Could one write a communicative curriculum to cover Mounce?

I’ve been a bit behind in my blogging; I have some half-finished materials but the busyness of general life has been rather much lately.

This is a question that was put to me, and I thought it worth making into a post.

 

The answer is, “only if we unravel the question.”

Mounce, now in its 4th edition, is the market-dominant textbook for a traditional Grammar-Translation approach to New Testament Greek, widely employed in seminaries. It’s what I first used to tackle Greek when I did a year of self-guided study way-back-when. It’s great at what it does, that is it’s a book that is effective within its pedagogical scope of “explicit, grammar and morphology, learning.”

That’s… not what a Comprehensible-Input based approach is about though. CI-based teaching is neither an alternate way to reach the same goal, nor a better way to reach the same goal. It’s a principle of providing communicative input to language learners that enables acquisition – the internal, implicit development of a mental representation of a language, that allows the learner (over time) to process and understand pieces of language (words, phrases, clauses, paragraphs, discourses) in the target language.

At the end of Mounce, what can a student do? I know, because I was there! You can translate, with more or less helps, and you can parse. You can analyse, and you can talk meta-language about Greek.

At the end of [X amount of hours of CI-based input], what can a learner do? My goal is that at the end of a reasonable course of Koine-focused instruction (and, I should say, that this is only my goal in the context of teaching seminary students focused on New Testament Koine in particular; other contexts have other scopes), learners can pick up New Testament passages of appropriate difficulty, and read and understand them without analysis.

My secondary goal is to give them the tools to do what a G/T student can do, that is I am also aiming and providing resources for students to analyse and talk about language explicitly. But this is not a CI-based method or outcome.

Now, presuming that a well-designed CI-based approach gets students to an ability to read a reasonable amount of NT Greek, will they have covered Mounce? That question makes less and less sense. The goals are different, the method is different, because the type of learning is different.

But, I will say, that if a student gets to the end of 2 semesters of NT Greek with me, and has been reasonably diligent, that given enough hours, they’ll be able to read more than a Mounce student can. And, if they’re given a bit of grammar after the bulk of CI-based material, they’ll be able to apply that reasonably well to the language they’ve acquired.

 

I don’t think a CLT or CI-based curriculum should aim to cover Mounce, because I think any well-designed set of CI-based materials will be doing something different, and will cover what Mounce covers by-the-by.

Same conversation, same text – a technique

One of the things I have been reflecting on recently, both in reading a fair bit, but also working on the composition of LGPSI, is how useful it is, and would be, to take the WAYK concept of “same conversation” and apply it at the text level.

Same conversation is a technique where you deliberately repeat the same conversation, on a familiar, habitual, repeated topic, practice, habit, occurrence. What might that look like for texts?

Well, take capitulum primum of Lingua Latina, it’s basically a geography lesson, that to some extent leverages of people’s ability to recognise major countries and cities, and of the visual prop of a map. That’s smart (good one, Ørberg!). LGPSI starts with the same basis, though less effectively (because fluvius, oppidum, insula do not work nicely in Greek, eheu).

But what if you did other geography ‘lessons’ after this. You’ve built some basic vocabulary and structures around these things, so you can ‘repeat’ this lesson with a text about somewhere or somewhen else. So, a map of the Mediterranean, but now it’s the 10th century. Or, a map of America. Or a map of the 1960s. And you can start to make things more complicated. Add a geographical feature or two. Build more complex relationships between entities. And so on.

This is the advantage of thinking about ‘reading sideways, but up a little’, you build on the same conversation, to revisit the same language, but a little bit more complicated, with different content.

Or, to be honest, you could come back to the exact same conversation/text, but later. E.g. what if there was a second volume of (e.g.) Familia Romana that was the same storyline and content as the first, but the language was all ‘scaled-up’ to reflect the fact that you’d read the whole book before.

These are some of the ideas floating around and looking for implementation in the broader vision of my LGPSI project. Multiple storylines in multiple times, gives the opportunity to do lots of ‘same conversation’ with different content, and growing complexity.

So, you want to log hours of language activity

How can you practically do this? How will I be doing this?

This is a follow-on post from this one.

Firstly, let me address an issue raised by my wife, which is comparing my Latin experience with Mongolian is apples and oranges. Because time spent in Mongolia was overwhelmingly communicative exposure, not ‘book time’. That’s precisely my point, in terms of that’s why it took a couple of years not decades to become competent. It’s both quantity and quality of input.

Of course, it’s hard to measure everything, and I don’t want to create paralysis by analysis. So here’s how I’ll be tracking language time in 2019:

I have a spreadsheet set up with the following fields:
Date, Language, Category, Quality, Time, Notes

Category is a drop-down box of Audio, Video, Reading, Communicative, and Grammar. That is, what type of activity did I do during the time.

Quality is a subjective rating from A to E, or 1-5, as you prefer. So “A” is something like a communicative session where we were in the target hour 90%+ of the time. B is an Audio/Video/Reading block in which I stayed mentally in the target language and processed at a decent speed. Etc.. You need to work this out for yourself a little. Grammar is always E. maybe even F.

When I say ‘count hours’, I mean A-quality hours. So I plan to also use the Quality rating to produce “weighted hours”. e.g. B is worth 80% of A time.

Time is measured in minutes.

Notes is where I record what I actually did during that time period. e.g., listening to Latin podcasts, reading some easy Greek, working on a text with a student.

I think this, or a similar system, is easy enough for anyone to implement. I’ll be posting some monthly reports and analyses myself. So at the end of January you’ll see what a month of this looks like.

Logging hours in a language, not ‘years’

How many years have you been studying Greek?

18 years. Which is useless information. One of the things that has lodged deep in my brain from listening to Bill VanPatten et al., is that measuring ‘years’ is not actually very useful. And here’s a simple comparison. After 1 year in Mongolia I started teaching, not entirely in Mongolian, but certainly in a predominantly Mongolian classroom. By 18 months, I was running at least some of my classes entirely in Mongolian, and at about 2.5 years in, I not only ran my classes 100% in Mongolian, but I preached several times in Mongolian. That was the height of my Mongolian proficiency, and it was all achieved within 3 years.

So, what’s better than counting years? Hours.

I suppose one could count minutes but that’s going to be hard. Hours are more manageable, and here’s where this post is going:

In 2019 I’m going to actually log the hours I spend on language. I already log working hours on several projects, so I’m used to logging my time, I’m going to take that and expand it to logging every block of time I spend on Greek, Latin, and Gaelic, over the year. I’ll probably set up some sub-divisions (reading, grammar, communicative, teaching, learning) as well.

I think this will be a useful experiment for myself, and I am hoping the observation effect will push me to spend some more time on these languages too. And, here is an invitation to you – try logging your own hours for a month or two in 2019, and see what you discover about your own language habits.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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)

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.

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 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.

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.

Why you need to read outside the NT corpus

Here’s the shortest case I can make. There are, depending on edition, 138,020 Greek words in the New Testament canon. Here are some comparable English works:

 

134,462 – The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
134,710 – Schindler’s List, Thomas Keneally
135,420 – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
138,098 – Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson
138,138 – 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Jules Verne

 

Would you really trust the interpretive abilities of someone whose entire knowledge of English was limited to reading one of these novels, and who had never read anything in English apart from their selected novel?

The New understandings in Greek, Part 4: Voice

This week we’re going to talk about voice in Greek and ‘deponency’. In some ways this is the most radical element of the new understandings, for those training in a traditional scheme. And yet, on the other hand, it is one of the elements about which there is the most consensus.

Here’s how traditional grammars tend to teach voice, overly simplified to what students normally take in.

Active voice refers to sentences where the Subject does the action of the verb.

I study the Greek language. (study is a verb in the active voice).

Passive voice refers to sentences where the Subject receives the action of the verb.

The Greek language is studied by me. (is studies is a verbal phrase in the passive voice).

So far so good, for English anyway. But when we take students to Greek we have the disconcerting problem that there appear, in some tense forms, to be not 2, but 3 voices.

The aorist, in particular, has three voice forms, traditionally labelled active, middle, and passive.

That middle voice is the one hardest for English speakers to grasp, and it’s often taught as ‘kind of in the middle between active and passive, with some idea of the Subject doing the action with some kind of respect to themselves and please figure it out from context.’

Then you have two more features that appear as problems: (1) Quite a few of the tense-forms, including the present, have no distinction between so called ‘middle’ and ‘passive’ forms. (2) Important verbs appear with a middle but no active voice form. ἔρχομαι is a very good example. Traditional grammars borrow from Latin and have called these deponents, meaning a verb that is active in meaning but uses a middle/passive form for the active.

This may well describe how you were taught Greek. Here are the bombshells if you’ve never heard this before:

  • The primary voice contrast in Greek is between ‘active’ and ‘middle’, not ‘active’ and ‘passive’.
  • There are no such thing as deponents.

I would say that the consensus, more or less, is that Greek developed with two voices, one of which we could call ‘active’, though ‘default’ or ‘common’ would also describe it. The focus, if there is any, is on the Subject rather than the action per se.

The second is the middle, which we could also call ‘subject involved’ or ‘subject affected’. The Subject is involved in the action in some way that affects themselves. The focus tends to shift from the subject to the action itself. The subject may or may not have an active role.

The passive, as a voice (not as a morphological set of forms) exists and develops as a subset of the Subject-Affected voice. It is one possibility for it.

Furthermore, the θη forms of the aorist are not strictly passives, and do not always ‘maintain clear boundaries’ between themselves and the aorist middle forms.

Forms that we have traditionally labelled ‘deponent’ did not lose an active, they generally never had one. They might in some cases develop active forms. But the reason they are ‘middle only’ or Subject Affected-voice only is because inherent in their meaning is something about subject-affectedness. To return to ἔρχομαι, it’s one of a number of movement verbs that ‘involve’ the subject in their own propulsion. That’s why the Greek language consistently treats it as middle.

Often this understanding of Greek voice is difficult to show in translation. Because however well you understand Greek voice, if you’re tasked with translation to English, you still have to translate into an English active or passive. So don’t feel like you somehow need to preserve ‘Subject-affectedness’ at all costs. You don’t.

But realising this about Greek voice opens up the possibility of understanding Greek better as Greek and reading middles more ‘naturally’. Get used to their Subject-Affectedness. Dwell in it. Learn to love it.

Two final things:

  • If you want a bit of a map to the different kinds of middle usage in Greek, here’s a link to my summary of Rutger Allen’s work.
  • If you want some further reading on the deponency issues, here’s a list: