Justin Slocum Bailey has just written an excellent article about speaking Latin. Though related, my post is about the implications of using the term “Active Latin” as it pertains to classroom practices.
I’ve long felt weird about that term. After synthesizing my thoughts, I now believe that most teachers who use the term to describe their teaching (as informed by Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research) are actually using something closer to “Productive Latin,” which might not lead to language acquisition at all.
“Active Latin” proponents tend to teach how the language works by having students speak and write, which are not the cause of, rather, the result of acquisition. It’s true that some “Active Latin” teachers don’t force speech before students are capable, as well as have a high tolerance for errors, but the emphasis still tends to be on the language itself, with the actual messages being less-important. For example, drills, exercises, and activities focused on a particular grammatical point, even when used in an exciting (= compelling) format, still emphasize forms of words and manipulation instead of the underlying meaning and purpose of the messages. This is not communication that leads to acquisition. Instead, these drills, exercises, and activities are an effort to solidify language “patterns.” The problem, however, is that students might not be ready to use, let alone NOTICE the patterns in the first place (e.g. when unsheltering grammar, my old habits tend to creep up as I scan the room and wait for students to ask questions about indirect statements, yet I’ve come to realize that most students have no idea that the subject has become accusative, and the verb has changed to its infinitive—the students understand the message without noticing the forms!). Furthermore, Bill VanPatten has repeated time after time that these “patterns” don’t even exist—at least not psychologically—in what actually ends up in our minds. All of that “practice” is language for language’s sake, which hasn’t been shown to be significantly beneficial before acquiring a substantial amount of language (conf. young students beginning to study about the conventions of English well after they can already communicate). This “Active Latin” approach is now helping us as Latin teachers, but don’t be fooled—it’s because we already had prior knowledge ABOUT Latin. Our students do not possess anything close to that level of knowledge, so think twice, and thrice, and quadrice before forcing language production.
The only necessary process for the acquisition of Latin, however, is to listen to and read copious amounts of it—no manipulation drills/exercises, no grammar-disguised activities—just spoken and written messages (= input). Input is what every major Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theory agrees is a requirement. Considering our short time with students (i.e. ~120 hours a year?), it’s best if the input is understandable (CI). As Justin Slocum Bailey wrote, CI is neither disputed, nor outdated. The only question is how much “other stuff,” if at all, you need in addition to CI. See commentary on Tea with BVP Episode 36 regarding Interaction as part of that “other stuff.”
So, when using a term like “Active Latin” to distinguish from traditional grammar-translation, the tendency is to place most of the emphasis on writing and speaking—the productive skills. Here, however, the word “active” has been used simply to represent the opposite of “passive.” This is logical, but listening and reading actually can be quite active processes…just try to sustain listening to a new language for ~45min each day! I propose we start ditching the term, eh?