So Nancy’s post on interlinear translation, and the ensuing discussion, have gotten me thinking about the way we teach beginning languages.  We don’t want students writing in translations because our goal is that they should actually be able to read Latin or Greek with understanding, rather than needing to “translate” it into English as if it were some sort of code.

Yet the way we tend to teach languages at the beginning level (memorize this paradigm; translate this sentence from Latin; translate this sentence from English to Latin) prepares students to translate, not to read the language.  A student of mine recently remarked that if a German professor told his class to go home and memorize forms, and then come in and put German sentences into English, he would be about 200 years out of date, and this is certainly true.  But what is the right solution for us?

Modern languages at the moment attempt to teach by assimilation, to (at least partially) replicate the way in which one learned one’s first language.  There is a movement to teach Latin this way, as a spoken language, and I am totally intrigued by it.  But even if I could do it (which I couldn’t, without a good deal of re-training), I am a little skeptical.  It isn’t a spoken language any more, and there’s something disturbingly artificial in trying to make it one.  And yet…

I was on a search committee for an Arabic position, and thus watched four different candidates teaching a sample first day of Arabic 101 last month.  Arabic in some ways is like Latin — Modern Standard Arabic is a somewhat artificial language used in literature and by some media outlets.  Nobody really speaks it; what they speak are different dialectical versions.  But generally when Arabic is taught, MSA is what you begin with, and then from there you learn whatever dialect will be most useful to you.  The four candidates I observed varied enormously in the amount of English they used in the classroom, from essentially none to practically all.  The one who used none was able, in about half an hour, to get the class to introduce themselves, say where they were from, understand forms that varied by gender (and case!), and learn a couple of basic adjectives.

The whole thing made me yearn for some kind of revolution in the teaching of Latin and Greek.  Surely there is SOME advance possible on the memorize/translate (with variations) model.  Is it more oral work?  More listening practice?  What are the possibilities of audio/video materials?  Are any textbooks particularly effective for more innovative teaching methods?  What are people doing, and is there any actual research on effective pedagogy?

If anyone out there has suggestions, please please put them in comments!

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