Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Some reflections from the FSI

Recently I was linked to a paper, "Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching", by Jackson and Kaplan from the FSI. It was a very interesting read and I direct your attention to it. I want to share just two personal points of reflection.

Lesson 4 deals with 'time on task'. The experience of FSI in training is that a great deal of time is required in class, and relatively intensively. 4 class hours a day, 5 days a week, plus 3 or more hours of individual study. that is a truly intensive environment. They also not that they have tried to shorten programs, but unsuccessfully. There is just a minimum that must be done.

They also discuss class size, and suggest that for lower level groups in relatively cognate languages, 6 is a maximum, while more disparate languages and advanced groups, 4 is a working maximum.

Those are pretty small classes. Far removed from the settings of a lot of classical language instruction.

I've written before about estimates of hours to fluency. Let's assume that ancient Greek falls into Category II, requiring 44 weeks, and 1100 class hours, to achieve FSI graduating standards. That would be 44 weeks of 5 class hours, 5 days a week. Not a program anyone is running in the classics.

If you compute that out at a standard 3 hrs a week, 14 week semester, it would take a theoretical 26 semesters to come close to that kind of fluency. This is why we have so few scholars in Greek with a genuine command of the language.

If you quadrupled class hours to 12, you could reduce semesters to 6. That, perhaps, would be workable in a university setting.

Since I'm engaged in a bit of hyperbole, perhaps I will clarify. Generally most institutions aren't trying to produce this kind of competency. We don't need diplomats and spies with Ancient Greek fluency. For a seminary, this goal is probably too high. However, if you look at that recent interview with Christophe Rico, about the outcomes of his students, that is a reasonable goal for a well-designed seminary program. For the seminary, then, I concede that you could run a 2 year foundational program that would produce students communicatively competent to read the Scriptures and discuss them in their original languages.

For classics departments, and for graduate studies, the goals need to be different, and they need to be higher. It's quite frankly bizarre and embarrassing that a NT professor could not be able to speak Koine. It's bizarre and embarrassing that we don't think it's bizarre and embarrassing. A 4-year university classics program ought to produce students communicatively proficient, to a high degree, in Latin and Greek. They don't need to be Demosthenes, but they should be able to understand Demosthenes by listening to a recording/performance. That is a high standard. I concede, it seems unrealistically high, but is it really? I would want a modern languages major to come out of their program able to listen to contemporary political dialogue and to read a wide variety of technical texts. I don't think expecting any less from a classics major is unreasonable.

You know, one of the reasons this occurred, for Latin, was simply the displacement of Latin for the vernaculars in the realm of academic discourse. Trace the history of Latin and Philology, and you'll see that once Latin is no longer the medium of discourse, and becomes only the object of study, actual ability in Latin declines rapidly. Is it necessary to discourse about Latin in Latin? No. But the necessity of doing so imposed a burden on the student that they couldn't merely read snippets of text and function in their vernacular: if they wanted to engage in academic society, there was no other choice but to master the language of the conversation.

I was also quite interested in their Lesson 10, that Conversation, while appearing easy, is actually a very hard skill to master. Informal, and especially multiparty, conversation is in fact exceedingly difficult. This echoes my own experiences.

"Many officers report that they would much rather give a speech or conduct an interview than be the only non-native speaker surrounded by native speakers art a social engagement such as a dinner arty or reception".

I can preach competently in Mongolian, but I can sit at a table of native speakers and be entirely lost

1 comment:

danielstreett said...

Great post! I explored a similar topic at http://danielstreett.com/2011/09/14/how-long-o-lord-until-i-know-greek-basics-of-greek-pedagogy-pt-5/