What if traditional ‘language’ courses came with a disclaimer?

Disclaimer:

The course you are enrolling in is a traditional language course. Almost nothing we do this semester will contribute to language acquisition. This course is focused on language as an artefact, and so we will be discussing grammar, analysing syntax, memorising morphology, rote-learning vocabulary associations with our L1, and translating sentences back and forth as a form of practice, with no attention to the communicative meaning or purpose of those sentences (if they had any).

We will definitely not be using language to communicate, develop any communicative ability, learn to read effectively, to understand or communicate in our target language. In fact, less than 5% of what we do in the course will be useful if that is your hope, and the ability of the other 95% of our explicit teaching to contribute to you acquiring the language is slim to none.

The memorised explicit knowledge you can expect to gain in this course will primarily be useful in taking tests on explicit knowledge, taking further courses of the same kind, or vaguely pursuing linguistics somewhere down the track. Otherwise it will be quickly forgotten.

Time: one reason why seminaries won’t (ever) embrace language acquisition

The problem with an acquisition-based program in a seminary setting is time.

A standard, seminary-type language course represents a 2-semester sequence in which students get drilled through a traditional grammar explanation of the language, with some practice on translating Greek passages to English, and are expected by the end of those 2 semesters to be able to translate easier portions of Greek into English, and explain the grammar of those texts (Mark, John, being likely candidates). Then you let them loose on upper level exegesis courses with the expectation that they’ll manage to translate more difficult texts in the NT corpus, because if you know a finite-grammar, you can translate finite-texts.

I’m critical of this for various reasons, which are not new here: acquisition vs. knowledge, the linguistic validity of a grammar course divorced from modern linguistics, and questions about ultimate attainment and ongoing utility. In my view, if this is really the approach one wishes to take, you should offer a 1 semester course in “The linguistics of NT Koine Greek” and cram it all in there – because if you’re teaching content, you can just teach content. You can stop pretending that this equips students to read the New Testament in Greek in any proficiency-based sense.

But, I do acknowledge that there is a very significant hurdle for adopting a acquisition-driven Comprehensible-Input-based approach. And that is time. The driving determiner of how far a student will get, disregarding learner internal constraint, is basically time. Well, quality and quantity of input. Assuming we can provide quality input, then it becomes a quantity question.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of the episodes of “Tea with BVP”, a second-language acquisition radio-show/podcast that ran for 3 years. There’s a lot of good content on it, and a lot of pointers to other things. As part of my follow-up, I have been reading “Setting Evidence-Based Language Goals”  (Foreign Language Annals 49 3 (2016):434-454) by Goertler, Kraemer, and Schenker, which examines target benchmarks for the German program at MSU (where Bill VanPatten also is, and which runs on CI-based principles).

The study looked undertook a review of and after review, the benchmarks (using the ACTFL proficiency guidelines) were revised to (after years of college study):

  1. Intermediate Low
  2. Intermediate Mid
  3. Intermediate High
  4. Advanced Low

Correlations with CEFR are difficult, but AL comes out as somewhere between B1 and B2, with IM at A2, and IH at B1. Table 2 of their study also presented different sets of  ‘hours’ recommendation for different levels. MSU classes mean that students receive:

Year Hours Cumulative
1 100  
2 100 200
3 150 350
4 150 500

 

The study reviewed previous benchmarks and outcomes, and then determined the current outcomes of current MSU students.

If you break down the hours in class by semester, that’s 50 hours a semester, raising to 75 in 3rd and 4th year. About 3-4 hours contact across a 12-14 week semester, up to 6 in the upper levels.

No seminary is going to run this. No seminary is going to run a 4hr a week, 4 year Greek program. Not unless they radically change their outlook on language acquisition and goals. Which is basically why I suspect that acquisition of Greek is not going to get very far in seminaries.

It also continues to highlight the problematic nature of 4 contact hours, across a standard semester. You just can’t get a student, ab initio, to very high levels of proficiency in a 4 year course. Which isn’t just a problem for biblical languages programs, it’s a problem for classics courses that want ab initio students reading high-level literature.

There’s only one solution to this: more hours. More hours of comprehensible input. The hours estimate for Advanced Low at MSU was 500 + study abroad. The (probably less reliable) hours estimates of Liskin-Gasparo for Advanced Mid is 720, A-High and Superior is 1320. I don’t think, based on the modern languages data, that you can really get college students beyond Int-High with a few reaching Adv-Low, within a 4-year sequence, and to achieve that in a classical languages program is going to require a committed, and skilled, teaching-team.

I can only imagine 4 solutions at the programmatic level:

  • you teach based on CI-principles at the high school level, allowing you to get 4-600 hours in before your students even reach college.
  • you raise the contact hours for language majors and make it an all-consuming degree (i.e., nothing but language, ‘content’ courses in the upper years taught in language, and no electives, and turn ‘expected’ hours into contact ones. or else you provide enough reading and audio material that all the ‘expected’ hours can be spent on input).
  • you push expectations of higher level proficiencies into the grad-schools.
  • you push for 1-2 week intensives to supplement term-teaching.

 

 

Learn to love your Loeb (or, how to stop feeling guilty about ‘cheating’)

I suspect a lot of people (though perhaps not the general demographic still reading my blog) will find this advice objectionable. There is a school of thought that hates students using Loebs. And, they have a point. If you think the goal of classical language learning is to (a) internalise Smyth, (b) memorise as much of LSJ as humanly possible, (c) and then produce a translation for the purpose of understanding a text, then Loebs are antithetical to your purpose. That is to say, (again) if you think classical language learning is about developing a skill in translating, then that’s exactly what you should practice.

That’s not a position I hold, because translation is not reading. Or, it’s not reading as a proficient communicative user of a language reads. If you want to read Greek as Greek, without translating (mentally or otherwise), then your goal (and mine) is quite different – it’s to acquire Greek to a degree fit for reading texts without needing to translate for understanding.

Let me define ‘translate for understanding’, as it’s a phrase I’m going to be using more often. What happens when you meet a message (text, for instance) that is beyond your proficiency, beyond your ability to comprehend in Latin at that time? If you (like me) are a recovering product of the Grammar-Translation method, you (can) translate – you take your explicit knowledge of grammar, pick up your lexicon, and make a rendering of the text into your L1 in order to understand it. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a useful strategy for rendering an incomprehensible input comprehensible. But it’s not reading, and it’s not comprehending in the L2.

And it’s slow. And painful. And inefficient. Which is why, whenever I’m reading something that already has a translation, if the text is beyond my current ability to read with 90-100% comprehension, I use that translation in parallel. Because reading a translation alongside does the exact same thing for acquisition and understanding that doing my own translation would do – it makes the input comprehensible.

So, this is my permission to you. If your goal is understanding a text as quickly as possible, then of course you should leverage a translation. It does exactly what you need, it renders a text beyond your proficiency comprehensible, efficiently. And that let’s you get on with the text itself, with getting meaning out of the text, and increasing the quantity of your overall language input.

How my next interview for a seminary will go:

Interviewer: So, your CV has a lot of Greek on it, but Bill Smith the Third here is our New Testament lecturer and will be covering that area.

Me: ὦ, καλῶς. σὺ εἶ διδάσκακλος τῆς ἑλληινκῆς γλώσσης;

Bill: Um, what did you say?

Me: σὺ δύνῃ λαλεῖν ἑλληνιστί; ἐγώ σοι ἑλληνιστὶ λαλῶ.

Bill: Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.

Me: οὐ συνίης; διδάσκαλος τῆς γλώσσης τῆς ἑλληνικῆς ὤν, οὐ δύνῃ λαλεῖν ἢ συνιέναι; οὐκ εἶ διδάσκαλος καλός, ἀλλὰ μαθητὴς κακός, ὥς μοι δοκεῖ. πῶς τὰ τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης βιβλία ἀναγιγνώσκεις; ὦ μαστιγία κάκιστε…

Inteviewer: I think we’re done here. We’ll be in touch.

What to do when you must teach explicit grammar

So, you’ve become convinced (probably by someone else) that communicative/comprehensible input based approaches to language acquisition are the way to go. But you still need to produce students who have an explicit, and often advanced, knowledge of grammar. That is, you want students to acquire language but you still need them to learn about the language.

This is particularly acute in biblical languages. Students in both Old Testament and New Testament studies are going to go on to courses that demand an explicit ability to comment on and analyse the language of texts at a very atomised level. And they’re going to engage with commentaries, articles, and write materials that similarly require a fairly precise grammatical knowledge. Indeed, this is part of the academic socialisation of these disciplines – you learn the jargon so you can play the game.

The first step, I would suggest, is to recognise exactly what is going on here – students are being asked to learn to comment on fairly advanced literary and linguistic analysis. That’s not something we ‘naturally’ learn to do in our L1s, unless we explicitly do courses in linguistics and/or literary analysis. It’s not something most learners of L2 ever do, unless they take a course of study that likewise demands it. And, to analyse and understand these issues in an L2 through the medium of the L2 really demands a very high level of linguistic competence, both acquisition and learning.

Secondly, I think there are practical ways to resolve this issue, and I think these also complement each other.

Strategy 1: teach grammatical language in the L2.

This strikes some people as a bit odd: not only must my students deal with such non-New Testament words as τηλέφωνον and Αὐστραλιανός, but now I want to teach them grammar terms like ἀπαρέμφατος? To that initial objection, I have three responses:

  1. grammar jargon is for many contemporary students a whole new set of English vocabulary anyway. Teaching them Greek terms is a different burden, not an additional one.
  2. Most grammatical terms are Latinate anyway, so if you are working in Latin, ‘nominative’ and nominativus aren’t really going to cause much of an additional learning burden. Greek terms are mostly cognate to the Latin. I’ve never done Hebrew grammar in Hebrew, ignosce mihi.
  3. The payoff of doing grammar in the L2 is that you can then talk about texts at a meta-level in the L2. τίς ἐστιν τὸ ὑποκείμενον is now one of my stock phrases. This lets you circle a text both at a simple level, and at a meta-level. Which equals more and more CI.

There are some other issues though. Ancient grammarians supply us with a grammatical vocabulary, but it is not always fit for purpose, or modern discussions may have moved on. In Greek we might want to distinguish tense-form from tense/time, and aspect, and perfective, imperfective and perfect. These will require some creativity perhaps (ὁ χρόνος τοῦ ῥήματος v. ὁ χρόνος τοῦ γενομένου ?)

Strategy 2: teach grammar in the L1, but separately.

So, while strategy 1 keeps you in the language while you’re working with the language, strategy 2 means spending a separate period of time tackling L2 grammar described in L1 material (either within your teaching blocks, or a whole separate teaching period, or independent reading material for students). In the early stages, this will look a lot like traditional instruction – a descriptive set of instruction that talks about what’s going on in the language. But it ought to be mapped to what’s going on in the acquisition sessions. I’d also want to appropriately set this distinction up in the students’ understanding of the course structure and goals, e.g. “In these sessions we’ll be learning Syriac, but in those lessons we’ll be analysing how Syriac works.”

Strategy 3: teach advanced grammar in the L1, as a separate subject altogether.

Especially if you’re teaching biblical languages and training students for this kind of study, I think a 2nd year course can be given over explicitly to teaching ‘advanced’ grammar. In a sense this is not really advanced, but it does mean moving beyond the basic categories, to a more in-depth analysis of what’s going on in the language.

This might look like what goes on in a lot of 2nd year NT Greek classes: Wallace or Köstenberger et al, or Zerwick, or whoever. But a few modifications ought to be made:

  1. Again, making clear to students that this isn’t learning Greek, or learning Greek better, or even necessarily going to help their Greek. It’s learning to talk about Greek in the way ‘everyone else does’.
  2. These courses could generally do with a healthy dose of even basic general linguistics. The insular world of biblical languages studies tends to leave students (and professors) with some rather odd, peculiar, idiomatic ideas.
  3. Recognising that this isn’t the context for acquiring more Greek means that somewhere in a syllabus there needs to be something else responsible for the ongoing acquisition of more Greek. And that could include the development of ongoing L2 language for talking about L2 grammar.

 

How much language input you could be getting

How much input can you get?

I ran some numbers…

Average conversation speed is, apparently 140-160 words a minute. We can understand speeech much faster, but we don’t like to produce speech much faster. Let’s be conservative though, and say that we are gettin 100 words a minute of input in listening to audio / in a live class (I’d love to see actual data, but I don’t have it. Do you?)

For good CI reading, we want learners reading somwhere between 150-250 words a minute. Much below this and it’s likely an indicator that they are not processing it well enough – it’s shifting from extensive reading to intensive.

Now, let’s make two assumptions: one that our classes and materials only manage to stay in target language 95% of the time, and that the comprehensibility level remain a nice, high 95% (but not an ideal 98%).

So, on my numbers, an hour of oral class is 100 wpm * 60 mins = 6000 * 0.98 * 0.95 = 5415 words an hour.
Similarly, a lower end 150 wpm reading is 8122.5 words and hour.

A 14 week semester, 10 hours with 3 live instruction, 3 audio practice, 4 reading, would be 64980 a week, 909720 words of input a semester.

A school class doing 2 hours a week, 38 weeks a year, with 2 hours outside class reading: 974700.

A 3hrs a week reading habit, 48 weeks a year: 1169640.

All of these numbers are, I would suggest, orders of magnitude higher than the amount of text a student normally receives in a standard course. Even if you halved them, it’s still a lot of input. It would, undoubtedly, require the availability of a suitably vast amount of appropriately graded material. Difficult for Latin, almost impossibly for Greek.

Still, any shift in this direction would be good.

So, what to do? If you’re the learner in this equation, my advice is to read everything easy that you can lay hands on. Read all the text in every intro course you can borrow. For Latin, download every direct method reader you can, but every novella your budget stretches to, and develop a podcast habit. For Greek, hmmm, I’m still trying to solve this conundrum. Apart from textbooks, even most easy material is not as easy as it needs to be. This remains a problem to be solved. In the meantime, for Greek, Latin, or whatever it is you love, re-read everything as well: x2, x3, x10!

Reading in 3s : a more flexible approach

Reading in 3s is a way to structure reading a text so that you cover it 3 times over, sequentially. This is easiest explained by a 3-page model: you read 3 pages, but you only move your bookmark forward one page each session. Thus, you’re always reading one page ‘fresh’, one page ‘revision’, and one page ‘I totally get this now’.

But what I’ve found personally is that this has drawbacks – you must read the same amount of text each session, otherwise it gets messed up, and you need to work with a portion of text that’s relatively divisible into 3. So if you want to go up from 3 pages, 6 pages is your next best bet, but that’s double the amount.

Lately I’ve been working with a more flexible approach – I just use three bookmarks. The first bookmark means “everything prior to this you’ve already read 3 times”, the second “everything prior to this you’ve read twice”, and the third, “everything prior to this you’ve read once.” So for any given reading session, I open up at bookmark no. 1 and read from there. If I pass bookmark two, it doesn’t matter, wherever I stop I just place the bookmark (i.e. you don’t need to label your bookmarks 1, 2, 3, but if you did you’d need to move them sequentially). And I always know that those bookmarks mean the same thing. If, perchance, a day’s reading doesn’t get past bookmark 2 or 3, this doesn’t matter so much. And, if I’m feeling adventurous, I might leave bookmark 1 in place, and start with bookmark 2. Et cetera.

You do need to be a bit more intentional – you still want to balance the general proportions of new/revise/revise, but it gives you more flexibility for reading more or less on different days.

It also opens up the possibility of ‘reading in 4s, 5s, 6s’. I.e., you can just add more bookmarks. You might, for example, decide that a particular text is worth more revisions, and so your main 3 bookmarks are around chapters 13, 14, 15, but you start another two markers at chapter 1. Then on any particular day, you can treat these two groups separately, advancing the bookmarks in relation to each other. And if bookmarks 1 and 2 ever catch up to the other 3, you’ll know that you’ve now read that whole first portion 5 times over.

Great for building a lot of comprehensible input, especially with a well-graded text (I mainly use this with Italian Athenaze and Roma Aeterna at present, and it’s been serving me quite well.