Continuing My Bad Practices of College Latin Teaching
I recently read an Eidolon piece on Comprehensible Input (CI), which allows me to consider my practice in relation. The essay did not seem to allow for good or even socially responsible language pedagogy outside the CI framework, and I’ve heard rumors of highly contentious disagreements surrounding CI pedagogy, racism, and the American Classical League. I worry that explaining where I part ways with CI will be taken as either (1) taking sides in a controversy that I do not understand or (2) an attack on the pedagogy of pre-college teachers. Neither is my intent, especially since I have and continue to learn from high school teachers who practice pedagogies that are related to CI. This post is a description of my current thinking on Subsequent Language Pedagogy (SLA), a term I prefer to “Second Language” since I occasionally teach students for whom Latin or Greek is a third or fourth language.
Given that introduction, it may seem as if I am hostile to comprehensible input. In fact, I’m in full agreement on some core issues. For example, I believe that exposure to large amounts of comprehensible input (spoken & written) is a sine qua non to gaining the ability to read Latin with pleasure and ease. And yet aspects of my pedagogy fall outside CI best practices. I cannot be sure, however, since it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what exactly is and is not CI. For example, spoken Latin in the classroom. I do speak Latin to my students — usually for the first 10–15 minutes of class — because it is an excellent way to include more input, input that I try to make as understandable as possible. I repeat myself frequently, mime actions, draw on the board, etc. I reuse consistent “scripts” such as greetings, discussions of weather, current events, etc. To the extent that my students understand, I believe this counts as CI. Yet I also have students speak Latin to each other in groups, reporting back to the whole class in the third person some element of the discussion. Although this activity is common in modern language classes, it counts as “forcing students to speak,” and thus is bad practice in CI.
To explain my differences from CI, I need to describe some assumptions of its theoretical basis, that is, Steven Krashen’s Monitor Model. His ideas are outlined in this wiki page and related to Latin in this article in the Journal of Classics Teaching (2019). I want to focus on the theory of the mind underlying it. Krashen distinguishes between “learning,” which is explicit and conscious, and “acquisition,” which is implicit and subconscious. A second language is acquired as follows (from Cook 1993)
One ‘acquires’ language via comprehensible input, which the “Language Acquisition Device” (think Chomsky’s UG) processes innately. Explicit, conscious instruction (e.g., grammar teaching) can only be learned. Thus it can only help somewhat in the production of correct output. It is a direct consequence of this theory that teachers should limit themselves to providing input that students can understand without explaining grammar rules, as these do not help acquisition. Similar ideas come from Bill VanPatten, described in this earlier piece in Eidolon, which I similarly agree with more than 95% of. One key idea there is the “mental representation,” or “the implicit knowledge your brain uses to interpret or produce language, covering syntax, vocabulary, semantics, morphology, and phonology.”
Both Krashen and VanPatten contrast implicit with explicit in ways that seem to me overly simplistic: my hypothesis is that acquisition is less neatly divided between the two modes. And I’m not convinced that relying on the mind’s supposed innate language processing ability is best. But most important for me is that we are talking about Subsequent Language Acquisition. Learners already have a particularly powerful Mental Representation, their first language, which provides both a resource and a hindrance, in my view, to acquisition. I teach grammar explicitly because (1) I don’t fully accept Krashen’s model, and (2) grammar instruction seems a great way to mediate between L1 and the target language.
For the same reason, a limited use of translation can be useful. I try to avoid using it to check to understanding. Yet it is a joy in itself to represent foreign ideas in one’s native language, and one that I think can aid in mediating Mental Representations.
Language teaching is undoubtedly complex and, at least to me, quite difficult. I’m far from convinced I am doing it correctly. All I hope to accomplish here is to recognize that there are many paths to the goal of helping interested students become people who can read Latin or ancient Greek with ease and pleasure.
* Cook, Vivian. 1993. Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition St. Martin`s Press