Some thoughts on “fluency”

I’m not, generally, a big fan of the word ‘fluency’. It doesn’t do what people want it to do.

On the one hand, ‘fluency’ as meaning something like, ‘an ability to communicate at speed with accuracy’ is almost never what most non-linguistics people mean. On the other hand, ‘fluency’ as ‘a native-like ability to use the language without any real obstacles’ is what most people do mean, and this solidifies into a whole set of false notions…

I’d say that most people I talk to think that ‘fluency’ is a state that you achieve, the end of the language learning road. You go along as a beginner, intermediate, advanced learner, and then you arrive at ”fluency’ – where you understand everything, and speak like a native. And if you arrive at ‘fluency’, you also stay there – you can’t lose it, it’s locked in, and you can’t progress, because where would you progress to?

But the more you stare at ‘fluency’, the more it looks like a cardboard cut-out of the Eiffel Tower, and less like an Eiffel Tower. And then you get up close and walk around it. And realise it’s a 2d construct…

Because people do lose, or at least deteriorate, in their native languages (the ones they are fluent in), given the right (or wrong) set of conditions. A quick read-up on the research on language attrition makes it clear that even people’s L1s can decline, given lack of exposure and immersion in environments where L1 input is low or entirely absent.

Because people keep learning their native languages. On any given day I’m receiving hours and hours of English language input, and producing English language output. I learn new words. I encounter various structures, nuances, collocations, idioms, spellings, usages, and all this is continuing to shape my ‘English’. You never stop learning your native languages (provided you are exposed to input), because your mental representation of those languages continues to be shaped by that input.

Because there are things written in English that I simply cannot pick up and understand. Technical language, highly idiomatic language, emerging slang terms. These things may all be English, but without the requisite exposure, I can’t understand them. Here’s a fine example:

Besides its theoretico-didactic interest (it reveals the difference between Marx and Hegel), this representation has the following crucial theoretical advantage: it makes it possible to inscribe in the theoretical apparatus of its essential concepts what I have called their respective indices of effectivity. What does this mean? (Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses“)

What does this mean indeed. It takes a lot of mental parsing to process that sentence for me, and I do not possess the requisite background information to tell you what the respective indices of effectivity are.

This is why I shy away from talk of ‘fluency’, because it’s an impossible yardstick. There’s no final state of language attainment (except at death). There’s only progress, or attrition. And there’s only competencies – could I do this communicative task at this particular time (expression, interpretation, negotation of meaning) and with what degree of ease.

Enrol now in online courses for Term 3

I’ve put up my course offerings for term 3, starting at the end of July. I’d love to have you come and join me for some spoken Greek or Latin. All my classes are designed to run as much in the target language as possible.

If you have any questions about particular courses, or anything at all, please get in touch.

Latin Patristics Survey (Part 1) – a post-beginners Latin course, but an introduction to Latin authors and literature of the patristic period.
Galatians Reading Course – reading and discussing the epistle to the Galatians, in Greek.
Hellenistic and Biblical Greek (Part 1) – working through McLean’s so-titled reader, reading and discussing in Greek.
Lingua Graeca PSI – Level 1 (chs 1-10) – an course in Greek for the absolute beginner. Suitable for both those who have never done any Greek before, and those who are looking to develop a more active competency in Greek.
Lingua Graeca PSI – Level 2 (chs 11-20) – a follow-on course in Greek using the LGPSI material
Lingua Latina 3 (Familia Romana chs 25-35) – a follow-on course in Latin using Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata

Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 1, To Basil

[1] My promise was a lie, I confess, that I would be with you and join in the philosophical life, when I was yet in Athens, and a promise born out of our friendship and unity there; for, I have no appropriate word for this. [2] I lied, but not willingly, rather one rule overruled another – the rule of serving one’s parents overruling that of our association and intimacy. [3] For, truly, I am not completely false, if you for your part will accept the following: that half the time we shall be together with you, and the other half you chose to be with us, so that all may be shared, and there be equality in our friendship. By this arrangement, they will not be grieved, and I shall gain you.

Greek: the gift of a conservative writing system

Spend any time at all looking into Greek pronunciation and you will inevitably encounter the ‘pronunciation wars’. People have very heated opinions about how Greek should be pronounced. This ranges from virulent comments that because Greek is still Greek, modern Greek is the only way to pronounce it and every historical reconstruction is made up nonsense and never really accurate, to Attic purists who complain about Koine texts being pronounced in period-authentic pronunciations because “it sounds like Modern Greek and that’s wrong”, to Homeric purists who insist of perfect pitch accents and think everything from the 7th century onwards is a debased corruption.

All of whom are wrong.

To come at this from a different angle, I want to talk about writing, spelling, and orthography. Greek is a language with a long written history. And like most languages with a long written history, writing is conservative. Even as spoken language changes, written language tends to remain the same, unless there are major spelling-reform interventions. By the Attic period we know that some things were already shifting. By the Koine period we know that the pronunciation of the language had shifted dramatically towards what’s typically thought of as a Byzantine pronunciation. And that is itself much, much closer to Modern Greek. And yet, students of Greek, native speakers and L2 learners, generally learnt (a) to speak Greek as it was currently spoken and pronounced, and (b) to write Greek as it was standardised. This is one of the reasons why, e.g., I can read a Greek text from 500 BCE and from 800 CE and still have a fairly good comprehension. I could even push that second date forwards a bit, depending on the writing. We’re talking 1000-1500 years of literature accessible if you can read.

Now, let’s compare English for a little bit. English has truly awful spelling, if you consider it from a phonetic perspective. The Great Vowel shift didn’t help us. Nor did diverse vowel shifts in regionalised accents. Nor does the long tradition of spelling words differently based on which language we borrowed them out of. To learn English spelling, you need to get schooled in it. You need to learn how the sounds of your own dialect of English map to the words of English, and how the spelling rules work, which are often no longer well-related to how you pronounce things. And yet, the great advantage of English spelling is that it’s dismally phonetic. So you can read things written by speakers of other Englishes, or by Shakespeare, or even by Chaucer. You can read things from hundreds of years ago that native speakers undoubtedly pronounced not only differently, but in many cases in ways that would border on unintelligible to you.

That’s the gift of a conservative writing system. Which is why you should be thankful that ancient Greek remained relatively stable in its written form for so long. You can read, without much difficulty, a good two millenia of literature.

So stop whinging so much about how people pronounce Greek, and stop sniping at people for pronouncing it ‘wrong’. You’re wrong.

Translating Greek<>Latin

I’ve written plenty about how I don’t think translation is a very useful task for language learners. However, lately I’ve been having great fun in the sport of translation Greek to Latin and Latin to Greek. I thought I’d write a little bit about it, since my ephemeral twitter comments on it will inevitably disappear in due course.

One impetus was that there just isn’t really enough learner accessibly material for students of Latin or Greek. What if there were more? What if we took super easy stuff from textbooks and switched languages?

Another is that it’s actually a really fun challenge. Translating into English is boring, and not actually useful for my own Greek and Latin skills. Translating between the two forces me to relate those two languages, to figure out where the lacunae in my cross-linguistic abilities are. I would say that, broadly speaking, my Greek and Latin are roughly equal, but they are not at all equivalent. My ability to do various things, and domains of vocabulary, and so on and so forth, do not align across the two. I can talk much better Latin, I can compose much better Greek, for just one example.

Thirdly, writing (typing in my case) beginner level Greek and Latin with proper accentuation and vowel lengths is a powerful tool for learning to write and spell properly. It’s very easy to neglect these things if you are primarily oriented to reading. But if you want to write, you need to learn to spell to a standard, and writing and constantly checking is how you develop that skill. That goes against a lot of what’s valuable for language acquisition, precisely because learning to spell doesn’t have much to do with acquisition (I’ll talk about writing and spelling more in another upcoming post).

So, what have I been writing? Well, I’ve taken the Oxford Latin Course and been putting it into ancient Greek. This is great fun for some of the following reasons: telling a tale of Horace and the death of the Roman republic, but in Greek; all those easy ‘adjectives’ in the early chapters end up being verbs in Greek, often perfect-stem verbs; duouiri in chapter 4 forced my to break out dual-verb forms. And, notably, I’ve realised that I’m much better at turning Latin into Greek than vice versa. For L>G I’ve been translating Italian Athenaze, and it’s much harder. I have to constantly check vowel lengths. I struggle to find Latin verbs for Greek, even for words I know. And then there are all the Greek particles. And we haven’t even gotten to the participle system yet.

Copyright, of course, means these will never be publicly available or published. Alas.

I’ve also been writing some original Latin prose, which will turn into short cyberpunk fiction. But you’ll have to stay tuned for more of that.


Would I recommend this kind of exercise to people? Not to most. But if you have quite good Latin and Greek, and want to flex some output-oriented skills, this is a nice way to do it. Working with a textbook series also helps graduate the difficulty curve, so that you’re not starting, e.g. trying to turn Demosthenes into Ciceronian prose. Maybe, one day.

What I’ve been reading

I thought I’d take the time to just talk about things I’ve been reading. Especially since it’s been a couple of weeks: sickness, end of semester marking, general adjunct fatigue. Anyway, here’s things I’ve read or am reading, over the last 6 months.


I read sparingly in English. I’d like to read more, but I have to furtively steal time to read anything in English. This past 6 months I’ve read or been reading:

Burning Chrome (William Gibson) – an anthology of Gibson cyberpunk. I thought it would be useful to get me excited for writing some of my own cyberpunk fiction in Latin.

Deep Work (Cal Newport): I have a lot of problems with controlling my attention and dealing with technology. But I’m quite well aware of those issues and always trying to outsmart my brain before it outsmarts me. This helped.

The Adjunct Underclass (Herb Childress): about just how messed up colleges and adjunctification is. I wrote a review back here.

The Honours (Tim Clare): a fantasy book set in 1935 Norfolk. I read a recommendation on a news site, and decided to indulge in some fiction. I didn’t regret it.

Bringing our Languages Home (Leanne Hinton): I’ve just started this and already fascinated. It’s the stories, written by the people, of people involved in home-based language revitalization. This interests me on multiple levels. 1) Because I think language revitilization is truly valuable work. 2) Because it seems to me that minority language survival depends on both (a) home, and (b) school, transmission (for very different reasons, 3) it’s just fascinating work, 4) these are also fascinating stories, 5) some of this applies to Latin and Greek, indirectly.

Ola! A guide to Oral Language Acquisition (Hali Dardar): this is a kind of handbook for how to work on oral acquisition of, e.g., a traditional language. It’s built of some of the stuff that goes into monolingual fieldwork, but it’s not a monolingual context necessarily. This stuff has much more overlap with Latin/Greek, though again with big differences. But it gets me thinking, “how to do you do oral language acquisition/transmission in a way that isn’t so textbook/classroom/”teaching” oriented?” And that’s good.


When we turn to the classical languages, my reading is very largely shaped by students (a lot of school texts below). I wish I had time to read Greek and Latin for pure selfish reasons, and I do have some leeway, but not that much. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading in various contexts.

Aristophanes, Frogs
Plato: Critias, Ion, Apology of Socrates
Xenophon: Anabasis 1
Lysias: 12.
Euripides: The Trojan women
Athenaze (Italian): vols 1 and 2 (and gee the Italian version is good, just in case I haven’t told you)
Demosthenes, On the Crown

Not strictly in Greek, but I have been reading slowly, on and off, through Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek.


Latin, like Greek, is often guided by students (which means I read a lot of Oxford Latin Course).

LLPSI: Familia Romana, Colloquia Personarum, Fabella Latinae, Fabulae Syrae, Epitome Sacrae Historiae, Sermones Romani, Roma Aeterna.
Cicero, Pro Archia, Pro Roscio.
Vergil, Aeneid book 1
Livy, AUC book 5.
Tacitus, Agricola.


I don’t do as much Gaelic reading as I’d like, but I do get some done. I’ve been slowly reading Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach (Tim Armstrong) which is a Sci-Fi book. I am only a few chapters in, but need to get back to it. Lately I’ve been reading Fo Bhruid (Torcuil Crichton) which is much easier going, and probably a lot shorter I suspect.

Vocabulary, Memorisation, and Digital Lexica


When I first undertook theological studies, which for us involved both Greek and Hebrew, an older scholar proclaimed to us with sage wisdom that learners should eschew electronic resources until they were rather advanced, instead proceeding with printed texts, and looking up words and structures in printed lexica and reference grammars.

Then, as now, the fear is that electronic tools make things ‘too easy’, by putting knowledge that once was “at bookshelf’s reach”, to just a flick of the mouse and a hover tool-tip. Depending on your language and text, automatic parsing (more or less correct), and access to increasingly useful lexica, is all available (sometimes even for free). But does this negatively impact the learner?

At the same time, I’m well aware that I am regularly engaging in “Do as I say, not as I did” when talking about language learning practices. Though, the tense of that maxim is important here, and let me illustrate.

Then and Now

Then: When I first undertook Greek, I was a very diligent student of traditional methods. And I took frequency based vocabulary very earnestly. I didn’t use SRS (Spaced Repetition System) but rather a very non-Spaced system, with +1 for correct and -1 for incorrect, all in an excel spreadsheet, and for Greek I rote memorised New Testament words by frequency down to <5 occurrences in the NT. I also, for my 4 years at seminary, took 1-2 subjects a semester of Latin externally, and learn practically all of a set text’s vocabulary by the same method.

Less Then: When it came time to learn Mongolian, I was more convinced of the inutility of such memorisation, and becoming more convinced that such an approach was mostly inefficient. Granted, I had classes 4-5hrs a day and lived in the target culture, but I basically eschewed any such rigorous approach to vocabulary, beyond perhaps the first few weeks.

Now: I do not practice any form of specific vocabulary memorisation, beyond reading and engaging in my L2s. I do not advocate that students do any specific memory work, except in certain circumstances: where students are enrolled in courses where they will be tested explicitly on isolated vocabulary, and that body of vocabulary is reasonably large compared to the time they have, then it’s appropriate to use brute rote-memorisation to learn such lists.

Why I shifted my position and my practice, and how this influences my advice to others

What’s going on when we speak of vocabulary acquisition? The whole premise of the flashcard, and variants, phenomenon is that you can store individual ‘bits’ of translation – side 1 is L2 word “X”, side 2 is L1 words “Y”, where you provide one, or more, glosses, covering as much of a range of meanings as you think either are likely to be relevant. You can include more information on side 1 or 2, as you see fit, but mostly you are trying to map a certain body of L2 content to a certain limited range of L1 material.

And, to an extent, this works. You can memorise lists of information like this, and when you see the L2 “X” in the wild, your brain will bring up your L1 “Y” and then you figure out what applies.

But, and this is the big caveat, vocabulary acquisition is both more complex in terms of what you’re learning, and more nuanced than the binary nature of flashcard slots represents.

All our ‘lexical items’ in our vocabulary, both in an L1 and an L2, kind of exist in a complex web, with multifaceted relationships to other words, and also other ‘things’. When we draw on a word in our L1, for instance, we are drawing on our entire knowledge of what that word can be used for, is used for, its collocations with other words, its register, its history, its nuances, and so on and so forth. And developing that complex tapestry of rich knowledge for L2 words takes (a) time, (b) lots and lots of input – seeing/hearing the word in various contexts, constructs, and usages. Moreover, our ability to draw upon those words is not binary, “yes, you remember / no, you don’t”, it’s much more a scale of how *strong* those connections are, and whether we can remember it in the moment its needed.

These things are difficult to represent most of the time. Which is where a good dictionary is incredibly useful. A good lexicon, say LSJ, or OLD, or the like, *describes* the breadth of usage that a word has across the language, and gives some evidence for those usages. I find myself reading full entries on words a lot more these days, something students would be well advised to do.

Which circles me back to the impetus for writing this – our friends over at Sententiae Anqituae lament, to a degree, that the ease of looking up a digital lexicon, or even using a text designed to aid students by glossing things quickly, seems to produce weaker readers, because the *inaccessibility* of the process of looking things up forces learners to memorise more.

I grant that that might be true at two levels: a surface one and an affective one. Yes, the ease of looking up words in digital text reading environments may impact the attentiveness of a learner, so that they are less inclined to mentally try to affix certain meanings in their head, knowing that indeed help is but a click (or less) away. And yes, the affect of such easy helps may produce an effect on learners’ processes, such that the robustness of lexical representations in their emergent vocabulary is weaker.

Yet neither of these two factors seem, in my view, to compensate for two much greater benefits. Firstly, the sheer speed and facility of using a digital lexicon is a huge benefit to us, both beginners and advanced. I almost never open my print OLD or even BrillDAG these days. The convenience of using electronic lexica is too great, even when I am going to spend the time reading through a full entry. Secondly, though, in speeding up the process of dealing with unknown or less-well-mentally-represented vocabulary, I can return to the process of reading more quickly, which means I can read more and more, more and more rapidly.

And this is where I land: for myself, and my students, I simply want them to read more text, more comprehensibly. Including, I should say, re-reads of the same text. Because it’s this volume of reading, and repeated encounters with words, whether they look them up 100 times or once, that is going to built both a *strong* mental representation, as well as an increasingly complex set of associations for each lexical item.

Which, in the end, changes the nature of “philology as slow reading”. The difficulty of reading texts in a foreign language often forces us to be slow, especially when we’re reading beyond our proficiency, and must use explicit tools to comprehend a text. But is that true slow reading? For a person who can only walk slowly, it makes little sense to talk of a deliberate practice of walking slowly. But for the one who can run, slow walking may become mindful and attentive. Learning to read slowly a text that one can comprehend proficiently opens up a whole new reading experience, and that’s what I’m looking for.

How Discord revivified my Latin

In January of 2018, so over a year ago, I signed up to Discord, an app basically designed for gamers to provide voice-chat, but with text-chat channels as well, and adopted and adapted to various other purposes. Here’s the brief story of how it changed my Latin.

But first, some background. I first attempted to pick up Latin somewhere around 2001? Maybe? With a copy of Wheelock’s from the university library. I then took a course in Sydney for 8 weeks or so, on Saturdays, working with Oxford Latin Course (I think). Doing a 2hr commute each-way for a Saturday class turned out to not be very sustainable. So in 2003 I enrolled myself in a distance university course, and did 4 years of a Latin major. At the end of that, I’d taken 10 subjects, read a lot of classical literature, and was frustrated that I couldn’t read naturally or fluently. I then discovered Ørberg, and began to dive into communicative based approaches overall.

Fast-forward to 2018. I was finished my PhD, my Latin was not too bad, having been used on and off through the years, but I was becoming more involved in teaching online, and I made two decisions that have really changed my course in Latin. Firstly, I started doing regular online conversations with a more experienced speaker, which helped me tremendously. Secondly, I joined Discord.

I actually joined Discord to join basically a small group-chat of friends happening there, but I knew from r/Latin that there was, in fact, a “Latin Discord”, and combined with my prior decision to start doing a weekly Latin chat, this seemed as good a time as any to join that Latin server.

And what I found there was an interesting… community. I don’t want to spend time talking about individuals, but here was a small, reasonably close-knit community of people ranging from school kids to, ahem, middle-aged, with various degrees of ability in active Latin, all interested in and engaged in developing better active Latin. It took time, but I found myself drawn more into that community, getting to know different people, but also just getting more excited about Latin in general and in my life.

Much of what makes the Latin discord work is that, even though core membership is still relatively small, there’s enough of a community from enough different places, that you can usually find someone to talk to, either in Latin in short text conversations, or about Latin (or Greek, or Linguistics) if that’s what you want. That, and that the population generally cares about not just Latin, but helping each other improve their Latin, through CI-based methods.

That extends to semi-regular voice-chats too. These happen on a more or less regular basis, and mostly involve reading a text, some discussion, questions about what people don’t quite understand, some chit-chat, etc.. A low pressure way to gather with international Latin speakers and those who want-to-speak.

It’s getting close to 1.5 years now, and a while back I found myself on the moderation team, keeping an eye on things, helping develop community, etc etc., and I find myself learning something new everyday, growing my Latin ability a little everyday, and enjoying the friendships, albeit digital and mediated, of Latin devotees worldwide.

If you’re interested in joining us, you’re most welcome:

Five specific ways you could help me

I’ll be back to regular old blogging about classical language pedagogy and other things later this week.

If you’re after specific things you can do to help me, feeling perhaps some sympathy after last week’s katharsis, here’s five:

  1. You can directly financially support either my academic research or my Greek language projects via my patreon. which frees my time for these things.
  2. Supporting my language teaching business directly (by taking classes) or indirectly (by recommending it), builds my business and frees me from casual academia.
  3. If you’re involved in fields that I’m involved in, academically or not, I welcome both collaboration and mentoring.
  4. Signing up to my newsletter helps you stay involved and supportive.
  5. If you’re a believer, prayer is always welcome.

My Adjunct life

This is a follow-up and personal lament to the book review from earlier this week.

I submitted my PhD dissertation in late 2016, and received my pass in March 2017. I graduated in September of that year, and it’s now 2019. I had already begun to realise how difficult it was going to be to move into any academic position. That awareness of the difficult reality of academic employment dawned on me once I came back to pursue my doctoral studies full-time. In 2016 I applied for 7 positions, without any hint of success. I applied for a further 17 academic positions in 2017. Since then I have barely applied for any, partly because I have seen almost zero positions in my field.

My field, strictly speaking, is patristics. My department was Ancient History, but really I studied patristics, and this puts me at a disadvantage for every job. I’m not familiar with the core areas of “Ancient History” – I couldn’t teach a class on core Roman republican history or classical Greece. I’m not a classicist for Classics departments – it doesn’t look like I know my classical canon of Greek and Latin. And I’m a rough fit for theology and history departments too.

Since 2017, I’ve been working primarily for two institutions, both small colleges. One involves online ‘tutoring’ – the materials for those courses are pre-constructed, and I am on sessional contracts to provide online interaction, guidance, email support, and marking for students. Students main point of ‘human’ interaction is supposed to be me, but it is all mediated, and I do not ‘teach’ material directly. The other involves me teaching my own course, but it is again asynchronous, and feels rather disconnected. A student approached me for a reference recently, a reference I’m reluctant to give because even after serial courses, I barely know them, and my reference is barely going to count for them anyway.

I do these jobs because I don’t know what else to do. If you include the courses I taught while holding a Masters and living in a 2nd world country, I’ve taught 31 instances of 19 courses. I have a specialised doctorate for which they are not even job openings. My current positions provide a liveable wage, only because of Australia’s strong unions, and the minimum hourly wages for academics remain decent. Nonetheless, I work long hours, late nights, and have no time to do research, the one thing that would make me actually employable. I attempted to persevere with research in 2017, with some success though no real publications, but my ability to do that has dwindled to practically none. It took all of 2018 to see an article go from submission to review to resubmit to rejection.

My experiences, and desires, suggest I could be a very effective teacher, but I do not feel capable of realising that potential. Anything I put into personal development comes out of my own time, and my own pocket. I have every reason to believe I could continue to do important, significant, valuable research in my field, but without any capacity to support that, it will also remain unrealised.

During my PhD I began language tutoring, not for the first time, but since then this work has expanded, and this year I have begun to make it as much a business as possible. I’m constantly amazed that people come to me with 2, 3, 4, or more semesters of Greek, and yet by their own admission have not really learnt Greek. That’s thousands of tuition dollars given to institutions that ought to have taught Greek better. I’ve invested heavily in time, and some money, in developing my own Greek and Latin, and ability to teach it communicatively, because I believe it’s truly worthwhile and effective. And yet even here my ability to do so is subject to the real contingencies of freelancing. A lost student is significant. Class sizes determine whether a proposed offering is viable or not. Nothing is guaranteed.

In academic circles, the practice of ‘passing’ is common. Anything to avoid being thought of as an adjunct. Even with those who know your employment, the tendency to ‘flatten’ differences in Australian culture serves to maintain a practice of just pretending these differences don’t exist, that we’re all equal members of an equal club. We’re not, because the salary for an entry level academic position is about 2.5-3x my current earnings. I never lose sight of the fact that we’re not equals, because we never can in our current conditions.

Among friends and acquaintances, the pretence is just as bad, in that there is a regular assumption that I have some kind of job with decent pay, leave, and at least some of the usual benefits of employment in Australia. I have almost none. Last year I fell sick at the end of semester and had to cede much of my marking, and thus part of my income, to someone else. ‘Leave’ means ‘not working and not getting paid’. Few of those around me understand, or could understand, that I am the academic equivalent of a burger-flipper.

I regularly feel exhausted, trapped, and unable to change my circumstances. I’ve trained myself into a career that doesn’t exist, and now work in positions that offer no advancement, and preclude the very opportunities that would allow escape. In response, I have and continue to try to carve out alternate forms of language education that both escape the systemic problems that plague classical-language teaching in universities, and rescue me from the grind of marking identical essays on identical topics by almost identical students. I don’t know if it will work. But the idea that I might once have genuine teaching relationships with students, or produce meaningful and useful research, seems more and more a delusion.

What to do about teaching grammar? Four suggestions

Since we’re on a bit of a “let’s talk about grammar” roll at the moment, here are some more thoughts on the vexed problem of when to teach some grammar. But first, what is grammar?

In my view, when we are talking about Latin and Greek in particular, grammar is a surface description of the rules of the language’s morphology and syntax. That, by the way, is not a full-fledged linguistics definition of grammar, but the grammar that most students learn for Greek and Latin is not shaped by linguistics as a modern discipline, it’s shaped by the history of Greek and Latin grammar itself. And in that respect, the ‘rules’ that people learn are very often surface phenomena. They may be right, but they are not the whole story.

And grammar is also descriptive. It’s an attempt to theorise what the rules are based on what people wrote. Which is why my students infuriatingly hear me qualify almost every ‘rule’ with “this applies 95% of the time”. Because even violations of rules may not in fact be ‘ungrammatical’. A very clear example of this is the “genitive absolute” in Greek, which is so often not absolute, that calling it a genitive participial clause is my new preference.

So, if grammar is that, why teach it? I can think of three reasons you might want to teach grammar, and these relate to what I said in my previous post:

  • Learners often want to learn grammar because they feel like they understand what’s going on. (Affective)
  • Learners are going to interact with others (teachers, systems, institutions) where grammar is expected (Sociative)
  • Grammar forms a meta-language that allows speakers to speak meta-linguistically about utterances. It also provides an entrée to the language-user to engage with a history of meta-linguistic commentary on texts and language (Meta-linguistic)

Personally, only (3)  holds great persuasive force. (2) is a function of teaching learners in a variety of contexts and ends, and (1) I am fine to do because I think lowering learners’ affective filters and barriers as much as possible contributes to their overall wellbeing, and progress, as leaners. But for me, (3) is of most interest and importance.

So when and how do you do it?

Option A – you can sideline it and set it entirely as written material for students to read, or not, as they like. You could even set questions on it, worth 0 grades and 0%.

This has the advantage of providing learners all the grammar they want, but it takes it entirely out of the ‘must be learnt’ material. It shows that you genuinely don’t believe they need to learn it. But that you do indeed care enough to provide it to them. Grammar then becomes a kind of ‘bolt-on’ module that students can dive into, as they see fit, but not on ‘learning’ time.

Option B – Teach it all at the end

This approach basically says, “let’s front-load all our language learning, and when we’ve got a ton of that under our belts for the [X amount of Time], we’ll spend a bit of time at the end going over explicitly, what we’ve been doing implicitly.” I think this might work in year long blocks, perhaps semester blocks, but you’ve got two problems: (i) you’re giving up instructional time to do this, (ii) it’s going to be a lot of content.

Option C – Teach it in the Target Language.

This is what Ørberg does, of course. At the end of each Lingua Latina chapter is a section, latine, that explains the grammar of the chapter. It’s surprisingly effective, though I wonder how much that was for me because I already knew these things, and English grammar terminology is predominantly latine anyway.

The advantage of this is that you are giving learners the tools to talk in the language, about the language, as you go. So it’s more comprehensible input, and it creates more communicative possibilities.

The disadvantage, as I see it, is that it shifts learners’ focus back to grammar, and they may feel strong needs to ‘get this stuff down’, and ‘get it right’

One could also do this all in the language, but at the end. This would be like skipping all the grammar in LLPSI, but doing it all from scratch in Latin, once you got to chapter 35. I think the downside of this would be again, a lot of content in a shorter space, without giving learners the lead-up to acquire some of those words, structures, and concepts to talk about the language in the language.

Option D – Teach it as a separate module, and as linguistically informed as possible.

One final approach to this would be to modularise it off. Do your course in Greek, e.g., and then offer a course/unit/module that was explicitly Greek linguistics, designed to cover this material, and preferably in conversation with modern linguistics, not just the grammatical tradition. This could also be conjoined with a version of Option C. Indeed, if I had my way, I would do C ‘as we go’, and then ‘D’ as a separate course.

Or, I guess there’s option E – teach foundational grammar in the target language, until learners reach advanced levels, and then teach full-blown linguistics in the target language. I think that option will have to wait for my 4-year immersion college though….

How grammar-translation might lead to acquisition

Last week I wrote about how I did plenty of grammar-translation, and I don’t believe that it leads to acquisition. This often surprises people. Let me explain why it’s surprising:

Firstly, for those of us who did G-T and did a lot of it, and ended up with some language acquisition after all, it often looks like G-T lead to language acquisition. Just because after a whole bunch of G-T you ended up with some language doesn’t mean that G-T caused that language.

Secondly, for people in general who’ve had some experience of learning any language, grammar is so prevalent, that most people’s impression of ‘language learning’ involves grammar.

Thirdly, as adult learners in particular, we have a strong desire to understand what’s going on in a language. We almost can’t help ourselves. And I don’t actually think we should fight against this in learners. Knowing and understanding explicit structures is great for two reasons: (1) explicit knowledge of a language is not a bad thing! (2) we feel more in control when we have an explanation.

However, if the research consistently suggests to us that it is not grammar + memorisation + practice that leads to language acquisition, but rather exposure to comprehensible input in communicative contexts over time, how do we explain the scarred veteran survivors of G-T? You know the ones, the classics professors who can sight read Greek and Latin texts, or the biblical professor for whom the New Testament in Koine is as familiar as the English, if not more.

I wrote a while back about two different types of translation (, and I think this holds the key. What G-T is teaching you to do is: okay, I have a text in front of me, I don’t understand it, but I can apply (i) syntax + (ii) morphology + (iii) vocabulary = a translation. That is, people who practice G-T are applying a set of rules they’ve learnt, to translate a text in order to understand its meaning.

That, while we’re here, is very different from using grammar, or better yet linguistics, to analyse and discuss what a text is and does and how it means. This is why it’s really useful to get students to do some linguistic analysis on a native language – because they already know what the utterances mean, and so you can use the analysis to look at various parts of language.

So, you apply your G-T to understand a text, and you translate it, and then you understand its meaning. You’ve turned an incomprehensible input into a comprehensible one. Which means it’s now become primary linguistic data and your ability to process it as linguistic data for acquisition is engaged. But it took you X amount of time to do it this way.

Those who do tons and tons of G-T work – an undergrad program, grad school, work their way through a monstrous US college program’s PhD reading list, etc.. keep repeating this process over and over. And they (a) get very good at G-T, no doubt. Because that’s an explicit knowledge system and a skill, and they are practicing it constantly, but (b) they are also providing themselves with tons and tons of input.

Which explains why, in terms of SLA, they do end up with implicit acquisition.

That’s my general hypothesis. I don’t have any research on this, I’m just extrapolating from basic principles. And because it looks like G-T led to acquisition, and the other reasons I mentioned at the top, it’s very hard to dislodge this idea.

In a few posts time I’m going to talk about “what to do about grammar teaching”. Not that I have any definitive answer, but I have some suggestions. In the meantime, let me just ask:

What if input that leads to acquisition was not simply the by-product of the teaching methodology, as in G-T, but the core content of the learning methodology, so that acquisition was the goal, not an accident?

Online courses, starting in April

If you haven’t seen them yet, I am offering a number of small group classes starting shortly in April:

Athenaze A’ – Italian Athenaze from the beginning, Tuesday US Eastern 7pm

Athenaze B’ – Italian Athenaze from chapter 7, Monday US Eastern 7pm

Conversational Greek B – storytelling and other conversational Greek, Thursday US Eastern 9pm.

Lingua Graeca PSI – an beginner’s greek class using my graded reading LGPSI as a starting point. Monday US Eastern 9pm.

Lingua Latina 1 – a beginner’s Latin course, using Lingua Latina per se illustrata. Monday US Eastern 10pm.

Lingua Latina 2 – a continuer’s Latin course, using Lingua Latina per se illustrata, starting at chapter 14. Thursday US Eastern 8pm.

I reserve the right to cancel a course with less than 3 students. I’m also open to running other possibilities, especially if some of these don’t reach minimums.

If you’re in Australia and want to pay me directly in AUD, send me an email and I’ll invoice you directly.


But didn’t you do grammar-translation?

I get this a lot, of variations on it. Yes, it’s undeniably true that I studied Greek and Latin via grammar translation methods. I did 5 years of Latin at university, all G-T. And I was taught Greek via G-T. And at the end of 5 years of Latin I wondered why I couldn’t read anything, and at the end of 4 years of Greek I was fine with a New Testament and lost without it.

And now I’m quite a few years down the track, and people both ask me, “well, aren’t you at the point where you are because you did grammar-translation and then you went on from there?” I think this is really a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and it’s a logical fallacy. But to recognise that you need to come to terms with at least one thing.

In all sorts of contexts I keep telling people that it’s entirely possible to learn ancient languages without learning ‘grammar’. And they don’t believe me. Which is understandable, because (a) most people have very little idea about how languages are acquired, but (b) most people think they understand how languages are learnt. (b) is really quite problematic precisely because people thing, ‘well, you learn some grammar, and some rules, and some vocabulary, and you get better and faster at internalising those things’. And, more often than not, this corresponds to their experience of language learning situations.

This is also compounded because people generally think learning a first language is radically different to a second language. Which, it isn’t. It’s a little bit different but the process is mostly the same.

So, let me bring you to a conversation I had recently with some Latin learners. This is an abstraction of a real conversation.

Me: You don’t need to know what an ablative is to learn Latin.
Them: what??
Me: well, you don’t. most native latin speakers probably didn’t have a specific notion of ‘ablative’ that they learnt.
Them: Ørberg doesn’t even introduce the ablative for a hundred pages or so.
Me: Except, chapter 1 of Familia Romana is full of ablatives!
Them: what? oh yeah, I didn’t even realise.
Me: Exactly. You understood in Italiā just fine, because it was comprehensible in context. You didn’t need to be told what an ablative was beforehand.


How is this relevant? Well, if you circle around to the initial point here, it’s that it’s not only entirely possible to acquire a language through comprehensible input, it’s that acquisition and explicit grammar instruction are such different processes that result in entirely different outcomes, that even if you do explicit grammar instruction, it doesn’t necessarily help language acquisition.

And, we have a whole field of research that supports this. That’s the whole field of Second Language Acquisition. And, at the very least the vast bulk of that research suggests that explicit grammar instruction aids very little to zero the process of acquisition. I’m very happy to concede that it may help somewhat, although some linguists in this field would say “no, not at all, at best it doesn’t hinder”, but well, let’s be generous at this stage.

That’s why I advocate for Communicative Language Teaching and for acquisition – because I read introductory material in SLA, and then I went on and read research papers, and I keep reading as much research as I can find time for. I’m interested in teaching in a way that produces acquisition rather than explicit knowledge, because I’ve experienced both, and I believe genuine acquisition is a more worthwhile goal, that sees students reading texts without translating, with direct access to the language, and understanding with fluency.

However, I do teach grammar. Sometimes, for some contexts:

  • When I have students who need grammar for their courses and employ me to help them learn grammar to pass a grammar-based exam.
  • When I have learners who have already done grammar, and find it useful to use grammar as a meta-language to illuminate things in a text. That’s precisely what grammar is useful for – talking about Ideally this can be done in the target language – then you’re both talking about language while still getting input in the language.
  • People often like to have grammar, in either language, so that they have an explicit knowledge of what they are figuring out implicitly. It is affectively helpful for them to feel like they know what’s going on. I’m fine with that, because I think ‘feeling like you are understanding’ is important for learners.
  • When I have learners who want to be equipped to deal with commentary-type material that uses grammatical meta-language. In this case, I am training learners to acquire a competency in a different area – how does one learn the explicit knowledge of language required to engage in conversations about explicit knowledge of language. To the extent that that’s a goal, that can be taught. It’s not acquisition though and it doesn’t lead to acquisition.

There are good reasons to teach grammar, so that’s why I sometimes do. At the end of the day though, neither research, nor my experience on both sides of grammar-translation and communicative-language-teaching (with historical and contemporary languages, as a teacher and a learner), suggests or supports that G-T leads to acquisition.

Maybe the key to teaching the perfect is not to teach it

As I’ve been working on Lingua Graeca Per Se Illustrata, I’ve had more of a chance to reflect on Ørberg’s methodology in LLPSI, but also principles of SLA, how to sequence a text, and how to shelter vocabulary and/or morphology for students. It also helps that there’s a current, live, and invested group of students currently being subject to the first draft of LGPSI.

If you’ve read LLPSI you’ll know that Ørberg puts off introducing any tenses beyond the present until pretty late: Chapter 19. Then he starts piling them on in a flurry. Which, is fine for what he set out to do and the principles he’s working in. Though, expecting that students can do a chapter, see every future perfect in context, understand them, and then know them, is not a principle or assumption I work with.

Now, what to do with the Greek perfect? It’s a relatively infrequently occurring tense. It’s difficult for students to pick up the nuance of its aspect. It’s often delayed, nay, relegated, to well into the final stages of a grammar-based curriculum.

What if one, er, I, just didn’t “teach” the perfect. Rather, just found an appropriate part of the course to start slipping them in, in contexts that made sense and usages that were perfectly normal. And when students say, “oh, what’s that verb form” you just say, “it’s a perfect, you can understand it to mean X” and move on.

And then when you’ve had another 20 chapters of LGPSI expanded universe, you can throw a table at them so they feel better about it.

Honestly, these days I try to teach grammar only when students ask for it, or to make them feel better about it. Because I know that the benefits, if any, of explicit grammar instruction are minimal to none for the outcome of implicit language acquisition.

So, no, LGPSI is unlikely to have a chapter that’s just “here’s a whole bunch of perfects”. Because ancient Greek speakers didn’t use perfects like that. And modern learners can’t get a robust enough representation from one chapter of input-flooding.

Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (II)

In today’s post, following on from the last, I’m going to walk through some initial semantic categories which Kemmer presents as mostly or typically used for middle-type situations. I had hoped to get through more categories, but it seems that will need a couple more posts.
I’ll provide some Greek and Latin examples, drawn from Kemmer, and from R.J. Allen’s work on Greek.


Kemmer starts with the Direct Reflexive. This is an event where one participant does the action to themselves.

e.g. Mike stabbed himself.

In English, we need to mark this with a reflexive form – Mike stabs implies that he stabs someone else (as a habit, probably).

In Greek (and Latin), actions that are normally performed on someone else (er, ‘stabbing’) take a reflexive marker. Allen gives this example:

ῥίπτει αὑτὸν εἰς τὴν θάλατταν (Dem 32.6)[1]   He throws himself into the sea.

But there are actions that are normally carried out on oneself that appear in the middle. These are “body action middles” including several sub-categories.

The first category are ‘grooming’ actions. Actions like dressing, bathing, shaving, decorating, etc.. Here we see typical middle-marking.

ornor               to adorn (oneself)
perluor            to bathe

κοσμοῦμαι      to adorn
λοῦμαι             to bathe

In all these, the participant is both acting upon themselves, but acting upon themselves using themselves. The sense in which you can distinguish ‘agent’ and ‘patient’ is low. For this reason, too, these verbs often lack an active. When you do find an active voice form, its usage is often contrastive – of course I might usually bathe myself, but I can bathe someone else. λοῦω v λοῦμαι shows that kind of contrast.

A second category involves various types of bodily movement. Between Kemmer and Allen you can see three sub-categories of this: change in body posture, non-translational motion, and translational motion.

  1. Changes in body posture involve actions like sitting up, standing, reclining. Again, here the agent is acting upon themselves, but in such a close unity that the difference between ‘agent’ and ‘patient’ is minimal, the event is unitary.
  2. Non-translational motion involves movement of the body but not along any ‘path’. Things like turning, twisting, bending, bowing, nodding, etc..
  3. Translational motion involves moving the body through space along a path.

κλίνομαι          lie down (CiBP)

στρέφομαι       turn around (nTrans-motion)

πορεύομαι       to go (translational-motion)

Where there is an active form it often has a causative meaning:

ἵσταμαι            to stand up/still           > ἵστημι           to cause to stand

στρέφομαι                                              > στρέφω        to turn (something else)

πορεύομαι                                              > πορεύω to cause to go

What’s common about all these verbs is that encoded in the verb is the sense that the Initiator and Endpoint are the same, with low distinguishability, and generally these actions do not involve an external endpoint.

There are less examples of these in Latin, though I think some appear to fall into this category. For instance, the –gredior compounds, e.g. progredior, as well as proficiscor. orior (to rise) seems to me a borderline instance, though it may also fall into the “spontaneous process” category.

This is a good place to stop and talk about deponency for a minute. Is πορεύομαι ‘deponent’? Not by traditional definitions because an active form exists. But the middle form is so prevalent that it may as well be learnt as the primary form. It hasn’t ‘assumed’ an active meaning that has been left vacant by a defective paradigm. Within the ‘logic’ of the Greek language, it’s a typically middle form.

Whether any particular verb is middle only or not depends, in part, just on attestation. If we had no instances of πορεύω, we’d conclude it was deponent. But that’s not really true, is it? ἔρχομαι seems deponent because we don’t have active instances of it. Except for grammarians saying things like:

οὐδεὶς γὰρ λέγει ἔρχω ἢ εὔχω ἢ πέτω ἢ δέχω ἢ ὀρχῶ καὶ τὰ λοιπά, ἐπειδὴ τὸ σημαινόμενον κωλύει.

For no one says “I ‘go’, or I ‘pray’, or I ‘fly’, or I ‘receive’, or I ‘depart’ and the rest, since the meaning prohibits it. (Georgius Choeroboscus, Prolegomena et scholia in Theodosii Alexandrini canones isagogicos de flexione verborum.[2])

The meaning of ἔρχομαι prohibits an active meaning. That’s why there’s no active, not because an active form has disappeared and the middle has picked up the meaning, but because the meaning of the verb is itself middle in its meaning, and an active does not make sense. One supposes that speakers could have coined an active version of this verb with a causative sense, but they didn’t. That’s why this, and similar verbs, are better termed media tantum, ‘middle-only’, rather than deponent. They lack a morphologically realised active form.

So, what does this mean for deponency and terminology? It seems best to lay to rest the term ‘deponent’ if we mean “a verb that has no active morphology but uses a middle or passive form with active meaning”. That’s not accurate to these verbs, especially if conceived of as verbs that actually ‘set aside’ their active forms. It’s far better to conceive of these verbs as media tantum, i.e. verbs that only have middle forms, never active. And then, you have verbs that are primarily used in the middle, where the active is less common precisely because what the active is expressing is less usual. Some verbs prohibit an active form, others disprefer an active form.

Lastly, at least for today, cautioning students that ‘active in meaning’ is not the same as ‘active in English translation’. Because English does not exhibit a ‘middle-voice’ system, in translation the best options will often be an English intransitive active, or an English reflexive. That’s about the best way to render something in English, not about what the Greek means.

In the next post in this series, I will cover some more semantic categories, and then talk more specifically about the Latin middle-only verbs.

[1] R.J. Allen, “The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek. A study in Polysemy”, PhD Thesis. 2002. 65. There is a published version of this but frankly I don’t have a copy.

[2] A. Hilgard, Grammatici Graeci, vol. 4.2, Leipzig: Teubner, 1894 (repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1965): 19: 27-28.

Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (a translation)

(Passio Sanctorum Scillitanorum)

1. In the consulship of Praesens (the second time) and Condianus, on the 14th Kalends of August, in Carthage, the following were led into the proconsul’s chamber: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Secunda, and Vestia.
Saturninus the proconsul said, “You can gain the pardon of our lord emperor, if you return to your senses.”

2. Speratus said, “We have never done wrong, put forth no effort for iniquity; never cursed, but when we have received ill treatment, we gave thanks; because we heed our own emperor.”

3. Saturninus the proconsul said, “We also are religious, and our religion is simple, we swear by the genius of our lord emperor, and offer supplications for his health, which you also ought to do.

4. Speratus said, “If you lend your ears calmly, I will tell you the mystery of simplicity.”

5. Saturninus said, “I will not offer my ears to you, maligning our sacred rites; but instead swear by the genius of our lord emperor.”

6. Speratus said, “I do not recognise the empire of this world; but I serve that God instead, whom no human has seen nor is able to see with these eyes. I have committed no theft; but whenever I purchase anything, I pay the tax; because I recognise my lord, king of kings and emperor of all the nations.”

7. Saturninus the proconsul said to the others, “Cease to be of this persuasion.”
Speratus said, “It is a bad persuasion, to commit homicide, to speak false testimony.”

8. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Don’t participate in this madness.”
Cittinus said, “We have no one else whom we fear, except our Lord God who is in heaven.”

9. Donata said, “I shall honour Caesar, as Caesar; but I shall fear God.”
Vestia said, “I am a Christian.”
Secunda said, “I am precisely that which I desire to be.”

10. Saturninus the proconsul said to Speratus, “Will you persist to be a Christian?”
Speratus said, “I am a Christian”; and they all agreed with him.

11. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Do you desire some time for deliberation?”
Speratus said, “In a matter so just, there is no deliberation.”

12. Saturninus the proconsul said, “What are the things in your cases?”
Speratus said, “Books, and the letters of Paul, a just man.”

13. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Take a delay of 30 days, and think it over.”
Speratus said again, “I am a Christian”; and they all agreed with him.

14. Saturninus the proconsul recited a decree from a tablet:
“Speratus, Nartzlus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda, and others have confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, and since they have obstinately persevered despite being offered the opportunity of returning to the Romans’ way, it is decreed that they be punished by the sword.”

15. Speratus said, “We thank God.”
Nartzalus said, “Today we are martyrs in heaven: Thanks be to God.”

16. Saturninus the proconsul ordered the following to be said through a herald, “Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Ianuaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata, and Seconda, are ordered to be led to death.

17. They all said, “Thanks be to God.”
And they were forthwith beheaded for the name of Christ.

Online small group classes in Greek (and Latin) for 2019

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be offering small-group classes in Ancient Greek, online, in 2019.

This post is something in the way of ‘advance notice’ and to float some possibilities.


I plan to start with a 10-week term beginning the week of January 21st.


Depending on demand, I will look at a couple of time slots, keyed either to the US evening, or to the Australian evening


I plan to offer at least one class that focuses on Active Greek in tandem with the AVN (Italian) Athenaze. That is a class that will require some homework and additional activity on your behalf. It’s designed to get you going with Athenaze at a solid clip, and will both leverage off the English supplements for Athenaze that we’re working on, as well as individual support from me.

If it seems like there is interest, I will look at also (a) a ‘conversational Greek’ for those who have some Greek but are beginners in conversation, (b) a possible text-focused reading-type group.

If I receive some interest, I’ll offer a similar Active Latin class in tandem with Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. It will be similar to the Athenaze class in terms of intent.


Class sizes will be small, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 6. This ensures you are part of a lively, engaged communicative context.


It’s not set in stone, but I’m looking to price these at USD$150 for 10 sessions. The Athenaze class will price marginally higher, because I plan to build it with more support and resources than just the class hour itself (audio recordings, homework, email support).


If you’d like to register some initial interest for these, feel free to send me an email:


If the times/courses don’t work for you, but you can get at least 2 other people together, I’m very open to running some other bespoke course for you.