[I’m being a bit antagonistic on purpose with that title to get some reactions, but only a bit!]
Tonya & Daniel (bloggers at Hebrew & Greek Reader) asked me a question about communicative methodology in learning Hebrew when they interviewed me. After that, Seumas MacDonald wrote a four-piece essay (here, here, here, and here) on “Conversational” “Dead” languages which generated some good comments and led me to Daniel Streett’s work. Rather than bog down Seumas’ blog with a lengthy response, I’ve decided to bring my further comments here to my own blog. Mike Aubrey also has a lot to say (here and here) in response to Daniel & Tonya’s own posts on their blog (here and here) in response to Seumas. I know I’m missing some other contributors to this current discussion (but I’m not leaving them out intentionally)! I think we need a flow-chart to follow the conversations.
For those who may not be familiar with the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), you can read about the work of the Cohelet Project here. They have provided a very good summary of the goals and methodology of CLT. Paul Overland and his team have been working very hard to integrate SLA research into a program that is primarily driven by the communicative approach to language learning. Randall Buth has been running Biblical Hebrew ulpans for years (and is now also offering Greek ulpans). Randall is also part of the design team for the Cohelet Project.
- Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research shows that a communicative approach to learning a modern language leads to more internalization of the language. This is (in part) due to the student participation in generating meaningful communication in the L2 (the second language that is being learned).
- It seems like (and that’s a big “seems like”) it would be a no-brainer to use that method to teach Biblical Hebrew (especially since traditional BH classes do not produce effective long-term results for most students).
- So, biblical Hebrew pedagogy starts to incorporate the SLA methodology (hence, the rise of the Cohelet Project and Randall Buth’s biblical language ulpans). Now we have students who can act out the story of Jonah in conversational BH (this is just one example, I’m sure I’ll get some comments on this hyperbolic distillation of the results).
What’s wrong with that? It looks like CLT has great results and students are really learning Hebrew. But toward what end?
And this is where I get on my own soap box. We are putting the cart before the horse. Before discussing what the benefits of CLT are (which, I will agree, there are), we need to prioritize the discussion on content of coursework. I believe pedagogy has two components: content and method. Methodology (like CLT) is a tool that serves the content of the coursework. It should not determine the coursework! What should determine the content of a course? Good question! And one that should be answered with attention to the end-use of the language by the student. And here is where we need to take note of the limitations of SLA research as applied to Ancient Language Learning. The goal of many modern language courses (especially those upon whose research SLA is dependent) is to communicate in the language. So, it makes sense to focus on communicating in the L2 as soon as possible in the coursework. It is productive to learn how to ask questions and explain situations in the language that is being learned, because this is how the language will be used! It is not only a methodology, but a skill that will be sustained after the coursework is finished.
I think you’re right that course goals must be clarified. My own goal, as someone interested in Christian origins, is to be able to hear and understand ancient Greek texts with the same immediacy their original audiences encountered them (of course, I realize that the cultural gap will still exist). I would like to reach the point where I can read ancient texts for pleasure, the way that I read English. I think your exhortation to talk about the content of the course before we talk about methodology is helpful, but the two are so intertwined that I’m not sure they can be separated. If we use a grammar-translation pedagogy, the content of the course will be English equivalents, translation method, grammatical metalanguage, linguistics, etc. On the other hand, if we use a natural/communicative approach, the content of the course will be comprehensible input in the second language itself.
First, Daniel’s goal is a noble (and lofty) one for anyone. I applaud his endeavor for himself, but I think it is highly unlikely that most seminary students are going to be able to read biblical texts in the original languages “for pleasure, the way that [they] read English” (although, I’m sure John Hobbins would agree with him). In fact, I think most seminarians are learning the languages to be able to exegete and preach/teach. They are looking to be able to understand the text in a very close manner. When I read “for pleasure” I am not doing the kind of close analysis that is necessary for exegetical work. Now, granted, we all will have some students who go on to do philological work, become language scholars, or continue on a lifelong endeavor to be able to truly “read” (and not just decode) scripture, but they are not the majority. The end-use of the majority of a group of particular students should drive the definition of the goal.
More importantly, I do not think that course content and methodology are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. This is precisely my point. We have for too long allowed other issues to take our attention away from deciding what to include in a course. We’ve done it for so long that we don’t think it can be done! Not so. Daniel & Tonya put together a hypothetical syllabus (really a compilation of several courses they have taught) that is very intentional about including and excluding material based on how their particular students will use the language and the constraints of the course (i.e., student time, hours for the course, etc.). I’d like to see more discussion along these lines (I am taking a closer look at their syllabus before reviewing it in detail). What would you include in such a course? Why? What would you intentionally exclude?
In fairness to Daniel (since I picked on his comment above), I do like the direction he is going with his Koine Greek classes. I really like what he is doing with his Greek exams. Seumas has posted one of Daniel’s final exams here. Appropriate examinations are another area that need attention. You can say all you want in your syllabus about the goals of a course, but the true proof of what your goals are is found in what you hold your students accountable for in an exam.
I think there are benefits to be gleaned from the communicative approach (but I also don’t think it is the panacea many claim it is). My effort is to re-prioritize the content of courses by focusing on the end-use of the language by the students so that we give them a a sustainable skill set that matches their needs. How we implement that content is the role of the methodology, which can include CLT in a productive manner if it is seen as a tool serving the goal and not as the goal itself. In other words, in exploring HOW to teach ancient languages, let’s first figure out WHAT we should be teaching.