Lance’s thoughts on Lance’s Criticism of “Can’t Read Greek…”

Lance Albury just left a comment on my post, “Can’t Read Greek—Unsurprised but Angry.” I must say that I get a Highlander kind of feeling whenever I cross paths with another Lance—which is quite rare—so I’m not surprised that Lance and I hold opposing views. We have different definitions and assumptions about the nature of language, language teaching, and education, more generally. This post highlights those differences.

Not meaning to be insulting, but I believe your position on reading ancient Greek is simply naive.

Lance is not off to a great start. He thinks that I have a lack of experience, or poor judgment, which means any response I give is likely to be dismissed. This is the reality of supporting your practices when someone already believes you have no idea what you’re talking about—one of the greatest obstacles against mainstream acknowledgement of CI.

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Let’s Make A Deal

I once had a native Spanish-speaking colleague propose a deal; in order to improve his English, he was to speak only English to me, and in order for me to improve my Spanish, I was to speak only Spanish to him. Without wanting him to know how I reaaaally felt about language acquisition so soon after meeting, I hesitantly agreed to the terms.

The results were disastrous.

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Can’t Read Greek—Unsurprised, but Angry

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…

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“Floor not Ceiling”

I once was told that explicit grammar instruction given in order to develop the skills of conjugating verbs and declining nouns is the “floor, not ceiling” of teaching/learning Latin. What this IS NOT, is true. What this IS, is a common misunderstanding. In fact, it’s an alternative fact. We have no evidence—NO EVIDENCE—to suggest that anyone MUST learn how to conjugate verbs or decline nouns in order to develop proficiency in a language. Wake up, people!

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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.

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A Definition of “Output” from BVP

“Output is when students, or language learners actually use language to create a message of their own, from scratch.”

Yep, that would rule-out Sentence Frames (e.g. My favorite food is _____), and any other scaffolding when it comes time to creating a message. The result is “traditional language practice” which has not been shown to lead to acquisition. A single genuine utterance (e.g. “pizza”) as part of a communicative event (e.g. “Charles, what’s your favorite food?”) is more beneficial in the long run.

Interaction is NOT making students speak. 

Interaction is “2+ people demonstrating that they are involved in meaning making,” which might include speaking, but could just be facial/eye expression, nodding, and other gesturing. If you make students speak, you might get more of that “traditional language practice” that doesn’t lead to acquisition, and as most of us have experienced, you might also get one very anxious student who freezes up and feels silly amongst peers. That’s not good teaching.

Speaking is not necessarily Output.

Students can say things in the target language that are not messages of their own. Just saying things amounts to “traditional language practice” that doesn’t lead to acquisition.

“You make Output when you have to.”

This was in response to a question about whether or not students will be able to produce Output without interacting or “using” the language despite creating mental representation of (i.e. acquiring) a language. One CANNOT simply Output without mental representation, and if there is never a genuine NEED to Output, there’s no sense in all that “traditional language practice” that isn’t Output and doesn’t lead to acquisition anyway.

All of the work creating mental representation will pay-off, for example, when a student spends time in another country and uses the target language as part of a communicative event. In the case of Latin, there is a very high unlikelihood that students will ever have a genuine NEED to Output in Latin, so time is better spent developing mental representation in order to read fluently (speed + accuracy). The “traditional language practice” for Latin is typically translation skills, which have even less practicality than has been thought. After all, the few teachers and classicists who find themselves in Latin-speaking communities don’t even spend time translating with one another.

“Classically Attested” & “Latinity”: The Latest Buzz

Teacher-written reading material for Novice & Intermediate language learners is not new, at least for modern languages. TPRS Publishing and TPRS Books frequently add more to their roster, so teachers have their choice of topic. 2015 saw the publication of the first two of these novellas in Latin, [self-]published by Pomegranate Beginnings (i.e. Pluto & Itinera Petri). Since then, there has been a wide range of reception amongst Latin teachers (or Classicists, or Linguists, or Scholars, etc.). The general consensus regarding the positive reception has been something like  “this is helping our students feel successful and have a positive experience in Latin class. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it.” Regarding the negative reception, most of it revolves around two buzzwords:

  1. Classically Attested
    This is used to question the use of Latin in a way that doesn’t appear in our extant sources (e.g. we don’t know if someone ever said or wrote mihi magis placet because it doesn’t exist in the literature that has survived).
  2. Latinity
    The “style” of one’s Latin (speaking, writing) in terms of conforming to grammatical norms, which could also include word choice.

These buzzwords matter. For some teachers, less-than-superior style and unattested Latin appear to be a threat to The Classics as an insult to intelligence and knowledge, or the work these teachers themselves put into translating and parsing over the years. For other teachers, less-than-superior style and unattested Latin appear to be a disservice to students who wholeheartedly embrace the canon, take the AP, enroll in college, and then complete the cycle to teach Latin at the secondary level (or remain in Academia holding a variety of positions). The reasoning is understandable—fine, even. I get it. I feel you. I hear this, yet I’ve just moved on.

Latinity: An example
I recently overheard a professor slam Oxford as being “bad Latin.” Wow, really? The same professor claimed that “bad textbook Latin” is the reason students can’t transition to reading authentic texts. This is unsubstantiated. A more probable claim is that students can’t transition to reading authentic texts because most students aren’t READING Latin to begin with (re: reading vs. translating textbook passages), and that they haven’t built mental representation of the language, being held accountable for memorizing far too much vocabulary, and/or grammatical knowledge. There are many types of reading tasks, but fluent reading—the kind of reading when you read for meaning so easily that you’ve finished a passage/chapter/book without realizing how long it was or how long you had been reading—is one of the better, if not best experiences to have as a reader! I never had that experience as a Latin student, and I was exposed to superior Latinity. It’s a miracle I’m still here after struggling with Latin for so long, but this isn’t about me. I’ve seen how most students aren’t willing to endure what I did, and there’s not much glory for the few who do.

Classically Attested: An example
mālō (I prefer) expresses preference, but unfortunately looks like malus (bad), or mālum (apple). That is just one reason not to use mālō. Another might be that I don’t want to add a new verb. The reasons don’t matter as much as the decision. So, lets say I decide that I just don’t want to use mālō. The suggestion to use mihi magis placet (I like __ more) is reasonable. My students already know mihi placet, so this substitution is probably more comprehensible, AND we have the added bonus of sheltering vocabulary to what students know without adding a new verb, mālle. So, I did some research and found that mihi magis placet doesn’t appear in the literature. Ugh, right? Now the choice is to use an attested word (mālō) that might be more difficult to comprehend (adding another verb to the students’ vocabulary), or to use an expression the Romans would probably understand even if it’s not found in the literature, but one that I’m positive that my students would comprehend. The criticism is that if something isn’t used in the literature in the same way, or isn’t found in the literature at all, we shouldn’t bother giving it to students to read. This is valid, but only insofar as those students—all of them—will end up reading the literature at all. Very, very few students continue reading Latin, and those who do tend to become Latin teachers. Furthermore, if my experience is anything like other Latin teachers, I can say confidently that I cannot READ most of Latin literature. Give me a couple hours, a dictionary, and some notes, and I’ll be able to tell you what’s going on, or maybe even translate a passage or two, but neither of those are enjoyable experiences for me. What about our students?

So, the basis for questioning the use of Latin in a way that doesn’t appear in our extant sources breaks down because the reality is that most students’ experience doesn’t match the goals of teachers making this claim. An argument could be made that less-than-superior style and unattested Latin that enables all students to feel successful would actually get more kids interested in The Classics (where there is no dearth of Latinity). It certainly wouldn’t result in fewer kids considering it, right? I cannot imagine a world in which Little Johnny is pissed when he finds out that mihi magis placet is nowhere to be found in his M.A. reading list. I can, however, imagine a world in which Little Johnny doesn’t have to think upon coming across the phrase mihi placet, or just the word magis while he’s fluently reading what his peers are parsing (because they were never given material they could read). In the end, we can’t predict what students will do with Latin, but we can focus on their experience with us. I don’t intend to be dogmatic about this. Just make sure you’re holding true to what it is you want your students’ experience to be.

Language classrooms are filled with tourists—the kids who have dreamed of visiting another country since age 8. There are other types of tourists, too—the kids who take our language course because it seemed cool, their friends are in the class, or they’d rather not take another elective. The argument for using only superior style and attested Latin also breaks down for these students. In fact, it breaks down for just about every student we have (minus those very few students we send to college as Classics majors). When using these buzzwords, we need to recognize our audience, examine the experience of our students, and evaluate whether OUR goals include all, or exclude most. It can be tricky trying to reconcile being true to the literature while also recognizing that most people can’t read the literature they’re given—because that’s all we’ve had to give. This doesn’t absolve the author of including egregious errors, or inventing syntax, but should encourage discretion when creating reading material that positively contributes to the feeling of success, and overall experience in Latin class.