A- in Conjugating, D in Comprehending

**UPDATE 9.28.17** Episode 65 of Tea with BVP, entitled “Does Instruction Speed Up Acquisition,” confirms much of what’s in this post.

I just looked up the 3rd person plural future active indicative form of habēre—or—expressed in a more comprehensible way, I just looked up how to say “they will have.” Before I looked it up, though, habēbunt didn’t sound right in my head. It didn’t sound right because I haven’t received enough input of that word. I also haven’t received enough input of other words with the same ending in different contexts. If I did, I’d have a better chance of being able to extract the parts during my parsing (i.e. moment-by-moment computation of sentence structure during comprehension), and wouldn’t have had to think about how to express “they will have.”

No one dare say that I didn’t study my endings, because I totally did. I got an A- in paradigms. I knew them forwards and backwards, UK and North American order, too! That was after I got a D in comprehension the first time I took Latin because the pace was too fast, and my memory insufficient to learn Latin. Or so I thought…

Like most people, the Grammar-Translation method didn’t get me reading Latin because the Grammar-Translation (GT) doesn’t actually work the way people think it does. I was that kind of highly-motivated learner people talk about, too, and that didn’t even get me to read Latin! Those who think GT works are measuring different outcomes, or ignoring the processes that actually take place: The reason GT appears to work is that those who deal with it long enough end up receiving Comprehensible Input (CI), albeit accidentally, because their attention and interest is focused on word forms, rules, and other things linguists love. In that sense, then, GT is probably the best placebo I’ve ever heard of! Some teachers end up acquiring Latin because they think they’re studying rules that don’t exist!

Less-humorous, though, let’s recognize that the GT method has been used to intellectualize language, robbing students of a human trait to acquire language effortlessly. This sounds like the kind of bold statement ACTFL should come out with, alienating thousands, yet including all of our future leaders. There are so many examples of people acquiring language without explicit grammar instruction, and also so many people like me with a D in comprehension from explicit grammar instruction. In the end, what, exactly, did my A- in conjugation get me if I couldn’t comprehend even the simplest of unadapted ancient texts? I went through the same process as others claiming to have learned to read Latin via GT, yet I couldn’t read Latin until I got Oerberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata (which contained a lot of CI for me to catch up on after earning a degree). On the one hand others claim to have been able to read Latin after Wheelock’s, and on the other I’ve seen students with a better mental representation of Latin—without explicit grammar instruction—than I did even after starting to read Oerberg! There are so many conflicting processes and methods going on. The only explanation is that something exists in GT, as well as in the absence of GT.

That something is CI.

There’d be worse criticism of GT if it produced absolutely no results, but it does produce some results. That’s not where the conversation should be going, though. Instead, the focus should be on students, and only students. GT works, but not with all students. All humans are hard-wired for language acquisition, with CI as a requirement, not with explicit grammar instruction as a requirement. Those who advocate teaching with CI do so, by far, for its inclusiveness above all else. Latin has a pretty dark history of exclusion. Time to change, no?

Just this past week, though, people have tried to argue in favor of that ole trusty teaching method, going as far as to condemn the entire field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), perturbed that the GT method has no theoretical basis. Did you know that? It was also suggested that teaching with CI, also incorrectly defined 2x as a “method” as well as an “approach,” won’t work for some students. Riiiiiiight.

It is precisely the opposite of our experience and observations that drives me and many colleagues further away from GT to focus on CI.

I don’t claim that GT isn’t beneficial, because it is (yet for whom? and when?). We do know, however, that between the two, teaching with CI is the more universal practice. It amazes me that the conversation has continued at all, and for so long. A better conversation would be to discuss what else, in addition to CI (but not explicit grammar because we know that intellectualizes language and excludes students), works for all humans. In the absence of that conversation, though, we are left, reliably, with CI. The push for GT, at least in public education, should’ve been over with by now.

Speaking of which, this week, a crowd-funded campaign by “Flat-Earthers” was also brought to my attention. “Flat-Earthers” want to send satellites into space in order to prove that the Earth is flat. Satellites. You know, the things that orbit spherical things. Look, this isn’t rocket—well—I guess it is kind of rocket science, but the movement of a satellite isn’t going to look like a dot matrix printer, or one of those video games in which things magically appear on the right side of the screen after disappearing on the left. Regardless, this illustrates how no one can convince anyone else of anything, evidence or not. No one will ever be able to convince me that the problems I noticed never existed, that the teaching practices I use now are less-inclusive and less-efficient, and that it would be better for me, my students, and other teachers to go back to GT. No way, no how. I’m not so infallible and stubborn to not recognize that the joke would really be on me if things were to come full-circle and we find out CI is a sham. Boy would that be something!

Still, some will continue to advocate for a tempered “hybrid” use of both GT and a focus on providing CI, but if we know that teaching with CI is the more universal practice, do we really want to reach all students…only sometimes?

The Earth is sphere, and humans need CI.

Choose CI.

6 thoughts on “A- in Conjugating, D in Comprehending

  1. Yes! Yes! And many more yes’s! This is why I love coming to your blog! I keep advocating for CI and I find resistance everywhere I turn. I understand the reasoning, I was first taught by the GT method, but that method doesn’t replicate natural human processing! I don’t understand how people can argue about communicating with CI in the classroom — it gives the brain what it needs to process language.

    Also, I too was a successful “parser” and I am still get frustrated with myself for struggling with my reading comprehension. Often, I forget that comprehension is like a marathon and not a sprint. At times, comprehension and acquisition may come more quickly, depending on the topic. Even so, my “parsing” of the text conflicts with my mind trying to comprehend. Nothing exists in isolation, so I can’t expect to comprehend and acquire language solely through the process of parsing — some things can’t be learned that way.

    Thanks for this post! I appreciate it.

  2. Pingback: Preparing Our Students For…Latin 100?! | Magister P.

  3. Pingback: Grammar Syllabus Alternatives | Magister P.

  4. For what it’s worth. Most doctoral students in philosophy and theology (at least Catholic theology) are expected to pass a Latin translation exam which can range but typically consists of around 2 pages to translate in 2 hours. (2 pages in 2 hours! who would ever “read” anything that took an hour to read a page?!?) MOST of the people who are in the doctoral program pass this exam still nevertheless can’t read any Latin nor really access (through understanding grammar and translating) any Latin text worthwhile in the field (which is more or less the point of such requirements).

    My basic point is that even highly motivated and relatively elite students in doctoral programs can’t understand Latin texts in their field (let alone READ them) with the typical training according to the GT method. The idea is with that year of grammar and a dictionary you can conquer the Latin world! Yet, shockingly, very few end up doing it. The one’s who do are more motivated and spend a considerable amount of time eventually receiving CI through copious amounts of translating (which is really just establishing meaning).

    • Sorry. That’s a “ping back,” meaning I wrote a post once that linked to this one. Can’t find it. Might have been renamed, or recombined with another. I have no memory of what I would’ve wrote, but grammar syllabus alternatives are simply content-based (using whatever grammar is needed).

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