A number of years ago, having been a student in many foreign language classrooms, I opted to audit a course on Classical Greek. What struck me was the massive difference in teaching styles between those teaching in Modern Languages (1) and those in the Classics Department. At the time, as a student auditing the class, I didn't really analyze the methodology much; I just went along with the teaching style of the professor and used my metalinguistic awareness which I had developed through the study of other languages, and my familiarity with Modern Greek, to understand both the grammar and syntax portions of the class.
Recently, I was given an opportunity to observe the same course, the course that I took a number of years ago, and examine the classroom from a different lens--that of an applied linguist. Going into this pilot study I was interested in analyzing the teaching methodology, wondering if the teaching methodology for the class had changed from when I was a student. Having learned a great deal about the various linguistic factors that go into learning another language, I was interested in understanding whether professionals in the field of classical language teaching applied any of this research in second language acquisition in their own practice. If I found the approaches to be about the same as when I was a student of Classical Greek, I would then be interested in applying my knowledge of applied linguistics to propose a reboot of the curriculum. A secondary goal was to discover who the students were and what motivated them to learn a classical language; last time around I didn't really pay much attention to my fellow students, as I was then focused on my own education.
1. Learner Analysis
During the fall semester of 2010 I observed a typical set of learners in Classical Greek at an urban university in the Boston area over a period of one semester (2). Through my semester-long observation, as well as a beginning-of-the-semester class survey (3), I discovered that the learners in this classroom were amazingly diverse in terms of their educational background. My initial assumption was that courses in Classical Greek and Latin would attract mostly students whose major is Classical Languages and Literature, while still attracting a minority of students interested in the language--much like I was as an undergraduate student. I expected that students in most majors, other than Classics, would opt to take a modern language, like French or German, since those are presumably the languages that would be most useful to them in a work or research environment. I was, however, surprised to find that only a handful of students were actual Classics majors. Most students in the class came from both the arts and the humanities (social work, philosophy, history) and the sciences (biology, psychology). History could be lumped into the "Classics" category if these students aim to study the history of the ancient world and need to be able to decipher original sources. (4)
In terms of other academic backgrounds, about half of the students in this course were juniors, about a quarter were sophomores and about a quarter were freshmen. My initial predictions, however, had been that most students in the course would be freshmen or sophomores majoring in the Classics. I thought that since this was a Greek 101 course, and the knowledge gained in this course would aid these students in future Classics courses when interacting with original, authentic materials, then they would more likely take this course earlier in their studies. This initial prediction was proven wrong.
Another prediction was based on linguistic factors. I predicted that many students would have had some exposure to a second language, and would have had some sort of exposure to Latin, given than my initial prediction was that these students would be predominantly Classics majors. I also thought that there would probably be a few Greek-Americans looking for an "easy A" by taking Classical Greek. My initial predictions, as far as linguistic factors go, were proven correct. Most students did have some exposure to a second language; there were quite a few students who had studied Latin, there were some Greek-Americans with some knowledge of Modern Greek, and a number of students had studied various European languages like French, Spanish, Italian, and German, as well as some languages, that one doesn't typically find in a high school curriculum in the us, such as Gaelic, Hindi, and Arabic.
In terms of technology access and use, the results were quite interesting. There is a trend in academia to believe that students have both access to technology and facility with using this technology. This is based on Marc Prensky's work (2001) with what he terms Digital Natives. All students in this course had access to a computer and access to the Internet. All students also had access to either a smartphone, or a digital music player. when it came to rating their own competence in using computers and the Internet, all of the students rated their skills at least at the intermediate level of proficiency. The status of the learner (freshman, sophomore, or junior) seemed to have a lot to do with how they rated their competence in using library resources and using Blackboard. Students who had been on campus longer tended to rate their experience higher than students who had been on campus for a shorter time; this was to be expected. The web 2.0 (5) behaviors of the students were also quite interesting. Most students knew of blogs and microblogs but didn't use them. They knew of Facebook and used it frequently; however, they did not know of, and therefore did not use, dedicated social networks like del.icio.us, Ning and Goodreads. They also did consult wiki pages, but they never contributed knowledge to a wiki. These findings were close to my initial hunch about the learners; I believed that they would have access to technology, but unlike prensky (2001) I believed that this didn't necessarily imply that students were comfortable using it.
The student expectation responses, in the free-form answer part of the survey, were actually quite interesting to analyze. In the responses there are a few responses of the "the course will be successful if I get an A" sort, but in responses where students went beyond a letter grade you can see a difference between students who had been apprenticed into the discourse of Classics, and those who had not. The former had most likely taken Latin and their rubric for a successful class is to be able to read the Greek and to translate it into English.
Individuals who have not been apprenticed into the discourse of Classics expect to be able to speak Classical Greek with friends and family, gain an understanding of English based on Greek roots and lemmas or learn about their background. It is interesting that students who have been apprenticed into the discourse expect to be able to memorize a lot, and use that for reading, while those who have not been apprenticed into the discourse of Classics expect cultural background information, and to gain competence in speech as well as reading--something you tend to see in the discourse of foreign language teaching, not in classical language teaching. what is interesting to note is that about half of the students dropped the course during the university's add-drop period (6), and most of the students who remained were Classics majors.
2. Current Teaching Methodology
Having observed a seasoned, and talented, faculty member teach Classical Greek (7) for one semester, I can say with a high degree of confidence that the approach used to teach the course is the Grammar Translation approach; this was the same approach used when I took Classical Greek a number of years ago. The Grammar Translation approach also appears to be favored by many Classicists teaching Greek and Latin (Lafleur, 1998). The Grammar Translation method, also known as the Prussian Method in the US (Richards & Rodgers, 2001), is interesting in that it is a method with no theory; there is no literature that offers a rationale …