Why I do Sub-Optimal Language Exercises

Why bother doing anything but the best types of language acquisition activities?

I’m a firm believer in Comprehensible Input, and fairly sold on Krashen et al., that CI is the key to language acquisition. I don’t quite buy Krashen’s “strong” version that nothing but CI is necessary, because I think he’s framing the question a little incorrectly. Krashen these days makes a strong claim that CI, only CI, is sufficient by itself for language acquisition. I think this might be true, but there are other aspects of language competency that are perhaps not quite ‘acquisition’. The ability to speak, write, produce output is probably a secondary outcome of acquisition, but in my view and experience one still needs some practice in these output skills in order to actually output.

Anyway, I do all sorts of activities that are not optimal CI activities. I read texts too difficult for me. I do ‘composition’ exercises that are really translation exercises of banal sentences from English to Greek/Latin. Lately I have been working on an idiosyncratic but modern translation of the New Testament (I’ll write more about that individually later on). Why? Why waste time?

  1. Don’t wait for the best.

There is no way to get optimal CI in Greek or Latin. There’s no language community, there’s no children’s cartoons, there’s no 5 levels of graded readers about contemporary society, there’s no young adult extensive reading materials available. One will never derive enough genuine CI from currently available resources.

  1. Output exercises are nonetheless moderately useful.

Because (a) they develop output automaticity, even if no new language is being acquired. And because (b) the process of doing the exercises does involve some CI even if suboptimal.

  1. The art of translation is itself an art to be acquired.

While it’s generally and genuinely preferable, in my view, to work mentally in the target language, there are times when one will want to translate – in either direction. There are structures of phrasing and thought that come to one naturally, and in the absence of knowing a target language structure, you tend to code switch or break thought. Working systematically to acquire some of these structures will improve translation ability.

  1. For others

I think a previous generation thought you acquired language competency largely by suffering and toil. They were wrong about that, but using sub-optimal methods requires suffering and toil because the amount of time required to get the same amount of genuine CI is so much more. The only way we will produce teachers who are competent enough to utilise more-optimal methods is if we have teachers who are prepared to suffer a little to acquire by the hard way, and generous enough to pass that on by an easier way.

Like a broken record

Q: Patrologist, why do you talk so endlessly about language acquisition?

A: Because our field is so broken. In no other field do so many people who know their target language so poorly talk with such authority. I honestly wish it wasn’t necessary, that we rather lived in a time, an age, a place, where we took for granted that people who studied ancient Greek literature knew ancient Greek, where people learned in Hebrew had learned Hebrew, where scholars of Latin had been schooled in Latin. But we do not live in such a mythical land, we live in its counterfeit where people peddle outdated methodologies to reach inadequate heights.

I believe this is changing, but slowly, and only because some are agitating – pointing out that the Emperor does indeed have no clothes. You can try it at home – approach a Greek professor or a NT one or whatever, and initiate a Greek language conversation. If you don’t get a quick χαῖρε, ὦ μαθητά, πῶς ἔχεις σήμερον; then there really is something wrong.

On the flipside, all I am saying is that we apply Best Practices from contemporary Second Language Acquisition to classical and biblical studies. This should be the least controversial thing in the world. And all I am discussing is how we can do that. There is a long road ahead of us. That’s why I keep talking about the same things over and over. Until the revolution comes.

Why there’s no communicative language approaches in classics in Australia

1. Like most places, Classics and Biblical studies are dominated by teachers who didn’t train in language teaching, know little about language acquisition, and never acquired an active ability in their chosen languages.

2. The population is comparatively small.

3. Modern language teaching in Australia does not have even the small dedicated movement of those interested in fully communicative approaches (TPR, TPRS, etc..), and so there is no possibility of spill-over into classical languages.

4. There’s thus no opportunity for teachers to attend workshops, seminars, etc., to be exposed or trained in these techniques.

5. Most online classes are run in what, for Australians, is the middle of the night, or the mid-morning of the workday, limiting the possibility of participation.

6. Summer intensives, say like those run in the States, Europe, or Israel, all occur in the Summer. Which is not summer in Australia, and so is not the summer break. Due to the extreme distance involved in travel, to participate in one of those intensives (any of them) would cost, I have calculated, anywhere between $3300 and $6800 dollars, and generally one would not get away with less than $4500.

7. The (small) population that are interested in classical languages generally don’t know about communicative approaches to these languages, don’t realise the benefits, don’t understand much about language acquisition, and are often monolingual to begin with, so there is little drive for such an approach.



Of course, there could be people doing things I haven’t heard about. If you’re in Australia doing communicative-type methods for classical languages, get in touch and tell me I’m wrong!

How fast can one learn a language?

I’ve written on this topic a few times previously, on my former blog, notably here and here. Today I want to explore a different side of this question.


I’ve previously suggested that to get to a level of ‘fluency’ in Ancient Greek or Latin, we might estimate 1100 class hours (based on comparison with contemporary Indo-European languages). That might break down to something like

100-150 hours (A1)

160-220 hours (A2)

400 hours (B1)

600-650 hours (B2)

800-900 hours (C1)

1100 hours (C2)


Maybe. We just don’t know. While there are certainly individuals with exceptional Latin and Greek ability, we don’t have quanitifiable data on this.

Okay, so I’ve also said we probably need to get students to B2, at least, in a serious language program.


At 1 hour a week, 40 weeks a year, this is 15 years. Too Long.

At 3 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, this is still 5 years. Too Long.

At 6 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, we get down to 2.5 years. This would fit in a degree program.

If we wanted fluent speakers, i.e. that was the focus of the program, we need to raise the hours to, say, 1000. Then we really need to make it a full-time course.

At 12 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, this is still 2 years. On a standard 12 contact hours per week per semester, that is a students’ full load. Probably our notion of ‘contact hours’ needs to be radically altered from the ‘lecture + tutorial/seminar’ model of Arts/Humanities Faculties.

At 24 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, a student would complete this many hours in a year. Of course, this is about 4.8 hours in the language, with a teacher, per day. That is going to be both an intensive and extensive course. We will probably not be able to teach them much else. If, heavens forbid, we design a two or three language program, then a year will not suffice.



All of this is a long, number-crunching prelude to say that it takes too long. As teachers, and even as learners, we must find ways to accelerate the process. To put it into Krashenesque terms, we want to work out how can students get maximum exposure to comprehensible input that is in the ‘sweet spot’, that is, input that is interesting, and at the limit of their comprehension so that they are always getting things that they can understand, while at the same time acquiring things they previously did not have, while providing enough repetitions, but not excessive repetition of previously acquired structures.

There are definitely no silver bullets for this. Indeed, it will vary for learner, for learning cohort, for life circumstance, and for teacher. However, of this I am certain – part of what it is to be learning as a teacher or self-reflectively as a language learning is figuring out ways to accelerate the language acquisition process. To become more efficient at using the time, and the inputs, available to us.


This is one of the things I like about Where are your Keys? Techniques, or “rules of the game”, are designed to be accelerators of learning. That’s why they exist. Every technique is built around that one facet: how to make language acquisition more efficient: more learning, less time. And, that’s why there’s no arbitrary ‘cap’ on Techniques. Sure, there are some, indeed quite a few standard TQs, but there’s no definitive no-more-than-these list. TQs get invented when something doesn’t work, and someone comes up with a way to make it work. TQs are formalising ‘what works’ and applying it. That’s meta-learning.