This July as part of the Macquarie Ancient Languages School (Winter), I’ll again be teaching the Advanced Koine section. We’ll be spending the week reading some key passages relating to Christianity and 1st century Jewish-Roman interactions from Josephus. The course runs in the mornings from July 6th to 10th, and you can sign up via this website here. If you’re in Sydney and want to spend some time reading an important text for NT and related studies, I warmly invite you to come along.
Foreword: this is our last post for 2014. Enjoy your holidays and you’ll hear again from the Patrologist in 2015.
In this second of twin posts I’m exploring common ‘defeater’ reasons people give for sticking to GT as a method and rejecting approaches like Communicative Instruction. In each case I give a brief explanation of the belief, and some counter-points.
- It doesn’t work
I.e. applying CI or other modern language approaches to Classical Languages ‘doesn’t work’. I’m not sure this is a sincere objection, I suspect it’s rather of the order of ‘I don’t want to engage this idea and I’m blanketing you out’.
The fact that it has not worked, or is not pervasive, or that sometimes it doesn’t go perfectly, are not arguments against it. In fact it has worked and it does work. A few timely videos of those few individuals with a decent speaking facility in Latin or Greek shows that it is by all means possible. It is not just possible for the elite either, it is possible for all students.
- Dead languages are different
Not heard as often these days, but for quite some time people would say things like, “Latin is no longer spoken, therefore our method of learning must be different.” They were generally not making a comment on the difficulties of learning a language no longer spoken (i.e. lack of speakers to talk with) but asserting a fact about the nature of a no longer spoken language.
Which is absolute nonsense. Latin is not different from other languages insofar as it doesn’t have a speaking community (I don’t wish to debate whether it does have such a community at this time). Latin is a language. Which means it can be learnt as a language. The status of any language in regards to the number of speakers currently using it has zero bearing on whether it can be learnt as a language or must be learnt as a ‘something other’.
If, heavens forbid, all French speakers were wiped from the face of the earth tomorrow by some new, virulent, French-speaker-targeting super-virus, this would not alter the kind of language that French is. It would certainly create obstacles for anyone wishing to learn French. And, given their sudden fatality, I can’t imagine anyone rushing to do so, but French itself would not have changed.
So too with the classical languages: if they are languages, they may be learnt as such.
- It’s too hard
And remembering arcane rules of grammar that appear once every 10,000 words isn’t hard?
Yes, I would say, learning a language is hard. It’s hard to learn it as a spoken language, and it’s hard to do GT. All GT students know that! And all students who acquired an L2 as adults know that it was hard too. It took hours, it was tiring, it involved a lot of interaction with speakers, probably embarrassment, and there were many highs and lows and plateaus as well.
But it’s not harder. GT is not only hard, it’s often incredibly boring. CT is hard because it requires more investment, but it yields greater satisfaction, it’s more interesting, it’s more motivating. It’s far better to go home from a lesson of CT having interacted in the Target Language for 1-3 hours, and have one’s head swimming in the TL, than to go home after 1-3 hours of GT with one’s head full of “The wicked sailors gave roses to the good girls.”
- It takes too long
Basically this reason is saying that while CT might ‘work’, it is slower, takes longer, and in the end takes too long for the results it promises. Better, in their view, to stick with GT, which requires less hours and gets us ‘somewhere’ faster.
I am almost convinced this is a valid point. I’ve written several times about how many hours working with Comprehensible Input in the Target Language might be required to achieve decent levels of competency, and they are considerable. Anyone learning a modern L2 knows this. I think those invested in teaching classical languages need to be very up-front and honest that considerable time investment is necessary.
However, what I would say is this: I don’t think GT takes less hours to get to the same place. I think GT takes less hours because it teaches and achieves far less. For GT practitioners to achieve real reading fluency takes many, many hours, which is my contention under point 6. In this instance we should not compare apples and pears. Furthermore, from what I generally hear from school teachers using CI based instruction, their results outstrip traditional methods, especially when (a) they spent a little bit of time prepping their students for the kind of tests that traditional methods favour. If that little bit of prep time isn’t their, CI students often simply don’t understand the jargon of grammar questions. No wonder, since they didn’t need it.
So let’s hold off on conceding that GT is ‘faster’, because it may not be faster and it may not even be to the same destination.
- It doesn’t match our goals
What are ‘our’ goals? I think this is a really important question, or debate to have. Often it seems like the goal of classical language instruction is to do grammatical analysis, but I’m sure most people don’t actually think this is the goal. Isn’t the real goal to be able to understand, appreciate, interpret, texts in classical languages and so to discuss and engage their ideas and content? Isn’t ultimately the content not the form that interests us? And while content and form are never divorced, just as culture and language are inseparable, they are distinct things.
If our goal was to train grammarians, then grammar is what we ought to teach. There’s nothing wrong with being a grammarian, of English or of classical languages. And in fact, probably some people do want to study the grammar of ancient languages. We need those people! But that’s not the goal of most students, or of most programs.
CT approaches do match our goals, they drastically and desperately match our goals. The claim that no one needs to know how to order a latte in Koine is irrelevant. That’s not our goal either. The goal of CT is to produce competent users of the language with an active facility that enables reading and comprehension of texts in the target language without recourse to translation or grammatical analysis for the purpose of understanding. (Though translation and grammatical analysis may be done for other purposes).
- GT is how I learnt, so it works
People who end up as teachers of classical languages via GT are the 4%. That is, they are often the small minority for whom GT ‘clicks’, who ‘get it’, who enjoy it, while the rest of the cohort is destroyed by a war of attrition fought with boredom and irrelevance.
And some of these teachers get very, very good at Greek, Latin, what have you. Especially those that do doctoral programs that require epic amounts of reading of primary language material. But this is my hunch – it wasn’t GT that got them to that point, it was using GT to render those texts comprehensible, and having a huge exposure to comprehensible texts over time. It was Comprehensible Input that gave them competency in reading directly, and this was only indirectly the result of GT.
I could be wrong, but I could be right too. People whose primary discipline is classics or the like, who studied primarily via GT, and who achieve marked ‘fluency’ in reading ability, often have a pop- or folk- view of language acquisition that is poorly informed by research or SLA theory, and dominated by the insular views of their own discipline and experience.
Even if it did work for you, why should we stick to a method that works for the 4%? What about the 96%? What if we used methods that meant classical languages were learnable by all, not the self-selective and self-satisfied ‘elite’? Wouldn’t that open up the field for the simple ploughman in the field in a whole new way?
In twin posts I’m going to explore some of the reasons people teach classical languages (by which I mean Ancient Greek, Latin, and similar languages that are mostly no-longer spoken and primarily of academic or historical interest) via the Grammar-Translation method (i.e. teaching grammar explicitly and training students to translate into their native tongue for the purpose of understanding). The second post will follow up on this one and tackle some issues more directly.
- That’s how the Ancients did it
People often think that ancient students of foreign languages learnt primarily via Grammar Translation. I think this is incorrect. Firstly, it’s often prejudiced by the fact that the Rhetoric-based education system of Greece, then Rome, included explicit grammar instruction as the fundamental stage of language and literature study. However, this does not mean those students learn either their L1, or their L2s really, via that grammar instruction. in the case of upper-class diglossia among Romans, who often spoke Greek quite well, this should be tempered by the very fact of that diglossia – they had a living Greek-speaking community that they were being initiated into.
- That’s how we’ve (‘Classics’) always done it
Again, largely untrue. This time for two reasons. I recommend anyone interested in this to read two books, Waquet’s Latin: Or, The Empire of the Sign which deals in part with Latin’s socio-cultural place in the 17th and 18th century, and explicitly talks about shifts in pedagogical practices. Secondly, James Turner’s Philology: The forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities which discusses in depth how, in the Anglophone world, the practice of Philology ‘disciplinised’ into modern humanities, including classics, especially from 1850 onwards. ‘Classics’ as a distinct discipline along the lines we know it today, did not exist before then, and the revered pedagogical practices that dominate it often go back no more than 200 years, or less.
- That’s how my teacher did it
The path of least resistance for teachers is generally to teach what they know, how they learnt it. For many, myself included, Second Language Teaching (SLT) was explicit grammar instruction paired with translation exercises. Regardless of beliefs about SLA, the pressures of teaching often ‘push’ us to simply teach with what is ‘easiest’, and what is easiest in many classes is to pull out a textbook and replicate our own teachers.
- That’s what worked for me
Those that teach classical languages, no mistake, are often those who did really well at them. And with a culmination of points 1-3 the self-fulfilling elitism can be deafening.
In a recent discussion relating to why certain advocates of ditching G-T were so down on G-T, someone helpfully pointed out to a newcomer that all the people in the discussion who were down on G-T were those who had been very successful at G-T. This argument isn’t, generally, coming from those who failed because of G-T, but those who succeeded at the 4% method, and have come to consider it deeply flawed. Just because it worked for you, doesn’t mean it is a viable methodology in general. Indeed, the self-selection involved in ‘it worked for me’ actually really means, “it will work for people like me and that the only type of student I care about”.
- That’s what our goal is.
I’m going to tackle this much more thoroughly in the next post on this question, but some people think G-T achieves the kinds of goals we want in these disciplines. What does G-T achieve? It produces Grammarians and it produces Translators. Those are two good things, but is that the goal of classics and related disciplines?
One of the problems is that grammarians often try and do linguistics, and when they do it’s usually second-rate linguistics because they’re grammarians. The problem with translators is that they learnt to translate from a language they’re not competent in, instead of achieving competency first and then learning the art of translation. Meanwhile, don’t we actually want to train people as things like historians, litterateurs, theologians?
It’s a common question, “Are you fluent?” or “How many languages are you fluent in?”
But it’s not a very helpful question, because ‘fluency’ is a very difficult to define concept. Many people have the idea that you ‘learn a language’ and once you have learnt it you are a native-like speaker, with perfect pronunciation and complete mastery. This almost never happens for an L2 speaker.
Benny Lewis, of “Fluent in 3 months” fame, in his book of the same name, treats it as basically B2 on the CEFR and above. And he quotes “can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party”. It doesn’t help that ‘fluency’ is part of this criterion! Personally, I think B2 might peg what most people mean by ‘fluency’ a little too low, I think C1 might match most people’s perceptions a little better.
I’m not fluent in Latin or Greek. I don’t even pretend to be. I have far too little experience in speaking and listening, and conversation, to make any claims like this. I can read very competently, I can write moderately well, and I can buy my theoretical groceries (i.e. I have had and can have routine conversations about things I am familiar with). I wasn’t taught Latin or Greek communicatively, so it’s no wonder I’m not very communicative in them. Instead, I studied both in very traditional philological styles, grammar + translation + analysis. So I’m very good at grammar, translation, analysis.
However, I think this was a mistake; I think analysis is better achieved by learning communicatively. So in this regard I think of myself as a journeyman, someone who has at least done their apprenticeship and is on the way. One day, perhaps, I will be a master. And I take it that those of us interested in this kind of learning are on a journey together. We’re none of us perfect, but to quote a WAYK aphorism/technique, “We’ll all get there together.” Speaking a language isn’t an individualistic enterprise, it’s about a community of speakers. I’ll help you get further on that journey, and you’ll help me, even if we’re not in the same place to start with, and don’t end in the same place, we’ll both get a little further along the journey, which means the community will grow a little bit too.
Fluency is not a point. There’s no end goal where one arrives and says, “okay, I have learnt language X”. Acquisition of a language is not a binary Yes/No state of being. A much better approach is to ask:
* Did communication occur?
* Was the communicative event successful? (or was it failed communication? or miscommunication?)
* How successful?
* How ‘fluid’ was the communicative act? (Yes, we could use the word ‘fluent’, but it will only distract us; we are asking whether it flowed or whether it was halting, segmented, disrupted)
* How ‘comfortable’ was the communicative act on both sides? (Was it uncomfortable? Did it feel strained?)
* How much accomodating behaviour was necessary by one party or the other? (i.e. adjustment of language in order to facilitate communication, say, when more precise or fitting terms or structures would be more appropriate but would be less successful)
When we start to evaluate communicative acts, events, and discourses, we realise that the same speaker may perform and communicate outstandingly well at one time, but dreadfully at another. Are they a ‘fluent’ speaker? Fluency tries to raise the bar and say, “you need to be competent in all situations and communicative events”. I’m saying, junk that, let’s just work out how to learn from every communicative event that falls short, and work on how to improve not only an individual’s skills, but a language communities’ whole system of communication.