How I was WRONG about “practicing” a language.

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Despite holding a B.A. in Classics, it wasn’t too long ago that I failed to read Latin with any remote sense of fluency. I’m not being self-destructive either, that’s just an accurate statement. This is unsurprising since my experience was mostly translation-based (just like nearly every other Classical language learner), and we had very little time to read anything, much less for enjoyment. That all changed in 2010 when I stumbled upon Oerberg’s Lingua Latīna, the Latin textbook written entirely in Latin. I vividly remember exclaiming to Ken Kitchell about how I had just read more Latin in those 35 chapters over the course of a month than I did with him over the course of my entire undergraduate study! I hope he was not offended. Is Lingua Latīna high-level literature? No, but my translation speed of the classical canon wasn’t exactly anything to tout, either. So if Lingua Latīna wasn’t the best work of Golden Age Latin literature, what was it?

It was fun.

For the first time, reading Latin was an enjoyable experience. Since the book was entirely in Latin, I immediately sought out similar immersion and communicative experiences both abroad and stateside. I even downloaded Evan der Millner’s podcasts to listen to while working part-time at a UPS Store. I was building my own Latin community. As I began speaking Latin at the workshops, my speaking fluency increased, and then my reading fluency followed. It only made sense, then, that once I stepped into the classroom I should expect students to benefit from speaking Latin the same way I did, right?

WRONG.

A few years later, one of the first methods I used in teaching was a highly product-driven form of Game-Based Learning. Students earned a grade based on their completion and accuracy of a host of assignments. If they did the minimum, they got an A (90), if they exceeded that minimum, they got an A+ (100). If they didn’t achieve a high enough level of accuracy for a particular assignment, they were given additional exercises to work on until they “mastered” a particular grammatical concept. “Mastery” was defined as completing charts, and adding missing inflections to verbs and nouns with 90% accuracy. Class was about 40% grammar/culture lecture, 40% paired-activities, and 20% individual “practice time” in order to complete the various assignments. The system was solid; the idea cool (students kept track of their Skill Points on an Avatar character sheet based on the game’s time travel theme, researched a unique Expertise Area profession, went on problem-solving team Quests, we rolled dice, etc.). Sadly, something wasn’t working. Most students still weren’t memorizing their declensions, and their translations were filled with egregious errors. I couldn’t figure it out! I was giving them SO MUCH PRACTICE TIME with the language.

HOW was I wrong?

Let’s back up to 2010 when I first began reading (not translating) Latin. I didn’t know it then, but after countless hours of research and blog-reading, I know now that I was receiving understandable messages, known as Comprehensible Input (CI), in Latin. I did have a passive understanding of the Latin language from my B.A., and Oerberg’s book was so well-scaffolded that I understood nearly 100% of what I read from cover to cover. So, my students lacked the knowledge OF Latin that I had, which rendered the messages anything but understandable.

Next, let’s move ahead to my immersion experiences and what I mistakenly deduced. Although it seemed logical, I know now that it wasn’t my speaking that resulted in language acquisition, rather, it was the listening to all those other people at the workshops, and podcasts in the background during work that did the trick. Once again, I was receiving understandable messages in Latin. BOOM, there it is. My kids lacked that critical component of language learning because I was neither speaking to them in the target language, nor giving them readings they could understand.

What I originally perceived as an increase in reading fluency via “practicing” speaking was actually the result of listening and reading understandable messages.

Update 10.27.15 – See recent Indwelling Language post on a similar topic.

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2 thoughts on “How I was WRONG about “practicing” a language.

    • I shared your thoughts with my class. Thank you for your post. It’s description, I suspect, parallels most others experiences.

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