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.

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.

 

 

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).

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.

Is it possible to think in a dead language? (Yes)

This is probably the most sub-blog post I’ve written, as let’s be honest that it’s a response to a twitter conversation built of a previous post, a twitter conversation in which I appeared more like a bystander.

Here’s the counter-view: you can never truly learn to ‘think’ in Latin because Latin is dead and our access to it is only via translation.

I think this is wrong, but I think it’s wrong in important and interesting ways.

Let me ask a different question: is it possible to think in a living second language?

Gosh, I hope so, because I do this all the time. As do millions of other people. I speak moderately well in Gaelic, and I spoke very well (though now slightly rusty) in Mongolian, and when I speak those languages I think in them. I’m not translating, not (even) mentally. So just anecdotally (and based on a fairly broad anecdata of second language speakers), plenty of people operate in an L2 without ‘translating’.

So what’s different between a living language and a dead one?

Here’s what I’m ‘hearing’ as the difference put forward: there are no native Latin speakers so our only access to Latin is through (a very, very large) corpus of texts. So we never “think” Latin except as we’ve learnt to approximate it by having its meaning translated into (L1).

And this is why this is wrong: there’s no real linguistic difference between this and a living language that’s L2, because in both cases I’m a non-native learner that’s acquiring all this language from an external ‘corpus’, whether written or spoken around me. Sure, the ‘corpus’ of Mongolian I was exposed to was being spoken by native speakers around me constantly for several years, but it was just as ‘external’ as a written corpus of Latin texts.

It is true, that we can never speak Latin as a native 1st cent. BC Roman did, but that’s not what I’m advocating, or arguing for. Neither will I ever speak Mongolian as an L1 native speaker. But neither do I speak English as you do. My English is an idiolect, formed by my linguistic and socio-historical experiences as an Australian of a certain age, gender, geography, demographic, etc. etc.. In this sense, no two people share the same English, they have only Englishes. There is no “English” (unless some platonic “Form of the English”!).

If the answer to whether you can learn to think Latin is “no, because it’s all externalised“, then this is true of all L2s, and so true but trivially true, because no L2 speaker learns to speak an L2 as an L1. That doesn’t equate to all L2 being ‘translation’ or ‘learnt via translation’, that’s a false equivalency.

Let me end by saying, without any offense intended, that if you’re a monoglot whose only experience of a language is an historical one focused on translation, then believing it’s possible to “think in Greek/Latin/ancient Hebrew/etc.” may be difficult, but it’s possible, even at the simplest level. Just this past week I’ve conversed with several people, at different “levels” of complexity (mine and theirs) in a range of languages. This is the norm for most of the world who are proficient in an L2, or the vast number who have more than a single L1.

Listen-Read-Listen

Technique: Listen-Read-Listen

Here’s a technique that works well if you’re intentionally trying to develop aural comprehension skill. You need an audio source with text, so generally either (a) a recording that has an accompanying transcript (I use this for Gaelic with a 5 minute podcast that comes with transcript), or (b) a text for which a good audio recording has been made (for Latin there are quite a few good recordings of poems/letters/etc., which come to mind.

Step 1: Attentively listen to the audio.

Your goal here is just to understand as much as you can. If it’s totally incomprehensible then there’s probably some factor making it too difficult (accent? text? you’re not ready for this particular text?). You’re not trying to recall everything, and definitely don’t try and transcribe it (a different skill and a different task).

Step 2: Read the text

Now it’s time to pull out the text. Depending on your level and the text’s, this might be extensive reading, or it might be intensive. Reading will help make sense of what you heard. My suspicion is that the previous listening doesn’t contribute very much to how much you comprehend reading, but the reading does to the listening.

Step 3: Back to the audio.

So now you go back and listen attentively to the audio. You should understand a lot more this time! There’ll be things you can more accurately ‘pick out’ and recognise, and overall your comprehension will improve. You probably won’t understand everything, and you will feel like there are things you just read that you can’t quite remember while listening. Don’t stress, just listen and seek to understand.

 

And that’s it! Simple, effective, a good way to use audio but leverage it with written material.

Reading to Learn v Learning to Read

Recently I was reading a document about extensive reading and it highlighted the difference between intensive and extensive reading in the above terms (reading to learn, learning to read).

Intensive reading is reading ‘above’ our level, or sometimes below our level but with a lot of analysis thrown in. This is “learning to read”. It’s when we encounter a whole lot of ‘unknowns’ – unknown words, concepts, structures – and we need to do “work” to make a text comprehensible. It’s slow, and because the amount of “unknowns” is so high, we are not really reading. We are learning to read. We are using a bunch of tools-that-aren’t-reading in order to make reading possible.

Which is fine, there’s a place for this. Unfortunately this is almost everything that historical languages students (looking at you, Greek, Latin) do. They read texts that are far, far too difficult for themselves, and they agonisingly pull them apart until they understand the meaning. And then they go on.

Extensive reading is reading that is at, or even ‘below’ our level. It’s when you read for the sake of the message being transmitted by the text, you operate mentally in the language of the text, you don’t stop to analyse the text per se, though perhaps you might linger to savour the text! You can read a lot faster at this level, and you’re not looking up unknowns, except maybe a very occasional one that you kind of thought you knew the meaning of, but wanted to check or were just interested.

This is reading to learn. The skill being practices is reading, and the object is learning, not vice versa. This is what is missing from most language students’ practices. And this is what’s particularly hard for classics and biblical students. There simply isn’t enough material at an easy enough level to do “a lot” of reading. Better for Latin than any other classical/historical language, but still difficult to obtain. For Greek, a nightmare. I’m working on a little side-project to help with that (btw).

So, if you want to improve as a reader, or a language learner in general, you almost certainly need a lot more extensive reading.

(The document I was reading is the Extensive Reading Foundation’s  Guide to Extensive Readering, see here;

For a great presentation of this applied to Latin, see Justin Slocum Bailey here (31 min video))

A much shorter presentation of the case for Extensive Reading, again by JSB, here (6 min video)