Know/Don’t Know: the myth of binary knowledge in language learning.

The other day I was in a conversation and couldn’t for the life of me retrieve the Gàidhlig word for “question”. All I could think of was freagairt, which is “answer”. I had to ask what it was. It’s ceist, of course. Duh. That’s a word I “know”, or “am meant to know.”

But the real question is never ‘do you know this “word/phrase/structure/chunk of language”?’ It’s always, ‘can you comprehend this chunk of language right at this instant, or produce this chunk in a way that effects communication?’

Which means the strongly binary model most of us inherit of language learning, which includes “Teacher taught word X, therefore student learnt word X” (wrong not just for languages, but for instruction in general), and “You memorised word X, therefore you know word X in all circumstances” or even “you once got X right on a multiple choice question, therefore you can actively recall X for communication production”, and so on – these are just wrong.

‘Knowing’ is a lot fuzzier. It’s a huge range of contextualised, circumstantial, bits and pieces that determine whether communication is going to take place in any particular instance, and how well a message is going to go from producer to receiver.

Which is why, at the end of the day, “vocab testing” is mere approximation. It’s testing, “can you on particular occasion X, recall particular word Y (actively? passively?) in particular context/decontext Z which may or may not bear much relation to any genuine language encounter?”

It’s also why we should basically ‘lighten up’ on students. “I taught you this” has no real place in a language teacher’s teaching vocabulary (except maybe as a joke?). Students don’t really need to feel shame/guilt/frustration at not knowing a chunk of language in that moment, they just need the minimum amount of help to make the utterance comprehensible, so they can get on with getting meaning and so acquiring language. And the next time they encounter, or need, “chunk X”, it will hopefully come a little easier. Or the next time. Or the time after that. Or however many times.

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 (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.

Ørberg’s Lingua Latina: an introduction for the uninitiated

Alright, let’s get to a textbook I really enjoy. Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata: Pars I: Familia Romana

This is, without exaggeration, the best Latin textbook on the market. It’s not perfect, it’s not the be all and end all, but there’s simply nothing better as a book to teach/learn with.

Firstly, how I came across it and used it. It was towards the end of my 4 year sequence of Latin at university, and a sense of growing frustration that modern language students would be reading their languages ‘fluently’ by this stage, but here I was painstakingly analysing/translating my way through Roman literature. What had gone wrong?? Like many products of the philological tradition and Grammar/Translation methodology, I knew a great deal about Latin, but I couldn’t read Latin straight.

At the time I started listening to Latin teacher online a great deal, and that’s how I first got plugged-in to the world of comprehensible input, communicative methods, etc., etc.. And that’s how I heard about LL – a holy grail of textbooks, in that it taught Latin entirely through Latin. I ordered a copy post-haste.

I recall reading the first chapter and being a little in awe both at how much I understood, and how well it is paced. Of all the “readers” that exist for classical languages, LL truly accomplishes its goal of initiating the student into the language without recourse to outside aids or a second language. From page 1 it is possible to go all Latin, all the way.

The text carries the student from the fundamentals of Latin ‘grammar’ through everything they would cover in a standard class, over 34 chapters. Plenty of repetition of vocabulary and structure helps too. “Grammar” is not entirely neglected, as each chapter ends with grammatical notes in Latin. Exercises end each chapter, of three types: fill in the ending, fill in the word, and respond to latine questions, with answers latine.

Some criticisms can be made: it’s still a textbook, and some students will not find the text engaging. It proceeds by a ‘grammar’ sequence, not a natural one. It introduces too much vocab, too quickly, and this is a slight problem. It wasn’t written for active, communicative Latin (Ørberg himself expressed surprise in learning that students were using it for this! He envisaged it as a direct method text for reading).

Nonetheless, it remains unsurpassed. It always tops my recommendations, and I’d teach from it at the drop of a hat. Even advanced students would benefit from ‘going back’ and picking it up to increase their reading fluency.

Today’s review really only treats of volume 1, Familia Romana. I’ll talk a little about the other volumes and resources another time.

Language shift, Communicative Methods, and community end-goals

Lately I’ve been reading a bit about bilingualism in children, and some academic articles relating to language shift in Gàidhlig. They caused me to also reflect a little about what the broader goals of teaching classical languages, e.g. Latin, Greek, κτλ., via communicative methods are.


It’s not to create a new native-speaking community. And it’s also not because a direct method or natural method ‘replicates’ L1 acquisition as children learn. Granted, some of the early, pre-critical, proponents of Direct Method and Natural Method, spoke in these terms, but neither of those Methods depending upon that assumption, nor do their modern heirs. We aren’t advocating communicative approaches because we think they replicate ‘how a child learns’.

And neither are we trying, then, to create a living language community in which Neo-Latin or Neo-Koine becomes a viable, ongoing linguistic res which picks up from the 1st century and then continues on a new, language-evolutionary arc. No, for the very reason that these languages are primarily studied for the texts preserved in them, the goal of language acquisition of a classical language is to acquire the static form of the language relative to the period of texts studied.

The ideal, from a broad perspective, would be for educated speakers of classical languages, as L2s, to be able to read, function, and discuss, texts in those languages. Much as, say, Latin functioned as an ecclesial and academic lingua franca in medieval Europe. A learned mode of discourse, but still very much an active one.

The reason, then, for continuing to advocate for communicative approaches, is the conviction that this provides the best way of acquiring language in a comprehensive and meaningful manner, allowing L2 acquisition to the point of reading interesting and significant texts without filtering through grammar/translation, but via direct comprehension. That’s the pitch, that’s the claim.

But one more reason for relating this discussion to Language shift may be pertinent. Communicative approaches (generally) rely upon making input comprehensible without resorting to explanation in a 2rd language. One of the weaknesses of grammar-based approaches to classical languages is that students (and masters) are wont to analyse grammar based on a classically-derived grammatical construct of English. This is problematic for at least 3 reasons:

  1. The grammatical analysis that most classical languages students bring to English is based on a once rhetorical, then philological, tradition of analysing English in categories derived primarily from Latin. It is not a nativist linguistic analysis of English and if you take the time to read a descriptive grammar of English written by linguists, you’ll realise there is a considerable gap. Latinate-grammarised-English is a construct, and not always a good one.
  2. While not all students of classical languages are English-dominant, our world is, and certainly academic discourse is. This tends to seeing classical languages through the grid of English, which combined with (1) is misleading. Analyses of Greek texts through Latinate English lenses is distorting, and more distorting than it needs to be.
  3. Forcing minority language students to learn Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or other classical languages, through the medium of a majority language (English or otherwise), by compulsion or simply by availability of resources, continues academic complicity in language shift away from minority languages to majority languages. It does so unnecessarily, if we recognise that these languages could be taught directly. We would serve minority language speakers better if classical languages were available to them directly, rather than via English or other majority languages.

Semi-regular rant on Greek language pedagogy

(I’m mostly in the midst of doing a lot of thesis writing, but thought I could take some time out to ride a hobby horse).

  • Knowing a language isn’t a qualification for teaching a language.

We usually think that knowing something is a pre-requisite for teaching it, and generally that’s true. But it’s also not a sufficient pre-requisite. Plenty of people know skills or competencies which they do not have the ability to teach very well. This is why teachers get trained. So they know (a) how to teach as well as (b) the material they will teach.

Why would you think a language was any different? Monoglots Anglophones are particularly susceptible to this delusion: “Oh, you know Spanish, teach so-an-so.” If you’re a monoglot L1 English speaker, have you tried to teach English? It’s not that easy.

Why then do we think that merely being a successful student of Greek or Latin or X-language turns one into a qualified teacher of the same?

  • Having a PhD in Greek linguistics or in New Testament studies indicates almost nothing about how well you can teach Greek.

Most seminaries use their New Testament faculty to teach Greek, on the theory that they’ve studied a lot of Greek and did PhDs with Greek. But following on from point 1, this is only incidentally related to knowing how to teach Greek. This guarantees that the methodologies used in seminary-based education for Greek will continue to passively reproduce ‘they way I was taught’ from generation to generation. Which is not best-practice in the field at all.

  • Knowing a language and knowing about a language are two fundamentally separate things.

Anyone who gets to the end of a grammar-translation based program ought to realise this. Knowing about a language – whether in the terminology of (traditional) grammars or in the jargon of the discipline of linguistics, is not the same as possessing a communicative ability in the language to read/write/listen/speak directly in the language. They are two separate things, and they are acquired separately. Most speakers of an L1 do not develop any significant ability to speak about the grammar of their own language, unless taught it explicitly and formally. Students whose primarily educational content is a grammatical description of their target language should end up with an ability to analyse and interpret it, but any genuine acquisition of the language is incidental, and sometimes accidental.

  • The cost of pursuing acquisition doesn’t mean surrendering analysis.

One of the arguments I most commonly hear against communicative-based approaches to language acquisition for languages such as Greek is that it means students will not learn to do the kind of linguistic analysis that is currently taught. That would only be true if a program were designed exclusively to provide language acquisition and deliberately avoided any meta-language discussion. There is no intrinsic reason why students could not be taught meta-language skills in addition to actual language acquisition. Nor, if we are honest, would it be that problematic or time-consuming to teach them to do so.

  • The cost of pursuing acquisition doesn’t mean “too long, too slow, too little.”

Another of the objections I commonly hear, is that while communicative-based approaches may be possible, they would take too long and too much time to reach their destination, time which programs and students don’t have. To which I have several replies. Firstly, this is largely untested for classical languages – there are so few programs running full-blown communicative-based pedagogies that evaluating whether it actually takes too long is not seriously possible. Assuming that it would is bad research methodology. Secondly, I suspect this is not a concern at the pedagogy of language level, but at the curriculum design of seminaries level. If students and programs don’t have time to actually teach Greek as a language, that’s a decision at the level of what’s important for seminary graduates, and a wrong one in my view.

  • There is a point to pursuing acquisition.

The third common objection that I hear and feel like rambling about today is that there is simply no point or value in developing a communicative ability in Greek. Honestly, I find this baffling. I would never feel like someone whose English corpus was limited to 20,000 Leagues under the sea, and their ability to understand it was limited to sentence diagramming and word by word glossing, was someone who ‘knew English’ and could reliably understand English-language texts. For every modern language we expect Acquisition, not Grammar-Knowledge. Ancient Languages are not categorically different.

  • We do ourselves and our students a disservice by perpetuating Grammar-Translation

The overwhelming consensus in Second Language Acquisition theory and applied linguistics is that G-T is a poor method, and it produces sub-standard results. It’s not best-practice, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it is. Continuing to teach generations of students Greek, Latin, insert-other-ancient-language-here via Grammar-Translation, when collectively we know better, is a dishonesty, and the cognitive dissonance should cause us mental discomfort. Demand something better from yourself and for your students.

The Acts of (Paul) and Thecla: a romance about chastity

This past week I’ve been leading a small group (quite small!) through the 2nd century text, ‘The Acts of Paul and Thecla’. It’s a very interesting text which relates the story of how a young betrothed woman in Iconium meets Paul, becomes entranced by the teaching of Christ, goes through various trials, and emerges as an independent Christian teacher and leader.

One of the very intriguing features of the text is that it is essentially an ‘Ancient (Christian) Novel’, drawing on the structures of other ancient novels of the same period, but refracted through a Christian lense. That creates a very interesting dynamic, because ancient novels are, by genre, romances involving a pair of paramours who go through various trials to be united at the end. The Acts of Paul and Thecla is similarly constructed, so that it is a romance between Thecla and Paul. But with a twist! Already by the time of this text a strong strand of early Christianity is placed on sexual chastity, and particularly virginity and abstinence. While Thecla and Paul are depicted in romantic terms, they are in a romance that is united primarily by a devotion and affection for Christ. The sexual undertones are employed to depict the triumph of chastity, and the threats to Thecla repeatedly center around threats to her virginity. In this way the text artfully (re)combines what appear to be two disparate motifs (romance and perpetual chastity) into a romance about chastity in which the narrative climax and resolution is not the sexual union of the two protagonists, but the tension and danger of sexual threat to the female protagonist, and the conquest of that threat and the victory of virginity.

There’s much, I’d say, to find theologically problematic, even disturbing, in this novel, but that’s no reason not to read it. As I keep saying, our knowledge of ‘Koine’ as a language, and our understanding of early Christianity, are only ever enhanced by stepping outside the Canonical Garden.