Sunday, May 24, 2009

'Conversational' 'Dead' Languages, IV

In this post I'm picking up some comments emailed to me privately by Daniel of Hebrew and Greek Reader. The comments were emailed privately largely because of the limitations of comment length that blogger allows. What I hope to achieve in this post is a clarification and nuance of the discussion.

Analysis vs. Reading

I admit to being a little slippery in the way I have used 'reading' in the initial posts. I take it that our goal is a close and attentive study of the ancient texts in our discipline. That's the kind of analysis we are after. However, the tendency has for a long time been for this to be quite microscopic: to deal with words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. The recent shift and rise in the popularity of Discourse Analysis seems to me to be the waking up to the idea that we read paragraphs, and longer segments. Narrative Criticism is of the same ilk, only with a certain genre and a very broad range.

In English Literature circles, we'd call that 'reading', and that's what I mean by saying that study = reading – a close and attentive study of the ancient texts at both the macro and micro levels.

Acquisition vs. 'Learning', L1 and L2

There's certainly a larger debate going on here, and one that probably hasn't been and won't be settled for some time, if either. That's whether an L2, learnt post-adolescence, can ever be considered equivalent to an L1. I'm currently convinced that L2s are never learnt in the same way that L1s are, and that probably the way the brain processes and utilises them is significantly different. Nonetheless, I would refer to someone with communicative fluency in an L2 as having acquired the language.

This I differentiate from 'learning about' an L2, by which I denote the kinds of facts taught in (for example but not limited to) Grammar-Translation classes. Such classes are taught in the native, not the target language, and tend to objectify and externalise pieces of the target language for analysis. It's perfectly possible, and I've seen this among Classics teachers at tertiary institutions, to have a vast command of the grammar of a language, and a real inability to read, hear, speak, write simple phrases and statements, without doing some English-language thinking and analysis first.

Sometimes I use the term 'meta-language' to refer to this learning-about, this grammatical knowledge of a target language in the terms of the native language. It's why 2nd year students have endless debates about what kind of Genitive Paul is using. It's why they get a little confused when you point out that Paul probably didn't sit down and select a type-of-genitive from a drop-down menu. We teach a language to talk about language, sometimes without teaching the language itself.

I agree that L2s cannot be learnt as if they are L1s. There is an unfortunate historical tendency to equate Direct methods with Natural methods. The latter are those that seek to imitate the patterns of children learning their L1, the former are those that recognise the difference that adult learners bring to the learning situation, and aim to teach, in a structured manner, the language through the medium of the language so far as possible.

It's the common concern of Grammar-Translation teachers that such communicative and/or Direct methods will leave students grammatically at-sea when it comes to analysis. That can be the case, but it doesn't have to be the case.

Goals and Limitations for Seminaries.

I think there are real and hard walls that we come up against when we come to think of Seminary Education. There's the combined pressures of time, curriculum, student expectations and demands, faculty time and ability to teach, denominational expectations, and on and on. I also recognise that I don't speak from the inside of a seminary.

Let me reflect a little on my own experiences. In an Australian university, an Arts major has a workload of 4 subjects a semester, generally 3 hours contact, a nominal further 9 private study (I'm sure no-one has ever done that). I did my Latin by correspondence, but presumably if I'd been on campus it would have been the same - ¼ of the workload.

Contrast the seminary I went to: a rigorous languages program by most standards. In the first year, 6-8 classes over the course of the year, each with 2-3 contact hours and much the same expectations as the ¼ load of a university. Greek compulsory for 3-4 year degrees. Hebrew optional. First year Greek was grammar, with 1 hr set to small-group reading through Mark. Second year Greek was all Wallace. They have recently introduced a 4th year Advanced Greek Grammar. 2nd to 4th year New Testament courses were all taught from the Greek text.

Hebrew was grammar first year, then Old Testament courses through years 2-4 were streamed Hebrew/English, with further grammar in 2nd year.

I get the impression this is far above most U.S. seminaries, but I don't have the experience to verify. It's incredibly hard with that kind of workload to convince students to do conversation, read outside the NT, and so on.

If I had the chance to restructure either a university classics program or a seminary languages program, I'd do this:
Change the 1st year program to a communicative method. I'd look at something like Hans Oerberg's Lingua Latina: Familia Romana
alongside Neumann's Lingua Latina: A College Companionfor some inspiration.

Develop a systematic graded reader built heavily upon the source texts.

Move from 'expected outside class hours' to making most of those hours class time. I realise that means virtually 12 hours contact! I don't think you need to go to that extreme, but I think you want to head that way; if science degrees can get students spending 7-8 contact hours in lectures, tutorials, and labs, I think languages should be able to do the same. I'd make some of this sustained reading. Some of it conversational. Some of it grammatical analysis. Probably I'd look to commit some of the class hours of second year Greek students to facilitating small groups of first years.

If you can do that in the first year, you can still teach something like Wallace in the second. Alternatively, one could seek to develop a Greek vocabulary and text for talking about linguistics and rhetoric. That, I confess, is very ambitious.

Of course this is all speculation. I'm not in such a position, and maybe my aims are too high. We won't know how such an approach would turn out until someone does it and commits to it for a few years. All it would take is someone committed enough to doing it, and to trial it for a few years, with the backing of their institution, and to get some good Second Language researchers in to do some fieldwork, and the proof would be there (one way or the other – I'm prepared to be proved wrong!).

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV


mike said...

Well, we can talk to Daniel Streett in a year or two and see what he says...

Seumas Macdonald said...

I was thinking about Streett as I wrote. I do look forward to seeing the results of his work over the next few years.

ktraphagen said...

I appreciate many of your thoughts, particularly your differentiation between acquiring a language and learning about a language ("meta-language").

I think that the initial question that should be tackled is what is the purpose of any particular student in learning this ancient language (I am working with Biblical Hebrew)? This must be taken into account when deciding both "what" to teach and "how" to teach. The communicative method may be potentially helpful pedagogically in some circumstances, but I do not think it should be confused with the goal of the course.

I am not aware of Daniel Streett's work (related to the topic at hand). Can you give me a little more background? It sounds like something I would like to know more about. Thank you.

Daniel Streett said...

Seamus, really an excellent discussion of conversational language teaching! Thanks. You and I are on the same page, I think, having read or interacted with many of the same folks (e.g. Krashen, Rouse, Buth).

In my own experience, I think your point about moving toward more in-class time is crucial. In traditional pedagogy, most of the "learning" takes place outside class, as the student memorizes paradigms through repetition, or translates practice sentences. In-class time is devoted to introducing and clarifying concepts, and going over the homework (i.e. the practice sentences).

For a communicative approach to work, one of two things must happen. Either, a) in-class time must be increased so that the hours the traditional student would use outside of class to do traditional memorization and exercises are now being used to expose the student to loads of comprehensible input in L2, or b) resources must be developed for outside of class time that are communicative--much as a language lab is used in modern language teaching.

It is this second approach that I think will meet with the easiest acceptance in seminaries and colleges, where the curriculum will be very resistant to change. It is also this approach that I am currently pursuing. My plans for my summer break are to develop 1) a Pimsleur-style audio curriculum of 90 30-minute lessons that can be used outside of class, 2) an extensive set of videos that feature TPR-type instruction which the student could watch at home and practice with, 3) a complete TPR script for in-class time that will take me through at least the first semester--the second semester I will probably move towards a TPRS approach. For TPRS, I have used a Bible picture story-book that has no words--only pictures. It's perfect for telling a story, eliciting responses, and cementing vocabulary (especially NT/LXX vocab).

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks for chiming in Daniel, I think your comments on in-class time and external resources is quite right. I also think your proposed resources sound great. The question many will have is - what pronunciation will you use?

I wish a little more of Rouse's work were easily available. The stories and materials I've been able to pick up point to a man with considerable skill, but a firm believe that his method could be reproduced without genius, and an influence that certainly had an impact during his time (but is in danger of being forgotten altogether).

Good to hear from you, keep up the good work.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Karyn: I think you're quite right to ask about purposes. For every student we want to inquire about what the goal of learning the language will be. Then the method of teaching should be shaped around that. One of the things we need to be aware of is that how we examine often determines what students will learn - they will tailor learning to examinations.

As for Daniel Streett, you'll see his comment. I'm not sure if Daniel has any links/pages describing what he's currently doing (but in short he's teaching NT Greek in this general direction).

hebrewandgreekreader said...


Love the latest post. It clarified your language ("reading") for me. I was being a stickler for linguistic terminology. Thanks.

When you're in charge of a school, let us know!


ktraphagen said...


Yes, the purpose (or end-use) of the student should "shape" the method we used in teaching. My point is that prior to considering the method(s) utilized, we need to re-consider the content. Choices should be made about what to include in the curriculum based on the student's final use of the language. I think you are going in this direction also (based on your comments about the meta-language). But I find the conversation about how to improve student success in the ancient language classroom to run almost immediately to discussions of methodology. I want the dialogue to slow down and first address the actual content of the course.

I heartily agree with your comment about examinations. I've done some work on this and will be reading a paper at SBL this Nov about biblical language examinations (what to include, exclude and re-visit).


Thank you for your comments. I concur about in-class time. This will be a hard sell for some schools, but I think the benefits are convincing. The comparison to science labs and tutorials is helpful for administrations when considering changes.

I am working on developing resources for biblical Hebrew instruction (is your focus solely Greek?). One idea is to develop materials that utilize scaffolding in reading texts (expanding Seumus' idea of systematic grader readers). If you are willing, I would appreciate the opportunity to email you directly to discuss some more specifics of your resource ideas.


Seumas Macdonald said...

Karyn: I take your point about the question moving quickly to methodology. I suspect this is because questions about purpose and course content seem to me to be questions institutions will need to answer for themselves: what are we teaching this for?

In the posts above a assume a rather broad range goal, designed to encompass a range of disciplines.

ergebung said...

Thanks for the series. Here are a few observations from my experience teaching Greek, Hebrew, and Latin:
1. You are absolutely right about increasing the number of student-contact hours--a good language lab would be a good second alternative.
2. The goal or end use for classicists and Biblical students is similar: literary, historical, and linguistic analysis of significant texts. The texts of the NT are from a much narrower time-span and relatively less complex syntactically than the comparable corpora of Classical literature or the HB.
3. The difficulty of reading real texts such as Job, Pindar, or Horace is formidable, regardless of the method used to acquire the basics of the language. At some point we need to teach students how to discern the meaning of a passage where we know every word and can parse every grammatical form--but it still doesn't make sense. Some of that involves learning the style of each particular author. Reading real literature of authors who deliberately use highly intricate constructions requires a high level of analysis.
4. The ability to read the texts in question aloud is a usable end-goal; it is part of the literary analysis and appreciation; and I think it does enhance language learning.
5. I think we have to use all the resources we can and be as experimental and creative as we can. I definitely agree that using multi-sensory approaches has a place in initial language learning. I also think simple substitution/transformation exercises can be helpful. But there is still a pretty large gulf between whatever classroom exercises and activities are used and comprehending real literature.
6. I look forward to hearing what results some of you have with experimental methods of the next couple years.
(Apologies if this is posted more than once--I wasn't sure if Blogger accepted my comment or not)

Seumas Macdonald said...

@ergebung: Thanks for your input. All goods points. I particularly welcome the reminder that most students are going on to read fairly sophisticated literary texts. This is probably even more so in Classics. That is a large 'step-up' for someone working in a 2nd language - to go from basic language instruction to reading high-level texts without any transition, and it's a gap we need to be well aware of, however we intend to cross it.

ktraphagen said...

ergebung and Seamus,

The task of taking students from basic language instruction to sophisticated text analysis can be informed by the research of ESP and LLSP (English for a Specific Purpose and Language Learning for a Specific Purpose). This research addresses disciplines that require language "acquisition" in a very specific, narrow sense. For example, pharmaceutical company employees in a foreign country who must learn a language in order to read and understand protocols, validations, and field specific literature.

ktraphagen said...


Please forgive my misspelling of your name. We have a "Seámus" in our family and habits are hard to break. However, having my own variant name spelling, I realize how irritating it is to have people spell it incorrectly!

Thanks for your understanding!

Seumas Macdonald said...

@Karyn: No offence taken! I'm as used to it as probably you are.

I'm not familiar with ESP/LLSP research, but it does sound like it bears on the kinds of questions we're talking about. I'll make a note of it for future reading.

Daniel Streett said...

Seumas, on the pronunciation issue, I used Erasmian the first year I taught this way. BTW, I mangled all the accents because I was never taught to place the stress correctly. The past two years I have used the modern pronunciation and have been very pleased with it. I believe Buth's reconstruction is very accurate and have incorporated the umlauted upsilon in my pronunciation, but have found that in most cases (especially when speaking fast) it is virtually indistinguishable from the iota sound.

Karyn: I think you're right that course goals must be clarified. My own goal, as someone interested in Christian origins, is to be able to hear and understand ancient Greek texts with the same immediacy their original audiences encountered them (of course, I realize that the cultural gap will still
exist). I would like to reach the point where I can read ancient texts for pleasure, the way that I read English.
I think your exhortation to talk about the content of the course before we talk about methodology is helpful, but the two are so intertwined that I'm not sure they can be separated. If we use a grammar-translation pedagogy, the content of the course will be English equivalents, translation method, grammatical metalanguage, linguistics, etc. On the other hand, if we use a natural/communicative approach, the content of the course will be comprehensible input in the second language itself. Lexically, the content at the beginning of the course will necessarily be almost universally the same, since it will focus on the most frequent words and phrases in the language. As the course progresses, more specific content can be chosen (in my classes, we do Biblical stories--OT and NT--and we talk about more specialized areas as well, such as the temple/tabernacle system and implements--often, we will perform a Day of Atonement sacrifice in class, or do a meal).

I have found that a communicative Greek class is, in reality, a completely different course than most Greek 101 courses. We cover totally different material and have totally different goals. My exams (which are entirely in Greek) test comprehension of the language itself, not the metalanguage. I would be happy to email my final exam to anyone who'd like to take a look. Or Seumas could post it on his blog.
To answer your other question, Karyn, I have only taught Greek so far. Hebrew pedagogy is far ahead of Greek, partially due to the Cohelet program and the grant they received, as well as R. Buth's Hebrew ulpans, which have been going on longer than his Greek ones.

Daniel Streett said...

Ergebung and Karyn, on the issue of reading sopisticated texts: I think this is an important issue, but one that needs to be put in perspective. It seems to me that for a person to have any hope of meaningfully reading the more difficult literature (poetry, e.g.), they need to have a firm command of the more normal forms of the language. By "meaningful reading" I mean real reading, not translating, diagramming, parsing, and then talking about the translated passage in L1. That is, if you can't read the New York Times without trouble, then you're probably not ready to even think about T.S. Eliot. I wonder whether ESP or LLSP is really applicable in this case, since the sophisticated texts that classical and biblical scholars tend to be interested in are not really field-specific.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Daniel: I'd be quite happy to post up a copy of your exam, if you'll send it on to me (I think you have my email?).