Monday, June 28, 2010

If I ran your languages department

In most universities in Australia, a student normally takes 4 courses per semester, and a language course takes up one of those slots. So a language stream through university is 1/4 of the load, perhaps with some double courses here and there. If you were in a classics major, you'd round that out with extra literature courses, some ancient history, and so on.

Seminaries are a slightly different kettle of fish. Those modelled on universities have to slot languages into the same kind of structure, and so are far less likely to hold a stream of language right through, unless from the 2nd year on they simply integrate it into biblical-exegesis classes.

Back to universities for the time being. Fairly standard for an Arts subject is 3 hours contact time, to be matched nominally (but rarely) by 9 hours of private study. This is the basis for how I'd revise a languages program.

Raise your contact hours to 10.

If comprehensible input is going to be the main driving force of your language acquisition, you need to do everything possible to maximise that input, and raising the contact hours is the first step. It's what's going to let you actually communicate and engage with the language, rather than memorising paradigms at home and doing translation exercises.

So, argue that your languages course should be more like a Science course with labs and pracs and so on, and far less like an Arts course where you can lecture some content and assign some reading.

How are those 10 hours a week going to be filled?

Firstly, the main teacher should pick a text, or write their own, that is going to be adaptable to a communicative model. In Latin, there's no substitute for Oerberg's Lingua Latina. I'd make it the basis of my classes and syllabus. Teach through TPR and TPRS and work through the text, always in Latin.

Secondly, assign reading-labs. Gather a significant amount of graded Latin reading and require students to work through them in their own time, but not as homework. Maybe use or something. The idea is that students should spend two hours or so a week simply reading Latin extensively, without seeking to translate.

Thirdly, employ your second year and third year students to run conversational classes. These should build off the readings and the text/main classes, and look and feel like a modern languages class. Students can be discussing everyday life, a topic, the reading for the week, etc.. In terms of getting 2nd/3rd year students to run them, I'd just block that in as a requirement and part of the hours for the 2nd/3rd year subjects. It will certainly help them develop more communicative fluency, it reduces the main teacher's overwhelming contact hour burden, and they should be far enough ahead of the new students to be teaching them something. 3rd years could run a similar thing for 2nd years. 3rd year students should be able to run their own conversation times.

The final 2 non-contact hours should involve working on assignments, some home composition assignments, and maybe even listening to audio. It isn't so necessary to schedule this time.

With such a course I think you'd move fairly quickly. You should be into reading unadapted but simple original materials in the second semester. By the third semester I'd also set Donatus or Dionysius Thrax as reading, alongside a modern grammar, and be teaching some critical grammatical analysis (since most programs will not want to abandon this). The gains of an acquisition-orientation should pay off in the second half of a 3-year program, with the ability to set much longer texts/portions of texts for study, as well as requiring in language analysis and discussion.

In a seminary I'd readjust the system slightly. I'd assign more Koine reading than in a secular university, and integrate it into the NT courses. In 2nd and 3rd year the Greek reading should be integrated with doctrine as well, and in the right setting that would include Latin (come on you slackers!). Hebrew could undergo the same treatment. Of course, the seminary program is generally overloaded anyway. The student who turns up with some knowledge of Greek and/or Hebrew is off to a flying start.

Probably I've said all this before. Never hurts me to repeat myself (especially on the internet)


AKMA said...

Of course, it's harder and harder to induce seminarians to take even one year of one language, alas. I resolutely support your initiative, and would look forward to the relearning that I'd have to undertake -- but without support from educational or ecclesiastical institutions, it's going to be an uphill struggle.

Seumas Macdonald said...

The pressures of educational institutions and 'market forces' are certainly formidable. I believe the change can only occur with a combination of two factors:
(i) professors responsible for languages need to critically engage with second language acquisition theory. While there has been some great engagement with linguistics in recent years, this has rarely carried over into the field of language learning, and so teachers are, unsurprisingly, inclined to teach as they were taught.
(ii) Those who advocate such changes need to demonstrate the real possibilities. Seeing teachers and graduates of programs with a real, achievable fluency in these languages without a corresponding absence of critical skills, is the evidential proof needed to make the case.

AKMA said...

Right -- although (ii) leaves us with chickens and eggs to generate. The decision to teach Greek in such-and-such a way isn't solely an individual instructor's decision, but involves a whole network of instructors and students.

If I decide to teach introductory Greek on a language-acquisition basis, and my colleague teaches intermediate Greek on a language-learning basis, I'm going to incur some wrath when the intermediate students arrive at my colleague's doorstep knowing different things from what they're expected to know. (It's awkward enough when two different approaches to language-learning clash).

I don't want to be a nay-sayer; I'm firmly saying "Aye," but with a cautious eye on the broader landscape. And, to be fair, you did entitle the post "If I ran your department," implying a degree of control over the variables I'm fretting about. Still, I suspect that the way from having this good idea to actually running a language department may be set with numerous institutional landmines.

Daniel Streett said...

AKMA is certainly right about the realities of academia--as I can attest from experience as one who has attempted communicative Greek teaching for the past 4 years with the constant nagging need to prep students for their 3rd-4th semester "advanced" grammar courses and their exit exam, 1/3 of which actually asks English grammar questions (e.g. "what is a noun?").

What is needed, as Rouse discovered so long ago, is teacher training so that profs do not have to start from scratch, and so that they do not feel like they are alone in this endeavor.

I think it would also help to have just one residential Bible college or seminary really embrace (as an institution) the goal of immersion in Greek and Hebrew. Thus, Greek- or Hebrew-only dorms, signs and announcements in Greek or Hebrew, ordering food in the cafeteria in Greek or Hebrew, and of course, exegetical classes conducted in Greek or Hebrew. Then, as other institutions follow suit, will dawn the χρυσόν γένος . . .

Seumas Macdonald said...

I'm certainly not downplaying the realities of academia. That's why my post is largely imaginative.

I suspect what must happen, at least for some time, is a considerable amount of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. That is, likeminded individuals will need to carry on scrounging up communicative resources, working on their own skills, and more and more working with others, so we can get some people to a working competency.

The problem of assessments and integration with other programs will not likely cease for along time. Even among those I know who teach secondary school Latin communicatively there is this constant problem: what happens when students enter or leave their program, and what happens when they have to sit AP exams, for instance.