Active Latin vs. Acquisition of Latin

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?

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8 thoughts on “Active Latin vs. Acquisition of Latin

  1. I wasn’t aware that there was consensus as to what “active Latin” means. I have always heard it used as an umbrella term for anytime anyone- teacher OR student- is using it as a spoken language. Whose definition are you responding to here?

    • The take on the term is my own, derived from trends that mean well, yet fall short of best practices. “Active Latin” begins a progression that usually includes teaching all the same stuff (e.g. explicit grammar), just now in Latin, and it’s usually based on immersion experiences. There’s more to be done, that’s all.

      • But I understand the question well. Consider how you’ll never hear “Active Spanish,” which makes sense. The whole reason people talk about using Latin “actively” is because it hasn’t been used that way for a few hundred years in the mainstream. I warn in this post, however, that beginning to speak Latin might still in no way contribute to acquisition.

  2. With you all the way, Lance, re: possibly unhelpful vagueness of the term “active Latin.” I avoid the term myself (and am hoping to come up with a better way for Paideia to describe the workshops I do for them).

    A while ago I was thinking of writing a sort of disambiguation of / commentary on the terms “active Latin,” “spoken Latin,” “living Latin,” “conversational Latin,” and maybe some others. Probably won’t bother, though =)

  3. Great post! I have noticed that “Active Latin” has become a problematic term as well. If it only refers to the general practice using the target language in class, I don’t think we need the term anymore. I propose that the term “Active Latin” be replace by “Latin”. At this point, It should be a basic expectation of any language teacher to use the target language in class. The burden should be on those who insist on “teaching” Latin entirely in English to come up with a name to distinguish themselves. What about “English Grammar through Latin Study” or “Latin Linguistics” or simply “Latin Grammar”?

    • I agree. I also understand how useful it is for Justin et al. to advertise teacher training/professional development as such, at least until mainstream practice follows the updated Standards, at which point the titles you offer will correctly identify the minority/dwindling practices. I still feel, however, that the pedagogical implications of using “Active Latin” lead to misunderstanding. Perhaps the immersion/training events would be wise to include some disclaimers and admonitions.

  4. Pingback: CANE 2017 – Chris Buczek – Implementing a CI Latin Program | Adventures in latin teaching

  5. Pingback: Ditching the Phrase “Struggling Student” – The Inclusive Latin Classroom

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