I’m responding to recent twitter Discourse kicked off by @CarolusCarman about whether the push for CI means that we are in favour of sub-par content, and whether it’s okay that the classics world has a bunch of people running around who aren’t truly ‘proficient’ teaching or producing content. This post is a slightly longer-form attempt from me to cover some of the issues.
First, it’s super important, I would say, that we understand that CI is a theoretical concept about how Language is acquired. That learners acquire language by being exposed to comprehensible input. That’s a piece of SLA theory that, in a broad form, is very widely accepted. It’s not a method of teaching.
But a lot of people (and I’m probably guilty of this), talk about CI methods. If we want to be more correct we say “CI based methods”, because what we really mean is “methods of teaching based on an understanding of CI and with an aim of providing learners with lots of exposure to CI”. *How* that is done can vary a lot.
When we talk about the quality of language in CI resources, I think we have in mind 3 variables.
1 Is it correct?
- Is it “good”?
- Is it complex?
Those three are related but definitely not the same. I think all CI advocates think that input ought to be ‘correct’, by which I mean “recognised as possible and grammatical utterances”. Nobody thinks that ungrammatical Latin or Greek ought to be fed to students as a principle. That said, we need to return to this point later.
The second criterion is much more nebulous. In Latin, people often talk about Latinitas, with a sense of “is this idiomatic Latin that reflects idealised utterances of idealised speakers who have a flavour of Latin“. Latinitas is very hard to judge well, because huge reams of Latin writing through the centuries could be judged as Bad-Latinitas. I do think, however, that we can speak of “more Latinish” and “more Greekish” ways of expressing things, and that this generally is a quality to be striven for. But a lot of the time this is deployed as gate-keeping, elitism, and “if its not Ciceronian, don’t bother me.”
The third criterion is complexity, and here’s where I want to talk about proficiency scales and the like. I think a lot of learners, especially those with a few languages, polyglot interests, etc., have an unhealthy interest in thinks like CEFR and ACTFL proficiency scales, and C2 etc.. Most people do not normally talk, write, or operate at the “C2” level, because most daily language use does not involve highly technical, abstract, complex, or academic language. Nor do CI resources need to have that complexity – by the time most learners are approaching material of that complexity, they don’t need scaled materials anyway. So producers of content for learners do not themselves need to be C2 speakers. That is a myth and a harmful one.
In fact, if we look at global language teaching, there are vast numbers of people teaching other people languages who are not C2. Who are B1, B2, C1, gosh even A2. Would it be better if every single one of those people were a more competent language user? Sure, yep, absolutely. Is it essential? No.
Because you can produce correct and idiomatic language even if your language is limited. For example, take Benjamin Kantor’s first Hebrew Immersion video, in which you learn phrases for “Hello”, “Name”, “What’s your name?” “My name is…” etc.. A person who carefully pays attention to that video, and then uses those phrases in Hebrew correctly, is speaking correct and idiomatic biblical Hebrew. They might know nothing beyond that, but that is high-quality, beginner-level CI content. Would it be great if person A teaching person B knew more than that? Absolutely. Is it necessary if all they are teaching is that tiny set of material? No.
So, now let’s talk about the quality of “CI material” on the Latin market. This has been a perennial debate. Especially around the quality of Latin in the Latin novellas. Let me say that I think almost everybody can agree that some of the novellas contain Latin that is not good ‘Latinitas’, and some of the novellas contain Latin that is unidiomatic or even ungrammatical. That is a real shame. I suspect if you asked 95% of those authors if that’s what they wanted, they would say no.
Personally, I think anyone producing material, especially more permanent resources, has an obligation to seek out external editing. Either beforehand through careful proofing and feedback from others, or in an open-source format (which is what I do – I am happy to release material in draft format and get comments from anybody on the fly, and edit my own work). Latin and Greek teachers tend to be much better at finding others’ faults than at avoiding their own.
The more ephemeral the content, the more forgivable the mistakes. If you’re in a conversation and mis-speak, no one should stop you and correct you. Or even care. Every speaker of every language, even native ones, sometimes has the wrong thing come out of their mouth. Accept that as a fact and move on, because error correction doesn’t help.
Now, specifically the point has been raised about the general proficiency of “CI based teachers” in Latin and Greek, in comparison to modern languages. I think there are several no-brainer points to be made here. Absolutely teachers of modern languages tend, on the whole, to be more competent language users. Why? Simple. It’s much easier to get more competent in a modern language because there exists the opportunity to interact with communities of contemporary speakers, and there is likely a wealth of audio, visual, and print materials. Even for quite a few lesser languages. The more minoritised a language is, the harder this is, but it is still often true. Move to another country for a couple of years, take some classes, interact with speakers, and you can achieve a pretty surprising high level of competency relatively ‘quickly’, because you are investing hours and hours and hours in CI.
You cannot generally do that for Latin and Greek. Yes, opportunities exist, but they are far and few between. Perhaps the most significant option is Vivarium Novum, and Polis Institute. The former, which is held up by many as this shining light – well, let’s be clear that full-time year-long options there are sexist and ageist – you need to be a young male; as well as be willing to abide by their particularist vision of secular classical western humanism. You don’t need to agree to it, but it shapes their community values.
I want to circle back around to some specific points that CarolusCarman has made, some of them with a bit of attitude to them.
- Do we really believe that C2 proficiency is necessary to teach accurate and correct Latin/Greek?
Honestly, I don’t. Plenty of people in the world right now are learning English from non-native teachers who aren’t C2, and they are learning English. They’re not even going to speak to native English speakers, they’re going to speak to other L2-speakers of English. Plenty of school teachers in the US are teaching languages right now that they are not C2 in. This phenomenon isn’t going away. Yes, it sometimes creates problems. It’s a problem that many teachers of Gaeilge in Irish schools are not even remotely competent speakers of Gaeilge. But, but – you don’t need to be C2 to teach accurate and correct and idiomatic language. That’s just untrue. A person who is B1, B2 can teach a beginner language that is accurate, correct, grammatical, idiomatic. Would it be better if every teacher were more proficient than they currently are? Yes. That’s just a different question though.
- Is that in any way pragmatic?
I don’t think it’s at all practical to think that everyone who isn’t C2 should just shut up shop, and not bother until they are C2. Carolus’ presumed solution is that anyone who wants to teach packs themself off to Europe and learns from a true master until they can guarantee they are C2. I think that’s idealistic, elitist, and not even remotely practical. Plenty of teachers right now have graduated from programs, are already employed teaching, have neither the means, nor the time, nor the possiblity to just go off to Europe and study for immersion Greek for 3 years. What are they meant to do? Give up teaching and find another job and forget all about Greek? Where will that leave Greek teaching and learning as a field? Should they give up CI as a principle and just stick to grammar/translation as a methodology because they aren’t perfect speakers? That too is wrong-headed – we know G/T is a flawed method of teaching, so even if you were less than competent as a speaker you would still want to use methods based on CI. The genuine solution to this difficulty is to create as many opportunities and as much (good) material as possible, to help everyone get a little bit better. It’s not to idealise ‘masters’ of the language who live in Europe.
- Is the problem that more teachers know about CI than know their language well?
This is thinking about the problem the wrong way. What would be the solution if the problem were this – less teachers knowing about CI? Isn’t that just absurd? Rather, let’s put it this way – more teachers should be better informed by SLA theory and put best practices in language teaching into their own practices, and all teachers should be looking to improve their own language abilities.
- Should someone who isn’t C2 dare to (i) teach, (ii) produce publicly available ‘content’, (iii) represent themselves as knowing the language?
I don’t think people who aren’t C2 should proclaim that they are. I also don’t think courses should promise to teach people to a C2 level (because I’m pretty dubious any course out there is doing that, despite the advertising I’ve seen from some European institutions). But I do think the idea that you just need to shut up unless you’re C2, and not teach/write/video/promote is also a form of elitist nonsense. People ought to teach what they know. They also should feel free to produce content, especially if they’re committed to improving the quality of their own content. A mismatched adjective/noun agreement probably isn’t going to kill anyone, let alone ruin their long-term language acquisition.
Let me say, towards closing, that some of @CarolusCarman’s comments seem to suggest that content makers are in it for the money. I honestly find that offensive. (A) almost all content makers are doing it for the love of it, because that’s what drives most creative-content fields, (B) the money to be made from content creation is pretty minimal. Sure, it varies, but no-one is raking in $$$ and living fancy lives of this. Plenty of the novella writers don’t make back their production costs. Of course, there’s a spectrum, but if someone wanted to get into Latin content production to make it rich, they need an appointment with a career’s advisor. It’s a terrible way to make money. (C) it’s not wrong to make money anyway! Let’s not buy into a false discourse that says you have to do it for the love of it otherwise you’re not pure. These people are putting time and effort into producing content, and they’re brave enough to put it out there, knowing that classics-folk have an unhealthy bent towards being nit-picky, critical, pedantic, and elitist. Just scroll through the comments on any Latin/Greek video, novella, or tweet, to see this at work. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about quality, but most of the comments of correction that I see in the public sphere are not well-intentioned, otherwise they would have been made privately. If you feel the need to comment publicly and correct someone’s Latin or Greek, ask yourself why – 100% it’s about you and not about them.
If there’s a plea here, it’s just this: how about we all strive towards improving our own language, teach within our abilities, create and promote better and better content, and show kindness to ourselves and each others when we, and our language output, isn’t perfect.