More thoughts on distance education (2 of some)

This week in my meandering series, let me talk variously about other distance education environments I’ve experienced.

I did the mainstay of my Latin studies as an external student at the University of New England (in Australia, not those other New Englands in other former colonies). A four year sequence of 10 subjects, ab initio, right through to Horace and Prose Composition (Not that Horace is the pinnacle of Latin, I am just pretty sure it was one of my final year classes and Horace wasn’t my favourite either). This was the 00s and UNE was well entrenched in DE delivery. Courses consisted of (a) mailed out booklets, (b) mailing assignments back in for marking, (c) an optional residential week in Armidale. So it was more like a self-directed course of study with some external support and feedback. The residential schools made a huge difference though. You’d trip off to Armidale for a week, do a bunch of intensive latin classes, covering the same material but in person, and stand around in the cold while Tesoriero smoked a lot. I went to most of them. I think in the later years, email discussion became a feature!

Anyway, technology has moved on, and so has my Latin. But this worked for what it was worth, primarily because I was a highly motivated and disciplined self-learner.

I took 3 years of online classes in Gaelic with an institution, which was valuable though also frustrating (hence I won’t name them!). The teacher was high-quality, the classes were a group Skype, and 3 hours long, so they involved a great deal of Gaelic input, but the quality of materials was non-optimal. That is, we worked through some deadly boring explicit grammar instruction, were expected to learn contextless series of model sentences, do partner exercises that were “say one line, your partner will correspond with the translation”, which is more like a code-word exchange than language practice. I confess, it did do good things for my Gaelic, but I think with more effective language pedagogy, it could have been much more effective.

Right now I adjunct for another college that is doing theology via DE probably as well as I’ve seen enacted. Courses are high quality, with a structured weekly sequence of video materials by faculty or scholars, set readings, discussion forums, exercises assessed and non-assessed. I’m still not 100% convinced this is optimal for theological-formation of students, but it’s the best I’ve seen in a DE mode. I also haven’t seen their introductory language offerings, but my understanding is that it’s all explicit-grammar driven. Which you know my feelings on.

One-to-one online language tutoring is obviously a thing I’m into. Firstly, just the technological marvel of being in an age where one can connect to a speaker of Latin, Greek, Gaelic, even Mongolian, around the globe, and have a audio-visual conversation in almost real-time, mirabile! I’ve seen both sides of this equation, as student and teacher. I do feel there are drawbacks, notably the loss of physical embodied presence and shared realia. There are a host of things one could do in person that one cannot do when stuck behind a screen and one’s visual field is limited to the scope of the webcam. But the benefits seem to outstrip that. A lot depends on quality of teacher, no doubt. I recall one tutor that I had several years back who was really not good at all. I think I’m still developing in this area, and the dual challenge of developing as a teacher, and developing myself as a Latin and Greek speaker. (current students, no need to comment!)

I’ve also done some shorter group-courses online, on both sides. With mixed feelings. Conversational turn-taking is much harder to manage in a conference call, which means effective group size needs to stay relatively low. But all the groups I’ve been have been relatively small anyway (Greek and Latin being pretty niche markets). It certainly helps to spread the cost, which I think is great (for both sides of the equation). And it creates some communicative possibilities (3rd persons, plural forms) in a conversation that are less easily constructed in a one-to-one. I wouldn’t mind teaching more like this, but the start-up effort of (a) getting a quorum, (b) finding a timeslot suitable to keeping a quorum, (c) looking professional enough and not just a random Australian language hack, all hold me back.

 

 

A meandering series on distance education (1 of some)

Well, semester 2 at various institutions here is under way, and I feel like some reflections upon distance education are in order. This might be part one of several…

I might begin by talking about this semester. Last semester, regular sufferers of his blog will recall, I taught a small greek class in person. “In-person” was exciting, because this is actually how I’d like to teach most of all. But students had the option of being in-person or watching records (or even joining via video conference), so the mixed-modality was a bit… wearying.

This semester I’m teaching a follow-on course, but all my students are distance. Now, let me caveat here and say (i) I fully support distance educaion options, I’ve studied quite a few things by such, and obviously I do a whole bunch of other teaching at distance, (ii) I have no particular issue with these students or this college.

But, it does raise some issues. Now I’m essentially running a fully online, asynchronous course. Which means that I’m recording video lectures, and providing support via an online learning system. This is, hmm, frustrating. Not least because I can’t see anyway to bring my primary language-pedagogical convictions to bear.

We can’t do ‘communicative’ greek if you’re at home watching videos and I am system-constrained to produce powerpoint slides with video+audio. And it calls to mind a whole host of other issues for me. Issues related to the economies of scale, the value of this kind of teaching, the increasing prevalance of both distance-ed and modularisation among, particularly, seminaries, which means a loss of cohesive, integrative, pastorally-minded courses of study that involve spiritual formation of leaders, to piece-meal delivery of content-focused units that assemble into a ‘degree’.

I suspect there *are* ways of doing communicative focused materials with video, indeed I have a friend producing TPRS-esque stories with no-one present and doing it well. But there’s so much lacking in this kind of teaching.

And so then we’re just back to explicit language, aren’t we? Which, of course, I can do, but it’s missing a very soulful piece of me as a language educator.

About playing D&D in Latin

I’m sure I didn’t come up with this idea, and I know we’re not the first, but ever since emails started circulating prior to Rusticatio Australiana, a few of us discussed playing an RPG. In this post, I’m going to write a bit about that experience, and the lead up, and thoughts on its utility for language development. I’ve also included some separate thoughts from our Magistra Ludi, at the end of this post.

Pars Prior (If you don’t know anything about Role Playing Games)

If you don’t really know anything about RPGs of the table-top variety, get thee to Wikipedia. RPGs are a lot of fun, they can be played with various styles, of drama, in various settings, with a focus that leans anywhere from the more tactical, to the more interpersonal and social.

Pars Secunda, getting it organised

Three of us discussed this prior to the Rusticatio, sharing a bit of our experience with gaming, with various systems, etc.. Based on that discussion we reached a rough consensus that we’d play 5th ed. D&D, which was at least known to 2 of us. I’ve never played 5th ed, but I’ve played enough systems, and enough D&D, that I can play almost anything at the drop of a hat.

Logana, one of our number, took on the challenge of translating/writing in Latin a brevarium of rules and providing key terms in Latin. It was excellently done. And indeed, if not for Logana, I think this wouldn’t have come off because I am notiorously busy and work to deadlines.

Pars Tertia, apud Rusticationem

So time was unfortunately short on our end at Rusticatio itself. We had hoped to do an initial session in the first “sessio elegendorum”, but Logana herself was on kitchen duty. eheu. We successfully enticed (?), perhaps invited, 2 others to join us, neither of whom had played D&D before. So then we had a triple challenge – 2 players who’d never played before and had to have both rules and core RPG concepts explained, the challenge of Latin, given that this was the first latin speaking experience for most of us (praeter me, fortasse; res non certa est); and the challenge playing in latin itself.

For the most part, creating character went straightforwardly, with not a few one-word English glosses supplied. So, it really can be done, with minimal English and minimal experience. Though, I will say, that (a) having your more experienced players also (b) be more capable Latin speakers, is incredibly helpful.

Pars Quarta, the actual playing.

So in that first session, well, post cenam huius noctis, we played a very brief set-up encounter, in which we met a priestess of Diana, who tasked us with hunting a monstrous boar in the local region. (The setting, scilicet, was a fantasy version of ancient Rome). But time and the scheduled events defeated our plans to play further.

This left us with playing on the final night (et, iterum vae mihi, est causa quia in QD non intravi. nihil refert, ut intellexi, sine me non tam bene alii ludere possent, sed non quia ego tam necessarius eram). We preceded through about 3 encounters, and killed the boar. That’s the short of it.

I would say this: the Magistra Ludi (GM/DM) bears the heaviest load here, because she has to (i) know the game well, (ii) be apt at description and improvisation, (iii) does the bulk of the talking, (iv) generally needs to be better at speaking latine than the players need to. Not through any fault of their own (don’t mistake me, this is not a criticism), our 2 new players were not the most confident latin speakers. But that gives me hope, because they didn’t need to be either. They understood well enough, and responding to options, engaging in answers to questions, is easier than being the one who ‘sets the parameters’.

So, in this regard, I have to give a lot of credit to Logana, I think she did remarkably well, given that she also said beforehand that she has GM’d, but she is not usually a GM. In my own role-playing career, I’ve had the same person GMing in our group for 20 years. I don’t GM except very, very rarely.

Pars Quinta: reflections

The difficulties

I’ve already mentioned some of the difficulties above. It seems to me that the GM/ST, Magister/rae Ludi bears the major burden, in terms of both game and language. But that’s also heartening, in that if you wanted to use this as a form of language development/acquisition, the person who is ‘leading’ the session probably should be the person with stronger language. They can shape not only the game, but the language, to fit the participants. In our case, the relative non-confidence of some of our speakers gives me confidence that this could be done with other less-confident speakers.

Though, overall I’d say that RPGing in Latin is really an activity for upper intermediate and up users of a language. Though, if the understanding is there, then the output needed from a player can be simplified tremendously to simple responses to direct questions, if needed.

Another difficulty is that most game systems are complex. Core rulebooks run to hundreds of pages, often with complex terminology and plenty of words neither found, nor apt, nor relevant to classical languages. D&D and other ‘historically’ oriented, even if fantasy, games, have some advantage here. Other genres, e.g. Shadowrun, are going to be much harder to pull off. An advanced science cyberpunk genre with magic? In latin? hmmm.

Thirdly, unless you want to rely upon either an English (or other) rule-set, there are copyright issues lurking somewhere in antris tenebrosis. It might, perhaps, be better to pursue a game system with an open-license.

The benefits

One of the greatest benefits to me, it seems, is that an RPG solves the problem that “role playing” a scenario in a classroom has. As BVP often points out, pretending you’re a waiter and a customer, but sitting in a classroom, is not a communicative activity or task. It’s not real.

RPGing is not real either, but there’s a difference. Because you are engaged in ‘being’ your persona, and you (ought to!) care about the game, the world, the characters, the story, and the outcomes. So you are playing for something. Not ‘to win’. Sure, it’s ‘pretend’, but it’s a real kind of pretending, if I can put it that way.

Which means you can explore all sorts of settings and situations and therefore language that you might never do in a meaningful way in the ‘classroom’. A seduction scene, fighting monsters, espionage, diplomacy, bartering, the list goes on an on. And more adept players can drive that too, by directing their characters in various ways to do various things. A good GM will facilitate that and not railroad them to play only and exactly the story prepared.

And, in terms of grammatical forms, it definitely gives a chance to exercise a wide range of them, including those not as frequent in literature, which is itself excellent ‘practice’.

The possibilities

I think RPGing in an L2 has great facility for promoting language proficiency, especially in the upper levels of that. But, it relies on two things – people actually need to enjoy playing! RPGing of the table-top variety is still quite a niche activity. Although, the overlap of nerdiness that enjoys Latin, and enjoys RPGs, is higher than the average population, I’d guess. Secondly, it relies, as I’ve said, on a fair degree of facility in the language by the GM. The more facility the players have, of course, the more complex both the language, and the game, can be; but the GM’s ability is something of a ‘cap’, since so much rests with them.

 

For the future

I’d really like to see more go on with this, and do more myself. I wonder, if due to copyright issues, it might be worth pursuing Latin versions of OGL games, e.g. Pathfinder, OSRIC, Traveller, etc..

I know others have played D&D in Latin before, and I’d love to hear just some general thoughts, feedback, reflections, and suggestion from them as well.

And now, a word from our Magistra Ludi, because I thought it would be quite useful to hear from (a) someone that’s not me, (b) the person who ran the game.

Sententiae Magistrae Ludi Nostrae

 

The experience of running a game of Sepulchra et Serpentes in Latin was definitely very challenging – things that run very smoothly when you’re speaking your first language slow down a lot when there are language barriers all around the table. The whole thing took a lot longer than I expected and I did have to cut some of my planned content, but that was partially due to bad luck with our free time arrangements. But on the other hand, when I first floated the idea months ago it was very much a terrified hypothetical, so it’s pretty great that we managed to pull it off.

I made a few particular decisions which I think kept the whole thing manageable. Firstly, I chose a system that I know very well, and came up with specific translations of all of the key words beforehand. Because of this, I could answer rules questions off the top of my head using my own list of semi-technical terms, which streamlined the process a lot. However, I would probably revise some of those key words now, because some of them proved a little awkward in use.

I picked a setting for which I already had a lot of vocabulary – the countryside, the forest, and the religious sites therein (inspired by my reading of Ovid’s Fasti, actually). That meant that even if I didn’t know all of the words, I wasn’t trying to work out terms for the kinds of things the party would find in a typical ‘dungeon’. Although I couldn’t do the amount of description I would normally want in a game like this, I think I managed a few nice touches with what I had.

I also made the wise decision to keep the story very simple. ‘Religious figure engages the party to slay a beast’ is not exactly highly original material, but it gets the story rolling and gives the players a clear goal. I’m not the most experienced DM either, so the simple storyline made me feel more confident operating in an unfamiliar language.

In future I would like to push for more characterisation and role-playing among both players and NPCs – because the fun of RPGs isn’t just in hitting things with a sword, but in creating characters and relationships. Obviously improvisation is hindered by the language barrier, but I hope that as we all improve at Latin everything will become more fluid.

WAYK observations at Rusticatio

Long-term sufferers of my blog know of my strong interest in Where Are Your Keys and all its applications. I knew that Evan had had a good deal of involvement with our American Latinist friends for a period, and was interested to see how this manifested at Rusticatio.

Here’s a short index of Techniques that were either taught explicitly or evidenced in other ways. With comments from me on how they were used/introduced.

Accent adjustment. This was briefly explained early on, and primarily used by our leaders for a couple of specific adjustments. They would sometimes use it on each other to tweak what someone said. Occasionally, Nancy would slip into ecclesiastical pronunciation, and it could be used to bring her back! And then it was sometimes used to indicate to a participant the need to tweak their pronunciation

Again. Iterum. Incredibly useful. Didn’t catch something, need it again? Iterum is the technique you need. Ubiquitous and with wide up-tak.

Backwards build-up (Rassias). So, I wonder if this didn’t come into WAYK from Nancy, because I know Nancy started off herself in spoken Latin with a lot of Rassias. We did Rassias type stuff in a large group, with Nancy modelling question/answer and then using substitution patterns and drawing on participants. She would very often build a sentence backwards for us. This TQ was never formally discussed.

Full & Full-check. Sat? These were explained early on, up front, explicitly. And that, I think, is tremendously helpful in teaching participants to be aware of their own affective filters and status, and measure both themselves and others for ‘full’.

Full sentences. Another one that wasn’t explained, but certainly in the all-in sessions Nancy would generally model and expect full sentences.

How fascinating. Mirabile! This, like Full, was taught explicitly, early, and modeled by leaders well. I think it’s a hard one to ‘catch on’ to using because people find that although it does dispel awkwardness, it also takes a bit of intentional awkwardness to embrace it.

Let it go. Mitte difficiliora. Probably the third of the main techniques taught explicitly and early. I didn’t see it in use a lot, but it came out from time to time as need.

Mumble. Taught semi-explicitly, but not quite as a technique per se.

Set-up. Explained, but not often utilised and not well reinforced. I feel like that to have seen this in use would have required a bit more explanation of how to do Set-Up and how effective it can be in language hunting/teaching.

Slower. Lentius. Similar in some ways to ‘Again’, and about the same in terms of implementation and uptake.

 

I didn’t notice any other TQs in use, though I did notice some subtle WAYK sign usage at times (and, scilicet, signs are themselves a technique, though each sign is not itself a technique). For example, at one point Annula said sed (‘but’) complemented with the sign for it, but without knowing that that was the sign, you could easily miss it.

Overall, I appreciated the presence and utility of WAYK at Rusticatio and it’s helped reinforce the value of it to me.

 

Everything wrong with focus on forms

I recently had occasion to complete a (modern) language placement test. The test was composed of 20 sections, each asking me to manipulate given sentences and change the forms to other ones (e.g. the equivalents of present to past, one structure to another, and so on). It wasn’t an overly taxing test, though it did take a bit of time, but in terms of assessing my language ability, I would rate the test itself a fail.

Firstly, because I didn’t need to understand the messages in the text in order to manipulate them. Indeed, there was vocab in there that I didn’t recognise. But whether I could or couldn’t understand the texts, was irrelevant to the task, which was transform structure to structure. That only required an explicit grasp of particular grammatical forms.

Secondly, there’s no guarantee I can reproduce this level of grammatical correctness in speech. In fact, I know that when I speak I am producing all sorts of errors in these forms. I would like to ‘fix’ that, but I doubt that explicit instruction in grammar will help that because I explicitly know all this grammar. “You should know this by now”; “we’ve been over this grammar X times, why are you still saying it wrong”; “You can explain this grammar, why can’t you produce it in speech?” – these are all things (some) teachers say, and they are all predicated on wrong beliefs.

like explicit grammar. I love learning about linguistics. I think there’s a small, but non-zero place for it in language education contexts. But I’m pretty convinced that manipulation of forms does not lead to acquisition – not to communicative ability but also not even to real-time correct use of forms.

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.

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.

Should I read more easy/intermediate/hard reading material?

Inspired by a recent conversation, and again a question that I get every now and again.

My suggestion is to weight your reading towards the easy (anything you can read with 98-100% comprehension, at a good reading pace), with some intermediate (anything you can read with 90% comprehension, and occasionally might need to pause to figure something out, or look up a very occasional word.

This should be your staple, for language acquisition purposes.

What about hard? Intensive reading? Figuring out that damnable Horace?

Here’s my question: Is there any pressing reason for you to read texts beyond your current proficiency?

If the answer is yes, e.g. you’re doing a course, you’ve got exams, you’re translating something for money, you’ve got a life-geas to understand Horace, then yes, spend some time in intensive/hard reading. Look up every word, diagram those sentences, get out your Loeb, do whatever it takes to make that text understandable. And then, read it, and re-read it, and make it your own. Tame that text. Memorise it. Domesticate it.

But if the answer is no, then why? From a language acquisition perspective, the time you spend toiling over figuring out 20 words of poetry, might have been spent reading pleasantly and rapidly through 20 pages (well, maybe not 20) of not so difficult material, which is still building up your language proficiency, still giving you input, still working you towards the day when those 20 lines will make a lot more sense, with a lot less effort.

So, if time and circumstances are on your side (and even if they are, to some extent, not), I prefer to weight readings towards the easy.

“The Switch” : Thinking in a foreign (dead) language

A couple of people have asked me recently what this is like, and expressed something of their frustration that they can’t go from “mental translation” to “thinking in (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Klingon)”

I do think this is hard to explain, especially if you haven’t experienced it for any language – if you’re a monoglot who has always thought in one language as long as you can remember, and your primary (or only) experience of language learning is grammar/translation/dead-languages, this is just hard to conceptualise.

So, here’s a suggestion. Watch some youtube:

Here’s day 1 TPR in French, or Rico teaching Greek, or do a search for anything TPR, TPRS, WAYK and ‘day 1’.

These are classes in which you should be able to just watch, and match language to action. Sure, I know there’s some translation going on in your head. I would generally discourage that, but also don’t stress about it. In saying I’d discourage it, I really mean, “don’t try to translate”, I don’t mean, “fight against any instinct to translate”

For me, personally, operating in an L2 is a bit like flicking a ‘switch’. One minute I’m in English, and then I flip that switch, and start thinking in, say, Gaelic. And I keep thinking in Gaelic and talking in Gaelic, as much as I can. That tends to only get disrupted when I hit a point where I can’t find the word for what I want to express. That’s like an obstacle in my mental ‘flow’, and it will get filled. Sometimes it gets filled by random other language (so I will almost always have a random word from one language slip into others), or English. If it’s not a big deal, you can kind of flow around that and keep going. Languages where I’m really fluent (like I used to be in Mongolian), I can just keep operating in the language on and on, and in fact dropping in some English won’t disrupt me. That’s genuine code-switching, rather than language interference.

The thing I’d say is, just keep at it. “It” here is reading, listening, exposing yourself to as much easy, comprehensible language input as you can. The more you can pile this up, the more input you’re getting, the more you will be able to make that jump. Don’t stress about it, but don’t keep encouraging the translation habit.

Start a spoken (Latin/Greek/Whatever) club today: my biggest classics regret

My biggest regret is that in all my time as a student I never took the step to start a group to talk Latin or Greek.

Now, admittedly I did a lot of my classics, in particular, as a distance student, and as a disconnected graduate student, but for most of my student life I was still convinced that active, communicative language approaches were (and are) invaluable. But I didn’t have the confidence, either in myself or in speaking, to start such an enterprise. I was waiting, I don’t know what for. This, I think, was a big mistake.

I don’t really care if you’re at an institution and all your teachers are super-conservative die-by-the-grammar types. If you think speaking Latin (etc.) is  good idea, start now.

If you’re not confident/have no idea, here’s my prescription:

  1. You can pick up a text designed for spoken work: Polis Institute’s Polis for Greek, Forum for Latin, are a good choice. If you’ve got some language under your belt, then the level of language isn’t your barrier, it’s having a source of inspiration to use to bootleg or jumpstart the speaking side of things.
  2. It’s actually incredibly easy to have super-basic conversations about a text in language.  Grab out your dog-eared copy of Oxford Latin Course (uel similis, ach please not Wheelock; Athenaze in a pinch), and do basic conversational comprehension: quis, quem, quid facit, cuius, quo, et cetera. Then just extend it a little: cur? ut quid faciat? and so on. (With some time, I’ll mock up some of such basic conversations).
  3. Remember, you don’t have to talk at any particular level, you certainly don’t need to talk at the level you read! Just strip it down to the most basic, start there, take notes on things you suddenly realise you don’t know how to say, and look them up later.

Oh, you like me have no friends except on the internet? Time to commit to internet chat times. This is 2018, you can find someone(s) to chat Greek to. Not many, but they are out there.

So don’t repeat my mistake, start your classics conversation group today. And if you do have grammar-translation-loving professors, just run it right outside their office.

 

Re-reading (for speed)

Technique: re-read something you’ve read before

Why is this even a post? There’s zero new content here, zero ideas that you haven’t read elsewhere or thought of yourself. But the fact it, so few learners spend time re-reading text that they’ve already read, that it’s worth my writing this just to encourage you to do it.

Suppose your reading a text. Perhaps you’re even using the “Reading in 3s” method I outlined some time ago. And you’re getting along in a book (Italian Athenaze perhaps? One of my current favourites for doing lots of easy reading).

Go back to the start, set a timer, read for 10 minutes. Stop.

How did you go? Reading like this should be a lot easier than it was the first time, or the 2nd or 3rd. And the fact that you’ve read this is what makes faster reading possible. But it’s also a really easy, effective way of getting more reading in. You’re reading material that you’ve previously understood, so now you should be reading it with greater comprehension, and faster. Increased accuracy, increased speed.

This is also a great way to refresh your memory on low-frequency vocab items. ἕωθεν and ἀπέραντος are both words that appear very early in Athenaze Italian, not words I had been terribly familiar with, and not words that appear a lot in the chapters that follow. How to get repeated exposure? Rereading the earlier chapters!

So do yourself a favour, don’t spend all your time reading “new” things, spend some of your time revisiting old things. Increased proficiency and acquisition will be your reward.