Composition Exercises: some thoughts

Last week I got to some chatting about the difference composition exercises might make between classical Greek students and Koine/Seminary students’ learning outcomes. Here I share some thoughts on composition exercises.

 

If you look in most traditional textbooks for classical languages, exercises typically focus on translation. The bulk of exercises involve translation of sentences from a target language into a native language. Then, depending on the style of textbook, and the pedigree of the pedagogy, they might include some native to target language exercises.

 

Sitting on my desk right now is Mastronarde, who has both directions, I know Duff does, and if I dug up a few more, we would find that they do to. Some textbooks don’t have them, notably I have Mahoney’s First Greek Course which focuses more on reading, writing, and composition, than translation per se. Decker’s Reading Koine Greek doesn’t bother with it at all. I suspect that textbook wise, classical Greek textbooks tend more towards ‘translation as practice’ than Koine textbooks have.

1. Translation is only a minimal learning experience.

That is, the actual practice of tranlsation doesn’t provide much in the way of meaningful input for the student. It only asks them to perform transformations using the knowledge they already have. It is skills-practice not learning-input. Furthermore, the main learning that goes on is looking up and checking words and forms. Which isn’t negligible, but it’s not significant.

I suspect if we dug a bit more into the history of composition exercises, we would find that they emerged at a time when Latin education was under pressure from German philology, and speaking Latin was going into decline, but there was still as sense that students should learn some ‘practical, active’ Latin, and that the solution was to teach them to ‘compose’.

2. ‘Composition’ exercises are not really composition.

To be fair, all those volumes that are called composition very rarely involve composition. They are almost entirely translation, starting at the short sentence level and working up to connected paragraphs. I also happen to have a folder on my computer that is pdf scans of a range of Greek and Latin composition books. Only the most advanced go on to paragraph length texts and discuss matters of style and expression. So let’s not delude ourselves that students are doing composition when really they are learning the reverse of overly-literal translation skills, simply reversing the direction of the languages.

3. Even minimally helpful things are helpful.

However, let’s keep in mind that even if composition isn’t that great, because it doesn’t provide much in the way of genuine comprehensible input, it does provide some valuable things: practice in using the language, testing of one’s knowledge, and reinforcement of forms. Especially where other forms of this kind of articulatory practice are absent (oral conversation, for instance, or target-language-only written communications), translation exercises are of benefit to students.

4. Translation is a high-level skill, not a low-level one.

I have to confess, I use translation in teaching students far more than I am happy with. Why? Because it’s a very easy and non-intense way to test whether comprehension of a target-language text has taken place. To do so by other means requires more creativity, more set-up, and more effort. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good way.

If you forget classical languages for a moment and think about languages that you know actively, communicatively (assuming you know any), you’ll know that translation is actually a very difficult skill to do well, orally or written. It requires a solid grasp of both languages, idioms, culture, field-of-reference, and moving between the two. We are all familiar with the fact that translation is tricky! (and treasonous). So let’s not pretend that translation is actually an entry-level skill for language learning. It’s a high-order skill that demands a lot of language before it can be truly effective.

 

What’s the answer? I don’t think composition is bad. But I do think it’s inferior. I think there are better options for what composition exercises do. Those better options are: question and answer in the target language, target language comprehension questions, target language composition (without translation), and so on. But they require more set-up, more from the teacher, and more from the student.

How to get there? If you’re already working in a text-based, translation-oriented set-up, the first step I recommend is to get down some basic grammatical vocabulary and questions and begin to introduce them one by one. For example, quo casu? is probably one of my most used questions for Latin students. It’s the first step towards discussing the grammar of the text in the language of the text.

 

Technology doesn’t per ipsa make for better pedagogy

I don’t really like to spend my time criticising pedagogical approaches, but last week a sponsored post by Dr. Kinneer appeared over at http://www.challies.com/sponsored/ancient-greek-for-the-digital-age

Now, I am all for digital tools, and I think what Dr. Kinneer goes on to describe (and there is a link to a sample lesson (https://youtu.be/1zJ7twvimdM)), is a great step forward, but if you do watch the video, I think it tells you that this line in the article, “Multimedia resources allow for new and better ways to learn an ancient language.” is actually false. Because this is not a new way to learn an ancient language, nor in my opinion is it a better way. It is the same traditional approach embedded into multimedia presentation.

Is it an improvement? Probably. Does using bite-sized multimedia presentations and tools help? Undoubtedly (for some, though I have more and more concerns about how the connectedness of devices contributes to inability to concentrate on the presence of the present). But this isn’t pedagogical novelty, it’s the same very well-travelled train being re-gauged and put on a new track.

If we really want to improve the teaching of Greek there is only one thing for it – to engage in the very best practices in second language acquisition, learn from the research in SLA, and be prepared to change at a fundamental level the pedagogical approaches used, rather than carry on down a path that sees hours of blood and sweat poured out for very little reward.

Why Classical (Greek) students are better at Greek than Seminary students

I have taken courses in both disciplines, and taught students who have come out of both processes, and Classical students almost always have better Greek than NT students. There’s a very simple set of reasons for this though, and it doesn’t really have to do with NT students only doing Koine.

Classical students generally train in classical grammar, which on the whole is slightly more complex than Koine grammar. That’s just the reality of the process of koinification going on in the history of the Greek language.

They then move on to reading fairly demanding literature: Plato, Homer, Greek plays, Attic oratory. These are all high-level literary texts that demand a lot from their students. It’s functionally equivalent to taking a grammar class in English and then in your second year reading Shakespeare and the like.

Thirdly, depending on how they acquire their Greek, they are very likely in a multi-year program that involves reading a considerable amount of such Greek. If they’re a classics major, this is over 50, and up to 100% of their course-load for several years.

Seminary students, though, move from a a grammar class to reading the newspaper. The NT is not a high-register set of documents. It’s sophisticated, challenging, but its level of language isn’t and isn’t meant to be ‘Shakespearean’.

Secondly, they read a fairly closed corpus. Seminary students very rarely read outside the NT at all. In fact, it’s quite possible for them to get through Masters degrees without reading outside the NT. Only the few who are outliers, for whatever reason, will read outside that closed corpus, and even then it can be quite a limited foray.

Thirdly, working in Greek texts amounts to a small amount of most seminary programs. It would rarely rise about 25% of the course load, and overall may be somewhere closer to 10% of a whole degree program. That would only really change if there was some NT specialisation going on.

No one should be surprised then that seminary students come off poorly against students trained in Classical greek. It has very little to do with ‘rigour’ or approach, and mostly to do with sheer time and volume of material, and secondarily type of literature read, which is bleedingly obvious. Should seminary students ‘do more Greek’ and ‘read more widely’? Well, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, but most seminary students are training to be NT scholars, and just piling on more Greek has to mean less of other things.

There’s no punch-line to this post. No agenda or solution or suggestion. I’m just observing that this is the way things are and it’s entirely reasonable that things are this way.

Bridging the gap: some reflections on teaching Josephus

As I mentioned earlier, I spent the last week taking a small group through some selections of Josephus’ Antiquities.

In the course of doing so, it again struck me the great gap there is between training in Greek grammar and fundamentals, and reading actual texts. This was highlighted in the case of Josephus because there are so few actual resources to help the reader of the Greek. Indeed, I suspect that apart from Early Christianity scholars who dip into select passages for contextual purposes, most of Josephus doesn’t get read much in the Greek. It is far easier to rely on the translations by Thackery and Whiston, both of which are quite dated and so readily available. Josephus is quite long, and he is not in the ‘canon’ of classical texts.

If a student goes on to read a canonical text (Biblical or otherwise, I speak of the well-trod road of favoured classical texts to read), there are usually boundless helps available. For example, the student desiring to read Iliad book VI may well turn to the Bristol Classics Edition which will have invaluable aids, or the beloved Green and Yellow series of Cambridge, which will include more technical and literary commentary, or Steadman’s more recent volume with Vocabulary and Grammar notes.

The student who wants some commentary on Josephus could perhaps purchase one of the Brill commentary volumes, which retail for $100+ and cover at most 4 books from a work. While Feldman’s work is undoubtedly top-notch, it will not make it into the hands of many students, and few people are likely to read Josephus in any case. They certainly will not be encouraged to do so by the publication of these volumes.

I suspect the ‘old school’ mentality was that scholars would just ‘keep on reading Greek’, and consult their reference works, and figure out everything for themselves. But for anyone who hasn’t obtained this mastery with 15 years of reading and work, the gap remains too large, too difficult to leap by one’s own ability. All that is needed is a little bridging, a note here and there on usages that are unfamiliar, vocabulary that is odd, constructions that are difficult to understand, and students (and journeymen too!) could be reading a lot more texts, a lot more fluently.

Writing and Speaking for comprehension, some ideas.

Here are some ideas I was tossing around with some students last week. Let me list the exercises first.

  1. Read a passage, 10 or so verses or more, at a measured pace. No analysis, just ask yourself, “what percentage of that did I understand?”
  2. Read a passage and translate meaning word for word without analysing forms or trying to put into English word order.
  3. Listen to someone else read a passage aloud that you’re unfamiliar with.
  4. Listen to someone else read a passage aloud that you are familiar with.
  5. Transcribe out a passage by sight.
  6. Transcribe out a passage by dictation.

I think of no.1 as a kind of gauging exercise. It gives you a sense of where your language is at in relation to a text/author. Generally I think you want to do free reading at around the 90% and more range, with some work in the 90%-80% range. Below 80% the amount of comprehension drops significantly that it’s hard work and not as rewarding, below 70% and you begin to miss too much to be really worthwhile for free reading. If it’s 100% then, on the one hand ‘Great!’, but on the other hand you are not really stretching yourself to acquire new input, though you are reinforcing and solidifying your current competency.

I like to do no.2 with students sometimes because it forces them to stop parsing, analysing, and especially second-guessing. I want them to blurt out what they are thinking, and move on. If we get to the end of the sentence/passage and it’s all a mess, then we can say, “okay, let’s back up, let’s see where this language train de-railed.”

3 and 4 are really challenging, especially if you’re working in a language that you primarily focus on text-based work (Greek, Latin, etc..). If you’re the listener, you are doing something you’re not really used to, and that’s giving you input in a different way to reading. The use of familiar passages is going to give you better comprehension and so it’s going to work at a different level. Meanwhile, working with similar but unfamiliar texts (Apostolic Fathers, narrative portions of the Greek OT translations, etc..) is going to put you in a familiar field, but out of your comfort zone. On the reading side, students have a tendency (I think), to subvocalise, but not to vocalise, and there’s a big difference! The reader gains benefits in being forced to read aloud for someone else’s hearing. As this kind of exercise developed, you would work more on phrasing, emphasis, diction, discourse and rhetorical analyses.

5 and 6 are things I’m experimenting with. On 5, I have recently started an ambitious project to transcribe my own copy of the Greek NT. I think it will take about forever, but copying out a text is again a different kind of practise. It’s input, because you are getting the language, and it’s a kind of highly structured output, since you are reproducing it. Having written out …δὲ ἐγέννησεν more than a few times in Matthew 1, I have the written form of that particular verb inflection really solid! I suspect the pay-off of a lot of transcription would be much better composition and probably speech.

I haven’t done 6, but I suspect it would be a nice and very challenging combination or 3-5. In fact, I would assign exercises 5 and 6 to those parts of NT/Greek courses that deal with textual criticism. There’s no better way to experience the kind of errors scribes make than to face the challenges of scribing oneself. Give them a copy of a majuscule manuscript and ask them to transcribe it, perhaps even to put it into miniscule with accents, or whatever, you could have a lot of fun and variation on this.

Language as problem-solving

One way to look at language as a phenomenon is to realise that it solves problems.

That ‘problem’ is communication, and so language solves a set of problems that range from the most simplistic (I want you to give me a rock), to the incredibly complex (I want you to have the same knowledge of Hindu ontologies that I do). But whatever it is, it’s a problem for which language provides a tool to solve.

If you think of language this way, it also helps makes sense of why languages are so similar – they have to solve the same set of problem-types. There might be infinite ‘problems’, i.e. infinite purposes to which you can apply language, but they ultimately can be typed as a finite set of purposes or problems. And so we can classify language patterns across languages by what they solve.

For example, things that generally fall under the ‘Imperative’ label solve a fairly basic problem: how do I tell you I want you to do something? I use something that functions as an imperative.

This is a good example to talk about. Let’s say I’m sitting at dinner with you and I want you to pass the salt.

I might say, “Pass the salt”. We would call this, grammatically, an imperative. But English linguistic cultures generally don’t like plain imperatives.

We might instead say, “Please, pass the salt.” I don’t know what grammarians call ‘please’; we could analyse it historically and etymologically, and talk about, ‘if it please you’; or we could talk about it functionally and say that it softens the directness of the imperative.

Or we might say, “Would you please mind passing the salt”, in which case we have added a verb (“mind”) and a modal phrase (“would”) to make the imperative more indirect. Grammatically most people would not parse this out as an imperative. But it’s functionally an imperative.

Now, when you come to a different language, you can ask yourself this question, “How do I get someone to pass me the salt?”

Do you see how the problem gives you an acquisition tool? Or to rephrase, thinking of language like this allows you to set up situations to acquire language. Want to learn the imperative? Create situations where you can elicit it and where you can use it and be corrected.

Mongolian is an example close to my experience, and a good counter-example. It’s useless to translate something like, “Could you pass me the salt?”. You get something like Чи давс надад өнгөрөж болох уу? This is not even a proper sentence, because you can’t use ‘pass’ in that way. Nor something indirect like, “I would like the salt”. Even “I want to get the salt” is not appropriate, Би давс авмаар байна. In Mongolian this is an indicative statement that expresses the fact that you want the salt. There is no socio-linguistic sense that makes it an implied imperative. You are simply telling the other party about your volitional state.

To get the salt, you need to say something like давс аваад огооч, which translates as something like “take the salt and give [it]”. The combination of  “take, then give” is the proper expression for the English “pass”, and the -ооч ending there is one form of imperative.

This is on the simple side of examples, but I’m trying to illustrate that thinking of language as a set of ways to solve problems allows you to:

1. Ask the question, “How does my language solve problem X?” often instead of “how do I translate X?”

2. Set up and look for situations that elicit certain structures, by thinking through what problems there are.

How do you get an ancient language ‘right’?

You know, at the end of last week I put up that youtube video with an invitation to come and learn some Latin with me through CKI. I knew before I posted it that there would be errors, because I know that anytime I speak in a non-native language I generate errors and it is impossible for me to catch them all. Indeed, I even make errors in my native tongue, so it’s not really a surprise.

 

I could launch into a defense, self-deprecating or self-justifying, of the kinds of errors I made int hat video, or why, but I don’t really think that’s helpful. If you want to learn Latin through CKI, go and enrol. If not, don’t. If you have specific questions about my Latin or my credentials, you can write to me.

No, I want to talk about something else today, and that’s the issue of how do we know if we’re getting an ancient language ‘right’? If Communicative Greek, Latin, or any other now ‘classical’ language is going to be taught along these communicative lines, with an aim of “accurate speech that reflects the linguistic norms of a certain time period”, how do we go about that?

I was asked this a while back in person, and then I gave a double-barrelled answer, but I think one of those barrels can be elaborated on.

So, we don’t have a living, breathing, talking language community to norm our own speech behaviours. Therefore we must use other means:

  1. Explicit Grammar Check and Correct
  2. The Textual Corpus

Let’s talk about 1 first. We do have a pretty good grammatical knowledge of Latin (let’s stick to Latin in this post). So we can pre-check and post-check things we say/write. Pre-checking is what I try and do before a teaching session – I look at what I want to teach, I double check forms, patterns, usages, even vowel lengths and accents. I’m trying to make sure in advance that what I present is right. Post-checking is what happens afterwards. So many things might arise in the course of using the language, some of which I think I know, some of which I half know, some of which I’m less sure of. All of which I want to review later. It’s almost certain I make mistakes. Explicit checking allows us to go away, mark what wasn’t correct, and then correct it the next time around.

The second element is that we have a large textual corpus. It must stand in for a speaking community. But we can use it in several ways. One way is simply to be reading as much authentic material as we can manage. This exposes us to natural patterns of usage that we wouldn’t think of ourselves, and ingrains in us the phrases, idioms, structures of the language at both a grammatical and discourse level.

We can also use the corpus more explicitly. We can run analysis on words, forms, phrases, etc., to try and actively work out how some things might be expressed. This I do not really do enough of, it’s not really my area, but I still think it’s important.

We cannot become native Latinists, native Koine speakers, and in fact even if we achieve vaunted ‘fluency’ there is always more to be learnt, more mastery to be acquired. Learning to norm our own speech according to an objective norm is what helps us stay on track.

How do you ‘fix’ textbooks? (with some thoughts on Aspect in Greek)

I mean, the answer is kind of simple. You edit and reprint them. If you’re the author.

I’ve had occasion this week to consult what Mounce, that most widely used Greek textbook, says about aspect.

Similarly, I also dipped into Duff. Now Duff is unfortunately a revision of Wenham which is a revision of Nunn. I’m sure some places out there are still using Wenham. I hope no one is still using Nunn! Duff’s 3rd edition from 2005 discusses Greek verbs on p66. It begins with tenses, and at least discusses aspect, saying that verbs encode both time and aspect. It lists the aspects like this:

  • Present tense: process or undefined
  • Future: undefined
  • Imperfect: process
  • Aorist: undefined

It also says that undefined is either ‘undefined’ or punctiliar in contrast to process.

I won’t hammer Duff on other issues (deponency, for one), at least today.

The perfect doesn’t appear in Duff until 16.1 (p179), he says the aspect is “completion”, which isn’t too far off, really. And he says the time is past and present, which is a little confusing I would think.

My problem with Duff is that the terminology is inconsistent, and that the presentation of aspect is muddled. Although I think Campbell is wrong about the perfect, one very helpful thing he achieved was to disentangle aspect from Aktionsart and to help people think of these separately. Punctiliar is a type of action, aktionsart, it doesn’t help us to use it for an aspect. “Undefined” is not a helpful label for an aspect, because it actually doesn’t tell you anything. The aorist tense-form is aoristic, i.e. undefined, but only in the language of Greek grammarians. In our language ‘undefined’ could be perfective or imperfective!

There are things we might disagree about, and there are things we just need to get clear. For instance, I think Duff is just wrong about the Present being ‘either’ “process or undefined”. But I think there are a number of things that have become reasonably clear in the last few years, and NT textbooks could serve us all well by revising themselves for their next reprint.

Adopt a clear terminology of, say, perfective vs. imperfective, divorce time from aspect, get rid of deponency language, and then use a clear terminology to state points of ‘position’.

Decker does this pretty well in his work, I don’t see why a revised Mounce or Duff couldn’t do likewise. If you want to say that time is encoded in verbs tense-forms, fine, just state it clearly. If you want to say that the perfect is imperfective in aspect, fine, just make it clear that that’s what your textbook is doing. Conflating categories and muddling terminology is not helping students in this field and isn’t going to set them up well for later on.