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.

The disappearing goal of corpus fluency: the 98/56 paradox

If we take the figure of 98% vocabulary coverage as what is needed to read a text at a comprehensible and ‘fluent’ level, so that the unknown 2% is understandable by context or not significant enough to frustrate understanding, then for the New Testament corpus, that requires learning around 56% of the total vocab. (3102 out of 5461, depending on how you lemmatise it; that’s my breakdown based on Tauber’s MorphGNT on SBLGNT).

That’s a lot of vocab, over 3000 words. It takes you well into the 2 occurrences or less bracket. And, some initial ‘soundings’ for other corpora suggest a similar ratio, to hit the magic 98% mark, you need to hit a vast amount of vocab, including a rather large amount of the low yield stuff. Now, Tauber will no doubt berate me/insist that I remind you that 98% coverage of the corpus does not equate to 98% of any particular smaller unit (See here) And in fact, he’s absolutely correct. Indeed, from those figures (over 10 years ago, how slow some of these things move), 3000 top frequency items render 81% of the verses 95% familiar, which is still a lot less than you’d like.

And the paradox is this: learning low frequency vocab (say under 5x in the NT) is incredibly low-yield, because you are only going to encounter that lemma five times as you read through the whole corpus. Let alone a 2x frequency word. So the pay-off in terms of understanding is low, but also your ability to learn that word is far more difficult, because it’s not being repeated enough for you to encounter it frequently. Indeed, to encounter any of those low frequency New Testament words would require you to encounter them outside the New Testament.

Which is why this is a paradox of sorts – to master a particular corpus, whether that’s Plato, Demosthenes, or the NT, actually requires reading outside the corpus because that’s the only way you’ll get enough context, exposure, and repetition to render the corpus’s low frequency vocabulary meaningful in the context of the broader language (something that living in, say, Ancient Greece would have done for you, but you have to make do with what you’ve got).

Moral of the story? If you want to master a narrow corpus, you will have to read more widely than that corpus.

σπεῦδε βραδέως (can you fast track language learning?)

One of the critiques I (πολλάκις; ἐνίοτε;) encounter about a living language methodology is that it’s slow. That it doesn’t get us directly to reading texts (the main interest of most historical language students), That it is inefficient (why do I need to learn the word for ‘butcheress’ if it only appears in LXX 1 Kings 8.13).

I want to mount something of a defence here, though a gentle one.

  1. You can only go so fast
  2. It’s basically sheer hours, not sheer speed, that charts your progress
  3. Where are you trying to get to?

 

You can only go so fast

Right, so given that you have X hours in class, or X hours studying, there’s only a finite mount of material you can cover. If that’s English description of Syriac (all my arguments are applicable to most historical languages, so let’s mix it up today!), then your actual exposure to Syriac ‘input’ is going to be very, very limited. It that’s Syriac input, you’re only going to be able to comprehend very, very simple messages at the start, because you basically don’t know enough to understand anything more.

So: grammar-based curriculum: you can proceed through grammar faster, but you’re ability and time spend exposed to L2 input is severely limited, and your speed at translating that material is going to be slow. Let alone ‘reading’.

Communication-based method: you will proceed through ‘grammar’ or ‘vocab’ much slower, but your input should be much, much higher. So your ability to understand Syriac in language will be stronger, earlier, faster, but still limited (albeit by a different factor).

And nothing much is really going to speed these things up. Sure, you can teach all the grammar up front, and do nothing in Syriac, but then all you’ve done is present a bunch of information – charts and explanations about how Syriac works, but you haven’t learnt Syriac, and in fact you haven’t even read much Syriac (if any), and so it’s after all that grammar that you have to go away and do that work of actually learning the language.

(this is actually how most Grammar/Translation courses really work: learn a description of the language, and only then do you really go out and try to learn the language. If we want to do that, I think we could do it better by explicitly saying that’s what we’re doing: “Hello students, welcome to introduction to Syriac grammar. Over the next X weeks, we’re going to provide an external, English-based description of how Syriac language works. Then next semester you can start learning Syriac.

This is also, let me say, what happens if you try and go faster than people can understand in a in-language approach. If you start outstripping students’ comprehensible levels, you have no choice but to either (a) start explaining all the language they can’t understand, and/or (b) ignore them and present language that is beyond them and so of decreasing-to-zero comprehensibility.

It’s basically sheer hours, not sheer speed, that charts your progress

What’s attractive about the above is that you can get a student, or a cohort, to the end of the year (or other arbitrary unit of time) and say, “Great, we’ve covered all of Syriac!”

Except you haven’t. That’s a lie, isn’t it? Hence the title of my post, you’ve rushed through grammar but you haven’t developed any proficiency in understanding messages in Syriac.

Based on the reading in SLA theory I’ve done, hours are a better measure of progress than most other things. Sure, learners have a bit of fluctuation, but if the main determinant is comprehensible input, and there’s not really a way to speed up certain acquisition processes, then it’s simply hours that provides a fair estimate of how far along you are. This seems to be backed up by what, for instance the kinds of hours-estimates you see for CEFR based standards.

Want to ‘go faster’? It’s not method that’s the issue, it’s time spent in the language with messages you understand. You can go faster, if you can spend more time day after day.

Where are you trying to get to?

I do get a little defensive on this point. I recognise that most historical languages students don’t want to learn to order a latte in Syriac. But, at the same time, the ability to do so is not irrelevant. Sure, learning how to say “latte” is one piece of extra information that won’t help you read the Peshitta, for instance, but it’s also not a huge burden. Rather, what does it say about us that most students couldn’t, without a great deal of difficulty, string together a sentence to ask for a basic, modern food item. (Don’t @ me about how lattes are neither basic nor food).

So I, like most teachers and students, want students to end up with an ability to read target language texts with understanding. In my ideal world, CEFR B2, or ACTFL Intermediate-High or Advanced-Low is a reasonable benchmark to aim students towards. Sure, they’re not ‘fluent’ (which is itself a super-difficult term to pin down, but I tend to peg ‘fluent’ to C2), but they’re going to be able to read most texts with minimal aids, and understand them, and have a fundamental conversation about those texts – maybe not at the same B2 level, since we’re text/reading focused, but I’d want to see students sustain a conversation about a text they can read at B2, at B1.

And, if you can get to B2, you ought to be able to ‘add on’ enough explicit grammar, in the L2 but also in your L1, to ‘talk grammar’ about a text. Again, in my ideal world L1 discussion of L2 grammar would be hived off into a separate component of any course, and delayed somewhat to help students not get sucked into a mentality of “okay, here’s an L2 message, let’s analyse its grammar while using L1”)

B2 seems, to me, also a high but reasonable standard to say, “okay, you should be able to sustain this level and improve it outside an educational facility, primarily by reading more”. A2 isn’t enough for that, B1 is borderline. We all know, though, that plenty of grammar-translation graduates reach great heights of analysis, but lose most of their language in a few short years post-college.

If hour estimates are correct, then it’s a full 800 of “teacher-led” hours to get to B2. That’s a really big ask. It requires reconceiving the length of a course of language instruction, the dynamics of the required hours, and a whole range of issues.

And yet, even to get students to A2 is going to take 200 hours or so. That’s still a lot of hours. You can’t take a month long evening course and expect to be fluent in Syriac. You might be able to explicitly learn the linguistic features of Syriac in English in a month, but that is an entirely different thing.

And so, if you’ve put up with me this far:

  • Stop trying to cram everything in. It doesn’t work and it’s not effective, unless you redefine efficacy to mean cramming.
  • Drastically raise your idea of the hours you’re going to have to commit to a language to get truly ‘decent’ at it (let alone ‘master’)
  • Drastically reduce (some of you!) how soon you’ll be able to do more than the basics.
  • Don’t lose heart – language acquisition isn’t that much about talent or aptitude (maybe not at all, I think), but persistence and time-invested.
  • You don’t get to throw out a communicative method as irrelevant or ‘doesn’t work’ until you’ve put in a good 600 hours thanks. Then come back and tell me how it doesn’t work.

What (Greek) pronunciation should I use?

I’m surprised how often this question comes up. But I’m asked this relatively commonly.

First, a very, very brief précis of the main options

  1. Reconstructed Koine (Buth or Buth-similar options)
  2. Erasmian (US)
  3. Restored Attic (Allen-Daitz)
  4. Modern
  5. UK traditional

Erasmian is what has been taught ‘traditionally’, i.e. for a few hundred years, and is dominant in US circles. It is often typically ‘infected’ with American-English vowels, which makes it even further removed from both Erasmian and historical accuracy. Both (1) and (3) are serious attempts to reconstruct and produce the sounds of Greek as pronounced in the 1st CE and 5th BCE, more or less. (4) is a recognition that Greek continued to evolve, and is in wide usage among non Anglophone contexts. It’s also quite appropriate for Byzantine texts. (5) I only mention because it exists as it’s own relatively idiosyncratic, but prevalent for a long time, system.

What should you use? Here are my principles:

  1. A pronunciation system that is historically accurate for the period that is your major interest.
  2. A pronunciation system that enables conversation with other speakers.

 

The first of these makes good sense – if you’re reading Imperial/Koine texts, you probably ought to read with a scheme that matches. If you mainly read classical texts, by all means use a classical pronunciation. If you predominantly read Byzantine texts, I’d shift one’s pronunciation to Byzantine or Modern.

But, I wouldn’t suggest trying to alter one’s pronunciation based on the period of text. So, I read classical texts with a Koine pronunciation. Which is, by the way, what I imagine the 4th century church fathers did too! I can manage a classical accent, though never well, but I don’t normally try to.

The second principle is an acknowledge that Greek should be spoken and ‘lived’, and if you’re in a context where a different scheme prevails, you should consider accommodating. E.g., I teach a class where the students are used to a pronunciation much closer to Modern. I don’t fully accommodate, but I do partially accommodate, and I don’t error-correct on pronunciation (or on other things, really).

Getting a good base in one pronunciation, you can understand others, if you’re mindful. Just as I can understand a Latin speaker with ecclesiastical (even if, to be honest, it does grate me a little), I can converse (not at a high level!) with someone using Erasmian or Modern, provided I’m mindful of the difference and mentally adjust a few words.

In sum, I think good reasons for using practically anything except Erasmian (and least of all UK traditional!), but anything else just stop worrying about it so much, you have much bigger problems ahead of you in the language learning journey.