Monday, September 29, 2014

Some goals for the teaching of Greek and Latin

1. The goal of a language course and the goal of a text course are different. If we truncate the language courses in order to get to high-level texts, we will always hamstring students. This is in fact one of the flaws of many Grammar-Translation approaches. They teach grammar up front, a rote-memorised core vocabulary, and let loose students on the highest literary, theological and philosophical texts from antiquity. Imagine after one year of English study (EFL night classes) someone wanted you to write sophisticated analyses of Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot, Austen, etc., equipped with a grammar of English and a dictionary.

2. The goal of a language course then is to teach language. We will produce better students of texts if our students acquire more language first, more linguistics later.

3. In my view, my dream is to see the development and spread of courses/teachers/methods that have some of the following features:

a. Instruction in target language 90% of the time or more. Actually I would really like to see methods that moved to 100%. I will explain why. I'm not opposed to shared language instruction, I think it can be very useful, it can shortcut long and difficult attempts to convey something in the target language. However, my experience teaching here is that students who do not already possess a majority language (English, French, German, etc..) are regularly needing to learn Greek/Latin/etc., with or through another non-native language. This is quite frankly a little absurd, it's not fair and it's not easy. I'm not complaining about the unfairness of it, but I think we could rectify this by pushing language instruction towards 100% in the target. Then anybody with the skill and training could turn up in a place like here and teach Greek directly. That's the direct method in action.

b. Hours in the language count. Pegging the required hours to academic standardisation, particularly the concept of the US credit-hour, doesn't work. It's an equivalence driven by US academic bureaucracy, that has no real bearing on genuine language learning. Want to produce genuinely competent language acquirers? Give them the hours in the language necessary to acquire it. Anything less is selling students short and deceiving ourselves.

c. Change the assessment. Students learn to the test, even when teachers don't teach to the test. Assessment ought to be linked to communicative competencies. Can students perform communication tasks X, Y, Z. I would peg this to something like CEFR, or the ACTFL standards (though I can't speak to whether Alira is any good. Remove translation as a way of testing competency. It only encourages students to learn to translate. Translation is not a basic skill, it's actually a high level art that should be held-off, rather than brought forward. Test students to see if they understand and can respond to target language material. Recognise that output generally lags behind comprehension. Test for what we want students to achieve.

c-1. Actually I think we should minimise as much assessment as possible. For the following reasons: (i) continual assessment tasks detract from teaching. (ii) effective small-group teaching will result in the teacher having a fairly accurate idea of student competencies anyway, (iii) formative assessment is irrelevant because of (i) and (ii), we are actually only interested in summative assessment: what can a student do with the language at the end. (v) students must learn, but if we are doing acquisition-based teaching right, then students will learn; if they don't reach those outcomes either (a) we didn't teach right, (b) we didn't teach enough.

d. Emphasise community. Western education is endemically individualistic. But language is about communication, which is relational, and languages don't live or die by individuals, but linguistic communities. We need to foster living language communities in classical languages, if we value those languages enough to want to study ancient texts. If a language is only useful 'inside the class', students will only value it in the classroom, and ultimately that will mean a decrease in motivation.

4. Anything short of communicative competency will not set students up for textual studies. In my view, that's about a B2 on the CEFR. Of course, students may stop before that level for many reasons, but if we are talking about designing a course of study, we need to get to this level. Otherwise, students are not genuinely equipped to deal with high-level texts. If we short cut the language to get to the texts, we will produce genuinely less good scholars. Or we will take a lot longer to do so. Or we will produce a lot fewer of them. We already have that.


In a future post I might talk more about what the goals of text courses should be. Let me close with a few caveats.

А. I'm not opposed to common-language instruction, but I think it should be minimal. Time spent in a common language is time spent (a) talking about the language rather than acquiring it, (b) time not spent in the language. The primary exception is that a common-language explanation can sometimes shortcut a difficult or impossible target-language explanation, and may actually save time for more target language time.

Б. I'm not opposed to grammar, I just think this goes with the above. We are trying to acquire/impart a language, not a study of its grammar. However, grammar will certainly help us. What is best, is to learn and discuss grammar in the target language. Then we are doing both.

В. I'm not opposed to translation. Rather, as I said above, translation is actually quite a difficult skill. Students will generally be better at translation into their native tongue than out of it. Time spent in translation in early stages encourages 'translation mentality', rather than thinking and processing in the target language. That's why it's better to delay it. Also, written translation should probably be put off until after some exposure to the difficulty of oral translation.

Г. I would say I am opposed to Grammar-Translation overall though. It doesn't produce what I think we want. It actively works against language acquisition. It favours a minority of exceptional students who are likely to reproduce the same method. It leaves students behind, reinforces stereotypes about 'language giftedness', 'translationese', 'code-breaking', shortcuts to difficult texts, and has created generations who have blatantly wrong and false ideas about Latin, Greek, classics, and language learning. While I love grammar, I believe the current changes in classical language pedagogy have the challenge of simply undoing a lot of what G-T created in this pedagogical field.

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