I don’t know Ancient Greek very well, despite “studying it” in college, but recently I’ve had the desire to read it (vs. translating, or just knowing about how Greek works). Desire certainly accounts for motivation, which has a positive effect on compellingness of messages read, yet I’ve been having the hardest time with comprehension—the undisputed sine qua non of language acquisition. I began to look into why, and now I’m just angry…
My source of input is the well-known textbook, Athenaze, used in my college course. I even have Luigi Miraglia’s Italian version now, praised for its additional readings and Oerbergian-style marginalia, but the Greek to Italian (not English) creates an additional step to establishing meaning of what I’m supposed to be reading. I know that Luigi’s is a better resource, but I can’t benefit from it yet since I’m unable to access the messages via reading, and his book still follows the same grammatical syllabus as the original, and includes similar shortcomings of all textbooks.
I must concede that using this textbook to “study”—the operative word I used earlier—seemed to be fine in college, but now, having gone through second language teaching training, knowing that there’s a difference between learning about a language vs. acquiring one has really changed how I view teaching materials—especially ones used in K-12 public education. With Latin, I’ve been able to disregard the shortcomings of currently published textbooks because I’ve acquired a sufficient amount of the language not to be bothered while reading through them. With Greek, however, I’m having a visceral reaction to Athenaze because I get to feel what it’s like as a first year language student again. Let me tell you, oh, how it sucks.
So, the chapters in the original American version of Athenaze are comprised of two sections, A and B, each with their own readings and vocabulary. Through a quick analysis, I’ve determined that the textbook represents the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of “sheltering vocabulary.” This, undoubtedly, is the source of my incomprehension, yet ubiquitously found in textbooks; Athenaze isn’t the only one getting called out. Just take a look at what amounts to 73 lexical items in the first chapter (yes, 73!) with each verb’s occurrence from the readings in parentheses, and asterisks denoting high-frequency in terms of communicating ideas:
and 34 other words
Recycled from Reading A
New for Reading B
wears out (1)
gets up (1)
and 19 other words
The high-frequency verb that occurs most often is “is,” at 11x total (i.e. 9x in A, 2x in B), which is what we would expect from such a crucial verb, yet which might not constitute a sufficient amount of occurrences for the beginning Greek reader. The other high-frequency verbs (i.e. says, loves, goes) occur only 1x. The fact that “works” occurs 6x total, and both “carries” and “provides” occur 2x, are insignificant details because those verbs are not very useful for communicating—at least in the beginning. There are 13 other low-frequency verbs, only occurring 1x.
That’s 20 verbs in the first chapter, btw.
With many teachers now finding success in focusing on a limited, or “sheltered” amount of verbs (e.g. the Quaint Quīntum, Awesome Octō, Sweet Sēdecim, Top 32, Most Important 51, etc.), this textbook represents a vestige of what we know doesn’t work. In terms of verb occurrences, it’s not that we should be obsessed with “getting reps” of words/phrases per se—a position I maintain firmly—but it’s true that keeping the word count low with high levels of comprehension increases confidence. That confidence feels good, and allows us to be receptive to the understandable input. What I’m experiencing right now doesn’t feel good, which means that I’m likely not acquiring the limited input that IS understandable.
Furthermore, readings A and B also include 53 additional words, most of which occur just 1x. That’s astonishing. After setting aside 10 min. for this quick analysis, I can’t really get past the thought that beginning a textbook with 73 lexical items is one of the most irresponsible things I can think of. I’m not surprised that I can’t read Greek—oh, and then there’s that initial hurdle of decoding the alphabet which, thankfully, I didn’t have to relearn—but I don’t have to be complacent about it. Magister P is mad.
I do realize that Athenaze wasn’t written with language acquisition in mind, but I’m offended that the 2nd edition was published in 2003 under the guise of a “reading method.” Reading…actually reading this text…is impossible, at least for the hoi polloi, or even the highly-motivated, yet moderately-academically-achieving cum laude, like myself. This analysis is damning to anyone aware of the past 40 years of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research still using textbooks like Athenaze. In fact, to set up students for failure from the very beginning knowing that only an exclusive group will be able to memorize enough vocabulary and grammar rules in order to “read” a new language is a disgrace to the profession.