Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What Is the Goal of Language Teaching?

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made a painful point in a 2004 lecture. The lecture is on the topic of theological education. In context, what he says about language acquisition is only a passing remark to help clarify how he would identify someone educated theologically. Yet it is an unfortunate fact for language teachers the world over, even the proverbial elephant in the room, I would argue:
We might say it would be very strange to learn a language without learning how to speak it – although that is as you all know the way many of us learn languages.
Williams' point is that in any type of education (musical, language, theological) has some practical goal, as it would be odd and rather purposeless to complete a course of study "in the absence of any acquisition of a skill – any capacity to do something in a particular way."

So why do so many students finish one, two, three, four (or more!) semesters of language study without the ability to speak the language? Why did you?


  1. This is an issue in the teaching of Κοινή Greek. I almost said a "big" issue, but I'm not aware that many people take seriously the possibility that it should be taught as a spoken language.

    This guy does, and I'm fascinated by the possibility:

    I'm interested in a new pedagogy for Greek not because what I received was deficient but because it wasn't until the advanced level that I was taught that grammar-decoding may not always be helping me get to the text's true meaning. It may be adding meaning that isn't there. For example, I have to think that treating Greek as a spoken language will help students realize that it is/was in fact a real language used by real people who couldn't keep up with all the exacting niceties claimed for their language. It's wrong to say that Greek is the most precise language in the world.

    1. It's interesting that you would bring that up and have basically the same perspective I have as a person who doesn't really know Κοινή Greek. I've always thought that when I get the time to learn it, I would actually like to learn contemporary, spoken Greek first and then from there pick up whatever else I need to read the NT fluently.

      Nonetheless, by the criterion of acquisition of some skill, learning Κοινή Greek only in order to read it is still justifiable. I think it's harder to justify learning, say, French without ever being able to speak it.