Back To Comprehension Basics: Don’t Speak Latin

No, I haven’t reverted back to the grammar-focused pedagogy of the 90s (and no, not the 1890s, either. Grammar teaching is still the dominant one today, which I predict will hold true for another 20 years). Instead, I’m going to challenge us all speaking Latin in the classroom to do so under just one condition:

Students will understand what you’re about to say.

It sounds too basic, I know, but not everyone does this or does this enough. Hence, back to the basics of comprehension-based teaching, right? So my challenge is now out there. If the condition isn’t met, say something in English, or change what we’re about to say to meet the condition. Of course, this challenge wouldn’t exclude the use of new words. No way. How else would students ever expand vocab?! However, this does mean that we must provide CI by using mostly words students already understand, allowing for just a few new ones during class, and then be sure students understand those new words (i.e., at least tell them what the new words mean in English, demonstrate the meaning whenever possible, and use a picture/realia if applicable).

Speech Rate & Text Coverage
The research of Hsueh-Chao & Nation as well as Laufer shows that a text must have 98% coverage of known vocab (tokens) to have a chance of being read with ease (because even 95% text coverage can get woefully low comprehension scores of 55%!). Well, that’s with texts, when the student able to control the pace and even reread! Speech doesn’t work that way. When we say something, the student can’t control our speech rate. They have to signal us. There’s no 15sec replay. They have to signal us. While we’re working towards training students to self-advocate for comprehension, the reality is that listening to Latin is the MUCH harder mode to process. Therefore, it goes without saying that we should be using 98%+ text coverage in speech. Only speaking the target language in class when students will understand will maximize comprehension. Who doesn’t want that?! Practically speaking, then, I challenge us to all give pause the moment we’re about to say something students don’t understand yet, then do the following:

  1. Say it in English and move on.
  2. Restate using other words students already understand.
  3. Use the new word/phrase, immediately establish meaning, then provide micro-exposure.

Micro-exposure
This is my term for giving students a little bit of concentrated exposure to what has the potential to be a one-off and out-of-bounds word/phrase. In practice, when a new word/phrase comes up, expect to sit with it for some statements and questions for a minute or two. Yes, a minute or two. This helps keep vocab limited and comprehension high without vocab overload and noise that students start to get used to (i.e., they begin to tune out the input and be OK with incomprehension because there’s so much of it during class).

Consider the alternative for a minute: a class during which we teachers use new words/phrases as a reaction to what students say. That’s basically a translation class (English –> Latin) without much expectation (and hope) that students will ever be exposed to those words/phrases again.

Think of micro-exposure as circling or something if that helps you, too. However it’s understood and whatever it’s called, we must acknowledge that the absence of micro-exposure entirely can result in a ton of vocab and high levels of incomprehension, or some kind of one-off situational experience like the translation class. Only the kids with the best, most freakish memories will absorb all that input, and there aren’t too many of them in class, if at all.

So, are you ready to not speak Latin unless students will understand what you’re about to say? Why or why not?

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…

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Establishing Meaning: Confusion

Step 1 of TPRS is “establish meaning” to show what a word/phrase means in the target language (TL) before using it to co-create a story. The most efficient and effective way to do this is by using a native language (L1) common to all students (e.g. “fēlēs means cat“). In TPRS, we write the TL on the board, underline it, then write the L1 below in a different color. We refer to this throughout class by pointing and pausing.

Establishing meaning is also Step 1 for anyone providing comprehensible input (CI), regardless of the method or strategy.

If this step doesn’t occur, teachers are providing input (I) that might not be comprehensible (C). Although there’s some role that noise in the input plays (Incomprehensible Input?), it’s clear that acquisition doesn’t happen with high levels of that noise. This is why no one—NO ONE—disputes that CI is necessary; it’s the sine qua non of acquisition, which is why establishing meaning is so important.

Still, there’s been confusion over establishing meaning, and that confusion has to do with purpose…

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Active Latin vs. Acquisition of Latin

**See this more-recent post on “Active 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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