Saturday, May 23, 2009

'Conversational' 'Dead' Languages, II

So, what is the best methodology to follow in order to acquire a language? This is certainly a debate that continues to rage among language teachers, and linguistic researchers. I have no problem owning up to having taken a position on this issue. I'm persuaded by people like Stephen Krashen, by methods like TPRS, and concepts like Comprehensible Input, that people acquire languages best by repeated exposure to input (reading, listening), that is at a level that is entirely, or more reasonably 90% understandable. Whether it's made intelligible by context, pictures, actions, explanations in simpler terms, or even by glosses in another language, it's the exposure to the target language that reaps the most benefit. If this is the case, then the following kinds of classes and activities are ideal:

- Extensive reading at a level suitable to the learner.
- Classes in which the primary mode of communication is the target language
- Extensive listening at a level suitable to the learner

While I accept that multiple sensory usage is an important educational principle in general, I would go further in language acquisition, and say that there's something about the nature of language and brains that means attempting to acquire both a literary and spoken version of language 'works' better than focusing exclusively on the written. It's for that reason that a communicative class is preferable. I mean, we could have a communicative class that was all written, on-line chatting and the like, but engaging the oral/aural component is well worth-it.

Anecdotally, I think most learners of modern and ancient languages are able to compare their experiences. For myself, a short time spent in Guatemala and Mexico, with some language school time, left me reading Spanish literature and conversing quite competently within a space of a few months. Years of studying Latin, Greek, and Hebrew have left me able to read the first two languages fairly proficiently (I still struggle with Hebrew), but quite feeble in conversing or composing in those languages.

Of course, as soon as you suggest that we might learn to speak and utilise a classical language, most people look at you like you are crazy. And those who are accustomed to Grammar-Translation methods immediately think you are asking them to do an incredibly large amount of 'more work'. Counter-intuitively, I would suggest that changing one's method to focus on Language acquisition is more time-efficient, and has a greater pay-off.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

No comments: