very laissez-faire about vocabulary acquisition. I just figure that more input over time means more exposure to vocabulary, and I’ll learn whatever is frequent and relevant. Which is true, but it’s an entirely incidental and haphazard approach. I myself could be more intentional in structuring my own studies, and in lesson planning.

But, at the end of the day, the one thing I would want everyone to go away with, is that “vocabulary” never equals “rote learning a set of L1 correspondences”. It’s anything but that.

 

 

What if traditional ‘language’ courses came with a disclaimer?

Disclaimer:

The course you are enrolling in is a traditional language course. Almost nothing we do this semester will contribute to language acquisition. This course is focused on language as an artefact, and so we will be discussing grammar, analysing syntax, memorising morphology, rote-learning vocabulary associations with our L1, and translating sentences back and forth as a form of practice, with no attention to the communicative meaning or purpose of those sentences (if they had any).

We will definitely not be using language to communicate, develop any communicative ability, learn to read effectively, to understand or communicate in our target language. In fact, less than 5% of what we do in the course will be useful if that is your hope, and the ability of the other 95% of our explicit teaching to contribute to you acquiring the language is slim to none.

The memorised explicit knowledge you can expect to gain in this course will primarily be useful in taking tests on explicit knowledge, taking further courses of the same kind, or vaguely pursuing linguistics somewhere down the track. Otherwise it will be quickly forgotten.

Between two types of translation

I’ve said in the past that it’s just a bit wild to give beginning students translation as a task to do, because translation is a high-order skill, not a low-order one. In this post, I want to explore two different types of translation practice, and how they sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Firstly, there’s translation to convey meaning. I haven’t really found a satisfactory label for what I mean here. But let me explain. Suppose you’re a fully proficient bilingual, say in English and Portuguese. And you work professionally as a translator (written texts) or interpreter (real-time spoken communication). Translation in this case is about conveying messages that occur in one of these languages, in the other (source > target), as accurately as possible (and, if in real time, with speed). It involves a high degree of language proficiency, and cultural and domain-specific knowledge.

Even if one of these languages is an L2, and adult-acquired language, and not an L1, a native-acquired language, it’s still a very demanding process. And the level of language proficiency, and both general cultural and domain specific knowledge required to translate well, is high. It’s one reason translators tend to only operate into their L1s (i.e. with an L2 source but an L1 target, not so much vice versa).

Translation of this sort relies upon the translator understanding the source text as is, in the language, and so depends upon a very well developed representation of that language in their mind.

Secondly, there’s “translating to comprehend”. This is what goes on in historical language classes. You get presented with a text, you apply your external knowledge of grammar, and your external knowledge of vocabulary, and you output a translation in your L1. You didn’t understand the text when it was presented in the L2, it was beyond your linguistic competency to process and understand that message. Translation in this case is an external, extrinsic process where you conduct a grammatical, or linguistic, analysis, to produce an L1 version, and thus render the original L2 message comprehensible to you.

That’s not just orders of magnitude different, it’s arguably a different category of process going on. And that’s why I don’t consider that second process, “translating to get meaning”, to be a form of reading. If that’s what you’re primarily doing, you’re not reading, you’re operating on texts beyond your linguistic competency. Which, is not the end of the world. Especially if you’re in a traditional-type program. Just remember that the process of creating a translation of a text is actually a mechanical process that renders input, comprehensible. And you are going to need a lot of comprehensible input if you are going to actually acquire that language, not just learn about it (and learn to practice grammar/translation as an externalised skill).

Why I (will) ditch the textbook next time

Right now I’m heading into week 11 of a 12 week semester teaching a Greek 1 class Koine. I’ve found it frustrating, mainly because I’m frustrated with myself. And as I reflect on that, I decided that if I’m given the opportunity to teach this again, it will be sans text-book.

To understand why I would now ditch the textbook, you need to understand a few things. Firstly, I’ve taught this module as available to students either (a) in person in the classroom, (b) online-live (video conference) and (c) online delayed (recorded delivery). Honestly, this is a taxing way to teach in general, but it also locked me into certain practices that I think contributed to my frustration – the recording format bound me to a desk and to using slides throughout.

(If I taught this again, I would make it in-person only. I think one could learn from recorded delivery of sessions, but not if that binds me to a desk and slideshow)

Secondly, the combination of the textbook’s pacing and approach, and a set of various ‘expectations’ about what Koine Greek is and how it should be taught, has pushed the stream of my class faster than I would like, faster than my students can acquire, and created an environment that’s more about learning than acquisition, and so in conflict with my own fundamental principles of teaching.

Thirdly, consistent reading and learning in the field of SLA basically convinced me that a textbook, even a good one, dictates the classroom content in a way that isn’t going to optimally produce acquisition. Even though I somewhat resist it, I can still perceive that my students aren’t fully onboard with what I set out trying to do, and the textbook tends to encourage them towards grammar.

Ditching the textbook, I think, would give me a certain freedom. A freedom from various expectations that are working against language acquisition. A freedom to start the class with, “We’re going to acquire Ancient Greek through comprehensible input, and this is how this works” and then follow that with 12 weeks of in-target-language conversation/communication, and come out the other side with genuine acquisition.

If, as the SLA field suggests to me, language is so complex, abstract, and implicit, such that explicit knowledge cannot become implicit, and if I’m committed to providing input such that implicit acquisition can take place, then the textbook has to go. Because at present the textbook is dictating my class, and it’s proven to be a bad master. Perhaps more skilled teachers than I could reverse that, but I strongly suspect that I would do better to say goodbye to it.

Time: one reason why seminaries won’t (ever) embrace language acquisition

The problem with an acquisition-based program in a seminary setting is time.

A standard, seminary-type language course represents a 2-semester sequence in which students get drilled through a traditional grammar explanation of the language, with some practice on translating Greek passages to English, and are expected by the end of those 2 semesters to be able to translate easier portions of Greek into English, and explain the grammar of those texts (Mark, John, being likely candidates). Then you let them loose on upper level exegesis courses with the expectation that they’ll manage to translate more difficult texts in the NT corpus, because if you know a finite-grammar, you can translate finite-texts.

I’m critical of this for various reasons, which are not new here: acquisition vs. knowledge, the linguistic validity of a grammar course divorced from modern linguistics, and questions about ultimate attainment and ongoing utility. In my view, if this is really the approach one wishes to take, you should offer a 1 semester course in “The linguistics of NT Koine Greek” and cram it all in there – because if you’re teaching content, you can just teach content. You can stop pretending that this equips students to read the New Testament in Greek in any proficiency-based sense.

But, I do acknowledge that there is a very significant hurdle for adopting a acquisition-driven Comprehensible-Input-based approach. And that is time. The driving determiner of how far a student will get, disregarding learner internal constraint, is basically time. Well, quality and quantity of input. Assuming we can provide quality input, then it becomes a quantity question.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of the episodes of “Tea with BVP”, a second-language acquisition radio-show/podcast that ran for 3 years. There’s a lot of good content on it, and a lot of pointers to other things. As part of my follow-up, I have been reading “Setting Evidence-Based Language Goals”  (Foreign Language Annals 49 3 (2016):434-454) by Goertler, Kraemer, and Schenker, which examines target benchmarks for the German program at MSU (where Bill VanPatten also is, and which runs on CI-based principles).

The study looked undertook a review of and after review, the benchmarks (using the ACTFL proficiency guidelines) were revised to (after years of college study):

  1. Intermediate Low
  2. Intermediate Mid
  3. Intermediate High
  4. Advanced Low

Correlations with CEFR are difficult, but AL comes out as somewhere between B1 and B2, with IM at A2, and IH at B1. Table 2 of their study also presented different sets of  ‘hours’ recommendation for different levels. MSU classes mean that students receive:

Year Hours Cumulative
1 100  
2 100 200
3 150 350
4 150 500

 

The study reviewed previous benchmarks and outcomes, and then determined the current outcomes of current MSU students.

If you break down the hours in class by semester, that’s 50 hours a semester, raising to 75 in 3rd and 4th year. About 3-4 hours contact across a 12-14 week semester, up to 6 in the upper levels.

No seminary is going to run this. No seminary is going to run a 4hr a week, 4 year Greek program. Not unless they radically change their outlook on language acquisition and goals. Which is basically why I suspect that acquisition of Greek is not going to get very far in seminaries.

It also continues to highlight the problematic nature of 4 contact hours, across a standard semester. You just can’t get a student, ab initio, to very high levels of proficiency in a 4 year course. Which isn’t just a problem for biblical languages programs, it’s a problem for classics courses that want ab initio students reading high-level literature.

There’s only one solution to this: more hours. More hours of comprehensible input. The hours estimate for Advanced Low at MSU was 500 + study abroad. The (probably less reliable) hours estimates of Liskin-Gasparo for Advanced Mid is 720, A-High and Superior is 1320. I don’t think, based on the modern languages data, that you can really get college students beyond Int-High with a few reaching Adv-Low, within a 4-year sequence, and to achieve that in a classical languages program is going to require a committed, and skilled, teaching-team.

I can only imagine 4 solutions at the programmatic level:

  • you teach based on CI-principles at the high school level, allowing you to get 4-600 hours in before your students even reach college.
  • you raise the contact hours for language majors and make it an all-consuming degree (i.e., nothing but language, ‘content’ courses in the upper years taught in language, and no electives, and turn ‘expected’ hours into contact ones. or else you provide enough reading and audio material that all the ‘expected’ hours can be spent on input).
  • you push expectations of higher level proficiencies into the grad-schools.
  • you push for 1-2 week intensives to supplement term-teaching.

 

 

Learn to love your Loeb (or, how to stop feeling guilty about ‘cheating’)

I suspect a lot of people (though perhaps not the general demographic still reading my blog) will find this advice objectionable. There is a school of thought that hates students using Loebs. And, they have a point. If you think the goal of classical language learning is to (a) internalise Smyth, (b) memorise as much of LSJ as humanly possible, (c) and then produce a translation for the purpose of understanding a text, then Loebs are antithetical to your purpose. That is to say, (again) if you think classical language learning is about developing a skill in translating, then that’s exactly what you should practice.

That’s not a position I hold, because translation is not reading. Or, it’s not reading as a proficient communicative user of a language reads. If you want to read Greek as Greek, without translating (mentally or otherwise), then your goal (and mine) is quite different – it’s to acquire Greek to a degree fit for reading texts without needing to translate for understanding.

Let me define ‘translate for understanding’, as it’s a phrase I’m going to be using more often. What happens when you meet a message (text, for instance) that is beyond your proficiency, beyond your ability to comprehend in Latin at that time? If you (like me) are a recovering product of the Grammar-Translation method, you (can) translate – you take your explicit knowledge of grammar, pick up your lexicon, and make a rendering of the text into your L1 in order to understand it. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a useful strategy for rendering an incomprehensible input comprehensible. But it’s not reading, and it’s not comprehending in the L2.

And it’s slow. And painful. And inefficient. Which is why, whenever I’m reading something that already has a translation, if the text is beyond my current ability to read with 90-100% comprehension, I use that translation in parallel. Because reading a translation alongside does the exact same thing for acquisition and understanding that doing my own translation would do – it makes the input comprehensible.

So, this is my permission to you. If your goal is understanding a text as quickly as possible, then of course you should leverage a translation. It does exactly what you need, it renders a text beyond your proficiency comprehensible, efficiently. And that let’s you get on with the text itself, with getting meaning out of the text, and increasing the quantity of your overall language input.

Adapting a story template for Ancient Greek

Below I have adapted (a lot is basically translated) a short story in Ancient Greek. It’s very closely based off a post from Magister P, who runs an amazing blog from which I have learnt a lot of stuff. In particular, I’ve been quite taken by the idea of using that very core ‘sweet sixteen’ verbs. Works not just for Latin!

Anyway, here is the story. Feel free to point out errors! I used this as a skeleton for a TPRS type session, and it went very well. Feel free to use and re-use as you like.

Phillip and the Kithara

Φίλιππός ἐστι μαθητὴς ἀγαθός.

ὁ Φίλιππός ἐστι οἴκοι (τοῦτό ἐστιν ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ). τῷ Φιλίππῳ κιθαράζειν ἀρέσκει.

ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθαρίζειν. οἴμοι, οὐκ ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ. ὁ Φίλιππος οὐκ ἔχει κιθάραν. ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθάραν ἔχειν εἰς τὸ κιθαρίζειν. ὁ Φίλιππος νομίζει κιθάραν εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. ὁ οὖν Φίλιππος βούλεται ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὸ διδασκαλεῖον.

 

ὁ Φίλιππος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἀποχωρεῖ. ὁ Φίλιππος ἔρχεται ἢδη πρὸς τὸ διδασκαλεῖον. οἴμοι, ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ βούλεται εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. ἔστι τὸ Σάββατον! ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ βούλεται εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ τοῖς Σαββάτοις. ἀλλὰ ὁ Φίλιππος νομίζει κιθάραν εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ.

 

τὸν δὲ φύλακα ὁρᾷ ὁ Φίλιππος. ὁ Φίλιππος· χαῖρε, ὦ φύλαξ. ἆρα ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ; ὁ δὲ φύλαξ οὐκ ἀκούει τοῦ Φιλίππου.  ὁ φύλαξ ἀγνοεῖ τὸν Φίλιππον. ὁ Φίλιππος προσχωρεῖ πρὸς τὸν φύλακα. ὁ Φίλιππος· ὦ φύλαξ, ἆρα ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ; βούλομαι κιθαρίζειν. ἔχεις κιθάραν; νῦν δὲ ὁ φύλαξ ἀκούει τοῦ Φιλίππου. ἀγαθὸς ὁ φύλαξ. ὁ φύλαξ οὐ βούλεται ἀγνοεῖν τὸν Φίλιππον. ὁ φύλαξ λέγει κιθάρας μὴ εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. οὐαί.  ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθάραν ἔχειν εἰς τὸ κιθαρίζειν, ἀλλά οὐκ εἰσὶν κιθάραι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ.. ὁ Φίλιππος ἤκουσεν κιθάρας εἶναι ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τῆς Μελίσσης. ἡ Μέλισσα ἐστι φίλη τοῦ Φιλίππου. νῦν δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν τῆς Μελίσσης.

 

ὁ οὖν Φίλιππος ἀποχωρεῖ ἀπὸ τοῦ διδασκαλείου. ὁ Φίλιππος πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν τῆς Μελίσσης προσέρχεται. ὁ Φίλιππος· χαῖρε, ὦ φίλη, ἔχεις κιθάραν; βούλομαι κιθαρίζειν. βούλῃ σὺ κιθαρίζειν μετὰ ἐμοῦ;

 

ἡ δὲ Μέλισσα ἔχει κιθάραν. εὔγε. ἡ Μέλισσα φέρει τὴν κιθάραν πρὸς τὸν Φίλιππον, ἀλλὰ κατατίθησιν τὴν κιθάραν. οὐ δίδωσι ἡ Μέλισσα τὸν κιθάραν τῷ Φιλίππῳ. ὁ δὲ Φίλιππος ὁρᾷ τὴν Μέλισσαν κατατιθέναι τὴν κιθάραν. ὁ μὲν Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθαρίζειν, ἡ δὲ Μέλισσα οὐ δίδωσι τὴν κιθάραν αὐτῷ. ἡ Μέλισσα ἀργύριον ἔχειν βούλεται. οὐαί. ἡ μὲν Μέλισσα βούλεται τὸν Φίλιππον ἀργύριον διδόναι αὐτῇ. ἡ Μέλισσα οὐκ ἔστι φίλη. ὁ δὲ Φίλιππος οὐκ ἔχει ἀργύριον. ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ δύναται κιθαρίζειεν.

 

What I’m currently listening to (Latin podcast mini-reviews)

Lately, I’ve been really getting into…. podcasts.

Previosuly, I’d never quite had a good ‘set-up’ in my life to make listening to them useful, but that changed and now I’m on the bandwagon. I mostly, though, listen to target language podcasts and similar. Here I talk through those I currently listen to…

Latin

Quomodo dicitur (punct dot com)

There’s a lot to love about listening to Justus, Iason, and Augustus discuss ‘quomodo libet’ for 20 or so minutes a time. The general comprehensibility is high, the discussion flows well, audio quality is also good, and the conversation itself is iucundissimum and salsum; after a good 10 episodes you’ll be hooked for life. Recurring jokes, group dynamics, guests, on-location episodes, and longevity of the program all make it ideal listening.

Sermones Raedarii, by Alexander Veroniensis

Alexander is a Latin and Greek teacher and records this wonderful monologues, as he talks to himself, I mean to us, while driving (originally, now when walking!) to and from school (and other places, I would suppose). Alexander’s Latin comes with a beatiful Italian accent, which makes a nice difference if you’re mainly used to NorthAm speakers. He ranges across all sorts of topics, from the quottidian, to issues of singing latin, and pedagogical positions.

Satura Lanx,

Is a twice-monthly podcast coming from an Italian magistra now teaching in Belgium, “about Latin books, education and much more.” Another monologue style podcast, but more reflective and a little less fast-paced than Alexander’s!

Legio XIII, by Magister Craft & L. Amadeus Ranierius

I’ve only recently started listening to this one. It’s interesting, it’s good to have other speakers! Magister Craft is well known from YouTube. And, I can’t say any more until I’ve listened more.

 

Greek

βαρβαρισμός , by Alexander Veroniensis

Buried in the sequence of Sermones Raedarii, our Veroniensis amicus aforementioned also recorded some Greek episodes (albeit only 10, I think). You can tell immediately that he is more more ‘fluid’ (let’s not talk fluency) in Latin than in Greek, but he still speaks well, clearly, and comprehensibly. Given the sheer paucity of anything in Greek, it’s worth taking the time to listen to these.

Theory

Tea with BVP

Run as a live call-in talk-show with Bill Van Patten, a leading SLA researcher, and two co-hosts. The show ran for about 3 years, and ended recently, but the episodes are still great value. They do have a lot of ‘radio’ padding, and Bill is a bit of a comedian. Nonetheless, I’ve been getting a lot out of listening through the archives.

Quantity and rate of comprehensible input, revisited

Recently, I crunched some personal numbers. Using Italian Athenaze, a text I’m reading for CI purposes, I clocked myself reading about a page of text (approx 130 Greek words) at 50 secs a page, which calculated out at 156 wpm. That’s pretty decent, I would say, and especially since I expect Greek to be more ‘word dense’ than English. For me, this represents reading (i) faster than I could possibly parse, (ii) with some vocalisation and sub-vocalisation (so it could be faster), (iii) at a level appropriate to my understanding.

I would probably make a vocab note at an average rate of 1-1.5 per page, and this includes words I’m unfamiliar with, or constructions I’m semi-familiar with but think are not entirely transaparent in context and a note will help me later. So that’s a comfortable 98% vocabulary/comprehension factor.

I think this supports the kinds of numbers I came up with in that earlier post, though I’d want to downgrade reading speed estimates for most people. It also highlights some problems…

You can’t give beginning students 4 hours of reading a week. There’s no way a student can cope with 280 minutes, say even at 100wpm, 28,000 words, when their effective vocabulary is so low. And there’s not enough in the way of sheltered-vocabulary texts. It’s just not feasible to have them learn 2 words every 100, meet those words several times over, and then write your next story with 102 words + 2 new ones.

So early level students are going to have to do more intensive reading than extensive reading. That’s fine, they should. Because they’re at a level that even simple communicative messages in the TL are full of overwhelmingly ‘unknown’ information.

And even at more intermediate levels, well, quantity of suitable text is always going to be a problem. It’s a little hard to estimate exactly how many pages/words of Greek text It. Athenaze has, but if you really did read 4 hours a week in a college level course, *and* had the implicit acquisition required, you could read the whole 2 volumes within a few weeks. This is not actually possible and not actually feasible.

However, I point out these problems to continue saying, “more reading is better, more reading is possible, and lack of suitable texts, more than anything else, is the external factor holding us back here. But anything is better than nothing. We don’t need to shoot for the stars. 10mins a day, 70 a week, 7,000 words of comprehensible extensive reading a week, that’s a great start for anybody, whatever their level.

How my next interview for a seminary will go:

Interviewer: So, your CV has a lot of Greek on it, but Bill Smith the Third here is our New Testament lecturer and will be covering that area.

Me: ὦ, καλῶς. σὺ εἶ διδάσκακλος τῆς ἑλληινκῆς γλώσσης;

Bill: Um, what did you say?

Me: σὺ δύνῃ λαλεῖν ἑλληνιστί; ἐγώ σοι ἑλληνιστὶ λαλῶ.

Bill: Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.

Me: οὐ συνίης; διδάσκαλος τῆς γλώσσης τῆς ἑλληνικῆς ὤν, οὐ δύνῃ λαλεῖν ἢ συνιέναι; οὐκ εἶ διδάσκαλος καλός, ἀλλὰ μαθητὴς κακός, ὥς μοι δοκεῖ. πῶς τὰ τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης βιβλία ἀναγιγνώσκεις; ὦ μαστιγία κάκιστε…

Inteviewer: I think we’re done here. We’ll be in touch.

What to do when you must teach explicit grammar

So, you’ve become convinced (probably by someone else) that communicative/comprehensible input based approaches to language acquisition are the way to go. But you still need to produce students who have an explicit, and often advanced, knowledge of grammar. That is, you want students to acquire language but you still need them to learn about the language.

This is particularly acute in biblical languages. Students in both Old Testament and New Testament studies are going to go on to courses that demand an explicit ability to comment on and analyse the language of texts at a very atomised level. And they’re going to engage with commentaries, articles, and write materials that similarly require a fairly precise grammatical knowledge. Indeed, this is part of the academic socialisation of these disciplines – you learn the jargon so you can play the game.

The first step, I would suggest, is to recognise exactly what is going on here – students are being asked to learn to comment on fairly advanced literary and linguistic analysis. That’s not something we ‘naturally’ learn to do in our L1s, unless we explicitly do courses in linguistics and/or literary analysis. It’s not something most learners of L2 ever do, unless they take a course of study that likewise demands it. And, to analyse and understand these issues in an L2 through the medium of the L2 really demands a very high level of linguistic competence, both acquisition and learning.

Secondly, I think there are practical ways to resolve this issue, and I think these also complement each other.

Strategy 1: teach grammatical language in the L2.

This strikes some people as a bit odd: not only must my students deal with such non-New Testament words as τηλέφωνον and Αὐστραλιανός, but now I want to teach them grammar terms like ἀπαρέμφατος? To that initial objection, I have three responses:

  1. grammar jargon is for many contemporary students a whole new set of English vocabulary anyway. Teaching them Greek terms is a different burden, not an additional one.
  2. Most grammatical terms are Latinate anyway, so if you are working in Latin, ‘nominative’ and nominativus aren’t really going to cause much of an additional learning burden. Greek terms are mostly cognate to the Latin. I’ve never done Hebrew grammar in Hebrew, ignosce mihi.
  3. The payoff of doing grammar in the L2 is that you can then talk about texts at a meta-level in the L2. τίς ἐστιν τὸ ὑποκείμενον is now one of my stock phrases. This lets you circle a text both at a simple level, and at a meta-level. Which equals more and more CI.

There are some other issues though. Ancient grammarians supply us with a grammatical vocabulary, but it is not always fit for purpose, or modern discussions may have moved on. In Greek we might want to distinguish tense-form from tense/time, and aspect, and perfective, imperfective and perfect. These will require some creativity perhaps (ὁ χρόνος τοῦ ῥήματος v. ὁ χρόνος τοῦ γενομένου ?)

Strategy 2: teach grammar in the L1, but separately.

So, while strategy 1 keeps you in the language while you’re working with the language, strategy 2 means spending a separate period of time tackling L2 grammar described in L1 material (either within your teaching blocks, or a whole separate teaching period, or independent reading material for students). In the early stages, this will look a lot like traditional instruction – a descriptive set of instruction that talks about what’s going on in the language. But it ought to be mapped to what’s going on in the acquisition sessions. I’d also want to appropriately set this distinction up in the students’ understanding of the course structure and goals, e.g. “In these sessions we’ll be learning Syriac, but in those lessons we’ll be analysing how Syriac works.”

Strategy 3: teach advanced grammar in the L1, as a separate subject altogether.

Especially if you’re teaching biblical languages and training students for this kind of study, I think a 2nd year course can be given over explicitly to teaching ‘advanced’ grammar. In a sense this is not really advanced, but it does mean moving beyond the basic categories, to a more in-depth analysis of what’s going on in the language.

This might look like what goes on in a lot of 2nd year NT Greek classes: Wallace or Köstenberger et al, or Zerwick, or whoever. But a few modifications ought to be made:

  1. Again, making clear to students that this isn’t learning Greek, or learning Greek better, or even necessarily going to help their Greek. It’s learning to talk about Greek in the way ‘everyone else does’.
  2. These courses could generally do with a healthy dose of even basic general linguistics. The insular world of biblical languages studies tends to leave students (and professors) with some rather odd, peculiar, idiomatic ideas.
  3. Recognising that this isn’t the context for acquiring more Greek means that somewhere in a syllabus there needs to be something else responsible for the ongoing acquisition of more Greek. And that could include the development of ongoing L2 language for talking about L2 grammar.

 

How much language input you could be getting

How much input can you get?

I ran some numbers…

Average conversation speed is, apparently 140-160 words a minute. We can understand speeech much faster, but we don’t like to produce speech much faster. Let’s be conservative though, and say that we are gettin 100 words a minute of input in listening to audio / in a live class (I’d love to see actual data, but I don’t have it. Do you?)

For good CI reading, we want learners reading somwhere between 150-250 words a minute. Much below this and it’s likely an indicator that they are not processing it well enough – it’s shifting from extensive reading to intensive.

Now, let’s make two assumptions: one that our classes and materials only manage to stay in target language 95% of the time, and that the comprehensibility level remain a nice, high 95% (but not an ideal 98%).

So, on my numbers, an hour of oral class is 100 wpm * 60 mins = 6000 * 0.98 * 0.95 = 5415 words an hour.
Similarly, a lower end 150 wpm reading is 8122.5 words and hour.

A 14 week semester, 10 hours with 3 live instruction, 3 audio practice, 4 reading, would be 64980 a week, 909720 words of input a semester.

A school class doing 2 hours a week, 38 weeks a year, with 2 hours outside class reading: 974700.

A 3hrs a week reading habit, 48 weeks a year: 1169640.

All of these numbers are, I would suggest, orders of magnitude higher than the amount of text a student normally receives in a standard course. Even if you halved them, it’s still a lot of input. It would, undoubtedly, require the availability of a suitably vast amount of appropriately graded material. Difficult for Latin, almost impossibly for Greek.

Still, any shift in this direction would be good.

So, what to do? If you’re the learner in this equation, my advice is to read everything easy that you can lay hands on. Read all the text in every intro course you can borrow. For Latin, download every direct method reader you can, but every novella your budget stretches to, and develop a podcast habit. For Greek, hmmm, I’m still trying to solve this conundrum. Apart from textbooks, even most easy material is not as easy as it needs to be. This remains a problem to be solved. In the meantime, for Greek, Latin, or whatever it is you love, re-read everything as well: x2, x3, x10!

Reading in 3s : a more flexible approach

Reading in 3s is a way to structure reading a text so that you cover it 3 times over, sequentially. This is easiest explained by a 3-page model: you read 3 pages, but you only move your bookmark forward one page each session. Thus, you’re always reading one page ‘fresh’, one page ‘revision’, and one page ‘I totally get this now’.

But what I’ve found personally is that this has drawbacks – you must read the same amount of text each session, otherwise it gets messed up, and you need to work with a portion of text that’s relatively divisible into 3. So if you want to go up from 3 pages, 6 pages is your next best bet, but that’s double the amount.

Lately I’ve been working with a more flexible approach – I just use three bookmarks. The first bookmark means “everything prior to this you’ve already read 3 times”, the second “everything prior to this you’ve read twice”, and the third, “everything prior to this you’ve read once.” So for any given reading session, I open up at bookmark no. 1 and read from there. If I pass bookmark two, it doesn’t matter, wherever I stop I just place the bookmark (i.e. you don’t need to label your bookmarks 1, 2, 3, but if you did you’d need to move them sequentially). And I always know that those bookmarks mean the same thing. If, perchance, a day’s reading doesn’t get past bookmark 2 or 3, this doesn’t matter so much. And, if I’m feeling adventurous, I might leave bookmark 1 in place, and start with bookmark 2. Et cetera.

You do need to be a bit more intentional – you still want to balance the general proportions of new/revise/revise, but it gives you more flexibility for reading more or less on different days.

It also opens up the possibility of ‘reading in 4s, 5s, 6s’. I.e., you can just add more bookmarks. You might, for example, decide that a particular text is worth more revisions, and so your main 3 bookmarks are around chapters 13, 14, 15, but you start another two markers at chapter 1. Then on any particular day, you can treat these two groups separately, advancing the bookmarks in relation to each other. And if bookmarks 1 and 2 ever catch up to the other 3, you’ll know that you’ve now read that whole first portion 5 times over.

Great for building a lot of comprehensible input, especially with a well-graded text (I mainly use this with Italian Athenaze and Roma Aeterna at present, and it’s been serving me quite well.

Why teach communicatively if your goal is reading?

It’s a fair question (raised by my also-interested-in-linguistics-wife). Here’s my short answer: a communicative approach will produce better readers, with better reading ability, faster.

To understand why I hold that position, we need two puzzle pieces: how Grammar/Translation thinks it creates readers, and how CI can be geared towards a text-oriented goal.

Grammar Translation tends to operate along these lines:

Front-load the explicit teaching of grammar so the learner knows all about how the language operates and how to analyse utterances. Teach them a lot of vocabulary by having them memorise L1 glosses. Have them translate sentences into their L1 to solidify grammar + vocab. Eventually let them loose on passages once they’ve accumulated enough of grammar + vocab.

This is why most G/T approaches don’t see students tackle extended connected text until late in a 1st year (if we’re talking about a tertiary education setting) course, and they don’t really get a huge amount of ‘reading’ (i.e. translation) until they hit second year.  By this stage a “parse/gloss/translate” mindset is pretty set-in-stone and you can get through a whole 4-year university curriculum doing that and still not feel, or read, fluent(ly) – I certainly did, and I’m not alone.

Most graduates of a G/T approach will never make the transition to reading, with high accuracy and speed and without mental translation, their L2 texts.

Gearing CI to a text/reading goal:

It’s not at all the case that a communication-based approach needs to be all “may I go the bathroom?” and “A double-shot piccolo latte with a marshmallow on the side, please.” Indeed, learning such things is neither here nor there, a question that’s independent of CI.

While the very initial stages of CI will probably be physical, concrete, classroom-based, oral work, it doesn’t take that long until you can develop some structures and vocabulary to read simple texts. And once you do, you can introduce simple, but accurate, language to talk about texts. Whether that’s “subject/protagonist, theme, symbol, context” etc., or even grammatical, “(grammatical) subject, predicate, complement, verb, adjective, case”. If your end goal depends upon discussing the grammar of texts, there’s no reason you can’t do that in the L2. If your end goal is more ‘literary’, you can do that in L2, and neither of these necessarily depend upon “advanced”, or more accurately, technical, language. 4th grade kids discuss L1 texts, using 4th grade vocabulary. Post-beginner classical students can do the same in a classical language, if you give them the tools to do so.

The difference will be this, though : a CI approach that makes texts the topic of discussions, and encourages reading, especially extensive reading, is going to expose students to a ton of language, spoken and written, more than a G/T approach. Yes, it may take longer until they encounter/are able to read certain structures, because you haven’t front-loaded all the grammar. However, I think hour for hour the outcomes will be better, provided we are assessing the right thing.

I would love to hear from you if you have either personal anecdata on this, or links to peer-reviewed research.

 

The disappearing goal of corpus fluency: the 98/56 paradox

If we take the figure of 98% vocabulary coverage as what is needed to read a text at a comprehensible and ‘fluent’ level, so that the unknown 2% is understandable by context or not significant enough to frustrate understanding, then for the New Testament corpus, that requires learning around 56% of the total vocab. (3102 out of 5461, depending on how you lemmatise it; that’s my breakdown based on Tauber’s MorphGNT on SBLGNT).

That’s a lot of vocab, over 3000 words. It takes you well into the 2 occurrences or less bracket. And, some initial ‘soundings’ for other corpora suggest a similar ratio, to hit the magic 98% mark, you need to hit a vast amount of vocab, including a rather large amount of the low yield stuff. Now, Tauber will no doubt berate me/insist that I remind you that 98% coverage of the corpus does not equate to 98% of any particular smaller unit (See here) And in fact, he’s absolutely correct. Indeed, from those figures (over 10 years ago, how slow some of these things move), 3000 top frequency items render 81% of the verses 95% familiar, which is still a lot less than you’d like.

And the paradox is this: learning low frequency vocab (say under 5x in the NT) is incredibly low-yield, because you are only going to encounter that lemma five times as you read through the whole corpus. Let alone a 2x frequency word. So the pay-off in terms of understanding is low, but also your ability to learn that word is far more difficult, because it’s not being repeated enough for you to encounter it frequently. Indeed, to encounter any of those low frequency New Testament words would require you to encounter them outside the New Testament.

Which is why this is a paradox of sorts – to master a particular corpus, whether that’s Plato, Demosthenes, or the NT, actually requires reading outside the corpus because that’s the only way you’ll get enough context, exposure, and repetition to render the corpus’s low frequency vocabulary meaningful in the context of the broader language (something that living in, say, Ancient Greece would have done for you, but you have to make do with what you’ve got).

Moral of the story? If you want to master a narrow corpus, you will have to read more widely than that corpus.

σπεῦδε βραδέως (can you fast track language learning?)

One of the critiques I (πολλάκις; ἐνίοτε;) encounter about a living language methodology is that it’s slow. That it doesn’t get us directly to reading texts (the main interest of most historical language students), That it is inefficient (why do I need to learn the word for ‘butcheress’ if it only appears in LXX 1 Kings 8.13).

I want to mount something of a defence here, though a gentle one.

  1. You can only go so fast
  2. It’s basically sheer hours, not sheer speed, that charts your progress
  3. Where are you trying to get to?

 

You can only go so fast

Right, so given that you have X hours in class, or X hours studying, there’s only a finite mount of material you can cover. If that’s English description of Syriac (all my arguments are applicable to most historical languages, so let’s mix it up today!), then your actual exposure to Syriac ‘input’ is going to be very, very limited. It that’s Syriac input, you’re only going to be able to comprehend very, very simple messages at the start, because you basically don’t know enough to understand anything more.

So: grammar-based curriculum: you can proceed through grammar faster, but you’re ability and time spend exposed to L2 input is severely limited, and your speed at translating that material is going to be slow. Let alone ‘reading’.

Communication-based method: you will proceed through ‘grammar’ or ‘vocab’ much slower, but your input should be much, much higher. So your ability to understand Syriac in language will be stronger, earlier, faster, but still limited (albeit by a different factor).

And nothing much is really going to speed these things up. Sure, you can teach all the grammar up front, and do nothing in Syriac, but then all you’ve done is present a bunch of information – charts and explanations about how Syriac works, but you haven’t learnt Syriac, and in fact you haven’t even read much Syriac (if any), and so it’s after all that grammar that you have to go away and do that work of actually learning the language.

(this is actually how most Grammar/Translation courses really work: learn a description of the language, and only then do you really go out and try to learn the language. If we want to do that, I think we could do it better by explicitly saying that’s what we’re doing: “Hello students, welcome to introduction to Syriac grammar. Over the next X weeks, we’re going to provide an external, English-based description of how Syriac language works. Then next semester you can start learning Syriac.

This is also, let me say, what happens if you try and go faster than people can understand in a in-language approach. If you start outstripping students’ comprehensible levels, you have no choice but to either (a) start explaining all the language they can’t understand, and/or (b) ignore them and present language that is beyond them and so of decreasing-to-zero comprehensibility.

It’s basically sheer hours, not sheer speed, that charts your progress

What’s attractive about the above is that you can get a student, or a cohort, to the end of the year (or other arbitrary unit of time) and say, “Great, we’ve covered all of Syriac!”

Except you haven’t. That’s a lie, isn’t it? Hence the title of my post, you’ve rushed through grammar but you haven’t developed any proficiency in understanding messages in Syriac.

Based on the reading in SLA theory I’ve done, hours are a better measure of progress than most other things. Sure, learners have a bit of fluctuation, but if the main determinant is comprehensible input, and there’s not really a way to speed up certain acquisition processes, then it’s simply hours that provides a fair estimate of how far along you are. This seems to be backed up by what, for instance the kinds of hours-estimates you see for CEFR based standards.

Want to ‘go faster’? It’s not method that’s the issue, it’s time spent in the language with messages you understand. You can go faster, if you can spend more time day after day.

Where are you trying to get to?

I do get a little defensive on this point. I recognise that most historical languages students don’t want to learn to order a latte in Syriac. But, at the same time, the ability to do so is not irrelevant. Sure, learning how to say “latte” is one piece of extra information that won’t help you read the Peshitta, for instance, but it’s also not a huge burden. Rather, what does it say about us that most students couldn’t, without a great deal of difficulty, string together a sentence to ask for a basic, modern food item. (Don’t @ me about how lattes are neither basic nor food).

So I, like most teachers and students, want students to end up with an ability to read target language texts with understanding. In my ideal world, CEFR B2, or ACTFL Intermediate-High or Advanced-Low is a reasonable benchmark to aim students towards. Sure, they’re not ‘fluent’ (which is itself a super-difficult term to pin down, but I tend to peg ‘fluent’ to C2), but they’re going to be able to read most texts with minimal aids, and understand them, and have a fundamental conversation about those texts – maybe not at the same B2 level, since we’re text/reading focused, but I’d want to see students sustain a conversation about a text they can read at B2, at B1.

And, if you can get to B2, you ought to be able to ‘add on’ enough explicit grammar, in the L2 but also in your L1, to ‘talk grammar’ about a text. Again, in my ideal world L1 discussion of L2 grammar would be hived off into a separate component of any course, and delayed somewhat to help students not get sucked into a mentality of “okay, here’s an L2 message, let’s analyse its grammar while using L1”)

B2 seems, to me, also a high but reasonable standard to say, “okay, you should be able to sustain this level and improve it outside an educational facility, primarily by reading more”. A2 isn’t enough for that, B1 is borderline. We all know, though, that plenty of grammar-translation graduates reach great heights of analysis, but lose most of their language in a few short years post-college.

If hour estimates are correct, then it’s a full 800 of “teacher-led” hours to get to B2. That’s a really big ask. It requires reconceiving the length of a course of language instruction, the dynamics of the required hours, and a whole range of issues.

And yet, even to get students to A2 is going to take 200 hours or so. That’s still a lot of hours. You can’t take a month long evening course and expect to be fluent in Syriac. You might be able to explicitly learn the linguistic features of Syriac in English in a month, but that is an entirely different thing.

And so, if you’ve put up with me this far:

  • Stop trying to cram everything in. It doesn’t work and it’s not effective, unless you redefine efficacy to mean cramming.
  • Drastically raise your idea of the hours you’re going to have to commit to a language to get truly ‘decent’ at it (let alone ‘master’)
  • Drastically reduce (some of you!) how soon you’ll be able to do more than the basics.
  • Don’t lose heart – language acquisition isn’t that much about talent or aptitude (maybe not at all, I think), but persistence and time-invested.
  • You don’t get to throw out a communicative method as irrelevant or ‘doesn’t work’ until you’ve put in a good 600 hours thanks. Then come back and tell me how it doesn’t work.