I am still trying to grapple with the concept of CI (comprehensible input) as a system. At the same time, I spent some time this summer attending Harvard’s Project Zero Classroom and gained some insights there that could translate (pun intended) to my language teaching.
As most of you know, I teach social sciences and humanities courses (AP Art History and AP World History, currently) as well as language (obviously, Latin!). Although there are some similarities, there are many differences in the nuances and approaches. What has always remained constant is that I want my students to understand and use the skills that they obtain in my classes. In short, I am trying to retool their dispositions – these courses are not supposed to be one-off behaviors but rather ways of being and seeing the world.
This year marks an important year – the Latin program I started at Pine Crest now takes on a bigger life. We have hired another Latin teacher and together, we are going to continue to lay the foundation for how Latin should be taught in the 21st century.
In short, those of you who have been reading anything I have written know that I am deeply dissatisfied with a grammar-based approach in teaching Latin as the “drill and kill” system is mostly responsible for just killing not only the joy of Latin but also the relevance of it as a course of study. Latin enrollment has been in a nose dive – pretty much my entire life time. It has always seemed to me that treating the language like a code to be deciphered is one critical problem. We don’t have enough people being taught how to use the language, let alone understand it, and this means we are facing a crisis with less and less fluent readers and thinkers in the language. I see it all the time at the highest levels of Classics, too.
I prefer a natural methodology – the kind where students will learn to use the language and think in the target language and not relying on translation for meaning. There are many other movements out there currently practicing this and I would love to see the day where we all come together on this issue and formulate a grander plan. For now, I will continue toiling away in my corner of the field and hope to bridge the gap someday soon.
In doing so, I have used Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata as my text. It is simply an amazing text with a solid approach to the language and there is lots of support. The texts are cheap and this is critical for starting Latin programs as well.
Teaching with this book since 2009, I have made a lot of changes to my practice and my Latin has also vastly improved. I still haven’t hit my stride quite yet and this is difficult considering I have been the lone wolf wherever I have been working – that changes this year and that will present a refreshing challenge for me as well. Last year, I came across the concept of comprehensible input, and have been writing about it here on Romae. I continue to toil and work at it, but right now I want to kick around a couple of concepts that I think are crucial to anyone teaching Latin.
We want our students to become fluent in the language. There is a continuum that we must take hold of in order to measure where our students are at. It goes like this:
- Slow processing, mental translation, no production of target language
- Fast processing, no translation, no production
- Fluency without confidence and with hesitancy, frequent errors
- Fluency with confidence and some hesitancy, limited errors
- Fluency with confidence and without hesitancy, minor errors
- Fluency with confidence and without hesitancy, few errors
Notice that the higher levels have in common fluency, production of the language, and fewer and fewer errors. What is fluency? It is “…the ability to express intelligibly what one wants or needs without hesitancy or difficulty.” (Fluency Through TPR Storytelling, 7th edition, Ray and Seely) This also means that students should produce sentences, one after another, in connected discourse. There is no mention of grammatical correctness or native-like pronunciation in this definition found here, which is just as well as all the “native” Romans are no longer around.
This is a nuanced definition of fluency which, in my opinion, is more in line with what we should be expecting of our current Latin students. They are growing up mostly in a world where classical studies are foreign to them. They are not exposed to most of the history, let alone the literature, and expecting them to acquire such a profound level of understanding is preposterous. That is not to say that it cannot be done, but we are talking about a curriculum that is on life support.
So, with that out of the way, what does fluency mean? It must start with comprehension – students won’t be able to use the language if they first cannot comprehend it. This also means that we need to tighten the belt a bit – we need to shrink our core vocabulary and offer it through constant repetition. This is not to say that students cannot be exposed to new words – they definitely should. The difference is that it should come within the context of reading and a quick translation of new site words can (and should) be done. This is something I had to adapt myself.
How is this done? By means of two “circles” – the fluency circle and the reading circle.
The fluency circle refers to the basic structures (grammar) and vocabulary that is required to use the language. For vocab, this is limited to only a couple hundred words. Comprehension comes by way of repetition, and all of that must be tempered by student interest and curiosity. Anyone trying to acquire a new language is going to be a pragmatist – they are going to focus on the easiest and most immediate way to say things. Using a limited vocabulary and simple structures is the best way to assure this. Also, in the beginning, teach only one way to say things to avoid confusion and hesitancy; this can be expanded later on. The fluency circle, however, will expand as students gain more familiarity and understanding of how Latin works.
The reading circle includes the fluency circle but also the vocabulary and structures not needed for fluency. This provides focus so that class time can be used effectively. One of the big misunderstandings about natural method over grammar-based methods is that people often think they learned their first language as young children and an immersion model would work here as well. What they fail to realize is the tens of thousands of hours that young children spend immersed in a primary language while the time for acquiring a second language in school is drastically reduced. Class time must be efficient and comprehension, if even through a quick translation, is totally appropriate. In fact, words outside the fluency circle list should be quickly translated in the context of a reading or in speech. These words will be added to their foundational (fluency) vocabulary and will expand from comprehension towards production.
This is two of the core elements in TPRS but these should also be at the core of any language practice. If we want students to take to Latin, we have to make it accessible and comprehensible. Through repetition, they will get a greater understanding of how the language works and will shift from comprehension to production. We, as teachers, need to provide the opportunity for repetition and refinement with relevant feedback.