The Latin Problem

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), there’s a scale of five main proficiency levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished. Most states require Advanced Low speaking proficiency to teach modern languages. However, many teachers attain near-native-like proficiency, anyway. To give you a sense of what that means, beyond Advanced Low, there’s still Advanced Mid, Advanced High, Superior, and then the highest rating on the ACTFL scale, Distinguished, for which the following are features:

“A non-native accent, a lack of a native-like economy of expression,* a limited control of deeply embedded cultural references, and/or an occasional isolated language error may still be present at this level.”

*economy of expression
“The use of the most precise and expressive words and phrases, thus eliminating the need for excess description, wordiness, jargon, or circumlocution.”

Of course, most of these teachers spend time abroad, and/or have found themselves exposed to the target language in some other way. Needless to say, modern language teachers tend to be highly proficient speakers, yet at the same time they’re not necessarily scholars who study the language, earning an M.A. in its literature. Granted, it’s not uncommon for modern language teachers to be that kind of scholar while also studying abroad and/or being exposed to input and interaction elsewhere. However, the former certainly isn’t necessary in order to achieve the latter. Then there’s the Latin problem…

Due to the absence of native Latin speakers, near-native-like Latin teachers *must* also be scholars.

This is no small feat. Latin scholars study literature written at a Distinguished level, and they’re missing the rest. That is, there are virtually no (none?) native language examples of Latin below Distinguished. So, the Latin that scholars are exposed to is the highest level of literature, which then influences their speaking. For teachers, this has pedagogical implications. N.B. modern language teachers don’t speak the way their target language has been written, anyway. That is, the language of French literature written at a Distinguished level isn’t the same as the French being spoken at a Distinguished level. No one would expect them to be the same. Then there’s the Latin problem..

Now, modern language teachers can adjust their speech and texts to the level of the language learner, because they have been exposed to a range of native target language themselves (e.g. from See Spot Run on up). They both a) know that their students need language at a level starting with something like See Spot Run, and b) are able to provide that. Then there’s the Latin problem…

Latin teachers might even recognize that beginning students need something more like See Spot Run. However, this has shown to be problematic for scholars whose only native Latin examples are at the Distinguished level. Therefore, there’s an incredibly wide gap between what the beginning student needs, and what the Latin scholar knows. We lack native Latin examples to fill that gap, so that gap is largely unknown. Even with knowledge that this gap exists, scholars still tend to promote the use of Distinguished level Latin for learners of all stages, both spoken and written. That is, their contributions tend to not be appropriate for the beginning language student. This has been going on for quite some time now. For example, Ritchie’s 1884 “Easy Stories” isn’t so easy, and works continue to be published under that guise today.

If there’s a solution, it would seem like a compromise could be in order. Scholars could draw on their familiarity with literature and adjust their Latin to be more suitable for the beginning language learner. Of course, this still would require letting go of what is known at the Distinguished level. Meanwhile, teachers could study more native Latin at the Distinguished level. However, this implies that there’s a hierarchy…that teachers should aspire to be scholars and use Latin of the highest level, even with beginners. Regardless, neither scholars nor teachers know what native examples of Latin for the beginner would look like. Therefore, filling that gap is uncharted territory for all. The scholar must adjust Latin in a way they haven’t had examples for, and the teacher must use the Latin in their head from whenever they last studied the language, also at a level for which they didn’t have native beginner examples. No one has appropriate level examples of native Latin for the beginner. No one. Therefore, everyone must make up the kind of Latin appropriate for beginners. Everyone.

Despite being in the same boat, though, the Latin problem has manifested itself negatively in the form of criticism from near-native-like scholars. If this could be described as “elitism,” but is too strong of a word to hear, then “elitist-prone” works just as well. Unfortunately, elitist-prone criticism for less-than-Distinguished-level Latin ends up discouraging teachers from speaking Latin much at all. This has been observed by many teachers, even if intended by no scholars.

The Latin problem can also be perceived in two very different ways. One concerns promoting speaking any kind of Latin in class. In order to do that with ease, teachers must let go of expecting accuracy that the profession of Classics has obsessed over. The other way concerns speaking Latin at the Distinguished level. However, these are not mutually exclusive. Both scholars and teachers could speak Latin below a Distinguished level, even though they know how the highest level literature was written. This is what modern language teachers do.

In sum, given the similarities of both teachers and scholars affected by the Latin problem, the main difference when it comes to speaking and writing Latin is whether one chooses to have a problem with Latin being used below the Distinguished level.

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