Posted in CI Mission

ALL KINDS of Learners–Part 1

(This blog post will appear in 3 parts over the next three days)

I have found over the years in doing Comprehensible Input work, creating classrooms and a whole program based on CI, that there is a motivational feature that I simply cannot assume everyone understands or shares with me. That motivating factor is this:  to ensure that ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS are able to make progress in Latin.

In 2011, I made an address to a gathering at SALVI’s summer Rusticatio.  The title of my address was Latin is Not Different. For several years it was featured on the SALVI website (you can read it here if you wish). I tried to articulate publicly what had been a growing realization for me at the time. The Grammar-Translation approach which has dominated Latin teaching for decades if not centuries by now and which has been each of our experiences who teach has worked along some other realities to make sure that Latin belongs only to the realm of elite learners.  Consider these points which are incredibly short summaries of much longer discussions and research:

1. There is no evidence to support that human beings actually acquire languages through studying the grammar, memorizing vocabulary and translating the second language into the first language.  By “acquire” I mean the ability to read and hear the language with direct understanding without the interference of or mediation of the native language. There is plenty of research that shows just the opposite.

2. Latin teachers and classicists are those elite learners who have “learned Latin” this way.  I include several features in the categorization of “elite learners.”  They (we–I am one of them) are those students who demonstrate over time that they are good at academics.  They receive high marks in general, are acclaimed by their teachers and schools with awards for learning, high GPA’s and scholarships.  They often come from affluent or at least very stable homes where winning at the education game was a reinforced message.  They are often white.  I include this issue because white people have simply had more and uninterrupted access to those who teach, to books and libraries, and they (we–I am white) have over centuries created a culture that serves them first above others.  Look at any gathering of Latin teachers or classicists at the number of People of Color.  In my life time, I have been at many where there were NO People of Color.  Finally, I cannot prove it with data, but I guess that elite learners are also often people with higher than average IQ’s.  They routinely report loving to read, loving grammar, and loving languages–all linguistic and language practices that accompany higher than average IQ’s.

3. Latin teachers, then, go to work and put together lessons and build programs that look like what they have experienced.  In other words, without even having to think about it, Latin teachers create Latin programs for more elite learners.  Even in inner city “charter schools” where the targeted audience are children of Color who do not fit the description above of elite learners, I feel sometimes like they are attempting to create a new wave of elite learners.  Those who are admitted (whether by screening or by lottery) will go to school longer, all take Latin from day one, receive extra tutoring at lunch and after school, take the National Latin Exam, join the Certamen team, etc.  These are all features of elite learning circles.  If the Latin teacher is energetic and creative along with a dash of charisma, the Latin program will sustain itself with a flow of elite learners.  If not, or if the Latin teacher moves, or becomes burned out, or retires–often the difficulty of finding someone to maintain the elite learning circle is too much, and schools shut down Latin programs.

Systematically, over time this drive to recreate elite learning programs with Latin will result in the loss of Latin from our academic and cultural landscape.

See Part 2 tomorrow.
Bob Patrick

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6 thoughts on “ALL KINDS of Learners–Part 1

  1. Hello Dr. Patrick and thank you for your post. That there is no evidence for acquiring language through grammar is undeniable. I am concerned, however, that CI practitioners are becoming a bit dogmatic in what they deem “inclusive” or “exclusive.” Is there no room in the Latin-teaching world for an inclusive linguistic approach? Put another way, if a Latin teacher stipulates that their course is linguistic analysis, not language acquisition, could the teacher then not apply UDL practices to open up access to all kinds of people? I am confused about why CI folks, who are by nature interested in inclusion, are so fast to assume that only CI makes Latin inclusive. The grammar-translation method has many faults, to be sure, and linguistic analysis is something we can discuss in terms of its efficacy, usefulness, etc. But that would be the same argument for any other class: Math, Science, History, etc. They can all be inclusive or exclusive depending on how the teacher is managing access to the content. I am curious about your thoughts on this. Please, again, remember: I am granting the main point: if one’s goal is acquisition of Latin as a living language, then grammar-translation is not a method that will work. But, if there are other goals (such as in my district, transferable skills and habits of learning), and I incorporate UDL best practices in my teaching, why would I not earn the description of inclusive? Thank you!

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    1. Joe, I very much appreciate this question. At face value, of course, we can choose to be inclusive in all the things we do, and most of us probably subscribe to this. I don’t think nor have I meant to imply that Latin teachers intend to be exclusive. I do think that we become caught in decades of practice that create that result.

      Here’s the key issue in the example you raise. It sounds like the only problem is what the teacher intends the goal to be: acquisition or language analysis. They really aren’t separate endeavors, though, are they? They belong together (I know that some people will be shocked because they think that I have said that they were separate ventures). The trouble is that for decades we have only taught language analysis. We have done it as if it were learning a language and students have been given credit for learning a second language when what they have been trying to do is analyze language. Lastly, and really what should have our full attention, is that it is really backwards to ask students to analyze language that they cannot produce. This is why the failure rates are so high among normal learners; why Latin gets a reputation for being so hard, and only elite learners stick it out to the end.

      But, as I said, they belong together, and I address that in the series. If we help students acquire the language, then, after they have made some distance in acquisition, we can teach them to analyze. In reality, that analysis is mostly useful for writing formally in the language or about the language, so those of us who have graduate degrees in Latin or other languages and who write critically about it need to engage in a lot of language analysis. A 14 year old who is coming to the language fresh not only doesn’t need to analyze it, but really in most cases cannot without acquiring the language first.

      So, in my experience, here’s the trap we fall into. Because we have been trained in analysis and because we love it, that’s all that we have taught. Students who have not acquired the language at all struggle to analzye, fail, drop out or get the heads up–Latin is hard. Don’t take Latin.

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  2. Thank you, Dr. Patrick, for the thoughtful reply. I find myself agreeing with all of it, so I will add only a brief response: in states in which Proficiency/Competency/Standards based grading is the law, it is very difficult to adapt CI theory into a manageable, clear, and fair system. We all know the language acquisition takes time, and very different amounts of time, for all learners. How does one say to the kids: “by this date you will be able to do this or that…” knowing full well that the research says that is not ethical. Put another way, the reason I think many default to grammar-translation is that it fits very nicely into grading schemes that states and districts require. Not so much an excuse as a fact. I have seen attempts by CI practitioners to adapt CI Latin into a proficiency scheme, but they really end up asking for “hidden” curricula of analysis, descriptive arts, reading, etc. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it doesn’t quite fit with language acquisition in a proficiency system. Anyway, my point is that I think there are many reasons why folks default to grammar-translation, and exclusion is not one of them (though I of course know you meant not to imply that!). Thank you for the thought-provoking post! I love this blog.

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    1. I really appreciate this response, Joe. I will be addressing some of these issues in the final post tomorrow. The reality is that whenever States or districts become too controlling of how we grade, it interferes in language acquisition. Here’s what I mean by that. In our Latin program, we use Standards Based Grading. We are not required to. We chose to, and we crafted the Standards around our district standards and what we know about language acquisition. A much larger problem, and this does exist both within and without the circles of language teachers, is the notion that teaching a language is like anything else. It simply isn’t, as you know. I have had more than a few difficult conversations with administrators who can’t understand why the FL standards can’t be written like the Science standards. They eventually understand, but it takes time. The only other thing that I will offer is that often, CI teachers can find creative work arounds for mandated grading laws–work arounds that both fulfull the law’s requirement but allows the teacher to do what they know really works in language acquisition.

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