Cognates & Latinglish: I’m Not Finished.

Gotta love a trilogy, right? This is my final Winter 2023 post on the whole cognate kerfuffle.

One reason Chinese takes native English speakers a LOT longer to acquire than something like Spanish is because Chinese has approximately zero cognates. Terry Waltz has reported that Spanish has about 3,000 words most English speakers can understand without being taught any of them. Languages with more cognates are acquired faster because cognates play a role in the first developmental stage of second language learning. Check out what ACTFL has to say about the novice language learner and cognates:

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Cognates & Unranked Caesar/Virgil

Cognates. Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, how much Latin are we talking about? When they’re used, do cognates end up comprising most of a book’s Latin? Are we talking half? A quarter? Less? And then what does that mean about the rest of a book? How much of a book’s Latin is being dismissed amongst the cognate concerns? One of the concerns is that cognates weren’t used by Classical authors, the claim being that using infrequent words is a problem, and the conclusion being that cognates are unhelpful for today’s Latin learner. I don’t have this concern or have found evidence to support the claim. Nevertheless, I have been wondering just how much—or little—the concerns constitute, percentage-wise, of a book. I also have been wondering if there were many words Classical authors themselves used that other Classical authors didn’t really use. N.B., I don’t mean hapax, just words that were rarely used by others. Thus, if Classical authors preferred to use rare words, too, that would help illustrate how the current cognate fuss is more about preference than anything else. Let’s see…

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Pedagogical Immunity

Certain learners exist who possess what seems like complete immunity to whatever pedagogy they’re subjected to. College students are a good example. Professors rarely have pedagogical training, which is perhaps the most ironic thing about those in charge of training pre-service primary and secondary teachers, but most college students are able to persist through a lack of solid pedagogy. How? Using their interests, some independent learning skills, and a bit of determination. Polyglots are another good example. They’ll learn many languages under all sorts of conditions that don’t transfer to others, claiming they found “the secret,” yet relatively few who adopt their “methods” report success (except for other…polyglots!). Upon thinking this over, many high school students—and not just those studying a second language—are often pedagogically immune, too. These students manage to pass courses even when teachers have wacky pedagogy with unhelpful practices. Consider the teacher using some pre-fab curriculum with loads of busywork. Students will put up with all that busywork. They might not learn much, but they’ll earn credit, then graduate. In that sense, then, these students made it through. They were immune (though not to learning…which we’ll get to). They just made it past the next level. They…”succeeded.”

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Cognate Concerns? It Must Be January…

This year’s Annual Criticism of Latin, or ACL for short, is about a month early. It’s been the same old gripes with the same old assumptions going back to 2018 or so. Almost every concern rests on the assumptions that a student will continue Latin in college and will be negatively impacted somehow by the decisions modern Latin authors have made. That’s two biggies: continue Latin, and be negatively impacted.

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Start Here

The most useful professional development (PD) I’ve had over these past 10 years in education has been from presentations, workshops, and blogs that have given me a “start here.” It’s usually in the form of someone figuring out a really effective way to do something, then putting it into some kind of ready-to-go format, whether that’s a packaged method, or list of steps. The “start here” works because it’s the culmination of trial, error, and revision. The “start here” works because it represents the essential. When I’ve used someone else’s “start here,” it’s been really effective. Naturally, there’s adaptation and I’ve been able to put my own spin on things, but only after I’ve implemented whatever was presented to me. So what’s the problem?

Some teachers begin to change the “start here” right away.

For example, if I share a cocktail recipe with you called “The Lance Drink,” and upon seeing .25oz Sfumato in the ingredients you decide to just leave it out, you haven’t actually made The Lance Drink. You’ve certainly made a cocktail. It’s close, but something else. You’ve mixed together ingredients of which the outcome is unknown…and there’s a good chance it might not turn out very good. Let’s say you love vodka. It’s in every cocktail you make, no matter what. When I give you my recipe, you sub vodka for The Lance Drink’s rye base. Why? That’s what you’ve always used. It’s what you’ve always done. So you mix…you sip…but you immediately spit it out because vodka is a horrible combination with the other ingredients. You might even say “gee, this Lance Drink isn’t so great.”

Teaching is a bit like that.

Instead of going with something tried and true, teachers tend to hold onto stuff that just doesn’t mix, not giving the “start here” a real chance. Sometimes, they might go as far as to claim that the “start here” doesn’t work (or whatever), mischaracterizing whatever was presented to them. In the worst of cases, other teachers that never got the original “start here” just listen to the ones who changed something right away, and shun the changed version before they can try the original, effective one.

The next steps—for anyone who works with these teachers—become searching for how to reconcile old principles in the changed version with new ones that the original “start here” was based on. Sometimes there’s no solution. The principles are too conflicting. Sad. Yet it all could’ve been avoided by just taking the “start here” and rolling with it. I’ve actually heard back from teachers who’ve experienced both, mostly when it comes to grading practices. Instead of rolling with the “start here,” they tried some weird combo, thought things didn’t work, then gave up only to revert to old ways. Then, sometime later, they gave things another try—exactly how it was presented—and come to find out they’re all of a sudden embracing the change. Again, it all could’ve been avoided.

So, in sticking with the metaphor, what’s your vodka? Let go of that, and why not give rye a try next time?

Reading Latin: What Does That Mean?

Next winter at SCS (Society for Classical Studies) 2023, there will be a panel on what it means to teach students to read Latin. Reading Latin. It seems so obvious what it means, right? But no. What does it mean to read Latin? Of all the approaches to take, looking at data is a good starting point. Let’s start with what reading Latin has meant in the first year Latin classroom for decades…

What better place than the self-described “reading method” of textbooks such as Cambridge and Ecce, Romani? The latter’s first chapter begins with a cold-open paragraph of Latin. Here are the details:

  • 70 total words in length (i.e., tokens, see below)
  • 29 unique words

Text Coverage
Text coverage is measured by tokens, or total words. There are five tokens in the sentence “the bird sees the cat.” Two of the tokens in that sentence happen to be the same word. Therefore, “the” represents 40% text coverage. If the reader doesn’t know “the,” they have a text coverage of 60%. The reader who knows everything except “cat” would have a text coverage of 80%. It’s a simple example, but not hard to see what can happen at that 80% level comprehension-wise. The reader understands “the cat sees the ____,” so the unknown word is a big piece of missing information. Imagine reading a whole paragraph about the cat and ____ without knowing what ____ is and then being asked about ____. That’s not a very fun experience. And now imagine grading some kind of assessment on that experience! Don’t do it!

In that Ecce textbook example above, est appears 7 times and isn’t glossed. You gotta guess what it means from context. Luckily, most kids do. Those who don’t, though, miss out on 10% of the text coverage. A text coverage of 90% isn’t good enough for comprehension to have a solid chance, either (Laufer 1989, Laufer 1992, Hu & Nation 2000, Laufer 2010, Schitt, Jiang & Grabe 2011, Herman & Leeser 2022), but est isn’t the best example. Let’s look a little more into what “reading” means in this first textbook paragraph…

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9 Years & 90% Uphill Battle: Why I’m Not Choosing To Research Second Language Pedagogy

It’s absurd, really. After nearly a decade as a professional second language educator (i.e., employed AND trained as one, because those don’t always come in tandem), I can say that the opposition has been steep. No need to get into the weeds about Terrible Work Experience X, or Shockingly Obtuse Administrator Y, or even Internet Troll Z whose job seemed to be disagreeing with everyone about A) how languages are acquired, B) why acquisition-focused practices are the most equitable and effective way to teach second languages in public school, C) that you cannot update content without updating pedagogy and still call yourself a social justice advocate who promotes intercultural competence, and D) how all of the above apply to Latin.

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Optional Retakes

I polled the large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers once again, this time on retakes. Retakes aren’t always necessary. However, when we tell a student they can’t redo or retake something, especially if they request it, the message is that it’s OK to not learn the content, or that learning isn’t really a process that matters, or that we get more than one shot at. Students have one chance, on the one day we’ve decided, following the timeline we determined, to show what they know and can do. That’s almost narcissistic, no? How sure are we that we’ve cracked the code of learning and set the perfect date for an assessment? Right…

I’ve sometimes seen retakes referred to as “free passes,” yet the easiest thing we can do is slap a zero on something, tell a student they have to deal with the score they got, maybe followed by “better luck next time,” or shake our head at any redo/retake requests. This actually absolves students from the responsibility of doing anything further, from the actual learning. In such cases, it becomes inequitable NOT to offer redos/retakes. Granted, they still might not be necessary, though, especially if you have a grading system that accounts for continuous learning, etc., but suffice to say that retakes are a good practice, and at times necessary for equity. Retakes are a good idea for anyone averaging all assignments in a category. Those kind of retakes can…”correct”…for the problems associated with lumping every grade together (as seen in this post). But even then, not all retakes are the same.

This was the first large poll that had an overwhelming majority of participants reporting the use of an inequitable practice: optional retakes. That might come as news to some, but this one’s counter-intuitive, so no worries. The next highest number of responses was setting a cut-off for the optional retake, and having no retakes at all. The smallest number of responses went to mandatory retakes—the actual recommended equitable practice—and those who don’t do retakes for various reasons not tied directly to a student’s grade. Let’s unpack all that. But first…

I’m gonna ask readers to pause here and reflect.

I really don’t need to hear right now from anyone getting upset as I share all these best practices that have shown to advance teaching and learning. Don’t take things personally. They’re not. This is a profession, so let’s be professional. This sharing of ideas is done mostly a grassroots thing because teacher education is inadequate and we’ve got some catching up to do, not unlike second language teachers learning well after the fact that input is like 100x more important than any output. Let’s not forget there are tens of thousands of language teachers who were never trained that way, and who still aren’t there yet, either. It follows, then, that we wouldn’t want to be equivalent teachers in the dark about grading, assessing, inequity, and equity. So, if you don’t need to hear about possible inequitable practices you might be using right now—because it’s just too much—that’s fine. Put this on the back-burner and get to it later. Otherwise, let’s look at what makes optional retakes inequitable…

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Vocab Quizzes

I followed the same format of polling a large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers on things-inequitable and grading. Of 144 participants, the overwhelming majority grade some kind of reading comprehension without a focus on individual vocab terms. Quizzing vocab (full-out or vocab section of another assessment) isn’t something I recommend doing, especially not grading it. This holds true across all content areas, not just languages. Why? That kind of focus is on the micro level isn’t necessary, and it might just be measuring a student’s short term memory. We don’t need to document any of that, nor is it particularly helpful to know. In Wormeli’s 2018 update to Fair Isn’t Always Equal, one of his principled responses is “avoid test questions that ask only for basic recall of information” (p.14). That makes sense. We can skip insignificant acts of recall and go straight to whatever the vocab is used for—the greater purpose—presumably to read or interact in the target language. That word knowledge is embedded in the greater, more-purposeful task. Why bother with both?!

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