My evolution as a teacher of Latin extends from my desire to really understand Latin. When I was learning it as an undergrad, I really didn’t enjoy learning to decode the language through its vague grammar and the rush to read ancient authors. There was very little connection to the language and how it worked in my mind.
It wasn’t until I discovered Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata many years later that I was able to find a solution that matched my expectations. I had hoped to learn to think in Latin and the grammatical approach I had learned challenged that. In fact, it was a more intuitive learning method I was exposed to in learning ancient Greek (Athenaze) that allowed me to see what was wrong in the first place.
It wasn’t me; it was the method that I was being trained with.
So when I began to teach Latin, I swore I would make thinking in the target language the focus for me and my students. I wanted them to be able to read and understand the language without relying on a secondary process of decoding it via grammar books and dictionaries. Once I was able to adopt the Orberg text for my Latin program, I even struggled with the concept of vocabulary acquisition – it was a draconian approach in that I believed English should never be used to identify new words in Latin. I struggle with this idea still, but I have grown warmer in loosening my stance, as detailed here.
This next evolution has occurred because I have been discovering yet another development and that is CI, or comprehensible input, as propounded by TPRS instructors.
What is comprehensible input, you may ask? Simply put, students need to be able to comprehend the language in order to feel comfortable enough to use it. The focus, therefore, is that every lesson should be comprehensible – its vocabulary and grammatical structures need to be made clear to students.
This requires repetition. The best analogy I can make for this is like when you go to the gym; it isn’t the amount of weight you lift but the amount of reps that you put in that matters. In, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle makes the connection between deep practice and the development of myelin along the body’s neural network. The myelin acts like a kind of insulation for the neural network, allowing for better, more consistent electrical impulses to fire and create more automatic, and exact, muscular response. So much so that it can appear to be instinctive, but this only comes with consistent, deep practice – something that can only be obtained through repetition.
Which brings us back to CI. If in the gym it isn’t the amount of weight that matters, but the repetition of your muscles firing away and creating more myelin along those neural pathways, then it must be equally important that for language acquisition repetition matters. Repetition, however, does not alone make one become a master at something as it is depth, and not breadth, that enables one to reach mastery level. If something is comprehensible from the outset, then the manipulation of vocabulary and grammatical structure would allow for new forms to emerge. This would reinforce the development of myelin (yes, even for cognitive processes) which could also be accentuated in a TPRS learning environment as students tend to learn kinesthetically through gesturing and acting out.
To have an effective language program using CI, you need to have work ready for students and they need to get repetition of the language soaked in. The key, of course, is not being predictable as predictability can make things boring and the mind tends to switch off when something is no longer fun and exciting. This is also key – we do not want to avoid boring with anxiety-inducing. We don’t want students to be kept “on their toes” and use anxiety as a means for learning because it has also been proven that anxiety only lowers the processing functions of the brain and increases what is commonly referred to as affective filters in the TPRS/CI language world.
This, of course, is not an easy thing to solve – especially for someone new. What is also important is to keep in mind what CI will look like in the classroom. It will look like the teacher repeating various things over and over again, in varying combinations, while the students stay silent in order to process. Their output will be limited to yes/no types of answers – binary responses which help them process and confirm that they are understanding the language. These can be extended to true/false statements and even choice statements where students are choosing between adjectives for a noun, based on a statement given by the teacher. The key is to only shelter, or limit, the vocabulary, but not the grammar – otherwise students would never really advance in their understanding and use of the language.
All of this brings me back to my draconian idea about anchoring Latin vocabulary using Latin and not using English at all. The native language (English, in this case) can be used to explain grammar and even to help establish meaning for vocabulary. This should not, however, be the end goal but instead the beginning step in getting students to learn the language. We also have to temper expectation, which is the subject of another article I will put together at another time. Yet, the CI focus is an excellent indication for how we Latinists can reclaim the study of our language and how effective it is going to be. Latin, after all, was – and continues to be – a living language ripe with expression of the highest level of quality and creativity. Since the days of Vergil, there has never been a rotation of the Earth that hasn’t heard Latin being spoken. Why shouldn’t this continue to be the case?