I’ve recently (re)read an article sent to me this past summer entitled “Preparing Latin Teachers for Second Language Acquisition,” pp. 184-191 in Teaching Classical Languages (Spring 2010) by Robert Patrick, PhD.  This online peer-reviewed journal can be found here, and the article in question here.

While the BLC does not at this point provide resources to teach/learn Latin, much of what is suggested in this article is equally applicable to the teaching of biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek, and as such needs to be heard by Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholars who teach these languages.  All one needs to do is replace “Latin” with “biblical Hebrew” (BH) or “Koine Greek” (KG)—depending on which language one teaches.  I suggest doing this as one reads the rest of this blog entry.

The main thrust of the article is the need for our fields (Latin, Greek, Hebrew) to start seriously taking Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research into consideration.  (As an aside, this is exactly what a small group of scholars are trying to do at the Society of Biblical Literature and the Evangelical Theological Society with the “Applied Linguistics and Biblical Languages” groups; news about these groups can be found here.)

Probably the single most important point to be learned from SLA is the difference between “language acquisition” and “language learning,” or “language acquisition” versus “knowledge about a language.”    The former is what happens to students “as they make progress in the language” (p. 184), while the latter is “a student’s knowledge about the language, its grammatical structure and syntax”‘ (p. 184).  Traditionally in the last 100 years, the teaching of classical languages has focused solely on the latter, with the assumption that it automatically leads to the former.  However, as Patrick highlights:

Unfortunately, students do not make progress in a second language through such learning about the language, however rigorous it may be (p. 184).

This is not to say that one should never teach about the language, as Patrick himself points out, but that it is not what we in the field have commonly been led to believe: internalization of the language as language.  Instead, it leads to rapid “decoding” of a language, rather than processing language.  Patrick puts it this way:

At this time in history, when it is very likely that most Latin teachers were trained under grammar-translation approaches, it is also likely that most of us teachers learned to engage in what I will call “speed-parsing” when we “read” Latin.  Speed-parsers have gained the skill to convert Latin very rapidly into English as we move across the Latin text…  The grammar-translation approach depends on the Latin student developing  this speed-parsing method and never enables the student to read Latin as Latin (p. 189, emphasis mine).

Not only is the problem that speed-parsing is not processing the language for what it is in its own right (independent of another language), but that “speed-parsing” is only attainable by a minority of learners with a specific learning style: “it excludes most students who are not logical-learners” (p. 187).  Consequently,

we are in a strange time when most who are in the field teaching have been trained in methods which worked for us (grammar-translation) but which, according to various learning models, do not work for the normal student (p. 188-9).

This singling out of the elite few learners with the right learning styles to be those granted the privilege of accessing the biblical texts in their original languages may be fine for Ivy League schools.  But for those of us who are teaching the biblical languages to faith communities and who would like the study of the Bible to be as democratic as possible, such elitism is not desirable.  And if, as SLA research suggests, there is a way to teach all languages, even the classical (and biblical) ones as Robert Patrick as a Latin instructor affirms, in such a way that all students can learn, then we need to be exploring them with all the enthusiasm and gusto we can muster.

We who have been involved in trying to motivate the field of biblical languages to move in that direction for that very reason expected to see unprecedented excitement among our colleagues.  (Imagine being able to double or triple student enrollment as well as retention rates!)  While there have been some very encouraging signs, ultimately they have been few and far between.  Most simply dismiss the SLA research.  The question I ask myself, therefore, is: why such a resistance to something which seems to offer so much promise for the field, especially before it has even been tried?  Any ideas?