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.


An entrée into the world of 18th and 19th century Greek textbooks

Let me tell you about a little side-project I’m cooking up.

One of the great advantages Latin students have in seeking a lot of reading content, is that between the easy reading material that some Latin teachers are pumping out, and the products of the Direct Method, there’s a fair amount of reading material to get stuck into. (See here, here, here).

Not so with Greek. The Direct Method advocates produced not very much Greek, unfortunately. You can see some on the second half of that vivarium novum page. However they are not very accessible either.

So, what I’ve been doing is scouring the 18th and 19th century textbooks, a range of books with endless variations on “A First Greek Reader”. I have almost 30 in scanned pdfs. Some are more “directish method”, others are very traditional, almost all are far more advanced than “easy greek reading” should begin at.

The project:

  • Digitise: create plain text copies of all the readings in these books.
  • Lemmatise: lemmatise all the texts as well
  • Gloss: produce a version with appropriate glossing to help readers
  • Annotate: provide notes to go with each text to help readers
  • Record: audio files for each text
  • Scaffold: write Greek language content as both pre-reading and post-reading material.

Actually, there are some more things going on behind the scenes as well. Most of my side-projects these days involve overlapping and interlocking methods and goals. In this case, the goal is to create a digital resource of freely available material that helps bridge the long plateau between “1st year Greek” (not a real thing) and “fluently read authentic high-register ancient texts” (a real thing and quite difficult).

More on this, obviously, as it develops…

Actually, since I’ve penned this post, there are at least 2 people doing OCRs of this kind of material. So that means I’m probably going to shift my focus from simply digitising, to making more of this material more usable.

Parse + Translate ≠ Reading

Recently I was reading an introductory Greek grammar for which the ‘reading’ exercise had the instructions (non verbatim):

  1. Read aloud
  2. Parse all words fully
  3. Translate

Firstly, commendable at all that “read aloud” is an instruction at all. But as usual I think this is a terrible way to teach people to read, because there is very little, if any, ‘reading’ going on. This is how a linguist reads (no offence to linguists, very fine people and one of my favourite disciplines!). But this is not ‘reading in a language’ and it’s not likely to produce a reader of a language anytime soon (it will eventually, but only incidentally and with  great deal of inefficiency).

This is analysing a sentence/utterance, describing its morphosyntactical features, and then rendering it into one’s native tongue in order to understand. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but reading a foreign language doesn’t have to be like this and doesn’t have to be taught like this.

Here’s where I’m coming from (and pretty much where I’ve been ‘coming from’ for the last decade). The goal of most historical language programs is to produce readers, but ‘reading’ ought to mean “reading texts in the target language while processing them mentally in the target language.” It does not mean translating. It does not even involve translating. Translation is a different act, “understanding a message in one language and rendering its meaning in a different language.”

So, how do we learn to read in the language without translating?

We need Comprehensible Input, and a lot of it. Comprehensible input means that we need input (i.e. a message in the target language) that is comprehensible (i.e. the learner can understand the meaning). They don’t have to understand, far less analyse, every aspect and word and morpheme in that message, they just need to understand it.

At the simplest level this can be the simplest of sentences: δός μοι τοῦτο. τί ἐστι τοῦτο; τοῦτό ἐστι ποτήριον, δός μοι ποτήριον.

These can easily be rendered comprehensible if you are standing there, with a person, pointing at a cup. Or they can be understood by translation, yes, by translation! I said that dirty word. Translation makes a message comprehensible. It’s not the worst thing in the world. But then we have translated in order to understand, which is a learning activity. But what we really want is to understand in order to translate. That’s actually the order of operation we seek. So if we do translate to understand, we still want to go back to the target language and stop translating.

And from here, it’s about i + 1i represents what the learner knows1 is the smallest possible unit of unknown, new information, which is made comprehensible by the i, but it’s the 1 that we are ‘learning’. So you learn something new, you add to your i, and then repeat. That’s language acquisition.

At no stage of this process is it (a) essential to parse/analyse/tag/etc.., though we can/might do that for other reasons, (b) essential to translate, though we might choose to do so.

Practically, for Greek, the main problem is this: getting enough reading material to continually climb a ‘slope’ of texts that’s as gentle as possible. Such a mass of texts, particularly easy texts, simply does not exist. Conversational work is important, but reading is going to be essential, for reasons I discuss in my next post on this topic.

Adventures in LSJ: From J to Cypriot Epigraphy

One of the many current things occupying my overfull plate is trawling through betacode entries of LSJ headwords to sort out things that are ‘odd’. And LSJ has some odd things. Like


Why is there a j there? That ain’t no Greek letter. So off we go to the print version.

The print version of LSJ is a host of mysteries, and mystery resolution. Most mysteries are far less interesting than this one. Lo and behold, there is a j in the entry. It’s not a typo in LSJ, and it’s not a typo in the data-entry.

So next we look at the entry.

= πεδιεινός

Now, if you happen to look up the page, you see πεδινός is also listed as equivalent to πεδιεινός. So it’s also worth looking at πεδιεινός, which finally yields an actual gloss and meaning: flat, level, of the plain.

But back to πέδιjος. We clearly need to look at the source:

E. Schwyzer, Dialectorum Graecarum exempla epigraphica potiora, Leipzig 1923. 679.18 (Cyprus).

Sadly this doesn’t appear available online. A copy resides in my erstwhile institutional library, controlled by robots. But in this case an easier alternative is at hand, a more recent collection of Cypriot inscriptions (Les Inscriptions chypriotes syllabiques, O. Masson, Paris 1964 [1985 with Addenda nova]. And we are after 217, the Tablet of Idalion, B side, line 18, and this can be accessed online! (This last sleuthing by none other than J. Tauber again).

So 217 B18 gives us the syllabic transcription pe-ti-ja-i, and the alphabetic transcription πεδίjαι

And so the j represents a consonantal iota preserved in Cypriot epigraphy, and there’s no mistake in the betacode headword anyway. Thus we carry on. In my next installment of LSJ adventures, we shall discuss the mystery of the upside-down smiley face.



Digital Nyssa Project: From OCR to Plain Text

So the first step in my project is getting from a print text to a digital text.

There are a few options for doing OCR. Bruce Robertson at Mt. Allison University is involved in LACE: Greek OCR, a large scale project to produce high quality OCR of ancient Greek texts. But apart from submitting a request, this is not really scalable to personal use.

Antigraphaeus allows you to do Greek OCR in your browser. It’s the child of Ryan Baumann, and basically instantiates online what I describe below.

Ancient Greek OCR provides a number of options (platform dependent) for using the Tesseract OCR engine trained for Ancient Greek. It’s the work of Nick White.

I followed the instructions to install and set-up gImageReader and found it pretty straightforward.

For a pdf input, I grabbed Patrologia Graeca 46 of Archive.org. I then created a pdf of only the pages I needed for DDAE (6), to save loading time. Here’s an image with the first page open, and about to click “Recognize” which will run the OCR process on the selection and output it to the sidebar on the right.

It takes around 3 minutes to run a full page (well, half-page) of Migne. I cut and paste the results to a text editor so that I could save the result as a UTF-8 encoded .txt, rather than the default in the program which appears to generate an ANSI file (which is not useful).


Then I worked with pdf and text side by side to manually correct the OCR results. This is slightly laborious, and using some kind of editing process like Robertson has up on the Greek OCR Challenge page would probably speed this process.

Instead, I did this:

The general quality of the OCR was good, but it did need corrections. I’d love to speed up this process, because it takes me circa 10 mins to do a page.

So, 13 mins a page, 6 pages, looking at almost 80 mins work to do the OCR work to produce a corrected text. Then a bit of quick editing to remove line breaks and generate a single continuous text.

Translation is not meaning

One of the downsides of training students to translate in order to understand, is that they very often develop the erroneous notion that translation is meaning. “The meaning of Greek word X is English word Y”, or slightly more complex versions of the same.

No, no, no.

Greek (or whatever language) means what it means, with reference to Greek, with reference to reality, with reference to its referents. Sure, I can concede that “Greek X means English Y” is sometimes just shorthand for “English Y is a suitable translation of Greek Y in this context”, but very often it’s not, it’s shorthand for “Greek X really means English Y, why didn’t they just write in English in the first place and make my life easier.”

Don’t fall for the trap. Figure out meaning first, then figure out how to render that meaning in your other language. That’s what translation is.

(I’m going to start trying to micro-blog more language/Greek/Latin/etc. mini-posts like this)

Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek

Well let’s have another brief review, shall we?

Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek dates back to 1993, at least, and has long been in use at UC Berkeley, and elsewhere. A second edition was released in 2013, though I am only familiar with the first edition. Both editions are well supported with some internet resources at http://atticgreek.org/ (2nd edition; a site for the 1st edition thankfully remains online. (A list of changes between editions can be found here)

Mastronarde outlines his pedagogical beliefs in his preface, saying, “My presentation is based on the belief that college students who are trying to learn Greek deserve full exposure to the morphology and grammar that they will encounter in real texts and full explanations of what they are asked to learn.” And the textbook does just that. Mastronarde does not hold back on quite full explanations, and expects (or at least presents) the panoply of Greek morphology through.

Personally, I came to Mastronarde twice – first as an independent learner trying to transition myself from a Koine background to Classical Greek, secondly as a student picking up a class to ‘fix’ my Greek (it was a class covering the second half of Mastronarde, and it was probably worth it though perhaps unnecessary).

Each chapter presents a thorough treatment of new grammatical material with in depth explanations of the reasons for morphological changes and examples of usage patterns. This is followed by vocab to be learnt and then exercises. Exercises include reading/translation passages (Greek > English) and translation exercises (English > Greek).

Mastronarde also states in the preface his aversion to a reading/inductive methodology where students are exposed to a reading text and meant to figure it out by themselves. However, he certainly doesn’t disavow reading itself. The textbook constantly brings the student into encounters with real Greek texts, and the expectation of the author is that the textbook may be used alongside, especially in the second half, the reading of a first Greek text (Xenophon being an obvious candidate).

Personally, I still turn to Mastronarde if I want an explanation for something. It’s in-depth, and yet user-friendly enough that it’s often more useful to read Mastronarde’s treatment of a grammatical topic, than to turn to a reference grammar like Smyth. For those who like a rigourist approach of grammar/morphology/reading/translation, I do recommend Mastronarde to them, as it’s a lot more friendly than, say, H&Q, though no less a stern taskmaster. I’m not sure I’d teach from it, but as usual that’s more due to my pedagogical preferences. Mastronarde is probably one of the better offerings on the market for traditional Classical Greek introductory textbooks.